How to Buy a Laptop without Killing Anyone

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Recently, I bought a new laptop. I’ve been in technology for years, and I’ve even built a couple of PCs, but I don’t always keep up with the latest-and-greatest, so I thought I’d ask for help. This story starts with one fateful tweet:

As a parent of two small children, I’ve gotten used to unsolicited advice from random strangers, so I figured: What’s the worst that can happen? Three days later, when I woke up in Tijuana covered in blood and marmalade, I realized my mistake…

The Enthusiastic Advice

Most of the advice I got was as enthusiastic as it was useless, and almost all of it can be collapsed into three major categories:

(1) Buy a Mac!

Look, I have nothing against Apple. I own an iPhone and my wife just bought an iPad Mini. Could you assume for a minute, though, that when I said “Windows-based” I actually thought this through? My desktop PC is Windows-based and my software is Windows-based (some of it, like Adobe Creative Suite, cost a small fortune) – I’m not buying a MacBook just because it’s shiny.

(2) Spend More/Less Money!

One person told me that I couldn’t possibly get a decent laptop for less than $2,500. Not five minutes later, another person told me that I was spending too much and obviously hated poor people and puppies. No amount of math is going to reconcile those two opinions.

(3) Get a Big/Small One!

Likewise, some people told me that the laptop I imagined was either far too big or so ridiculously tiny as to be unusable with my ape-like appendages. The severity of these opinions seemed extreme, given that I never mentioned what size of laptop I was actually considering.

The Fatal Misconception

Most of the advice was well intentioned, but here’s the fundamental problem: No one bothered to ask me how I was going to use my new laptop. Ironically, the most helpful advice I got was from a friend of my dad who outlined exactly why they bought their current, gigantic, desktop-replacement laptop. Even though that’s the polar opposite of what I was looking for, he gave me his rationale and clearly understood that his choice was just that – his choice. So, step one is to figure out what you actually need for your use-case.

The Inevitable Tradeoffs

Step two is to realize that buying a laptop is like buying a car—there are always trade-offs. If you want a high-performance vehicle that does 0-100 in 4 seconds, it’s not going to get 50 MPG, at least not for $20K. We’d all like a laptop that weighs in at half a pound, has a 21-inch monitor, fits into our pocket, and costs $99, but it doesn’t exist. Some combinations are just physically impossible, some are technologically impossible (at least today), and some are possible but will double the price tag. You’ve got to decide not only what you want, but how important it is to you.

The Critical Decisions

For the purposes of this post, I’m assuming that you’d rather shoot yourself in the own leg than have an extended conversation with a Best Buy employee, so I’m going to break your choices down to what I think are six critical decisions you’re going to have to make:

(1) How Much You Got?

Not to ruin your early shopping euphoria, but some of those laptops you’re eyeing are going to end in divorce. We all have a budget, and it’s time to put on your big kid pants and figure out what’s left in the pockets. The good news is that you can get a lot of laptop these days for under $1,000, but the lower you go, the more the tradeoffs kick in.

(2) PC or Mac?

Let’s be brutally honest. The practical upshot of all of the Apple-copying the last few years is that there are a dozen brands of laptops that look like MacBooks (waits for angry comments in 3… 2…). You know what the main difference really is? It’s the operating system and the software that runs on it. Which one you prefer is up to you. If you want to make the switch either direction, that’s great, but factor in the switching cost. You’ll have to learn a new system, and you’ll have to buy new software. You’re a grown up, so I leave it up to you.

(3) How Big Is Too Big?

It’s easy to fall prey to the siren song of the new ultra-books, but even the highest-end, ultra-portable laptops have tradeoffs. My dad’s friend is a great example of why there’s no one right answer to this. He and his wife tend to need high performance and a large screen. Ultra-books are small and have small screens—that’s just a fact of physics. On the other hand, if you fly to exotic locales (e.g. Cleveland) 3 days/week, a 15-pound laptop probably isn’t your best choice. It all boils down to one simple question: How are you going to use it?

One minor warning from my recent experiences: Keep in mind that many ultra-books and very small laptops don’t have internal CD/DVD drives. Most software is downloadable now, and you can always buy an external drive, but some people still have a ton of old software or like to watch movies or even listen to CDs on their laptop. If you’re one of them, then the latest ultra-books may be a non-starter for you.

(4) Do You Like it Sexy?

Let’s face it, we’re vain. I like to think of myself as a practical guy, but I still can’t bring myself to buy a Lenovo (formerly ThinkPad). You know why? It looks like the obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey had a baby. Wait. No, that sounds cool. It looks like someone spray-painted a brick matte black and then carefully ran over it with a steamroller. It’s just not sexy, and I can’t get past it. At 42, I don’t need to be seen with my laptop pretending to work on my “novel” at Starbucks, but I do need a little sexy in my day.

