Laptop Buyer’s Guide

A new laptop is a relatively large investment, and choosing the right one can be a daunting task. Although we’ve tried to anticipate your needs with our recommended models, personal preferences can make a big difference, so we’ve also put together this general laptop shopping guide to help you avoid buyer’s remorse.

Click on the headings below to show more information.

  • General Recommendations
    • Go for a test drive
      • When possible, try before you buy. Even if you intend to make your purchase online, it can be helpful to find the models you’re considering at a brick-and-mortar store to have a look at them in person. A laptop that sounds perfect on paper may have ergonomic issues (e.g. keyboard size) that make the machine unpleasant for some users. There’s no substitute for hands-on testing.
    • Think about your needs
      • Picking the right laptop is about finding one that’s right for you, so the first step is determining what you expect from your laptop. The key issues here are performance and portability. In a nutshell, what do you do with your laptop, and where do you do it?

        Hardware details are discussed below, but take a moment to consider how you use your computer. What sort of programs do you use on a regular basis? Do word processing and web browsing make up most of your computing time, or do you often do more specialized tasks like video encoding or CAD? You don’t want to buy a computer that can’t keep up with you, but you also don’t want to pay for power you’ll never need.

        Also consider how portable you need your computer to be. Do you intend to take your laptop to class everyday, or do you expect your laptop to spend most of its time sitting on your desk? The more you intend to take your laptop with you, the more attention you should pay to details like size, weight, and battery life.

    • Mac or PC?
      • Almost all CofC-owned computers run Windows, but there is no requirement for students to follow suit. The basic tasks like word processing that most classes require can be handled equally well by either Windows or Mac OS X, so choosing between them is largely a matter of personal preference. For most users, the better choice is simply the one you’re more familiar with. Some classes may require using software with limited or no Mac support, however. In these rare cases, Mac users will have to either use one of our on-campus computer labs or purchase a copy of Windows for their Mac (this doesn’t require removing OS X).
  • Hardware Guidelines
    • Display
      • The quality of a laptop’s display can really make or break the entire user experience. There are several factors to consider when comparing displays, but the most important are size and resolution.

        The screen’s size is its most obvious feature, and the feature that has the biggest effect on the rest of the laptop. The larger the screen is, the larger the whole laptop must be. The general size range for laptop displays is 11 to 17 inches, measured diagonally. As a rule of thumb, laptops 13 inches and below are good for frequent on-the-go use, while 15 inches and above tend to stay at home. 14-inch laptops are a bit of a grey area; they’re not as convenient in cramped conditions, but they’re usually much more portable than their larger cousins.

        At least as important as the screen’s physical size is its resolution, or how many pixels make it up. Resolution is usually described in terms of how many pixels wide and high the screen is, e.g. 1600 x 900. (One exception is displays described as “1080p,” the same resolution used on higher-end HDTVs, which are 1920 x 1080.) A higher-resolution screen will display more content and have a clearer image than a lower-resolution screen of the same size.

        It is important to understand that screen size and resolution are independent of one another. Consider the example below, which compares two images with the same physical dimensions but different resolutions. Move your mouse over the image to see the difference.

        For a given screen size, the lower the resolution is, the larger each individual pixel is, which makes jagged edges more obvious and reduces apparent image quality. The most common resolution is currently 1366 x 768, but higher-resolution displays are quickly becoming more popular on laptops and other mobile devices. If your budget permits, seriously consider a high-resolution display; the extra pixels can significantly increase productivity and usability, e.g. by allowing you to fit your document and a source document side by side, rather than having to switch between them as you would have to at lower resolutions.

    • Processor (CPU)
      • The two companies supplying CPUs for mainstream laptops are Intel and AMD. At present, Intel’s processors are found in more laptops and tend to have better price/performance ratios (i.e. “bang for your buck”), so they’ll be the focus here. Most of Intel’s processors are divided into three product lines: i3, i5, and i7.

