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choosing between 2 laptops - more RAM or better processor?
March 26, 2014 10:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm choosing between 2 laptops, identical except for processor & RAM. I'm unlikely to buy more RAM, and thinking the one with more RAM will be generally better than the one with the better processor, all else being equal. I tend to keep lots of stuff running, and max out RAM on my current boat anchor beat-to-death laptop.

Intel Core i3 processor (3MB cache)
Memory- 8 GB SDRAM 1600MHz SODIMM Memory

Processor- Intel Core i5 processor (3MB cache)
Memory- 4 GB SDRAM 1600MHz SODIMM Memory

thanks for comments - I'm kind of beanplating-
posted by theora55 to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, go for the RAM, especially if you're going to be using Windows.
posted by pipeski at 10:41 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]

I'd go for the RAM. However, keep in mind that upgrading the RAM is something that is probably possible quite easily on the laptop, but the CPU cannot be upgraded.
posted by destructive cactus at 10:41 AM on March 26 [5 favorites]

Controlling for clock speed differences, the only concrete difference between an i3 and an i5 with those cache sizes is that the i5 has Turbo Boost, which is a feature that increases the CPU's clock speed on the fly when it's faced with computationally intensive work. For typical use cases, Turbo Boost and a bump in CPU speed will not provide a noticeable improvement in either the current or long-term performance of your laptop, while doubling the RAM certainly will, especially since clock speed isn't the limiting factor of performance in the context of running a bunch of processes at once. I'd go for RAM.
posted by invitapriore at 10:52 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]

You say you tend to have a lot of stuff running. Is performance a factor in any or all of those things? If so, I might consider the i5 (even though yes, RAM is very important).

As destructive cactus states, it's going to be very easy and cheap to upgrade the RAM if you needed it; it's unclear what your reasons are for not wanting to do this, but that's what I would recommend - get the i5 and pick up a quality 4GB upgrade online. Or more, if the laptop supports it.

Check out this comparison tool, and compare the specific models of i3/i5 you are considering, and see if there's anything in there you can identify that would help your decision.
posted by SquidLips at 10:55 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]

In my experience (I work in tech and do tech-focused hobbies, but am not a hardware expert), almost nothing is CPU-bound these days. More memory and faster I/O (SSDs, for example) will give you the most visible improvements, unless you're doing very specific CPU-based things like calculating pi or rendering raytrace images. If you're worried about games, your graphics card is going to help more than your CPU is.

I've had 8GB on my laptop for over two years now, and it's rapidly becoming not enough. I can't imagine buying a new machine in 2014 with only 4GB of RAM.

TL;DR: RAM, no question.
posted by Dilligas at 11:16 AM on March 26 [5 favorites]

I understand you're averse to adding more RAM, but I'd recommend you check to see if the laptop w/ 4GB has additional space for another memory card. I recently bought a laptop with one 4GB unit and added this as soon as I got the laptop. It snapped right in and worked fine right off the bat.
posted by dabug at 11:26 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]

almost nothing is CPU-bound these days

Exactly this. You will run out of RAM more often, to a much greater degree, than you will run out of CPU (based on the limited description of your computing needs above).
posted by grog at 12:24 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]

Definitely RAM. 8GB is a bare minimum these days.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:35 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]

Whichever you get, buy an SSD to go with it. That will drastically improve performance over either of the upgrades you're considering. All else being equal, I'd buy the i5 and just buy the extra RAM. 4GB of DDR3 laptop RAM is $40.
posted by cnc at 1:36 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]

Nthing every else, unless you are doing photo or video processing intensively, the RAM upgrade is cheaper and will make a far, far more noticeable difference to day to day computing.
posted by smoke at 2:05 PM on March 26

Does the laptop have an SSD? If it does, I would recommend that you go for the more powerful processor and lower RAM, since the need for RAM is lower when you have such fast storage. 4GB of RAM is still plenty for most peoples' needs. Also, if you change your mind later on, it's easier to add RAM (provided there's room) than to upgrade the processor (which is usually impossible on a laptop).
posted by Simon Barclay at 3:14 PM on March 26

well, I'm on the Lenovo Outlet page, and the inventory is quite dynamic, but it looks like I can get an Ideapad with core i5 and 8 gig RAM, at a good price.
posted by theora55 at 4:52 PM on March 26

Get the one with the faster processor. RAM will make more of a difference, but here's the thing:

Upgrading the RAM on a Lenovo is extremely easy and much cheaper than buying it from the factory with extra RAM in it. There will just be a panel on the bottom of the laptop which is removed with a couple of screws, and then you would just plug a new RAM chip into the empty slot (in a 4GB model, there will be two slots of which one will be empty). The only even mildly tricky part is making sure that you order the same kind of RAM as is already in the laptop, but the owner's manual will tell you what that is.

4GB of RAM will probably run you around $40 on Amazon and will be well worth your time and money. If you had specced it as a factory upgrade, it would probably have cost $80 to $100.

Upgrading the processor, on the other hand, is significantly more dicey. Many laptops come with BGA processors that are soldered into the motherboard and cannot be upgraded. Lenovos are more likely to have PGA processors that can be upgraded, but it's not always clear before buying which kind you're going to get. A new processor would also cost a lot more than $40, and the performance benefit that you would get from the upgrade would be smaller.

I always recommend getting the lowest available amount of RAM in a Lenovo and then upgrading it oneself. It's just such an easy and cheap upgrade with such a big performance payoff that it's silly not to do it. Get the laptop with the faster processor, order 4 or 8 gigabytes of the appropriate RAM from Amazon, and plan on installing the new RAM the day the laptop arrives. I promise you it's a painless process, it's like changing a lightbulb.
posted by Scientist at 5:02 PM on March 26 [3 favorites]

FYI, with many laptops, you have to replace, as opposed to increase, RAM, as 4G will usually be 2 2G sticks.
posted by theora55 at 5:30 PM on March 26

This is true, but Lenovo don't pull that kind of bullcrap. At least, not with the Thinkpads; it's possible that they do it with the Ideapads, but I doubt it. It's one of the reasons I like Lenovos so much. (My advice would've been rather different had you not said you were getting an Ideapad.)
posted by Scientist at 10:13 AM on March 27

You can always look at something like the Crucial memory advisor (box on the left, drop-down to choose the product) and see what each model will take and how much it will be.

If the i3 is a dual core and the i5 a quad, I would be tempted to go for the i5 and stick in aftermarket RAM. Manufacturers often overcharge for memory upgrades, but without seeing the exact prices I can't say. The i5 with 8GB you mention is about what I'd be shooting for as the end product. Spend a few minutes on Crucial and Amazon/NewEgg and price up the differences.
posted by danteGideon at 9:30 AM on March 28

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