Sales figures from the last five years consistently show average laptop buyers spending about $600 dollars on their new machines. That means some people spend more, but it also means that a sizable number spend less.
Six Benjamins is not a ton of money for a laptop, although it may seem so when you’re at the store. For that money, you’re limited to Chromebooks, multimedia laptops and a handful of low-end Ultrabooks. Many of the laptops available at this price are adequate, but they’re just that. Adequate. OK. Usable. They are computers, and they will do computer stuff.
But cheaping out forces you to give up many tangible benefits, which means inexpensive laptops are often a poor value. You can’t get what you don’t pay for. Here’s why you should pay for more.
One of the first concepts you’ll learn in any basic economics or business class is that of durable goods. A durable good is an item that provides utility over a long period of time — like a laptop. Paying more for a superior durable good ends up rewarding you over and over again, every time you use it. A better, faster, more usable laptop can decrease the time you spend waiting for a video encode, increase your typing accuracy and make entertainment far more enjoyable.
Spending less money on a laptop can be tempting, but think about how often you use it.
This argument comes first because it’s the most important. Spending less money on a laptop can be tempting, but think about how often you use it. The American time use survey found that average computer owner uses his or her computer for leisure about 27 minutes every day. If this average user kept a laptop for just three years, they would use it for a total of 450 hours. And that’s just leisure — any time spent on work isn’t part this statistic.
This is more time than an average American spends reading, relaxing or exercising. Suddenly, sacrificing a laptop’s quality to save a few hundred bucks seems like a raw deal.
We’ve already established that average users will enjoy about 450 hours of laptop leisure time over three years. They will spend much of this time engaging in just-for-fun activities such as gaming or watching video.
Your laptop’s display serves as a window for all of this content, yet cheap laptops offer the worst displays among all modern consumer electronic devices. The resolution usually will be 1,366 x 768, which is less than some modern tablets with much smaller displays. Contrast and viewing angles suffer as well.
You can do better only by spending more. Some cheap laptops offer a better display as an upgrade, but only premium laptops commonly come with high-quality displays as standard equipment. 1080p should be considered the minimum standard of acceptable quality.
Some laptops go a step further, offering 1440p or even 4K. While I don’t think that’s essential, the improvement in image quality is noticeable, and can make the use of small windows and fine fonts more manageable.
It’s also a good idea to buy a laptop with an IPS or “In-Plane Switching” panel. You might need to do some digging to discover if this is the case, but it’s well worth the effort. This type of screen offers broad viewing angles and (usually) better color then the less expensive TN or “Twisted Nematic” type.
Good on the go
Companies often slash battery life to make sure they can sell a laptop at a low price. Batteries are expensive, and no standards exist for validating battery-life claims. This means a manufacturer can sell a laptop with a small battery while still advertising endurance that seems reasonable.
We rarely find a laptop under $600 that offers more than six hours of real-world battery life.
We’ve recorded this story time and time again. Almost every laptop we’ve received that seemed to be a great hardware value has achieved this goal by axing the battery. We rarely find a laptop under $600 that offers more than six hours of real-world battery life.
You don’t have to spend much for a better battery, either. The standout is Dell’s XPS 13, which in our last review scored almost 10 hours of battery life. The base version can be had for $800, and has been upgraded to a more efficient processor since our review, which likely means even better endurance. Most laptops that are close to $1,000 easily exceed six hours of life unless they’re specifically designed for high-end gaming.
Spending for solid state
A solid-state drive remains the most important single contributor to the everyday “feel” of a computer’s performance. This is mostly due to their near-instant access times. A disk doesn’t have to spin up, and a read/write head doesn’t need to move, so data starts flowing a few milliseconds after it’s asked for.
While no longer a new technology, SSDs are still more expensive per gigabyte of storage than mechanical disks, and that means they’re rarely found in inexpensive laptops. But there’s some good news. Lower pricing does mean a solid state drive can be found in systems that cost a hair more than a typical budget laptop. Asus’ UX305, which is sold for $700 (and often less), is a good example.
Treating yourself to solid state storage should be considered mandatory, but if you can’t afford it right away, then at least do yourself the favor of buying a system that can be upgraded. Most laptops use a common 2.5-inch SATA drive form factor, so you should be able to replace it at home so long as the interior is easily accessible. A new laptop that can’t be upgraded to an SSD will feel outdated very, very quickly.
Quad-core processors have become an appealing option for laptops as chip efficiency has improved. A modern Intel Core quad, like that in the Acer V15 Nitro Black Edition, can easily double the performance of a dual-core system in multi-core tests. And surprisingly, we’ve found mobile quads are also very competitive in single-core tests, and sometimes exceed dual-core laptops.
The significant boost in performance means a longer operational life span.
Obviously, this advice isn’t going to apply for everyone. Quad-cores are extremely rare in 13-inch notebooks, so if you’re going small, it’s not an option. But for the many who buy a 14-inch or 15-inch system a quad can make a lot of sense, and is worth extra cash. The significant boost in performance means a longer operational life span.
Quads have become even more attractive in recent months because Intel has, for the first time, added a line of mobile Core i5 quad-core chips as part of its 6th-generation Core lineup. This has made it possible to introduce affordable quad-core systems like the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Series, which is $800.
Our laptop reviews tell a consistent story. Expensive laptops often receive high scores. Only a few cheap laptops have ever managed a 9/10 or higher, and most laptops in such esteemed company sell for $800 or more.
I consider value when reviewing premium laptops. Our scores reflect that expensive laptops provide more for your money. For example, Dell’s XPS 13 is $800, while the Lenovo U31 is $590. The two are similar, and the Lenovo, to its credit, even packs a 1080p display. But the XPS 13 has a solid state drive, a better processor, and a 60 percent larger battery, elements that make the extra $200 well worth your while.
The $800 to $1,000 range is where you’ll find the best laptop value. This amount of money can’t buy you everything, but it can buy you a laptop that’s excellent in important areas. You only have to spend more if you want a gaming laptop. In that case, we recommend budgeting at least $1,500.
I don’t recommend buying something you can’t afford, but for most people, the difference between a great laptop and an OK one is just a couple hundred dollars. That’s a couple nice dinners, a single weekend vacation, or a few months of going to Starbucks every day.
If you need perspective, open your calculator and multiply the daily time you spend on your computer by 1,095 (the number of days in three years). The result should remind you why spending more on a laptop is worthwhile.