        First, a quick note about what not to worry about. Despite the attention it’s sometimes given in advertising, a processor’s clock speed (e.g. 2.6GHz) is not a good indicator of its performance. Processors with different designs running at the same clock speed can have totally different performance. It is therefore usually more important to know which product line the processor is in (e.g. i3, i5, or i7) than it is to know the clock speed.

        i3 CPUs are low-performance compared to the other categories, but they are less expensive, usually consume less power (good for battery life), and are easily capable of handling everyday tasks like word processing and web browsing.

        i5 are the mid-range processors, striking a balance between price and performance. Systems with an i5 processor will tend to be more responsive, especially under heavy load, so if you are a habitual multi-tasker or routinely use more demanding software (e.g. Photoshop), an i5 processor may be worth the added cost.

        i7 processors are the top end of Intel’s mainstream offerings, offering high performance at a high price. Unless you routinely perform very processor-intensive tasks like video editing or playing brand-new games, you probably won’t notice the extra performance and shouldn’t bother paying the premium.

    • Memory (RAM)
      • For most purposes, the only thing you really need to know about a laptop’s memory is how much of it there is, measured in gigabytes (GB). The more memory a system has, the more it can do at once without experiencing slowdowns. At present, 4GB is enough RAM to satisfy most users’ needs, though users who routinely use very resource-intensive software may prefer systems with more memory.

        Note: RAM and hard drives/SSDs both have capacities measured in GB. If an ad is unclear about which part it’s describing, the easiest way to figure it out is the size of the number; RAM capacities usually range from 2–16 GB, whereas hard drives and SSDs have capacities over 100 GB.

    • Hard Drive (HDD)
      • The hard drive (HD or HDD) is where all of your software and personal data are stored. Most laptops have a hard drive with a capacity between 120 and 500 gigabytes (GB). Windows and installed software (e.g. Microsoft Office, Firefox, etc.) usually take up about 50–80GB for most users; the remaining space is available for user data (e.g. pictures, music, movies, documents, etc.). Probably the best way to estimate your storage needs is to check how much space you’re using on your current computer and then add some breathing room, say 25–50%.

        Laptop hard drives generally come in two speeds: 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM. Laptops with a 5400 RPM drive will tend to be a little slower to turn on or to open programs, but for most users the difference is fairly minor. Users who routinely perform hard drive-intensive tasks like video editing should stick to 7200 RPM drives or get a solid-state drive (see below).

        Some laptop models, either as a standard or optional feature, replace the traditional hard drive with a solid state drive (SSD). SSDs are more reliable, consume less power, and are much faster than mechanical hard drives, dramatically reducing startup times for the operating system and other software. Being on the cutting edge does come at a cost, however. SSDs tend to have less storage space and can significantly increase the cost of a laptop. If you intend to make frequent use of software like Photoshop and Final Cut, SSDs can offer substantial performance benefits. For most other users, an SSD is less important but still very nice to have if your budget can accommodate it.

    • Video Card (GPU)
      • A video card is a secondary processor dedicated to graphics and a handful of specialized mathematical tasks. GPUs come in two main varieties: integrated and discrete.

        Integrated GPUs are basically just a built-in section of the CPU. They’re not as powerful as discrete GPUs can be, but they’re more than adequate for basic tasks like watching movies.

        Discrete GPUs are actually a separate part in the computer. They can outperform integrated GPUs, but there’s a tradeoff: discrete cards increase the size and weight of a laptop and consume more power, increasing heat production and decreasing battery life.

        If you play a lot of video games or use software that benefits from a high-performance GPU, go with discrete graphics. For most other users, integrated is plenty.

    • Optical Drive (CD/DVD/Blu-Ray)
      • As digital distribution (e.g. Netflix) and other storage media (e.g. USB flash drives) have started to edge out optical discs in most of their traditional roles, it’s worth asking whether you really need your next laptop to have a built-in optical drive. Think about your current computer; how often do you use its optical drive? Laptops without a built-in optical drive tend to be slimmer and lighter, which is a good tradeoff for many users. If you opt for a laptop without a built-in optical drive, consider buying an external drive that you can connect to a USB port on the rare occasions when you need to use a CD or DVD.
    • Keyboard and Touchpad
      • As your primary methods of interacting with the computer, the keyboard and touchpad can really influence a laptop’s ease of use. The apparent quality of these parts is largely a matter of personal taste, so there is no good substitute for hands-on testing.

        For the keyboard, type out “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” a few times to get a feel for the keyboard’s layout and resistance (i.e. how much force it takes to register a keystroke).

        For the touchpad, try playing with multi-touch gestures (e.g. dragging up or down with two fingers to scroll), and keep an eye out for features like accidental touch detection (ignores input if you, e.g. hit the touchpad with your palm while typing).