How to buy a laptop for 2012 (For the regular person)

Nov
24
2011

This is a yearly re-post / re-edit. It started in 2009 and has been updated yearly. This started out as a post to “just my closest friends” but has become one of my popular blog entries of all time. Here’s to 2012.

If you’re an IT geek like me, you’re often asked "What kind of laptop should I buy?"

If you’re NOT an IT geek, you’re likely asking an IT geek friend “What kind of laptop should I buy?”

This is a guide for both of you.

If you’re in IT, this question might not directly affect you, since many IT organizations dole out laptops to the whole staff, including you. However, since you’re seen walking around with a laptop, or have that geeky-vibe about you, I’m guessing you’ve been asked more than once "What kind of laptop should I buy?"

You might be tempted to say "Buy a Macbook" – if only for the reason that you DON’T have a Macbook, and therefore would be unable to help the person in the future. (See this for the example of the problem: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/computers)

If you’re NOT in IT, your problems are substantial too. If you ask three geeks, you might get THREE answers.

With that in mind, here’s "Jeremy’s Guide to Buying a new PC-based Laptop in 2012." Again, there are a LOT of ways someone COULD do this task. This is what I send to people in my inner circle (friends, family, etc.) when I get the question.

Seriously. I just email them a link to this blog entry, and .. I’m done.

These suggestions should be "good enough" for the common man / woman for 2012 and the forseable near term future. Any one person’s particular needs may vary, but you, the IT Pro, should be able to "print out and hand over" these suggestions and have them work for about 90+% of the people you come in contact with.

If you’re NOT an IT geek, you’re looking at the Internet and catalogs and think that desktop and laptops could be "infinitely configured."

And you don’t have time for that. You want to get back to real work. So, here is a document you can send to anyone who has ever asked that question with some "straight dope answers."

Jeremy’s Guide to Buying a new PC-based Laptop in 2012

We’re going to answer some questions here like:

• Netbook or laptop?

• What do you, Jeremy, think about the iPad?

• What’s with the “Windows iPad killers” (ie: Windows Tablets, Android Tablets) coming out?

• What’s with the “Google Laptops” coming out?

• What about Windows 8?

• Where can I get good deals?

• What kind of hardware (and warranty) should I get?

• Should I get Windows 7 32-bit or 64-bit?

• What if I get a great laptop deal?

Part I: Netbook or real laptop?

Netbooks look like wee little laptops. And they are. They run Windows and all the programs people need. They’re portable, and dirt cheap.

The general problems with Netbooks is: the keyboards are sometimes tiny… really tiny.

The screens and screen-resolutions are also tiny (which could mean a lot of "scrolling around" for many tasks, including web page surfing and document editing.)

Some cheaper ones cannot pack a lot of RAM (which means Windows and apps will run slowly), and the processors they use are usually "Intel Atom" processors. This is a low-cost processor used mostly in Netbooks to save money and extend battery life. Don’t worry.. Atom processors are fully compatible with all the Windows-stuff you’re gonna throw at it.

Netbooks are great if you want portability. Netbooks are great if you need web access, in a portable way. Netbooks are great if you want to run an occasional app.

But Netbooks aren’t as powerful as laptops. This means that many people COULD get away with a dirt-cheap Netbook if their needs are very modest and are OKAY with the limitations.

My feeling is that if you want a Netbook, try to get one as CLOSE to a laptop-spec as possible.

But for just a few hundred more you can have a FULL laptop, which, yes, is a little bigger and perhaps better, all around, for everyday tasks.

I own a Netbook, and when I use it, I have a hard time with long sessions of web browsing and email, big Word docs, Visio and creating documents with Microsoft publisher. I’m scrolling all around the low-resolution screen and I’m mistyping a lot. Great.

Again, I’m not Anti-Netbook. Again, I own one. But I use it exclusively for travel purposes when I’m afraid my real laptop might be stolen, or I am only carrying a backpack and not my real laptop bag.

In short, I wouldn’t recommend a Netbook as your ONLY laptop, especially for a college or school student. But it does make an excellent SECOND laptop, but only if you’re religious about keeping "data" things sync’d with your "real" machine or you use something like Dropbox.com, Google Documents or Microsoft Office Online where all your docs are "in the cloud."