You may very likely end up buying your laptop online, but take my advice—visit a store and get one in your hands. A laptop is something you hold and using it is very visceral. Some actually feel too light to me, or a bit flimsy, or the keyboard is weird, or the screen is at a strange angle. Even if it looks great, it might just feel wrong. Find out who stocks the model you’re considering and take a drive there. Even previously online-only brands like Dell are available in stores now.

(5) Where’s The Plug?!

If you’ve got easy access to a power outlet, then battery life may not be a big concern. If you’re a road warrior, though, you’ll need all the juice you can get. Unfortunately, battery life ratings on most laptops are notoriously unreliable and vary wildly, but a large, high-powered laptop is going to burn more power, on average, unless you’ve got multiple batteries. Some laptops offer extended batteries, but they weigh more.

(6) Hard or Solid?

I’ve tried not to focus on any single piece of technology, but there’s been one major advance in the past few years that’s worth mentioning. The classic, mechanical HDD (Hard Disk Drive) is being replaced in some high-end laptops with what’s called an SSD (Solid State Drive). An SSD is a lot like flash memory (think USB stick drive). The big advantage is that SSDs have no moving parts and burn significantly less battery life. The disadvantage is that they cost a lot more per GB of storage. If you want performance and battery life, an SSD is probably worth the price. If you don’t care and need a ton of storage, stick to a regular HDD.

(7) How Much GigaStuff?!

I know what you’re thinking. I never told you how many GB of RAM or GHz of processing power you need. Here’s an unpopular opinion: For most of us, the default is enough. If you’re a power user, you probably don’t need my advice. If you’re not, then don’t making buying decisions based on the advice of your power-user friends.

Memory and CPUs gets cheaper every month, so buy what you need. My philosophy is that I’d rather buy a $1,500 machine every 2-3 years than a $3,000 machine every 5 years. No matter what that $3K could buy me today, it’s still going to be obsolete in a year. So, buy what you need.

The Unfortunate Truth

One truth is undeniable: No matter what you choose or how much money you spend, your new laptop is going to look like a Nick Nolte mug shot next to whatever hits the market in six months. Buyer’s remorse is unavoidable, so stop worrying so much. At the end of the day, a laptop is a tool, and you’re the one who has to use it.

Your friend’s solid gold, Limited Edition Avengers Mjolnir replica hammer may look cool, but it’s not going to be very handy in a house built with Phillips head screws. Most of the time, it’s just going to be you and your laptop, fighting together to get the job done. Make the best choice for you and learn to love it. If you make the right decision for you, it may not last forever, but at least no one has to die.

Dr. Pete Meyers
Dr. Pete Meyers is a marketer and data scientist for SEOmoz, a cognitive psychologist, and a new ultrabook owner. He occasionally has delusions of understanding... Read Full Bio
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  • That’s pretty tough and confusing situation Dr. Pete. Let me say honestly ,Just 4 days ago I purchased my laptop HP Pavilion G6 on diwali occasion. People recommended me Mac, Tablets (from cheaper price point of view) But at the end I focused about the HDD space, The operating system and warranty. I am lucky enough to get 1 year accidental damage warranty on my laptop and yeah the Battery life and Graphic card and the Quad core processor i.e. AMD A8 was my major concern. Thanks for the post Pete.

  • When I’m looking to purchase something that isn’t necessarily urgent, I like to set alerts at a bunch of deal sites and wait for something that seems solid. Like you mentioned, technology gets outdated so fast it’s crazy. As soon as a good deal pops up, take it. There will always be a better deal at some point in the future, it’s just a matter of how long are you willing to wait.


    • I know friends who travel that way. Instead of saying “I want to go here!” they just set up alerts until a good trip pops up at a great price and then they go. Some days, that sounds very tempting.

  • Kudos for a thoroughly enjoyable read. I was in a similar boat 6 months ago. I ignored all of the advice I got what I needed to get the job done. I, too, prescribe to the “get what you need to do the job today” philosophy and don’t worry about it becoming obsolete in subsequent years. I buy a new laptop about every two years, so I think of it more as a lease.

  • A lot of fantastic points. Buying a laptop is absolutely affected by what you are looking to do with it. One persons perfect laptop is likely to be completely different from someone else. A gamer is going to go for a completely different setup than someone just looking to surf the Internet and write word documents.

  • Great read! I bought a new laptop six months ago, and it was much the same process. I wish this had been written before I went looking though as I got much of the same advice as you and pulled all over the place. But in the end, it came down to what can I afford, what will be the most useful for my work, and about size for travel.

