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, for every lifestyle or purpose, so long as you know what you’re doing. And remember, there are exceptions to every rule.
Here’s our list of the most common laptop buying mistakes, so you can leave all potential regrets at the door. If you want to build your own computer, check out our PC parts buying guide.
Mistake #1: 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 many 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 must-have features, then cross-check that list with spec sheets.
Mistake #2: 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 13 from Apple costs more than $3,000. Realistically, that’s more computer than most people need — and the least expensive Pro is only $1,500. 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!
A good example of this is the 2016 MacBook models with the Touch Bar. The Touch Bar was a new bit of tech, and it got a lot of people excited to see what it offered. However, the Touch Bar ended up being a little bit controversial. Not everyone liked it, and some considered it more trouble than it was worth. People who upgraded to the new MacBook just for the Touch Bar ended up rolling the dice on a feature they didn’t really understand out of sheer excitement.
Mistake #3: Buying a laptop “for today”
It’s an old bit of advice, but it still holds true. Unless you are obsessed with getting the latest tech and newest models (hey, some of us have a good excuse) a new laptop will probably last at least a few years, and likely more if you want to save money on another purchase for as long as possible. That means that, instead of buying a laptop for today, you should buy one for where you will be in a couple years.
It may be tempting to buy a laptop for their current major and interests, that’s usually a mistake.
The classic example here is the college student who doesn’t have a degree yet, but has decided to buy a new laptop. While it may be tempting to buy a laptop for their current major and interests, that’s usually a mistake. Colleges have lots of technical tools for students to use. When it comes to a personal laptop, it’s a better idea for a student to buy a laptop for the job they would like to have after graduating. That often means focusing more on a business-friendly laptop with the right capabilities for a professional environment.
This tip also goes hand-in-hand with “buying the cheapest model available.” For instance, the new Microsoft Surface Laptop can be purchased for $1,000. However, the base model has only 4GB of RAM and a 128GB hard drive. That’s going to limit its long-term appeal, because it will quickly run out of hard drive space, and may not handle multiple applications well. Going for a step-up model with a bigger hard drive is a good idea.
Mistake #4: Ignoring ports and compatibility
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 3 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 Type-C 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. If a new laptop lacks the ports you need, then you’ll want to factor in the cost of adapters.
Mistake #5: 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 legacy Windows apps 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.
Mistake #6: Not trying before buying
It should probably go without saying, but always give the laptop you’re considering a proper test drive if at all possible. Many everyday laptops are available for testing at big, brick-and-mortar 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. If that’s not possible, buy from an online store with a strong return policy.
Mistake #7: 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.
If you rarely leave your home with your system, consider a 15.6-inch model.
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 shop. Also consider tablet laptop hybrids, which trade storage and power for more comfortable keyboards and seriously low space requirements.
Mistake #8: 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 cheap, so packing in some extra gigabytes is an easy way to make a laptop look faster. Truth be told, however, you rarely need more than 8GB of RAM, unless you are using some serious software for work purposes. If a laptop has more, that’s great, but don’t obsess over it.
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.
Mistake #9: Choosing an ultrabook when you need something bigger
Ultrabooks have risen to become one of the most popular types of laptops, and it can be very tempting to automatically assume they are the best choice for you. They’re lightweight, small enough to fit easily into a briefcase or pack, and the prices of many models — especially Chromebooks — are some of the lowest around. What’s not to love?
Well, ultrabooks aren’t for everyone. Just because they’re in a lot of headlines and get great reviews doesn’t mean they are always the best type of laptop. A Chromebook may be light and cheap, but they also have very little storage and are useless if you need to keep big projects on your hard drive, or need a large, high-res screen for design projects. A Microsoft Surface Book may be just right for a professional who depends on Office 365, but all those impressive specs won’t look nearly so impressive if you really need a MacOS platform instead. So while you will see a lot of favorable comments on today’s top ultrabooks, keep in mind that your personal situation is a little more complicated.
Mistake #10: Assuming a 2-in-1 is the same as a laptop
Tablets, 2-in-1s, and laptops are distinct categories. They aren’t interchangeable. While you can perform many tasks with a tablet and keyboard that you can with a laptop, the similarities soon end. Tablets remain far more constricting when it comes to multitasking, fast web browsing, using complex apps, or running any kind of demanding software. Just because something has a screen and keyboard doesn’t mean that it can do everything a laptop can. This is the opposite mistake of getting focused too much on one spec — if you ignore all the specs, you’ll start making assumptions about what the machine can do, and that’s dangerous territory.
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.
This guide is continually updated to reflect the most pervasive, laptop-buying mistakes. Last update: May 8th, 2017. Matt Smith contributed to this article.