The Definitive Guide to Laptop Shopping

Girls using a laptop outdoors.

Laptops. So you’ve had your laptop for a few years now and it’s slow and a nightmare to work with, but with a recently new price category of affordable laptops you’re unsure if the latest machine will really be that much better. In this guide, we explain in detail, but with simple language, how to find the best deal on a brand new portable machine.

Getting Started

First things first, there are a few things you should know before we dive in. If there’s anything you take from this, it should be the following:

They’re Not Made Equal

Seems an obvious thing to say, but think about it objectively, laptops will come in all shapes and sizes for different types of users. Performance isn’t the only metric, and many users prefer a certain size laptop or a certain weight. You could buy two laptops at the same price point and they’d be vastly different in performance, features and build quality. It’s all about the target user, just ask yourself, is it you?

Look Past The Specifications

Many novice buyers look at a processor name and see the model “i5” and assume it’s a nippy machine. Nothing could be further from the truth, Intel has been making Core i3/i5/i7 processors since 2010 – that’s over 6 years ago. Needless to say, a desktop Core i5 processor from 6 years ago doesn’t even stack up against your average Pentium from 2016. The class matters too, a “Core i3” processor in a tablet will be a super low power variant that wouldn’t even stack up to a laptop-class Pentium processor in most scenarios.

Be Rational

Let’s face it, if you’re buying a laptop you’re looking for mobility. Perhaps however, you need a desktop replacement machine? Or an ‘ultrabook’? Decide on what kind of user you are, and what kind of features and applications will be important to you. Always remember that an equivalent desktop will almost always be faster, it’s a matter of physics.

Pug wearing a Hairband

Understanding Laptop Processors (CPUs)

The processor is the brain of the machine, it performs most of the main operations and can have an effect on almost everything your system does on a day-to-day basis. They can come in many varieties, some dual-core, some quad-core, some having features such as ‘hyper-threading’ and a ‘turbo clock’. But how does this affect you?

An Intel Core i5 Processor Retail Box

Understanding Performance

Generally, the main factors on processor performance is the architecture and the clock speed. The architecture is the design of the microscopic circuitry that makes up the whole unit, as technology progresses and chip manufacturers find new ways of improving it, resulting in better efficiency and more operations per clock (also known as Instructions per Clock or ‘IPC’).

The clock speed is how many times the processor performs a cycle per second, and can range from 0.8GHz to over 3.5GHz. The important thing to consider here is that even if the clock speed is high, if the architecture is not efficient, you can get less performance per GHz. Looking at the processor’s GHz alone can be a huge mistake, not all clock speeds are created equal. This is especially true when comparing Intel processors to AMD processors, where the latest AMD architectures generally provide less performance per GHz than the equivalent Intel counterpart.

Looking at the processor’s GHz alone can be a huge mistake, not all clock speeds are created equal.

Dual-Core vs Quad Core

This question is asked many times and the answer can vary greatly depending on the chip. But if presented with two options, dual-core versus quad-core, which is the best option?

The answer is: Probably Dual Core

Why you ask? If we’re definitely looking at a laptop, and it’s not a laptop designed for intense tasks like gaming or professional video editing and computer aided design (CAD), the likelihood is it’s dual core. There’s limited room in a laptop for cooling, this limits the amount of heat it can create, and to cram 4 cores into a laptop chassis without making things expensive means they have to make some serious cutbacks on the power of those cores.

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Contrary to popular belief, this is not helpful to the average user. Having many slow cores means the laptop can perform heavy calculations well, but for simple tasks like loading a web page, copying files and using the computer’s interface (buttons/menus), a fast core is better than many slow ones. The simple fact is, it’s really difficult for the computer to spread out simple tasks over multiple cores.

[F]or simple tasks like loading a web page, copying files and using the computer’s interface, a fast core is better than many slow ones.

The difference between fewer cores and more cores is comparable to a motorbike versus car comparison. The motorbike (fewer cores) can accelerate quickly and reach high speeds on its own, but can’t carry too much weight or it’ll get bogged down easily. The car (more cores) accelerates more slowly, but once it’s moving, it can carry more and it takes a lot more load to slow things down. Remember this analogy when browsing through processors.

It should be noted however that if you like to do many things at once, having more slower cores can be helpful when multitasking.

