Buying a laptop: Everything you need to know, and maybe a little you don’t

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What you need to know about hardware

As with any computer, the hardware on a laptop determines what it is capable of doing. Better hardware will naturally be more expensive, so it is important to consider what you are going to use the laptop for and choose hardware suitable for that purpose. A laptop that is only being used for general purposes such as browsing the Internet or writing documents, for example, probably doesn’t need a high-end processor or video card.

CPU/Processor

As with any computer, the CPU carries out all the processes for the laptop. Any time the computer needs to access or change data, the CPU executes that task. Better CPUs will be able to process more data at quicker speeds. Note that the pure clock speed of a CPU doesn’t necessarily give the whole picture – if you’re unsure about your options, copy the processor’s model number (such as “Core i7-6500U”) into a web search to compare your choices.

The latest offerings from Intel are its Core i3, i5, and i7 series in 7th-generation models (with model numbers starting at 7000). Newer CPUs are generally faster and more efficient, though it might take a few months for laptop manufacturers to include them in retail models. Try not to buy a brand new laptop with a processor design that’s two years or older.

Graphics and Sound

A video card generates the images that a program needs to display on screen. With most laptops, the video card will come integrated into the motherboard. Unlike with a desktop, it’s very rare and difficult to upgrade a laptop’s video card. For most users, the video card is not something to worry about in particular. The most important uses for a video card are gaming and modeling, in which figures — often three dimensional — need to be rendered.

NVIDIA and AMD are the primary vendors for discrete mobile graphics. NVIDIA’s latest series is the 10-series, the GTX 1080, 1070, and 1060. These will be in the most expensive, most powerful gaming and business-class laptops, thous some recent models may be using the slightly older 900 series. AMD’s Radeon series is a cheaper alternative often found in more budget options. The R9 and R7 chips are the latest designs: the Radeon R9 M485X is the most powerful, with cheaper, slower models offered at lower price points down to the R7 M270X.

Speakers will also almost always be built into the laptop. Generally speaking, laptop speakers are not going to be amazing. It would be difficult, after all, to fit a subwoofer and all the necessary components for a great stereo experience within the confines of a laptop. Of course, most laptops provide ports to connect headphones or external speakers if you want a more immersive listening experience.

Memory

RAM, often referred to as memory, refers to the computer’s ability to store and access information for immediate use. Any task currently being done on a computer is using RAM. Essentially, the more RAM a computer has, the more information it can call up at any given time, and thus the more processes it can do at any time.

Older laptops, and some new business-class or desktop replacement models, can be upgraded with new RAM by the user for much less money than a pre-configured RAM boost. However, a focus on small, compact laptop designs is making this less common.

Storage

The amount of storage space on a hard drive is how much data it can hold in total. Programs, videos, music: all of these are stored on the hard drive. In contrast to memory, data in storage does not necessarily need to be in use. A program that is installed on the computer but not currently running would take up storage space but not memory. These days, many laptops use solid state drives — aka SSDs — which are faster and sturdier than traditional hard drives at the expense of storage space.

An SSD offers a dramatic performance boost over a conventional hard drive. If you have some room in your budget for an upgrade, pick an SDD first, then RAM, then focus on other components like a faster processor or a high-resolution screen.

Touchscreen capabilities

A few years ago a touchscreen was a novelty only found on high-end laptops, mostly because the hardware and software simple weren’t mature enough to make them useful for most people. But with the explosion of smartphone and tablet users, Microsoft, Google, and laptop makers have made a huge effort to create a quality touchscreen experience. In addition to high-quality capacities screen technology, touchscreens are now optional even on some budget designs.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Windows 10 has gone a long way towards making these touchscreen and combination designs more viable. The interface and software is designed with touch in mind, including conventional programs like Office or the new Edge browser. Third-party software, like Google’s popular Chrome browser, is also being updated with solid touch support. The march forward in both software and hardware has made them much more viable even for expensive, work-focused machines.

That said, Windows and Chrome OS are still designed to be used primarily with a keyboard and mouse (or touchpad). A touchscreen will add a little functionality, but most users won’t lose any critical tools by going for a non-touch option.

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