Student’s Guide to Buying A Laptop - Summer 2007 ~ Ask The Admin

Friday, August 17, 2007

Student’s Guide to Buying A Laptop - Summer 2007

I was recently helping my brother decipher what to look for when buying a new laptop, and put together the following guide. The way I see it, there are probably more people out there who could potentially benefit from some of the information provided, so I’m including it here for reference. It’s geared towards students since the majority of laptop buyers around this time of year are in fact students, so I tended to shy away from the really expensive ultra-high performance notebooks. Let's get down to it.

So in light of the fact that all the big retailers are offering great “back to school” sales, I think your best bet is definitely to buy from a local store such as Best Buy, Circuit City, or CompUSA. If you can find a better deal for the same laptop online, by all means buy it there instead, but make sure it comes with the same warranty, accessories, etc…

1) Pretty much all new laptops come with at least 1 year of factory warranty which should cover anything but self-induced damages, like say, if you decide you want to take a dip in the Jacuzzi while checking your email and drop it in the water, that won’t be covered.Regardless, that’s all well and good, but in my opinion, given the nature of laptops and the probability of an accident occurring, I feel it’s definitely worth the cost to purchase an extended warranty, or invest in something like (which insures portable electronics). A solid comprehensive warranty or an equivalent disaster prevention that lasts about 3 years or more would be very handy. I haven’t looked into Safeware extensively, but it looks like a fairly viable alternative to an extended warranty from what little I’ve read about it.

Either that, or be really really careful with your new laptop.

2) Refurbished laptops are certainly another excellent way to save some money, allowing you to purchase a slightly higher-grade laptop for less money than you would normally pay. I wouldn’t shy away from Refurbs, but would make sure to be proactive in assuring that the warranty it comes with is enough to justify the price savings, or at least purchase an extended warranty for it. (Edit I love refurbs and used computers as long as they come with a complete care warranty. I got a X300 on Ebay for $750 with complete care. Dell swapped every little piece of that laptop out and finally sent me a refurbished Latitude X1 which carried the warranty over!)

The way I see it is, buying a pc these days is similar to buying a car. If you buy new, you’re guaranteed certain benefits from the manufacturer, and when buying used, you might not receive the same special treatment from the manufacturer but can opt to purchase an extended warranty, just in case.

As always, regarding the warranties offered, always read the fine print.

3) The following is a list of particular things that you should be looking for in a laptop to ensure its overall usefulness and longevity. Cnet has a good link here on what to look for, but I’ll sum it up for you.

a. Processor: Obviously the faster the processor the better (higher GHz is better, i.e. 1.8 GHz is better than 1.6 GHz).

You’ll want to buy either an AMD Turion 64 X2 Dual Core processor or an Intel Core Duo or Intel Core 2 Duo. The AMD Turion 64 (non dual core) is good too but I highly recommend buying a dual core processor as they will be faster than the non-dual core’s at the same processor speed.

Definitely don’t buy an Intel Pentium M, Intel Core Solo, Intel Celeron,or AMD Sempron. They are all previous year’s models and are outdated.

Laptops with AMD chips usually cost slightly less and are just as good if not better than Intel for most tasks, especially normal daily activities such as general web surfing, writing documents, managing pictures, watching videos, etc… Intel’s chips have their benefits but will usually only offer noticeable advantages when editing/rendering videos, using Photoshop, playing video games, and other very CPU intensive tasks.

b. Memory: 1GB. You must get at least 1GB of ram no matter what. Anything higher than that is certainly a benefit, but not worth fretting over. You can always add more ram later on for much cheaper if you feel that you’re in need of a boost down the road.

c. Display: Simply put, the bigger the screen, the less battery time you’ll likely receive. However, depending on your personal preference, the bigger the screen, the easier it is to read, but also adds overall size and weight to the laptop. I recommend a 14” to 15” screen which is most likely what you’ll find anyway.

d. Usability: The most important thing to do when buying a laptop is to go to the store, and TRY IT OUT! This is another reason why I’m recommending that you buy from a local retailer, or at least look at the store first. You definitely want to check them out in person and actually use the thing to see what it’s like. You probably wont see any laptops with screens that obviously suck, but when you are looking at them in person, take note of how bright they seem, how glossy the surface of the screen is (glossier screen = prettier picture, but will reflect heavily in direct light). You’ll find that you can intuitively make good judgments about each screen simply by looking at them for a minute.