Part II: All about Non-Traditional NetBooks (iPad, Google Laptop, Windows Tablets)

What do you, Jeremy, think about the iPad?

Well, in addition to my NetBook, I also own an iPad , and like it quite a lot. When I’m on the road, it’s my companion for movies, TV shows, music, NetFlix, quick web surfing and a whole lot more.

The real question you might be asking is: iPad or Netbook. Which should I get? Or, you might be asking “Why have an iPad if you already have a NetBook?”

This is actually easily answered. As much as I enjoy the iPad’s iPad-y-goodness, it’s really not super-amazing at “creating content.” It is hands-down the best “content consuming” device I have ever used.

So, I love love love my iPad for, again, movies, TV shows, NetFlix, web surfing, eBook reading, games and Skype to name a few. The “instant on” capability of the iPad is, honestly, it’s killer feature more than anything else for me.

Note, however, on my iPad list, I do not have “Create documents”, “Deliver Slideshows”, or “Make a spreadsheet.” Turns out the iPad –can- do all of those things. And, pretty decently. But I don’t like to do them ON the iPad.

It’s just not a super-fantastic “content creation machine.” Yet, I sometimes take it to speeches and take notes on it. It’s decent for that task, but even then.. not ideal.

When it comes to creating content, I need a keyboard. Yes, yes, you can get Bluetooth keyboards that sync with the iPad (and I have one), but still – the content creation software and experience isn’t the same as a Netbook, laptop or desktop.

It just isn’t.

So, here’s the verdict:

• If I had “real work” to do, and had to only pick one “travel” machine for the next 5 years – sorry iPad, I’d have to go Netbook.

• If I’m sitting on a beach and want to read, game, surf or NetFlix.. iPad is my true companion.

Also, if you’re debating between the iPad and iPad 2 – I own an iPad (version 1) and am super happy with it, and would likely get a used iPad 1 over a new iPad 2. There’s simply not enough “more” there for me to pony up for an iPad 2. Again – that’s my opinion.

Aren’t there iPad-like things for Windows?

Yes. There are some. Google, I mean Bing for “Windows Tablet” and you’ll find a bunch.

Here’s the short scoop here: Windows 7 just isn’t ready for tablet computing.

Yes, you can get them.

Yes, I’m sure some people are wildly happy with the experience.

I’m suggesting that for most regular people, I would wait until Windows 8 comes out (and you can get it pre-loaded on your Windows tablet.)

Until then, there really isn’t any “Windows-based iPad killer”.

How about Android Tablets? Are those good choices?

Possibly. So, I’m (personally) not a huge fan of the current Android world. But I actually believe it’s a very personal choice / taste.

But, I actually recognize I’m in the minority.

That is, apparently more portable devices run Android than anything else out there. But I don’t own one, so I can’t personally recommend it.

If you’d got a friend with one, ask to play around on it. But even if I –loved- it, I’m not sure I’d want it as my only content-creation machine.

What’s the deal with the “Google Laptop”?

Whew. This is a tough one. So, non-IT folks.. stick with me here.

Yes, Google has a “full size laptop” in beta running a new thing called the “Chrome OS.”

Here’s the deal: It has no hard drive, and everything you do is “in the cloud.” Meaning, really, that when you “save stuff” you’re saving to a website which stores your stuff for later access.

Does it run Windows apps? No.

Does it run Mac apps? No.

Does it run iPad apps? No.

Might you want one anyway? Possibly.

It’s the end of 2011, and I don’t know anyone who personally turned over his hard earned money and bought one of these. I’m not declaring this a flop yet – but I don’t see any in my daily life – not ever. Okay – actually I did see one, once.

Back to laptops and netbooks.

Part III: Which laptop brand should I get?

Here’s the thing, basically, they’re all the same.

Shocker, I know. But so are cars. They are all basically, almost exactly, 99% the same.

Yes, one laptop or desktop may have some extra ports or buttons or whatever. Some are a little faster or a little slower. Some are bigger, some are smaller. Some are “optimized for gaming” others are “better for business.”

