First Time Getting a Laptop? Here is What You Need to Look Out For

When buying a laptop for the first time, some users will find all the advertised system specs quite confusing. Even worse, there’s no real way to tell if a laptop will meet your needs by brand names and numbers alone.

Obviously, the hardware is the most important aspect when surveying a laptop to buy. You want to make sure the machine is going to do what you want it to. At the same time, purchasing a computer more powerful than you need will mean you’re spending extra money for capabilities you’ll never fully utilise. Getting the right balance is the key to getting a machine that both does what you want and doesn’t make a dent in your bank account!

laptop-hardware-processor

The processor is the heart of a machine, so it’s a good idea to look into the options you have. Of course, they come with their own confusing names, so it’s tricky for someone new to the market to identify what each processor means. Let’s break down each processor and what each one means in terms in performance.

Single Core

You’ll find that some laptops will have a single processor core in them, such as an “Intel Celeron” or “Pentium” processor. As far as speed goes, single cores aren’t great! Compared to its brothers, a single core processor will take a while to load software and process tasks. However, single core laptops will be very cheap to purchase, so if you just need something to process word documents or show presentations on the go, single core should be fine. Anything more than simple work use may tax it, however!

Dual Core

Some laptops will come with two cores within them, or as it’s known in the IT world, “Dual Core.” These include processors from the “Intel Core i3” range. Dual core processors are a solid workhorse for everyday activities, from web browsing to even less-intensive games. If you’re not going to be taxing your processor all the time, a dual core is a solid choice for a somewhat speedy processor without breaking the bank.

Quad Core

Quad core processors, however, are four processor cores bundled together, and you’ll see these in processors such as the ones in the “Intel Core i5” and “i7” ranges.

Processors that lower the quad core scale, such as the i5, are great for gaming and HD movie streaming, as they can handle strong loads without breaking the bank too much. If you want a quick machine that can handle quite intense tasks without having processor power “going to waste,” an i5 is a solid choice for a first-time buyer.

Higher up the scale, such as the i7, are processors ideal for very intensive activities that max out the processor for long periods of time. Activities such as video rendering, complex 3D work, or even something like Folding@Home, will benefit the most from an i7. While a very powerful processor will easily handle any loading tasks you give it, it might end up being too much rather than too little! Consider if you’ll really get the most out of something like an i7 before buying one.

What about “GHz?”

You’ll notice that processors also report a statistic in “GHz.” This stands for “gigahertz” and represents the speed of a processor. The higher the number, the faster the processor. One thing to remember, however: the GHz stated is usually the speed of one core. A 3GHz dual core processor (3+3=6) will be slower than a 2.8GHz quad core (2.8+2.8+2.8+2.8=11.2).

How do you check the cores?

If it’s not immediately obvious how many cores a processor has, you can visit the manufacturer’s page for that specific processor, and it should tell you its speed as well as the amount of cores it has.

laptop-hardware-cores

What about “Core2” technology?

In some laptops, especially older ones, you’ll find that there are Intel processors that use “Core2” technology, such as Core2 Duo and Core2 Quad. You’ll also notice they’re cheap dual/quad core processors. So, do they offer i5/i7 for cheap? Not quite! They’re an older series of dual/quad processors, so they’re not as powerful as the i-series. You may find a powerful Core2 Quad can give a low-range i3 a run for its money, but anything higher will leave these older processors in the dust.

laptop-hardware-ram

RAM can be quite cryptic, as it’s not very obvious how RAM affects system performance. Usually, the more the merrier, but how much should you be looking at in your laptop?

2GB RAM can be found on most budget laptops. With 2GB, you can definitely load office software and browse the Web without too much hassle. You may notice things get a little slow at times, however. If you can afford more, 4GB of RAM is highly recommended over 2GB. For those without the money to spend, 2GB should be okay, as long as you don’t open too many applications.

4GB RAM is a good amount to buy. It suits a lot of use cases, and you won’t notice many (if any) problems with 4GB RAM. Some more system-intensive tasks will require more RAM, but if you’re not pushing your system to its limits, you shouldn’t find much issue with 4GB.