So we’ve covered how core count can affect a laptop, how architecture and clock speed can make an effect on performance, and briefly covered why dual-core can often be better than quad core in a laptop. We don’t want you to see just half of the picture, which leads us to the final, most important metric in selecting a processor.

Processor Class

The class of a processor is the designed usage scenario. All processors generate some form of heat, they convert electrical energy into heat. The more electrical energy it uses, the more heat gets transferred into the laptop’s chassis, which limits how much power a small device such a phone, tablet or laptop can use. This is why there are processor classes.

If you remember anything from physics class, electrical energy is sometimes measured in Watts. If a processor uses 10 Watts of power, it will transfer 10 Watts of heat into the heat spreader and this will warm up your device. More power requires more cooling, so when your laptop is working hard, you might hear the fans start whirring to keep temperatures at a reasonable level.

This means that you can’t fit a desktop class processor that might generate over 100W of heat in a small tablet, because the cooling system can’t handle it. This issue is addressed by introducing processor classes. In modern Intel processors the model number might be followed by a letter such as Y, U, M, HQ, MX etc.. These describe the class of processor in the device, which can give you an indication of what constraints have been made to keep that power usage down.

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The Y variant of Intel processors is the tablet class of processors. They might still be expensive, but they aim to cram as much performance as possible into a tiny power allowance, often less than 10 Watts. They generally have huge sacrifices in clock speeds, with low base clocks that climb up when there’s cooling capacity to spare. An example would be the Core i7-4610Y, which is a dual-core chip and often has a power target of 6-11W.

The U variant of Intel processors is the ‘ultrabook’ class of processors. They are a bit more powerful than the Y variant because they can use more energy and make more heat, but still have some sacrifices in clock speed and core count to keep power consumption low. An example would be the Core i5-4310U, which is a dual-core chip with a 15Watt power target. It is generally faster and more capable than the Core i7-4610Y.

The M variant of Intel processors is the laptop class of processors. They are more powerful than the U and Y variants because, like before, can make more heat. They are not as powerful as the desktop equivalent but are usually fairly powerful on their own. An example would be the Core i3-4110M, which is a dual-core chip with a 37Watt power target. It is generally faster and more capable than both the Core i7-4610Y and the Core i5-4310U.

Are you starting to see the pattern? Sure we’ve only looked at Intel processors here, AMD mobile processors follow a similar pattern but don’t have a common naming convention, it’s best to look up the processor and see it’s ‘TDP’ or Thermal Design Power. The higher this number, the more heat it will generate and energy it will use at full pelt, but generally the more legroom it has for intense tasks.

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Looking at the Numbers

In the tech industry, we use something called a ‘benchmark’ to test the performance of a hardware component such as the processor or hard drive. These bits of software run tests such as intense calculations or copy operations and see how fast it goes. Generally, the higher a benchmark score, the more effective a system or component is. We recommend using CPUBenchmark.net to compare the performance of most processors. It will show the overall score of the processor and sometimes the ‘single-threaded’ score, this is the power of a single core. Make sure to look at both when making a decision, as a higher ‘single-threaded’ score will also make the system feel snappier and faster even if the overall score is lower (see Dual-core vs Quad-Core).

The examples we posted earlier are the i7-4610Y, i5-4310U and i3-4110M. Which have scores of 3738, 3757 and 3873 respectively. Naturally an i3-4110M equipped laptop would be a lot cheaper than a laptop with the i7-4610Y, yet they offer similar performance. So ask yourself, do you want to sacrifice performance for a light form factor? Will you pay more to get the same performance in a lighter laptop? These are important questions to ask yourself, again this goes back to our recommendation – keep rational.

Understanding Displays

A common mistake is to assume that a larger display means it’s harder to power. This is not always true. A computer display can have many properties, such as the resolution, size and technology. Not all displays are made equal, and in cheaper laptops the display is often the biggest sacrifice to get to that great price point. So what does it all mean?

Image shows two display technologies when displays are tilted.
Image shows two display technologies when displays are tilted.

Resolution

The resolution of a display is how many pixels it has. It is measured like the size of a canvas, the more pixels it has, the more space you’ll have on the screen for your windows and the more detailed your pictures and document will show on the screen. A standard resolution for laptops on a budget is 1366×768, this is a very low resolution and is easy to drive even with a weak graphics chip. But it won’t look as great as a 1680×1050 screen, or a 1920×1080 (1080p) screen – though these also require more horsepower to drive smoothly.