99% — again – exactly the same “guts” and what they’re capable of.

Since they all do the same basic thing, for the MAJORITY of "Joe and Jane users" you almost CANNOT GO WRONG in buying a new laptop nowadays.

This is going to sound totally weird, but my primary suggestion to prospective buyers of laptops and desktops is: UNDERSTAND THE WARRANTY.

We’ll cover this in the next part of this talk.

Of course, you’re also looking for a good deal. So, here are my top three deals for anyone looking for a computer:

1. New Dell Vostro laptops. They’re cheap, decent, fast, and have Dell’s warranty (again, more on this in a second.) Click here to see them. I wouldn’t recommend _all_ of them. Some of them have the "wrong" processor type. (again, more on this in a second.)

2. Dell Factory Outlet computers: http://www.dell.com/outlet/. This is Dell’s "island of lost toys." This usually mans "Jane Doe couldn’t afford her new laptop for sonny Johnny Doe after all, so she sent it back after 9 days of light use." It doesn’t really mean "It was dropped, so it’s now crap."  Even if it did, Dell still puts an original warranty on everything they sell there, which is the most important part of owning a laptop. I’ve literally bought 4 Dell laptops using the Outlet store.

3. Tigerdirect.com. They do sell new computers, but also "fell off the truck, if ya know what I mean", off-lease (meaning, used) or are market closeouts in some way. But, holymoly.. lots and lots of awesome deals here. I promise you won’t find better deals than Tigerdirect. You will get the MOST bang for your buck, especially if you’re looking for something "higher end" at "lower cost." But here’s the trick: Tigerdirect doesn’t warranty these. They’re always factory direct warranties… whatever that means. And since they sell all brands, I don’t know what to tell you – even if you find a great deal. You’ll have to manually inspect the warranty yourself, call the company and see what their story is. Don’t expect Tigerdirect to help you when you have a problem. They sell it to you. They mail it to you. That’s the extent of your relationship.

4. Retail: Best Buy, hhGreg, Office Max, Office Depot, Staples: Even if they swore “up and down” that they had the most amazing warranty of all time, PLUS a killer deal – I still wouldn’t buy from any of them. Plain and simple: There are KIDS working in these stores, and this is YOUR business / personal laptop. Sorry, but I can’t trust any of these outfits with my most precious business instrument. Not to mention that these kinds of stores turn over equipment types and makes and models so, so quickly. Will the “kid behind the desk” know what to do when you bring yours in from 1.5 years ago?

5. Other Internet sites: NewEgg.com, Buy.Com and others. Again – almost always ONLY manufacturer’s warranty. Again, not my cup of tea.

Part IV: Understanding the warranty (the most important part of your laptop.)

Let’s talk about Dell, specifically, for a second though. Why have I, historically, always owned a Dell laptop?

Simple. Their warranty is easy for my pea-brain to understand.

Here’s how it works:

• The default warranty is 1 year if something "dies." Examples are: Power supply, screen goes blank, USB port dies, whatever. You call up. They try to fix it over the phone.

• If it needs a part you can replace (ie: battery, mouse, removable DVD drive) they ship it to you; you replace it yourself. You put the broken part in a pre-paid box back to them, and drop it in the mail. You are done.

• If it needs a part you can’t replace (laptop screen, motherboard) the part is shipped "overnight" to a "regional center." Then when the part arrives, the center calls you and you schedule a time to get your machine fixed.

• For a little extra money when you buy your laptop, you can get 3 years on-site (ie: they come to you) coverage.

• For a little "extra extra", you can get "I spilled coffee directly in it", "I dropped it hard on a marble floor" or "I dropped it in a lake" insurance, which will cover things like that. Really. At least that’s what they say.

Now.. with that said: I, with my pea-brain, can understand this warranty structure, and can embrace what it means.

To be clear: This warranty structure doesn’t mean "my problem will be fixed in 24 hours." (Especially on a Thursday or Friday.)