6GB or above RAM can be a bit of an overkill for some users. At the same time, however, laptops with this much RAM sometimes aren’t too expensive. Some modern games require this amount of RAM, so if you intend to do heavy gaming, 6GB+ is a safe investment, especially given how much of a pain it can be to upgrade a laptop’s RAM!

laptop-hardware-video-card

Video cards are another confusing case for newcomers. Basically, a video card is an independent piece of hardware that handles rendering graphics. This can be from watching videos on YouTube to drawing high quality 3D models in a videogame. So, which one is right for you?

Integrated is a little confusing, as it means the laptop doesn’t have an independent video card. What it means is that the processor in the laptop also handles the graphical output of the machine. As you can imagine, it’s not ideal for really intensive graphical applications. If the most graphically-intense software you open is a word processor, however, you won’t need a dependent video card at all! An integrated graphics card should suit fine.

A Video Card Less Than 1GB means the laptop has its own dependent card. This will be useful if you want to watch high quality movies or play some low-spec videogames on your laptop.

A Video Card Greater to or Equal Than 1GB is for when you really mean business with your graphical output! If you’re looking to play games or do 3D modelling, anything short of 1GB can really harm your experience. Check for laptops with higher-end cards and read reviews and consume websites to ensure it’s the one you want.

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding on what each component of a laptop means and can buy the machine that does what you want the best. What do you need most out of a laptop? Let us know below.

8 comments

  1. What a totally uninformative article. There is no discussion on the difference between desktop and mobile
    processors from Intel. No discussion on what the U suffix is on Intel mobile processors. Or no discussion on why you shouldn’t get AMD mobile processor (slow as molasses, power hungry, prone to heating) unless you want an APU-powered gaming laptop.

    The more important considerations for buying laptops are:

    1) Usage & Screen size

    Is it a desktop replacement, a road warrior, a student notebook, an entertainment/gaming device, etc. If it’s a desktop replacement, then get one with at least a 15″ screen, and a high end multi-core processor. Road warriors can live with 11.6 to 13.3″ screens and a simpler dual core processor. Etc.

    2) OS

    Don’t get Windows 7 to 8.1 laptops! These are old stock that the shop is trying to move at reduced price. These have older hardware, which may be less power efficient (newer Intel chips are more power efficient than older ones), and may lack features of newer devices (no USB 3.0 port, no HDMI port, older processors without AES-NI, etc.).

    If you are going to install a Linux OS, then obviously get one that has no OS. Also make sure that the device is Linux compatible. Read online reviews. Pay particular attention to the ethernet or wifi chips used in the laptop, some have poor Linux support. Depending on the distro you’re using, you may have to find one that uses BIOS instead of UEFI, and one that doesn’t have Secure Boot. You can buy a Windows 7 or 8.1 laptop (but have to bite the Microsoft tax) since older devices have a higher chance of Linux compatibility (more time to test and tinker) and may still have the older BIOS.

    3) Battery

    If your laptop is meant as a desktop replacement then you may not even need a battery! Just plug it in and forget about carrying it outside the house. Road warriors may prefer laptops with a lot more battery life. Lenovo’s business-centric ThinkPad line usually have very good battery life, about 6-8 hours of usage.

    Related to this is the option for removable/replaceable batteries. If one full charge is not enough, then buy another battery. Most consumer laptops no longer have removable batteries so bear this in mind when shopping around.

    4) Keyboard and Touchpad/Trackpoint

    Try out a keyboard before buying it. Do you like chiclet style keys, or the more traditional ones? Are the keys too cramped for your fat fingers? Do you want quiet keys? Do you want backlit keys? Etc. Always try before you buy.

    Do you want a trackpoint, the little nub in the middle of the keyboard that acts like a mouse pointer? Or is a touchpad good enough for you? Do you want touchpad gestures? Do you want a scroll function on your touchpad, and do you want it on the left or right side or on top? How big of a touchpad do you need?

    5) Optical drive, hard drive, etc.