Screen Size

The screen size is exactly that, the size of the screen – measured diagonally usually in inches. The larger the screen, the more resolution you’ll need to keep things detailed close up. A small 13-inch laptop might look great with a 1366×768 display, but would look blown up and cramped perhaps on a 15-inch display. A common metric when measuring detail is ‘pixel-density’, which is the amount of pixels in a screen proportionate to its size. So a 15″ display with a resolution of 1366×768 would have a lower pixel density than a 13″ display with the same resolution.

Technology

You may have heard about terms like viewing angles when shopping for a television. The technology inside a laptop display can make a huge difference. Common in cheaper laptops is the TN panel, or the TFT LCD display. This is an age old technology, it is cheap to manufacture and can produce acceptable results. But often times a TN panel will have poor viewing angles and colour accuracy, meaning your friend sitting next to you might not see the colours the same as you do, or looking at it from above can make the picture dark or washed out. An example of a good technology is the IPS display, or ‘In Plane Switching’. An IPS display generally has better viewing angles, and superior colour accuracy at these angles because of the design of the layers inside the panel. Check the technology of your laptop display and look at the screen at varying angles to see if the technology is right for you. For many people, the worst aspect of their laptop is the display.

An IPS display generally has better viewing angles, and superior colour accuracy[.]

Most modern integrated graphics chipsets can power a wide variety of laptop displays smoothly, but to play games on them at higher resolutions requires more horsepower. Make sure the laptop you are getting has the graphics horsepower to do what you wish to do at that resolution.

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Understanding Graphics (GPUs)

The graphical processing unit, or GPU short, is the chip inside your machine responsible for pushing all those pixels to your display. It will have many features such as the ability to render 3D graphics, connect multiple displays and play complex video streams. But what is a good GPU? What’s the difference between integrated and dedicated, and more importantly, how will they help you?

Image shows difference between an Intel HD 3000 and an nVidia GeForce 630M playing League of Legends.
Image shows difference between an Intel HD 3000 and an nVidia GeForce 630M playing League of Legends.

Integrated Graphics

An integrated graphics chipset is a graphics processor that sits on the same chip as the CPU. It shares it’s graphics memory with the system memory (or RAM), which means a program might fight for memory if it requires both graphics horsepower and system memory to work effectively. It is common in laptops where space and power is at a premium, and they are often capable at doing ordinary tasks and not much more. Modern integrated GPUs such as Intel’s HD 5000 can play many games at low resolutions and settings, but won’t be the smoothest or most enjoyable experience. It should be noted that some more expensive mobile processors do have fairly capable integrated graphics chipsets which put some dedicated chips to shame, such as the Intel Iris Pro 5200 found in some high end mobile Core-i7 processors.

Dedicated Graphics

A dedicated graphics chipset is a graphics processor that sits separately in the laptop. It has its own graphics memory, leaving the system memory alone for other tasks and can often have much faster, specialised memory for graphical tasks. It’s common in more expensive laptops where a great visual experience is desired, and they are often more capable at playing video games.

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We recommend a dedicated graphics card in a laptop if you want to run multiple displays, as the strain on system memory running multiple displays can degrade system performance. Dedicated graphics chips use power much in the same way processors do, with beefier graphics cards requiring more thermal headroom. They can also reduce battery life because of the extra power requirement, so sometimes having a dedicated graphics card is detrimental if you are not the type of user that needs it.

We recommend a dedicated graphics card in a laptop if you want to run multiple displays[.]

Also remember that a mobile graphics card makes sacrifices to meet the laptop form factor, this means that a graphics processor such as the nVidia GeForce GTX 950M is not as powerful as the desktop equivalent, the GTX 950. Always check benchmarks online for the graphics chipset you are purchasing if you wish to game, making note of the type of graphics memory is uses. DDR3 is painfully slow compared to good GDDR5 graphics memory, and the same type chipset can often have one or the other, so double check this when comparing.

Understanding Memory (RAM)

The amount of RAM in your laptop decides how much you can do at once, in tandem with the amount of CPU power available and the number of cores available. More RAM is usually better, especially if you are using integrated graphics. Another important aspect to your laptop’s RAM however is the slots available.