  • Sachin

    Great one here! I just bought a Lenovo S300 and I actually was feeling a bit confused after I bought that, however, after reading this. Me loves my new lappy. Cheers 🙂

  • Marc W.

    TL;DR: I want a system that I can upgrade well beyond what I need now, but will need for the future and that will be supported by the manufacture in my home or work place Next Business Day.

    My wife sent me this article because she thinks my choice in my next laptop is a little out there. Well, my first laptop in 2001 was a Dell Inspiron 8200 had a 15″ UXGA (1600×1200) LCD with max out RAM of a whopping 1GB. My 2nd laptop was a hand-me-down Dell Precision Mobile Workstation M70 with a 15.6″ WUXGA (1920×1200) that I got in about 2010 or so. The i8200 still works, but a little slow for today’s software and the M70’s HDD died and it’s just not worth it to get a new IDE HDDs for the prices they are asking.

    Finding a high resolution laptop is nearly impossible. No, I do not think “1080p” is “high resolution” for LCD computer screens. It’s on the “high-norm” for computer screens level. It seems the only options for WUXGA screens are Panasonic Toughbooks [which do not have the other specs I demand], the now discontinued MacBook Pro 17″ [which also doesn’t have the specs I demand, and runs OSX], and the hideously looking Alienware 18x R1 [which is way over my weight limit]. So, I have given up my visual requirements but decided to go a little different route which includes a very high quality LCD screen (one designed for engineers and designers) and has great future upgradibility. My choice is the Dell Precision Mobile Workstation M6600 from the Dell Outlet.

    Why Dell? One of the main reasons for getting a Dell is their warranty. After working in their Enterprise Technical Support center supporting their Precision Workstation desktop and PowerEdge Server systems, I became very familiar with their fantastic extended warranty options. Their 4 hour parts replacement response time was not needed (nor available) for my Dell Inspiron 8200, but the Next Business Day parts _ON SITE_ replacement was. As also was the Complete Care option which covers all damage, even accidental. My Insprion 8200 was carried all through college in my backpack and it lived through the wear and tear it received because it had this NBD service available. Nearly everything was replaced on the system because I had this service. If you look at the computer now, it looks brand new…. a little dated, but in mint condition and in great working order.

    Now, this Precision Mobile M6600 is a master piece… granted, I haven’t seen one yet. The 2nd generation i7 Quad core processor with the 32GB maximum RAM capabilities with 2nd hard drive option is what I need. Something to be around for a while. With the 5 year Next Business Day + Complete Care service contract, this laptop will last way beyond those years. [The newly released M6700 has the 3rd gen Intel processors.]

    My thought process behind my next system is that I’m replacing my hand-me-down Pentium 4 desktop with a true Desktop Replacement laptop. I will be back to having only one personal system. Why not get something to have around for a long time? Why buy a laptop with a crazy one year mail-In warranty service on a $300-600 laptop that will become useless in a few years with it’s i5 or possibily i7 and 8GB max RAM capabilities and has a horrid x768 LCD screen (if it lasts 2 years out of warranty). I want a system for the long haul. I want a True Desktop Replacement.

    Price: How much does this beast cost? I’ve found them for $1200 on the outlet and comes with a 2nd gen i7 Quad Core and ~4GB that can be easily upgraded to 32GB for as little as $200-$275 after purchase.

    • I avoided specific manufacturers in the article, but I just bought a Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook and have owned a few Dells. I used to be VP for a start-up and oversaw most of the purchasing – I’ve probably bought 50+ Dells in my life and only had 2 lemons, both of which they fixed. Now, I’m not saying their the best thing out there, highest performance, sexiest, whatever, but I feel like you do – I know what I’m getting and I generally trust them to stand behind their product.

      That said, my machine is basically the polar opposite of what you want. My dad’s friend, who bought the desktop replacement, got a high-end Asus, and he loves it. I don’t know the screen specs. Unfortunately, the way they loaded it, it was almost $1,700. I looked at the Asus ultrabooks and was actually pleasantly surprised. They’ve come a long way as a company.

      I’d only warn that I’m not sure the dream of laptop longevity is terribly realistic these days. Even a currently top of the line i7 is going to be quite a bit slower than the mid-range processor in 2-3 years, and once you’ve gone past two OSs, you’re pretty much done, IMO. Can you get 4-5 years of life out of one? Yeah, sure, but you may not be thrilled with the performance at the tail end of that if you’re using whatever OS and software you’ve bought in 2017.

      I’d agree, though, that if you’re replacing your desktop, it justified a bit higher spend. If you can get two replacement cycles down to one, it’s a big savings in the long haul. That’s the biggest money sink these days. We all want a laptop, desktop, tablet, smartphone, and e-reader, and we forget that then we’ve got 5 things that need replacing every 2-4 years.

