Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Laptop shopping

One of the many disadvantages to being out of work is the inability to invest in new toys.  My 6-year old self-built PC is really starting to show its age!  So I was practically giddy when I was approached by two friends over the weekend who were looking for laptop buying advice.  If I can't upgrade my own rig, I can live vicariously through others who are making the leap.

As we enter the final stretch of the holiday season, the promises of big box, brick-and-mortar retailers and their online counterparts are dancing in consumer's heads like so many sugar plums.  However, a bit of preparation is required before clicking that Checkout button (or entering that exceedingly length checkout line).

First and most important:  you need to know your main purpose for using the laptop.  Do you just need something to check e-mail, surf the web and play Facebook games or is this going to be a true desktop replacement capable of running the latest First-Person Shooter with all of the bells-and-whistles turned on?

If it's the former, a simple netbook might be in order.  Web-surfing is what these little wonders were made for and it doesn't hurt that they're a bargain for the budget-conscious.  Acer is a popular brand and they offer many models in the sub-$300 price range.

At the high-end, I highly recommend Alienware, a company that has been building custom PCs since the mid-90s.  Becoming a subsidiary of Dell hasn't hurt their stellar reputation, either.  However, the allure of having a high-end rig in portable form doesn't come cheap and you'll be lucky to find a beefy Alienware model for less than $2,000.

One caveat before we move on:  you simply can't swap out laptop parts when it's time for an upgrade.  Only RAM is upgradeable (and it's effectiveness beyond 4GB is debatable), so don't expect to replace the motherboard, CPU or GPU a year or so down the road when you experience slow performance in the latest app you need to run.  I mention this because when you do finally take the plunge, make sure your chosen machine meets or exceeds your requirements with some room left over for the future.

Many consumers opt for a laptop that fits between the two extremes of basic and powerhouse.  Here are a few points I'll mention for those who are hoping to have a machine that does everything, but don't have the budget:

1) Recent desktop AMD processors have been disappointing and this applies to their mobile counterparts as well.  Although there will be naysayers, I always recommend Intel CPUs, with i3, i5 and i7 processors being the most common.

2) If you're trying to stay in the $500 - $700 price range, your choice will most-likely have an Intel video chipset onboard (the 4000 HD is pretty common).  This isn't necessarily a bad choice, but don't expect to run, say, Far Cry 3 with all of the detail settings at maximum.  On the other hand, games with lower requirements should run fine.

3) 4GB of RAM is now pretty much the standard.  If you have specific requirements for more, adding a second SODIMM module is fairly painless and inexpensive.

4) 15.6" displays are the norm for units in this price range.  Unless you have a particular reason, avoid touchscreens which are often more trouble than they're worth and tend to increase the overall price of the unit.

5) Laptops are notorious for poor audio fidelity.  If audio quality is important to you (and you're willing to sacrifice a bit of portability), some inexpensive external speakers might be an option.

6) Hate it or love it, Windows 8 is installed on almost every new laptop.  Downgrading to Windows 7 should always be an option, but I'm just an unemployed tech and not a bigwig at a major PC provider, so that decision is outside of my purview.

7) Don't skimp on important accessories!  If you're going to be traveling a lot, invest in a quality laptop case/bag.  Also, there's nothing worse than getting a Low Battery message and being miles away from an electrical outlet, so I often recommend a second battery.  Just make sure you charge it first before leaving for the day!

8) Finally, we'll talk a bit about warranties.  Some people like the peace of mind that warranties provide and some think they're a complete waste of money.  I tend to fall somewhere in the middle (they were the bane of my existence when I worked retail -- see my first post for my feelings on selling things).  Admittedly, an extended warranty has its advantages, particularly from a store that provides in-house service or has a repair shop on site.  Think of them as insurance policies for your electronics:  if you never use it, you'll think it was a waste, but the first time something fails and you end up not having to pay a repair bill that totals more than the cost of the laptop, you'll be grateful you made the investment.

Well, that about wraps it up!  As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch.  As for me, I'm looking forward to having the distinct pleasure of helping some friends go laptop shopping next month.  No, really, I get into this kinda thing!

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