It means: "We (Dell) spring to action right away… If you called us with your problem after 2.00 PM or so, then we’re going to miss Mr. DHL delivery dude for today. So, we’ll have to ship it tomorrow – then it will (usually) get to the local repair depot the next business (shipping) day. And when it arrives, then you’ll get a call. Only after the part arrives at the local depot center, will we call you and schedule an appointment for up to 24 hours after that."

That’s the deal.

So don’t expect your warranty coverage to mean "your problem will be fixed within 24 hours." Expect them to get started on your problem right away and have it fixed 24 hours AFTER the part is in the hands of the depot.

So, because I ‘get’ the deal, I usually recommend Dell. It’s the “warranty-devil” I know, and I’m totally cool with that deal.

That said, I always recommend Dells to Joe and Janes when they ask me what laptop to get because:

- 99% of the any laptop you get is exactly the same and…

- I can EXPLAIN the warranty to them and ..

- They can decide if that’s what they want.

If you want to check out other manufacturer’s warranties, great. I’m just giving you’re my personal experience with Dell and warranties.

Part V: "How much laptop do I, a regular person, need?"

If you’re planning on: Surfing, Facebook, using Microsoft Office, Google Docs, Gmail, Hotmail, Office 365, NetFlix, Skype and other “usual stuff” you’ve got “modest needs.”

If you’re running some “high powered stuff ” like Quark, World Of Warcraft (or other high end games), Final Cut, Movie Maker, VMware Workstation, Autocad or Mathemetica, you might need more than what I’ve listed here.

So, here’s my answer for your "modest needs" person in 2012.

Chip type and speed:

Here’s the dirty little secret the laptop manufactures don’t want you to know: This almost “doesn’t matter.” Or said another way, you almost “cannot go wrong.” Here are my suggestions:

• Intel’s chip lines are the Intel Core i3, i5 and i7s. The i3 is usually the best “bang for the buck” but I wouldn’t turn down the higher model i5s or i7s. Again, i3 (any speed) will be perfectly fine for almost anyone. Get the i5s if you can afford it. The i7s are almost certainly overkill for almost anyone.

• Avoid "Intel Celerons" at all costs. None are acceptable. Ever.

• See the above line: NEVER EVER buy a laptop with an Intel Celeron. EVER.

• Intel Core2 Extremes are for "gamer" laptops. Avoid due to the high price tag and low battery life.

RAM:

• Some laptops come with 2 or 3GB RAM. This is annoying. Avoid these, and get one that comes pre-loaded with 4GB. 

• Note that I am NOT recommending you get more than 4GB for most modest-needs users.

Hard drive:

There are three kinds of hard drives now: “spinning disks” (the kind we’ve had for years) and “SSD” disks which have no moving parts at all and “hybrids” which are spinning disks with some extra SSD stuff slapped on.

The older spinning disks are still found in 90% of all laptops and are perfectly acceptable for 90% of the people out there. The minimum size you should get is 320GB and preferably 500GB.

Remember: These are spinning disks, and prone to failure when dropped, hit, smacked, etc.

Also note that there are two “speeds” you can get: 5400 RPM or 7200 RPM. Just to be annoying manufacturers don’t always have 7200 RPM drives in all sizes, and, manufacturers don’t always tell you the speed as you’re buying your new laptop. If you don’t know, assume it’s the slower “5400” speed, and avoid it. It’s worth the extra cash for a 7200 RPM drive.

Remember earlier when I said that the processor speed really “almost doesn’t matter”? Well, it doesn’t. And the reason it doesn’t is that your processor is running fine. It’s your slow-ass disks which makes your computer “feel slow.”

If you want your computer to “feel fast” then get out your wallet, and plunk down the extra cash and get an SSD disk. Because SSD disks have no moving parts, they transfer right to your computer’s brain at lightning speeds. It will feel (and is) faster. The “catch” however is that SSD disks are waaaaaay more expensive than older spinning disks. And, checking with a few laptop manufacturers, you cannot get the “bigger SSD” disks when you buy a new laptop (which is weird.) You have to buy them “afterward” and jam them in there. (This is what I’ve done – more on this later.)

In short getting an SSD vs. spinning disks is going to be the greatest “one thing” you can do to make your laptop (even your old, crappy 3 year old laptop) feel insanely fast.

