Shopping for a Windows Laptop

Laptops are more popular than ever these days. A laptop is no longer a compromise on performance. They are as powerful as most desktop systems and cost just a little more than a desktop for a mainstream model.

But there's a huge and confusing selection out there. What features are important? What features can you safely ignore? What are some after-purchase upgrades that can give better performance and more usefulness?

We'll discuss all that below.

The Important Bits

It's important to choose a laptop with decent specifications or else performance and usability will suffer. The specs shown below are things to look for. For that matter, these specs apply equally to both tower and all-in-one desktop models, as well.

  • Intel i-series CPU: Choices are i3, i5, or i7; 4th generation and up. The i5 is in the sweet spot, price/performance wise.

  • 8 GB RAM minimum, 16 GB is nice

  • Display resolution of at least 1920 x 1080 pixels, which is Full HD. An IPS-display is ideal but not critical.

  • Backlit Keyboard

  • SSD storage of at least 240 GB, not a hard drive!

  • Possible Tablet / Laptop Convertible (for smaller laptops)

The Important Bits, Explained

CPU: The CPU is the brain. The Intel i3 CPU is fine and is available in laptops costing around $400. The i5 gives a performance boost for just a little more, and the i7 an even greater boost. Don't buy a PC with a lesser CPU than the i3 or you will notice the poorer performance.

RAM: 8 GB of RAM is generally enough for most use. But RAM is cheap these days. Go ahead and buy a computer with 16 GB or we can add it on later. More RAM never hurts.

Display: The selection of display is important and there's lots of features. Size? Resolution? Glossy or matte? Touch-enabled? IPS?

The display size drives all other design aspects of the laptop. Laptops with larger displays have necessarily larger bodies, in which manufacturers use larger and heavier parts. They weigh more and are simply not as lithe or portable. Today's higher-end laptops are the so-called "Ultrabooks". These laptops have 12 to 13.5 inch screens, are very light, and very portable.

 

Resolution of at least 1920 x 1080 pixels (Full HD) is ideal. Lesser resolutions (e.g. 1366 x 768) require too much scrolling around and the larger pixels are annoyingly visible, creating coarse-looking fonts and graphics with rough edges. Low-end laptops usually have screen resolutions of 1366 x 768 pixels. Avoid those.

Glossy or Matte? Just as with photographs, glossy screens are a little sharper but glare can be worse if there's a window or bright light behind you. A matte finish is a compromise that (somewhat) reduces glare but isn't quite as sharp. Mind you, matte finishes are still plenty sharp. Just not as razor-sharp as a glossy finish. I prefer glossy screens. Glossy is the better choice for ultra high resolution screens.

Touch-enabled? Touch is fine for phones and tablets, but I'm not a fan of touch on most keyboarded laptops, except for models that are specifically designed to used with or without a keyboard. For regular laptops, I recommend against a touch-enabled screen or to at least disable the touch feature if the model you want only comes with touch. Stabbing the display with your finger and leaving fingerprints and smudges all over the screen will get tiring. If you love touch, that's fine. But I don't generally recommend it for laptops.

IPS stands for "In Plane Switching". It's a type of display that maintains its excellent viewability regardless of how the screen is angled. On a non-IPS display, if the screen is tilted / leaning too far forward or backward (if your line of vision is not perfectly perpendicular to the screen) then the colors will appear washed-out or even reversed. IPS displays look perfect, no matter the angle of tilt. IPS screens are also brighter and reproduce color more accurately. IPS isn't a critical feature and it's probably not important enough to reject a particular laptop that is otherwise ideal. But it's a pretty nice feature nevertheless and worth getting if you can arrange it. If you are fussy about image display quality then IPS is a must. Higher end laptops tend to have IPS displays, but not all do.

Backlit Keyboards are common on higher-end laptops these days. It makes using your laptop in a darkened room much easier. Personally, I would not buy laptop without it. Fortunately, backlit keyboards are becoming more common.

