Looking To Buy A New Laptop? Here’s What Those Specs Mean ...

by Matt Mrowicki
January 26, 2017

“I’m looking to buy a new laptop, what should I get?”  Anyone who works in technology hears that question from friends, family and co-workers. While we’re fortunate to live in a time of incredible options for our devices and gadgets, it can be overwhelming for someone looking to make a good choice before spending a lot of cash.

This article isn’t meant for people looking for gaming machines, or doing high-end video or graphic design work.  There are special considerations for folks with those special requirements.  This piece is meant to help those who need a laptop for day-to-day computing needs: browsing the web, checking email, using social media, getting work done, managing photos and all of the other useful day-to-day tasks that continue to make computers such a vital part of our lives.

Most laptop descriptions begin with the make and description of the main chip, for example “Intel Core i5-3210M 2.5GHz”.  In the early days of PCs, the speed of the chip (the “2.5GHZ” part) was a major selling point of a computer and there were processor wars between the major chip makers to see who would make the fastest chip.  Nowadays, chips have gotten so fast and efficient, that any available option would be fine for normal home and business users.  While it never hurts to have a faster, higher-end chip, it’s not a major factor for most users.

Two two main specs that are most often included in laptop descriptions are the amount of memory (typically 4GB RAM or 8GB RAM), and the size and type of the internal hard disk drive (typically 320GB HDD, 500GB HDD or 1TB HDD).  While there are only a few general options, these can be important factors in the price of the laptop and how useful it can be.

The system memory (RAM) is the main space where applications run, so having more memory allows you to run more applications faster and more efficiently.  Even if you’re just working in a web browser all day, if you’re opening lots of tabs and doing many things at once, the RAM is a major factor in having a good experience without lots of delays.  It is almost always worth it to have 8GB over 4GB if that option is available, and the difference in price is minor compared to the benefits gained.

The hard disk drive (HDD) is the internal space where the operating system (Windows or Mac OS), all of the applications, as well as your files, music, video, and everything else the machine needs to run is stored.  The larger the HDD, the more stuff you can store, so this can be critical, especially for people who save lots of music, photos, or video.

In the past, it was an easy rule of thumb that it was always worth it to pay for the largest hard drive possible.  That rule is changing a little bit now, since so much is being stored on the Internet (also called the cloud), people aren’t using as much of their own disk space as they used to.  If you stream all of your music from Spotify, and your photos are in Google Photos, this may not be as critical as it was in the past.  For some users, a 320GB hard drive would be more than they ever need, while some folks will fill us a 1TB (1000GB) hard drive just with video from a few family vacations.

One more note on hard drives.  On some laptops, you’ll see the letters “SSD” after the drive description.  This denotes a solid-state drive, or a drive where the storage is on chips, instead of traditional magnetic disks.  SSD drives are more expensive (much more so at higher storage capacity), but because there are no mechanical parts, tend to perform much faster.  Laptops with SSD drives start up faster, and load their programs more efficiently, which can reduce some of those frustrating delays people hate so much.

The final key factor is the size of the screen.  Laptop screens generally range from about 11” to 17”.  The size of the screen also affects the overall size and weight of the laptop, so it’s important to consider how you’ll be transporting and using it.  If you’re looking for a desktop replacement where you’ll be sitting at a desk editing photos, a large screen is really important and you probably don’t care as much how heavy the machine is. However, if you’re carrying it around campus all day and using it on a small desk to take notes, a really light machine with a smaller display could be the ticket.  Thinking about how and where you’ll be using your laptop will ensure that you’re happy with the decision and get the best value for the money you spend.



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