Chances are, you can vividly recall JFK’s famous inauguration speech in 1961, whether you were alive or merely watched the broadcast after the fact. The exact opposite sentiments apply when it comes to laptops: Ask not what you can do for your laptop — ask what your laptop can do for you.
You’ve probably owned a few notebooks, you know what features you like, and you’ve likely experienced the good and the bad that come along with choosing a machine. For instance, the inconvenient hassle of toting around a 17-inch behemoth or the inevitable letdown that goes along with streaming Netflix movies to an 11-inch screen. Fortunately, there is a bevy of suitable options depending on your lifestyle and desires, so long as you know what you’re doing. And remember, there are exceptions to every rule.
Here’s our list of the five most common laptop buying mistakes, so you can leave all potential regrets at the door. While you’re at it, check out our guide on how to buy a laptop and our PC parts buying guide, along with our top picks for the Best Laptops.
This guide is continually updated to reflect the most pervasive, laptop-buying mistakes. Last update: June 2, 2015. Matt Smith contributed to this article.
Buying the cheapest available model
The cheapest computer may be easy on your wallet, but it probably won’t have all the features you need, and chances are that it lacks the longevity you want.
Let’s say you’re deciding between a dual-core and quad-core processor: You want to run multiple applications at once, but you choose the dual-core processor because it’s, well, a little less expensive. Now you have a system that’s not as powerful as your needs demand, and that problem will plague you until it’s time to buy again.
Rather than jumping for the lowest price, it’s best to find the laptop that will actually serve your needs. A good way to begin your search is to know exactly what you need. Make a list of essential must-have features. Then cross-check that list with spec sheets.
Paying too much
Don’t buy more laptop than you can afford. Chances are good that if a laptop strains your budget, it has something that you don’t need. The top-of-the-line Macbook Pro from Apple costs $2,500. Realistically, that’s more computer than most people need — and the least expensive Pro is only $1,300. That’s over a thousand dollars that you may be tempted to spend just because something is shiner and has higher numbers, but not because you need it. Don’t let marketing fool you into paying too much.
The good news is there are more options than ever on the market these days. Hybrid tablets have begun to come into their own, ultrabooks are falling in price, and it’s generally a good time to look for laptops.
Forgetting the laptop’s purpose
Sometimes it’s too easy to get caught up in perusing laptops. All the shiny ads and fun little features can distract you from the real question: Why are you buying a laptop? If you want a great cloud-computing machine for school and work, you will be better off with a Chromebook, not a gaming laptop – no matter how powerful the processor is.
So when the time comes to step up to the counter, remember what you are a getting a laptop for. Do you need one for work? What is your profession and what do you spend the most time doing on a laptop? Do you need one for school? What are you studying? Is this for home use? Is it taking the place of a desktop, or complementing one? These questions are key to a smart purchase.
Ignoring ports and compatbility
Not all laptops include the ports you depend on. Need a card reader? How about three USB ports? You might be out of luck. The current ultrabook trend is sending ports into extinction. Do you use Apple products? Then a Thunderbolt 2 port may be a necessity to get things done. Do you have an older external hard drive with USB 2.0 ports? The newer USB 3.0 ports on laptops may not work for you. Take stock of the ports you need – including what protocol they use – then double-check your laptop options.
Related: Getting to know your PC’s ports
Opting for the highest available resolution
A device boasting a 4K display is certainly worth more than a cursory glance, but its not always the right choice given may laptops have yet to properly master scaling anything over 200 pixels per inch. High-resolution laptops often display smaller menus because Windows render dimensions in pixel size. More pixels on the screen reduces the size of everything, including fonts, icons, and other key aspects of the visual display.
Battery life is also negatively impacted by a high resolution because a brighter backlight is needed to drive all those pixels. Models designed from the ground up for a pixel dense panel, like the MacBook Pro with Retina, can still manage long life, but many 4K notebooks have lackluster endurance. Dropping down to 1080p can provide an extra hour (or two) of life away from a socket.
Not trying before buying
It should probably go without saying, but always ensure to give the laptop you’re considering on buying a proper test before purchasing it. Most everyday laptops are available for testing at big, brick-and-mortar retail stores such as Apple, Best Buy, and the Microsoft Store, allowing you to fiddle with the trackpad, keyboard, software interface, and other components that substantially differ from model to model.
It’s easy to overlook the importance of features absent from the spec sheet, such as the touchpad’s responsiveness or the visibility of a glossy screen in daylight, so trying your desired laptop within its element guarantees you a better idea of what you’re buying. You don’t necessarily have to purchase the laptop in the retail store, but you should at least get some hands-on experience before making a final decision.
Thinking size doesn’t matter
Size matters, especially when it comes to a laptop. Whereas a bigger display allows for a more expansive and often better viewing experience, it also cuts into the portability factor. A laptop’s size often determines the size of the keyboard and trackpad, meaning you’ll likely be cramped when opting for a laptop measuring less than 13 inches.
That said, it’s best to consider how you’ve used laptops in the past, whether your own or one belonging to someone else. A smaller ultrabook may be a viable option for frequent travels, but for those looking for a standard laptop, you’ll probably want to opt for one with a 13.3 or 14-inch screen. If you rarely leave your home with your system consider a 15.6-inch model for maximum screen real estate.
When in doubt, think about what you tote around now, how it feels on your shoulder, and how much space you need at the coffee table. Also consider tablet laptop hybrids, which trade storage and power for more comfortable keyboards and seriously low space requirements.
Becoming obsessed with one specification
Tunnel vision is bad news when buying a laptop. While it’s fun to pit spec sheets against each other, avoid picking out one particular specification as your favorite and only looking at that factor.
For example, manufacturers love RAM. It can be easily be expressed as a number, and bigger numbers are better. It’s also absurdly cheap, so packing in some extra gigabytes is an easy way to rake in extra profit. Truth be told, however, you rarely need more than 8GB of RAM, unless you are a gamer or using some serious software for work purposes. If a laptop has more, that’s great, but don’t factor it in your purchasing decision.
Likewise, don’t become obsessed with battery life, or resolution, or processor speed. If you’re on a budget, and most people are, you’ll need to learn to balance a variety of hardware. A jack-of-all-trades notebook is often better than one that’s lackluster in several areas, but excels in just one.
Buying a laptop is complex, but you can find the tools you need to be successful. Our reviews here at Digital Trends are a good start. We’ll walk you through every feature of a notebook and how it performed in our hands-on testing, from display quality to performance. We take an in-depth look and evaluate every laptop we receive, including everything from the user interface and the display to performance and overall design. Remember that you have options. You’re not required to buy that 17.3-inch laptop your local retailer is selling for a song. Hunt around the Internet a bit and you’re almost certain to find a similar price on something more suitably sized. The wrong laptop is never a good deal, no matter how appealing the price.