How to Choose a Laptop: Actual use vs specifications
Finding the right laptop can be a daunting process. You don’t want to pay for something that will be out of date in a couple of years. Equally, you don’t want to overpay for something you won’t fully utilise. In this article, we intend to break down the jargons and help you choose the right laptop.
How Do You Use Your Laptop
The best way to choose a laptop is to understand what you intend to use it for. We identified five different user profiles that best describe the type of users. This allows you to better understand which category you belong to and the laptop and specifications to look for.
1. Internet User: You use your laptop mainly to browse the Internet, to check and update your social media profiles, to check your emails and messaging. Most of your applications and data are stored online. You play online games and stream music from the Internet and watch the occasional video.
2. Everyday User: This is your most common type of user. Not only do you use the Internet as described in the profile above, you use your laptop for work and play. Typing up documents, updating spreadsheets and rehearsing your powerpoint presentation is something you do everyday. You also use your laptop for some downtime, catching up on your favourite TV show on Netflix or watching the latest movie releases on Amazon Prime Video. Often you find yourself multi-tasking between different apps.
3. Business User: Not only do you do everything that the Internet and Everyday Users would do on their laptops but you have to do it anywhere and everywhere you go. You need to lug your laptop around everyday; to the office, to meetings, to meet customers, to the project site, to the convention and even to lunch. You need something robust and versatile and more importantly lightweight so it does not break your back or shoulder carrying it.
4. Creative User: You are more than just the Internet and Everyday User described above. You use your laptop for photo editing, video editing, creating graphics, music production and mixing, finalising 4K videos, designing websites, programming and coding, modelling and rendering be it 2D or 3D and high level computing. You don’t mind a bit of heft and need your machine to have more muscle than looks to pick up all the heavy lifting and processor intensive work you have to do.
5. Gaming User: You use your computer to kick some serious alien butts. 3D gaming is your thing and you don’t tolerate jittery motion or skip frames or extra long loading time. You want the highest frames per second your graphics accelerator can push on the highest number of pixels on the display with synchronised refreshed rate. All you want is to enjoy the best gameplay experience your next blockbuster game title has to offer. And, if it is not too much to ask, do pretty much everything the Creative, Everyday and Internet users do on their laptop.
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Start with the Processor
Based on your chosen user profile, start by choosing the type of processor for your laptop. While all laptops use mobile processors, these processors offer varying degrees of performance. Once you have decided on a class of processor, check the speed options available.
These are clock speed or heart rate of the processor measured in GHz or GigaHertz. Generally, the faster the clock speed the better the performance. Check sites like cpubenchmark.net and cpu.userbenchmark.com to understand more about the real world performance of your chosen processor.
According to your user profile, pick the following processors to meet your requirements:
1. Internet User: Choose laptops from 11-inch display onwards with Intel Atom, Intel Celeron, Intel Pentium, Intel Pentium Gold, AMD E2s, AMD A6 or AMD A8
2. Everyday User: Choose reasonably big laptops 14 or 15-inch with dual-core or quad-core Intel Core i3, Core i5 or AMD A9, AMD A10 and AMD A12
3. Business User: Choose ultra portable laptops 12 or 13-inch screen with dual-core Intel Core m, Intel Core i3, Intel Core i5 or AMD A9, AMD A10 and AMD A12
4. Creative User: Choose a power 13, 14 or 15-inch laptop with dual-core or quad-core Intel Core i5, Intel Core i7, AMD Ryzen 3, AMD Ryzen 5 or AMD Ryzen 7.
5. Gaming User: Choose a big laptop with 15 or 17-inch Full HD, 3K or 4K displays plus dedicated graphics accelerator and powered by quad-core Intel Core i5, Intel Core i7, Intel Core i9, AMD Ryzen 5 or AMD Ryzen 7. You want a laptop with not just fast processor but has a powerful graphics accelerator using dedicated fast graphics memory from 2GB, 4GB, 6GB to 8GB.
Note: Intel processors are usually paired with NVIDIA GeForce GTX series graphics processors while AMD Ryzen processors AMD Radeon RX series graphics processors.
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Understanding The Different Processors
When considering a processor from Intel, cheaper Atom, Celeron or Pentium mobile processors are suitable for everyday computing. On the other hand Intel Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 class mobile processors offer increasingly higher performance respectively with associated costs.
These are power efficient dual or quad-core processors with high turbo boost frequencies to step up to the game when needed. Some new mobile Core i7 and Core i9 processors have 6 cores and super high base clock speeds and even higher boost speeds. Each generation processor is also more efficient and better performing than the last.
Just like Intel, AMD uses numbers to denote the performance of their processors. To make things more interesting they offer two classes of mobile processors, the standalone AMD Ryzen mobile processor and the AMD A series as an Accelerated Processing Unit (APU).
