Despite what an army of analysts and prognosticators might tell you, the modern PC is far from dead. Tablets and smartphones undoubtedly take up more of our collective computing time, of course, but when it comes to being productive and getting the most out of the internet, a good old laptop still does the trick. And now that we’re in the waning months of the year, it’s time for many of you to go looking for your next primary work and entertainment machine.
In many ways, finding the right notebook is both easier and tougher than ever. (And by the way, we’re sticking to laptops here, not comparatively less functional desktops.) You have quality options in just about every price range, so buying the best laptop for you comes down to what it is you want out of your machine. Do you care about value more than performance? Do you want a premium build, or is plastic okay? Do you want a quality gaming machine?
It all depends. But to help you make your decision, we’re giving you some quick tips on how much you should be willing to pay for your laptop, depending on what kind of user you may be.
For Basic Web Browsing
Just a few years ago, people who just wanted to browse the web and check their emails were best served buying a netbook. But with those tiny PCs quickly going the way of the dodo, anyone who’d merely like those basic functions in an inexpensive package now has two options.
The first is simple: Buy a tablet. Yes, that runs counter to the point of this article, but there’s a reason everyone and their mother has an iPad these days. They really do take much of a regular PC’s functionality and stuff it into a lighter, more convenient, and sufficiently powerful package.
And let’s be honest, they’re simply more fun to use too. The iPad 4’s $500 asking price might be too much for those looking for something on the cheap, but the iPad mini starts at $330 for now, and an even more capable Android slate like Asus’ Nexus 7 starts at just $230.
Ultimately, we think a tablet is best for these lighter tasks. But if you’re committed to getting a PC form factor, and if you’re willing to be a little adventurous, you can take a look at a Chromebook. These Google-sanctioned devices run the search giant’s Chrome OS, which is little more than the Chrome web browser stretched out and spruced up to resemble a standard operating system.
Buying a Chromebook means restricting yourself to web apps, but these machines are mostly well designed, and they usually have decent battery life. Best of all, that lack of raw power means that almost all Chromebooks are cheap: the Samsung Chromebook costs just $200, while other decent options like Acer’s C7 Chromebook start at $280. New models with Intel’s latest ‘Haswell’ processors, which are a tad more powerful and bring much improved battery life, are set to arrive by the end of the year too.
For Not Breaking the Bank
But okay, we’re guessing most of you will want to actually, y’know, do stuff with your laptop. For a dependable mid-range notebook, you’ll have to shell out a little bit more. In general, we recommend spending more than $500 at the very least; there’s a definite dip in performance and build quality once you dangle around that threshold, and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with a broken machine (and a lighter wallet) in just a few months’ time.
Ideally, anyone in this tier should be looking for a laptop in the $650 to $850 range. You’ll have to accept some trade-offs for that comparatively cheaper price, which means these devices typically aren’t going to be flashy. But they should be more than capable for the everyday user’s needs, as long you make sure they have enough power.
You’ll want to ensure that your device has at least 4GB of RAM (6 or 8GB would be even better), 500GB of storage (no need to go higher), and one of Intel’s ‘Haswell’ Core processors. For the latter, a Core i3 chip is good, a Core i5 is best for this range, and a Core i7 isn’t all that necessary for most people here.
Alternatively, you could go with a processor from AMD’s A-series of APUs. They’re less popular and generally not as strong, but their notebooks can be cheaper and relatively power-friendly with the right setup. Just be sure to get at least an AMD A6 chip, or an A8 if you want better performance — stay away from the lesser A4 or below. Whichever way you go, you’ll be fine if you go with a dual-core chip; a quad-core one will get you better performance with more intense apps, but it’ll also carry a higher price tag.
You can try and find a mid-range notebook with a dedicated graphics card from a company like Nvidia, but most of the time, that’s not going to be worth it for machines like these. And just to be safe in the long term, heavy users will want their devices to have a replaceable battery, while everyone should double check for standard stuff like a backlit keyboard and a front-facing webcam.
You shouldn’t expect a slim, aluminum design here, but there are plenty of laptops in this range that are comfortable to use in spite of their less-than-premium materials. When it comes to displays, don’t hold your breath for a 1080p resolution or great color reproduction; you’re usually getting a less-pixel dense 1366×768 or 1600×900 display that’s fine enough but far from world-class. Finally, there’s about a 99% chance that you’re getting a Windows 8 device in this range, so make sure that whatever display you get is a touchscreen.
If you’re looking for specifics, we think notebooks like the Sony Vaio Fit 14, the Acer Aspire M5, and the Toshiba Satellite U845t check off enough of those proverbial boxes above. We’re nearing the holiday season, though, so be on the lookout for any refreshes to other manufacturers’ lines.
Most importantly, always remember to try out a laptop for yourself before you buy it. Especially in this less secure middle range, you should feel at least 95% comfortable with how your device looks, feels and runs before throwing down your hard-earned cash. Buying a laptop is a long-term investment, and you want to minimize as much risk as possible. We can help, but we can’t know your taste for you, so proceed slowly and thoughtfully.
On the next page, TechnologyGuide takes a look at the high performance machines.
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