Video card / chip:

• Unless you’re playing games, it doesn’t matter.

• Really.

• Even if you’re planning on watching NetFlix or Hulu, those kinds of apps really don’t care about your video card much.

• Even on my super old crappy Netbook, I am able to see full screen videos (wirelessly!) without any issue with a good network connection.

Screen Size / Resolution:

• Look for something with WXGA or WXGA+ resolution. This can mean 1280×720 and up, which is decent on a laptop.

Wireless Network Card:

• Most laptops now have built-in Wireless cards.

• You don’t have to get all worried if you don’t have the fastest wireless card.

• Ideally, look for one that has "n" in the spec, like 802.11n to get the fastest, but 802.11g is plenty fast for regular people.

32 vs. 64 bit Windows 7:

Most new machines you will get are 64-bit capable. 64-bit capable means you get two major benefits.

Since most machines (laptops, not netbooks) you will buy nowadays are 64-bit capable, if you had an extra minute before clicking "buy now" I would check to ensure your new machine it’s 64-bit compatible and the operating system is Windows 7 64-bit.

Okay  — why would you care?

Benefit #1: With 64-bit you can tap into all 4GB+ of memory you purchase. If you were to use the older 32-bit OS you will only see 3.2GB of your 4GB purchase. Weird, but that’s how it works.

Benefit #2: By and large, the computer will be "faster" than the exact same machine running a 32-bit operating system. Even though we’re talking about identical systems, the 64-bit is faster all around because it processes (many / most) things in 64-bit "chunks" as opposed to 32-bit "chunks." So it’s overall, faster.

Now, let’s talk about Windows. To keep costs down, many manufacturers put on the cheapest versions of the operating systems they can – even on machines that are capable of running faster with a better operating system.

For instance, in the Dell Outlet, I saw many machines running Windows 7 Starter edition – an operating system I wouldn’t force upon my worst enemy.

And, worse, they are running on awesome 64-bit hardware! That means you are paying for the 64-bit  hardware you’re not using because the operating system is 32-bit and crippled. And, if you had 4GB of RAM in that machine, you would only see 3.2GB. Not a good deal for Joe and Jane buyer.

This puts Joe and Jane buyer at a disadvantage. While Mr. and Ms. IT guy can quickly wipe a machine pre-loaded and install Windows 7 64-bit, it’s another whole thing for "Normal people" to do the same thing.

My advice for "normal people" would be to spring for a machine with one of the following operating systems:

• Windows 7 Home Premium (if you’re never going to join an IT department’s domain)

• Windows 7 Professional (if you’re possibly going to join an IT department’s domain.)

• Windows 7 Ultimate if the machine just happens to come with it. Note: You can always upgrade your existing Windows 7 Home Premium or Windows 7 Professional to ultimate if you discover there’s some wonderful Ultimate feature you "must have." Most "Ultimate" features are IT / business related things like Bitlocker and AppLocker (again, geeky business-y things.)

This chart is excellent to see what you get in which edition: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_7_editions

Back to the 32-bit vs. 64-bit thing…

In short, if you CAN get a 64-bit Windows 7 edition pre-loaded on your machine, I say "do it." In the old days, there were driver problems with 64-bit editions. No more. If the machine comes pre-loaded with Windows 7 and it has 64-bit support, you’re likely quite golden with regards to drivers. You could, maybe possibly have some problems with some of the stuff ATTACHED to your machine, like Printers and Scanners. But Windows 7′s drivers support is excellent. It’s a rare (mostly modern) device that won’t work with Windows 7 64-bit. Note: some won’t, and that’s a possible 64-bit Windows 7 risk.

For more information on 32 vs 64 bit support from Microsoft’s perspective, read this.

In short, for regular people, my advice is simple: Get Windows 7, any 64-bit edition pre-loaded on your laptop if you want guaranteed success.

Where do I go next:

Finding the Vostro laptops in the Dell Factory Outlet was a little hard. So here’s a link.

I found many, many, many under $600.

Look for: Intel i3, 500GB HD,  4000 MB RAM (That’s 4GB), Windows 7 64-bit OS, a DVD drive with Read/Write capabilities.