The latter combines both the processor (CPU) with graphics accelerator unit (GPU) on the same die. In order of increasing performance, there is the AMD Ryzen 3, Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 processors. For the A series APUs, you have AMD A6, A9 and A12.
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Now Pick The Memory and Storage Type/Size
Memory and storage also play an important role in the performance of a laptop. More memory means you can load more applications and switch between them quickly for a smooth multi-tasking experience. Typical memory sizes are 4GB, 8GB or 16GB with some laptops offering up to 32GB as an an upgrade option.
Faster storage based on Solid State Drive (SSD) or embedded MultiMediaCard (eMMC) allow laptops to boot-up and wake-up quickly, search and open files in a flash and make applications more responsive compared to the cheaper spindle hard drives. There is a middle point between the two in the form of a hybrid hard drive, a cross between the two technologies.
Laptops designed for Internet users have small 32GB or 64GB eMMC (embedded MultiMediaCard) storage and works well handling small files. To deal with bigger files and for even better performance, choose SSD (Solid State Drives). Like eMMC, SSD has no moving parts as they are based on memory chips making them more expensive. SSDs with capacity at 128GB and 256GB are the most common although high-end laptops often come with bigger SSD drives at 512GB to 1TB.
The cheaper spindle hard disk drives are available with up to 1TB of storage. Bigger gaming machines sometimes incorporate both a Solid State Drive for performance and a mechanical hard drive for more storage space.
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Integrated or Discrete Graphics
All laptops come with onboard integrated graphics controller sufficient for most desktop applications with some supporting 4K display output if you wish to hook your laptop up to your Ultra HD TV. For gaming, 3D rendering and modelling, look for one with a dedicated GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). These are graphics accelerators from NVIDIA or AMD that has its own processor and therefore clock speed rated and dedicated memory. They are used mainly for 3D game rendering and are optimised for computational workloads especially repetitive calculations.
If you are a Creative User dealing with modelling; artistic, scientific or mathematical or coding and compiling games or software you want a piece of the discrete graphics action. If you are a Gaming User, you definitely don’t want to miss out on the GPU goodness. You then need to match the power of your display card with a fairly high resolution display with at least Full HD resolution. Ultra HD or 4K would be ideal but that again will push the price up. You might consider an external Full HD or Ultra HD 4K monitor or even a curved or multiple display setup for a more immersive gaming experience.
Other Things To Consider
These specifications may not related directly to performance but more a matter of personal preference. Your may consider your laptop based on look and design, screen size, display resolution, battery life, wireless connectivity and port.
You can also consider your purchase decision based on specifications such as:
- Screen size: ultra portable laptops typically come with 11 to 13-inch displays. These are perfect for Internet and Business Users. Mid-size to big laptops can have 14-inch or 15-inch great for Everyday and Creative Users. Large desktop replacement machines have 15-inch, 17-inch or sometimes bigger displays. These are suitable for Creative and Gaming Users.
- Display resolution: this can range from HD to FHD to UHD or 4K or higher. The higher the resolution the sharper the image and the costlier it is to buy. Higher resolution displays also offer more virtual desktop space. If you have to edit a video, photo or mix music, high resolution display lets you see more instead of having to scroll around to find what you need. While HD or FHD displays are sufficient for most Internet and Everyday Users, Creative Users need to look for FHD or higher. If you are a Gamer, you would also want to consider FHD or UHD for that 4K image that your GPU is good at churning out.
- Battery Life: This can range from anything between 4 to 12 or more hours per charge. Depending on how you choose to use your laptop, if you are the casual road warrior, carrying and using your laptop everywhere, get an ultraportable that will last you through the day or at least 8 hours. If you occasionally travel with your laptop and uses it mainly at the desk or for gaming, anything between 4 – 8 hours should be sufficient.
- Wireless connectivity: Most laptops have dual band WiFi and Bluetooth as standard for wireless connectivity. Manufacturers sometimes include 4G LTE as an option which are perfect for certain Business Users.
- Ports: For data and peripherals, USB2.0 and USB3.0 ports are pretty standard but some manufacturers opt for the newer reversible USB3.0 Type-C port for data and video. Ultra portables laptops usually forgo the traditional or Type A USB ports in favour of smaller Type-C to keep size down. For video output, look for Mini DisplayPort, HDMI, Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt over Type-C interface. When choosing ultra-portable laptops, you are going to have to make do with fewer interface ports.
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Ultimately, your purchase decisions depends on how you identify with the user profiles we defined above. If you are borderline or site between the different user types, it is usually safe to consider the next one up. Bottom line is, consider something that is at the top of your budget as you won’t be looking to spend on a new laptop everyday and spending a bit more now ensures that your machine has a longer service life, being able to support newer and more demanding applications in the future.