Another small item to consider (and this is partially aesthetic mind you) is the finish and feel of the exterior. You can, with a fair amount of accuracy, feel the quality of each laptop just by picking it up, using the keyboard, mouse and buttons, opening and closing the screen and get a good feel for how the thing is going to hold up. Most laptops are pretty bland in their design, with the exception being the super-expensive ones, but I’ve found that certain models have excellent features that, in my opinion, enhance the usability of the device. I found one from gateway that’s exterior is made from aircraft-grade aluminum which looks very nice, but more importantly, will hold up and not scratch from your average daily use. The more moving plastic parts, the greater the chance of something inevitably breaking off. You get the idea.

Also, make sure you use the keyboard to type at least a few sentences. The size and layout of the keyboard, and the mouse, can make or break how comfortable you are with the laptop. If the keys are too small for your fingers, or the touchpad seems to constantly get bumped while typing, these are things that will become the source of major frustration down the line. It probably goes without saying; however, you’ve got to be able to use the damn thing comfortably right?

e. Battery: Definitely take note of the expected battery life, anything less than 2.5 hours is absurd in my estimation.

f. Hard Drive: You need 100GB. Period. As is the same with the memory, the more the better, but don’t settle for anything less than 100GB. You’re going to have to put all those pictures from your trips somewhere right?

Minor side note, make sure the drive is at least 5400rpm.

g. DVD: Which brings me to my next point, which hardly needs mentioning, but since I’m on a roll here, what the hell. Nearly all the new laptops come with DVD burners. I use DVDs frequently to back up my pictures/movies that I don’t want sitting on my computer taking up space… very very handy. Plus, DVD-R discs are super cheap these days. Make sure it’s got one. That’s it. Most new laptops will come with a DVD-R drive that will serve its purpose, so don’t worry about the specs or the speed.

h. Other: Minor but definitely important. As per usual, the more USB ports the better. You should have at least 3-4.

Also, this is pretty standard equipment these days, but just make sure you’ve got a wireless networking card installed that supports up to 802.11g which is the latest, highest speed wireless networking hardware available to consumers (there’s apparently 802.11n coming out, but it won’t make any difference to you in the near future, or even to me for that matter).

OK, so maybe that wasn’t exactly the shortest summary, but it’s better to be thorough right? I’ve put a mini summary here that you can take to the store with you, a little cheat sheet if you will!

Processor: AMD Turion 64 X2 Dual Core/Intel Core Duo
Memory: 1GB or higher
Battery: 2.5 hours minimum
Hard drive: 100GB minimum
Storage/etc… DVD burner, Lots of USB, 802.11g wireless

Here is a small list of Laptops that I found which, for the moment, seem to be excellent deals. Keep in mind that prices change frequently and new models come out all the time.
(This is one of my favorite budget laptops, is a great deal, and a very powerful laptop for the price!)
(This is about the same as the one above, but more expensive due to the Intel processor versus the AMD, along with a larger screen)
(This one is great if you like the larger screens)
(I haven't personally used any Acer laptops, but this is definitely a great price for a solid laptop, and i've had no serious issues with any of their other products in the past.)
(Great laptop for the price, especially considering it comes with Intel's Dual Core processor)
(I have used many Sony VAIO's in my time and I've always been impressed with their style, size, and overall usability. For a slightly higher price than some comparable laptops, you get the Sony name and a great laptop that's nice to look at and wonderful to use)

Ok, so that’s it.

Oh. One last thing I should mention. If you prefer to buy at a specific store for any reason, maybe you have an unused gift card… As far as I know at least Best Buy and Circuit City do price matching. So if you find an ad for the same thing from another store at a lower price, bring it in and they’ll usually honor it (at their discretion of course). I did that when I bought my digital camera and saved at least $20. Just thought you should know.

Edit: Thanks Micah - Wonderful first post! Welcome to AtA where you can help guide our college bound young admins to technology filled futures :) (Did that sound a little corny? Whatever -TheAdmiN)

Here is another great post on good places to buy a new machine From Bauer-Power.