  • So I think the question here is; What did you end up getting?

    • Seconded.

      • Marc W.

        I don’t think that’s the point of the article. The point is you have to figure out what you want / need and approach it like that.

    • Yeah, I’ve gotten that on Twitter about 11 times so far 😉 I didn’t want to confuse anyone with my personal insanity, but I bought a Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook. I like it so far. I got Windows 8 because, frankly, they were offering quite a bit more hardware for the same price, and I’m trying to give it a chance, but I’m not impressed. It’s really built for touchscreens, and I get where they’re headed and why we may all be headed that way, but the transition is going to be really painful for consumers. A lot of people are going to hate Windows 8, I’d predict.

  • First off Pete, nice post! It’s the things we all think about, go through our personal Decision-Tree, but never really voice aloud. So kudos on putting pen-to-paper.

    In all honesty, it’s been a few years since I’ve had to buy a laptop. But, the one I have now (Lenovo) is rapidly becoming a fossil and just doesn’t have the giddy-up it once had, not to mention the incredibly annoying “D Drive” with all of Lenovo’s back-up crap that you can’t access or wipe in the event your box has a meltdown. The box still does what it should, but I know I need an upgrade. So I’m looking for the right deal, the right price, and the right horse power.

    Things I look for:

    1) RAM. It’s the lifeblood of how many operations your box can run without turning into a pile. I know that I definitely need something , to start with, in the 4-6 GB range with options to go to 8 or more. I don’t necessarily want to pay for the RAM up-front, when I can upgrade cheaper with better memory on my own when the time comes. (and extending the life of the box by another year)

    2) Processor: I’m looking for high-middle of the road, knowing how I use my box, I don’t need crazy GHz, but I need enough giddy-up to get things open and moving.

    3) Operating System: Has to be 64-bit. I want to use all that RAM and not get capped at 32-bit. Also with WIN 8 out, I’ll be looking for WIN 7 (it’s solid, stable, and I know it works). 8 is a crap-shoot at this point; buggy as any new OS is. So no thanks, I’ll take 7 .

    4) USB Ports / HDMI Port : I’m always looking for something with 3-4 USB ports. I don’t want to use an hub. HDMI necessary to get the best resolution with external monitor, and all the new monitors these days come equipped. I need enough USBs to keep the 1TB external drive with mouse and keyboard.

    5) Screen Size: Bigger the better, but usually happy with 15 to 16 inches.

    6) Price: I always look at refurbished boxes. Yeah, it’s risky, but I’ve had nothing but good things with them thus far. And, the folks who refurbish them, always upgrade them in some way. And they’re good deals. Won’t ever turn my back on the refurbished market, especially now that they offer warranties on them. 😉

    7) Hard Drive: I have a solid state netbook that rocks. But they definitely drive up the price. I can live with a hard drive. It’s the last thing I look at because they all have a ton space now ( I can’t remember the last time I saw one with less than 350 GB).

    • Didn’t mention it in the post, but there are some hybrid units with small SSDs for caching and quick boot-up but then large HDDs for main storage. The price was a bit less than a full-sized SSD. Didn’t match my needs, but might be worth checking out.

      I’m trying to give Win 8 a chance, but it’s going to be a painful couple of years for many home users, I imagine. In 5 years, what they’re doing will make sense, but the transition blows.

  • I keep telling people to approach their content strategies in this way; look at what people need/want in a given product and start from there.

    • Marc W.

      I hate telling people what to get… I teach them what to look for and what might be important to them. (ie. More RAM vs. HDD space vs ScreenSize cs Weight). But yes, you need to ask the imporant questions first.

  • YM

    I have to confess that even though I’m a fan of your work I initially went through the article just to see where you were going to drop a link to an online laptop store =) So, I’m very glad that you didn’t! I’m not a very fond of laptops, I like my big screen, but I also just went through a new computer buying cycle. I ended up getting a ~$1000 PC which is pretty powerful for now. Same as you, I’ll probably replace it in 2 years.

    • Haha – no, no affiliate marketing here. I just kept complaining on Twitter about my laptop-buying saga, so Melissa nudged me to write it up. It was pure catharsis.

  • Hi pete..
    The same happened to me when i got confuse in chosing between the 2 famous brands Del* and H*
    i got surprised by the free suggestions of people and tech guys , after doing days of research on what to spend my $$$$ i came across the most helpful and honest friend “MY HEAD” 🙂
    You are soo right there in your post that when you bring in your mind that what actually is your requirement & buying it for you get all the answers of what to buy 🙂