If you wish to upgrade your laptop in the future, check that it has upgradable RAM. In an age where laptops are becoming thinner, laptop manufacturers have taken to soldering the system RAM to the mainboard, leaving you with no upgrade options in terms of system memory. If this is important to you, double check the laptop model on the manufacturer’s website and see if it’s expandable.

Understanding Storage (HDD & SSD)

Laptops often come with a myriad of storage configurations, from big hard drive disks to speedy solid state drives. How can the storage affect your system performance? Do you really need an SSD?

The answer is: Probably not, but you’ll want one.

There are two main types of system storage, they are explained below. Having an SSD in your laptop can speed up the time to boot, open application, copy and read files resulting in a much more smooth and enjoyable experience. But they tend to be more expensive per gigabyte (GB) than their mechanical counterparts.

Hard Drive Disks

A hard drive is a mechanical drive that stores information using big metal platters and magnetism. It has moving parts and uses more power than a solid state disk and has been around for decades. They are comparitively cheap to manufacture and can hold lots of data, but are slow to access because the spindle which moves to find your data is mechanical.

Solid State Disks

A solid state drive is a drive with flash memory, it is not mechanical so can be very quick to access and is much better at fetching information from different places at speed, whereas the mechanical drive has to move the spindle for every location. Not all solid state drives are created equal, with some using cheap technology limiting the speed and lifetime of the SSD, an example of this would be eMMC, which is found in cheaper notebooks and tablets. Check the type of SSD your laptop has before you make the spend.

So how much faster is a Solid State Drive than a hard drive? Reading large files can be as much as 3-5 times faster than a conventional drive. But where the SSD really shines is fetching small bits of information in many places at speed, an SSD can be as much as 300 times faster than a conventional drive at this task which makes copying lots of small files much quicker. This helps with loading times, as the system has to read hundreds of small files to present you with a desktop, having an SSD will save time.

Understanding Peripherals (Ports)

Generally laptops would come equipped with at least one USB slot, a display output and headphone jack, but the speed and capability of ports can differ greatly. If you have lots of peripherals, such as an external hard drive or would like to connect an external monitor, check that the laptop you’re buying has the ports you need.

Universal Serial Bus (USB)

The USB port is a common port for connecting most peripherals such as mice, keyboards, hard drives and many other devices. There are multiple versions of USB which have different maximum speeds, they are backwards compatible, so a USB 3.0 port is compatible with USB 2.0, and 1.0 devices. If you require a fast USB port, check the laptop you are buying has USB 3.0 enabled ports, or you might be stuck with speeds of yesteryear.

Display Output (HDMI, VGA, DisplayPort)

The display outputs on a laptop dictate what external displays you can connect and at what resolutions. Display outputs also have versions, much like USB, with more recent versions supporting higher resolutions and faster refresh rates depending on your graphics chipset. For most users, a single HDMI port is enough. HDMI will always support a 1080p display at 60Hz, but you need at least HDMI version 1.3 for a 2560×1440 display at 60Hz, or at least HDMI 2.0 for a 4K display at 60Hz. Check the version of the port you are using and ensure it is capable enough for your needs. VGA is an older analogue connection that only supports a maximum of 1920×1200 at 60Hz, whilst DisplayPort is generally superior and can support in some cases up to 8K video at 60Hz and deep colour depths not common in most consumer displays.

A typical DisplayPort cable.
A typical DisplayPort cable.

Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt is an Intel technology found in more expensive laptops. It offers huge performance increases over standard USB and is used mostly for high-end equipment and professional devices. If you have thunderbolt devices or would like to make use of thunderbolt in the future, make sure the laptop you buy is equipped with thunderbolt ports.

Final Words

In this article, we’ve covered in detail the Processor, Display, Graphics Card, System Memory, Storage and the Peripherals. All of these aspects make a laptop great or poor for specific tasks and you should now have a good enough understanding to make an educated decision on your next laptop purchase. Remember the three key points mentioned at the start of an article, as buying a laptop for a feature you’ll never use might not be a great idea.

We wish you the best of luck shopping for your next mobile computer!

 

 

About Matthew Hall 32 Articles
I am a developer and tech enthusiast with over a decade of experience working with a variety software stacks to create everything from websites to video games.

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