Total price: $600 – $800.

Everything else.. everything else.. is just bells and whistles when it comes to laptops.

Part VI: About my laptop.. what do I run for me and my family? (Here comes a little geekier stuff.)

Some of you may wonder what kind of laptop I am running? Until recently it was a Dell D620.

Now, it’s about to be a Lenovo T520.

My wife now has my 6 year old Dell D620, running Windows 7 64-bit with 4GB of RAM, and she is totally happy on this workhorse of a machine. It’s great for her as a “mere mortal.”

Indeed, I like this Dell D620 so much, that, as a gift, I bought one on Craigslist for $250, added $80 worth of RAM and gave it to my parents to replace their aging laptop.

You might be thinking: “Whoa.. whoa whoa.. Didn’t you just spend 10 pages explaining what *I* should buy? And you’re using 5 year old Dell D620s?”

Yep. First of all, we’re talking about my family’s machines. Not mine.

Next, this article is about how to buy a NEW laptop. Honestly, neither my wife nor my parents NEEDED a new laptop. They needed a functional laptop.

So, for $300-ish they got just that. And trust me – they’re happy with their new super speedy latptop.

The Dell D620 (or D630 for that matter) is still a killer, cheap, used laptop you could buy and likely be perfectly happy. If you upgrade it to 4GB of RAM and throw a 7200 RPM drive in there.

True, I have zero warranty on either of these machines, but that’s okay. They’re only worth $250-$300. If my Dad or wife drops his D620 and cracks the screen or spills coffee in it, I can buy another one for $200 – $300 on Craigslist tomorrow, and just move the hard drive and RAM.

Okay. Now, about me.  Today – right now — I’ve got a Lenovo T500. But, I’ve just ordered a Lenovo T520 on order from the Lenovo Outlet.

I can hear you now: "But what about Dell? You reference Dell like 80 times in this article. Didn’t you basically tell me to buy a Dell?" Yes, I did. I recommend Dell for most people. I needed some special stuff that I could only get with a Lenovo.

Remember: I’m an IT guy who does hard core demonstrations, so my needs are greater than some others. I need 8GB of RAM in my laptop, and 500GB drives and a lot lot more. Why the T520, specifically, and not another Lenovo (or Dell for that matter.)

So, Lenovo (and a handful of others) are using new faster “guts” called “Sandy Bridge” – which is the stuff “between” the Intel chips and the hard drives. It’s the stuff that “moves data” between the main processor and, well, everything else. And Sandy Bridge laptops are super slick and fast – provided – you jam in a super fast hard drive. For the geeks out there, Sandy Bridge laptops can take SATA III disks which are stupid-fast. So, I’ve decided for my new T520 with an Core i5 and also decided to splurge and get (crazy, I know) a 500GB SSD SATA III disk.

No kidding: the SSD drive I purchase literally cost as much as the laptop itself.

Again – my set up is NOT RECOMMENDED for regular people.

If you’re geeky and/or interested in other Sandy Bridge laptops, here’s a short list here. Some from Lenovo, Dell and others. Again, Sandy Bridge laptops are only for those who need upscale performance, and again, is NOT required for regular people. And they’re usually a little more expensive. And, honestly, you only get the “super slick” performance when you get super fast SATA III hard drives.

And, when my Lenovo T520 comes in, my wife will get my 1.5 year old Lenovo T500 and the Dell D620 will be our “backup and travel laptop.”

The Lenovo buying experience is not great. The laptops take forever to get to me and the last time, my assistant called every day for 90 days to get confirmation of the activation of the warranty.

I wouldn’t want to put Jon and Jane Buyer thru either of those experiences. And I’m bordering on “afraid” to use the warranty service. Haven’t used it yet, I’ll cross my fingers. Heck, I don’t even know where to call if I had a problem. And that’s a problem.

Final Thoughts (and if you read nothing else…)

So, for regular people, I still recommended the Dell Outlet to get cheap, reliable, new computers and the Dell warranty for reliable, easy to understand warranty service.

Hope this guide helps you and your friends out.

- Signed, your friendly neighborhood, Jeremy Moskowitz, Group Policy MVP