SSD: SSD-based storage is far and away better than HDD storage for laptops and desktops. The performance boost from SSD is huge -- I really cannot overstate that -- they are more reliable, and draw less power -- all critical plusses for a laptop. Read more here. Many Ultrabooks already come with SSD storage so an upgrade is unnecessary. But many otherwise decent laptops are still sold with performance-robbing HDDs in order to shave a few dollars from the price. That hard drive can be replaced with a super fast SSD. I absolutely recommend SSD for all new computers and even your existing computers.

A 240 GB SSD is plenty for most use-cases. However, if you tend to store lots of videos, photos, or music, you may want a larger SSD. Videos are the worst for eating up space. Photos and music aren't as rapacious with space unless they number in the many thousands.

Tablet / Laptop Convertible: Some laptops today are "convertible" or dual mode. Some have a detachable keyboard while others have keyboards that flip around to the back of the unit. Weight and thickness are top design considerations for convertibles. If you need a well-spec'd laptop that is exceptionally light and thin, a convertible like the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 may be the answer, even if you don't need the tablet mode so such.

Most new ultrabooks these days lack a CD/DVD drive. Optical drives add bulk, weight, and thickness and simply aren't as important these days. If you want a CD/DVD for those rare times when you need one, you can buy an external USB plug-in drive for less than $30.

Your Use Case

Think about how you'll use the laptop. Here's some questions you'll want to answer which helps me decide what to recommend. Please rank these questions on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being most important.

Consider these rankings carefully. Some of these rankings have interrelated impact. e.g. You can't rank questions 2 and 3 both with a 5. They are mutually exclusive. Also, the higher you rank question 1, the more severe the impact will be on satisfying the other answers you provide. Please don't reflexively answer #1 with a 5. Consider that you'll have this laptop for 6-7 years if you take care of it. I will always try to find you the best bang for the buck regardless.​

  1. Low cost is very important

  2. Small, thin, and light (ultra portable) is important

  3. Larger screen (at least 15 inches) is important

  4. A 10-key number pad is important. If you need a 10-key and an external plug-in 10-key pad is OK, then rate this a 1*

  5. Extra long battery life is important (you'll be unplugged from the mains a lot)

  6. Built-in CD/DVD drive is important. If an external plug-in USB CD/DVD drive is OK, then rate this a 1*

  7. I'd like to also use it as a tablet in a leisure posture, lounging on the sofa for example

  8. I want to carry the laptop everywhere I go

  9. I'll travel with the laptop on an airplane at least twice a year

  10. I'll go on longer trips with the laptop in a car (road trip, not just locally)

  11. I may move the laptop around the home or office but I will not generally leave the building with it.

  12. I plan to transfer and store to this laptop a lot of photos (thousands) or videos that I shoot on my phone.

* 10-key pads and CD/DVD drives are available as accessories that plug into a USB port on your laptop. They are inexpensive and may be indicated if you use only occasionally or mainly use them at the home or office. Omitting these from the body of the laptop results in a thinner and lighter machine for greater portability.

One Possible Recommendation for Ultra Small, Thin, and Light

Microsoft's Surface Pro family, launched in February 2013, has been well-received and popular.  Their latest machine, the Surface Pro 4, is one of the best tablet/laptop convertibles around.

The Surface Pro 4, released October 2015, is a tablet and a laptop in one. It's on the heavy side for a tablet (in the way most tablets are used), weighing 1.75 lbs (compared to the middle-sized iPad at 1 lb) but considered very lightweight for a laptop (2.45 lbs with Type Cover keyboard attached). As a laptop, it's a first class machine.

The built-in kickstand adjusts to any angle within it's approx-160 degrees of range. The IPS display is optically bonded to the Gorilla Glass front panel so there's no air gap, resulting in high contrast and truer colors. And at 267 ppi (pixels per inch), the individual pixels cannot be resolved (seen individually) further than about 13 inches away, even with perfect vision. That makes for razor-sharp text, icons, other graphics, and photos.
 

The magnetically coupled keyboard is backlit, has an opaque glass multi-touch trackpad, and is surprisingly good. Sadly, it's not included -- it's an optional but necessary accessory.

I own the Surface Pro 4 and carry it with me when I visit clients or travel. I never know when I might need to remote into a client's computer so having it with me makes me more responsive. By wirelessly tethering to my phone, I can go online anywhere I happen to be when a call comes in.

Questions? Send me an email, I'm happy to answer!