    Do you want an SSD or is a regular HDD good enough? Do you need to use optical media (DVD or Blu-Ray) or can you live with an external optical drive?

    6) Ports

    Make sure your laptop has one, hopefully more, USB 3.0 port. Find out where the USB ports are located and if they might interfere with other stuff in your workspace since those ports are the most commonly used ones. If you have many USB devices and tunbdrives, then get a laptop with at least three USB ports.

    Also look for an SD card reader, a 3.5mm port, and a video-out port. Choose HDMI over VGA unless you still have VGA monitors or projectors.

    ==

    This is what a new laptop buyer needs to know when buying a new laptop. You should fix this useless clickbait of an article.

    • Thx, Dan, for rounding out important info here! Well done! You should see about getting more of your articles posted at worthy outlets. Perhaps even taking Simon’s job!

  2. “If you are going to install a Linux OS, then obviously get one that has no OS”
    Unfortunately, there are very few of those available for sale. M$ insists that all computers leaving a factory have Windows installed on them. Other than getting a laptop from a dedicated Linux system provider such as System 76, the only option is to bite the bullet, get a Windows laptop and replace Windows with Linux.

    • @dragonmouth

      Depends on the region, I suppose? Some vendors/OEMs have more OS-free stuff than others. Lenovo offers no-OS Thinkpads here. Acer, Gigabytes, and Asus sell some of their laptops with only FreeDOS installed. That’s basically no-OS, since FreeDOS is free and you’ll just end up reformatting it.

      And you can also request he vendor to format the laptop and give you back the Microsoft tax. Some would, some won’t so shop around.

      Only when all else fails will you really have to pay the Microsoft tax. For me, I am not an OS purist. I would use the Windows that came with my laptop for about a year, then format it and install Linux.

  3. Did you just sum up the GHz of every core to estimate the chip? Lol You cannot just sum up core speed like they are apples, even kids know that.

  4. Dan makes some good points (although I wouldn’t say the article was totally useless, either).
    What with the cost of desktops being still so much less than laptops, buying a laptop as a desktop replacement begs the question: why. A laptop is, by design, a compromise of features for portability. Even those living in a broom closet can always find a nook to put a small form-factor PC costing a fraction of the price of a laptop: even when you add screen, keyboard and mouse, you’ve still got a better system that – depending on the brand – will allow more expansion of RAM, for example.
    http://lifehacker.com/five-best-small-form-factor-pcs-1701619172
    I know, dated article, but still.
    For me anyway, the key consideration for a **laptop** is battery life.

    • Actually, I started out my post bemoaning the lack of tips on battery life. I have had six laptops in the last twelve years. When I first bought a laptop, I did not think about battery life, only processor speed and a 15.4″ screen. Then it turns out that it was unwieldy to carry around because of its heft and weight, and also lasted a poor 2-3 hours before dying. Sadly, I did not learn from my mistake and bought another big (though with only a 14″ screen) laptop with bad battery life. I have since learned to pay close attention to things other than processors and big screens.

      My tirade above comes from bitter experience and lots of trial and error. Which is why it ticked me reading this article. In this day and age, we should be thinking about features other than processors. Fit and feel is more important. Size and weight should carry more “weight” in deciding which laptop to buy. And ports, my goodness, why settle for a laptop with only one or two USB 2.0 ports, and inconveniently found in front of the laptop, poking your belly whenever you plug in your thumbdrive?

      This article is a disservice to people who might have found it via Google and made their purchase based on the article’s incomplete advise.

  5. I will say this for Simon: The article is geared towards FIRST time laptop buyers….not seasoned veterans such as our selves who know the lingo and the lay of the land. So in all fairness this article touches on just the points a NEWBIE should concentrate on….after all how many of us when we started out just wanted something we could use without headaches? and rest assured, there is not ONE PERSON who’s buying a laptop for the FIRST TIME that is NOT going to buy more later on down the line. So even if there’s not a lot of info to satisfy laptop mavens, there IS enough info so that an uninformed person can make a decision that will “hold them over” until they get past the learning curve.

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