What should I look for in a laptop?
December 19, 2008 9:32 AM   Subscribe

What sort of specs should I look for for my new (sub-$600) PC laptop?

My old laptop has been giving me a lot of problems, and as it is nearly 6 years old, I think I'm ready to get a new one. However, I'm having trouble figuring out what specs I should focus on as I compare what's available. Any advice as to what to focus on or caution as to what to avoid would be appreciated. I'm not sure exactly what details are relevant, so I apologize for the length below. I have read the previous questions on similar topics, but none seem to fit exactly, so I hope someone will have some advice.

I use my computer for internet, Microsoft Office, Itunes, and digital photo storage. I'd like something that has adequate memory so I won't have to worry about storing music/pictures. Additionally, I'd like something that I can use when I work from home, instead of bringing my work laptop home. Working from home I connect to my office network through a VPN, and sometimes use document review and database programs, as well as Office programs. My work laptop is an 80 GB Dell Latitude and is 2 years old or so (running windows XP I think). I use a cable internet connection at home, if that's relevant.

Size and weight is less of a concern, because I don't travel with my laptop often. I've ruled out the little netbooks based on size however because I need a larger screen size when I work from home (I've considered the netbook + monitor, but I usually work on the couch in apartment, so I think that would be awkward). I think my current screen is 15" and it doesn't have to be exactly that, but in that range would be best.

I've recently heard/read here at AskMe that people seem to be unhappy with the current Dell laptops. Is this true? Is there a brand recommendation or should I concentrate more on a set of specifications? Which ones?

Thanks for all your help.
posted by Caz721 to Computers & Internet (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
For your usage, focus on specs and getting a good deal. Don't worry so much about brand names. Most of the parts on the inside come from the same place anyway.

All laptops come with built-in wired and wireless connectivity, so you'll have that covered. Also, you're probably going to end up with Windows Vista, unless you go way out of your way to stick with XP. Vista's not as bad as they all say. You'll be fine.

I'd start with a minimum of 2GB of ram, and Core2 processor. For hard drive space, you may want to consider an external drive or some sort of back-up device. I'm sure you don't want to lose your music/video in iTunes, and god forbid you should lose your digital photos. It doesn't sound like you'll need any advanced graphics processing, so don't get talked into any of that. VPN is available on anything, and you're more likely to get slowdowns because of the connection- not your computer.

There were all sorts of good deals on cheap laptops around Black Friday, and I'm sure you can find others. I usually do my computer shopping at NewEgg. They've been great to me in the past.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 9:43 AM on December 19, 2008

Would your work laptop be good enough for home? If so try Dell Outlet. Something like these Inspirons.

I don't keep up with the laptop but look for 2GB of RAM to keep Vista running smoothly. You probably don't need anything more powerful than a low-end dell. Most laptops should come with a few hundred GB of storage which should be plenty unless you start storing video on your hard drive.

We have a 3-year-old Inspiron at home and it's served us well.
posted by katrielalex at 9:47 AM on December 19, 2008

We're the proud owners of two new laptops. We bought within the last few months out of pretty dire need, and we didn't have a lot of cash to spend. I think we spent around the $550 mark on each. They're both 3GB of RAM with a dual core processor that's at or above 2.0. It's got all the usual stuff too -- DVD burner, media card reader, lots of USB ports, etc etc. My husband's has a slightly better video card. He's a game junkie, and it handles resource intensive games pretty well. It does come with Vista. On the surface level, I haven't found it to be incredibly different from using XP. It takes about a week to get used to, but from a user's perspective, it's not as radical a change as many might want you to believe. Newegg and outlets do have good deals, but we also shopped the big box stores. At first, I didn't believe that the retail stores would match the prices online, but they did. As distasteful of a place as Best Buy can be, they do carry some good deals from time to time. And not all stores have the same deals at the same time. We shopped for a few weeks to get an idea of what a good deal looks like from a specs point of view, and I suggest you do they same -- no matter how much you might want to get your hands on the first nice laptop you see. Remember, the deals are very often better AFTER Christmas.
posted by theantikitty at 10:21 AM on December 19, 2008

> VPN is available on anything,

That sounds a bit of broad claim at best. But if you want to rely on this machine for VPN, ensure your company's sysadmins will support the OS you're running -- availability of a VPN client from their VPN vendor doesn't mean they've tested it and are glad to support it.
posted by galaksit at 10:45 AM on December 19, 2008

A couple of months ago we picked up a $500 Toshiba w/ dual-core AMD, 3GB RAM, the usual bells and whistles, from Best Buy. I think it doesn't have a built-in webcam.

Nvidia had, in the recent past, some serious problems with their laptop video chips. Dunno which machines were affected or whether the affected machines are still in the consumer stream.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:48 AM on December 19, 2008

With a 6 year old laptop you are in the fortunate position that anything will feel a lot faster than what you have :-)
Seriously though, your usage specs are mostly "serious" businessy stuff, so you do not need a separate graphics chip (consumes energy, generates heat and makes the machine noisier through fan noise) and not a super fast processor (heat (not so much) and money).
I would go for Intel integrated graphics and their core processors. This way you can have a nice combo of chipset, cpu, wlan, graphics from one vendor (Intel), which takes less effort for the manufacturer to put together well.
Contrary to JuiceBoxHero I would look for brandnames! Nice and solid business brandnames like i.e. HP (I had good experiences with them, but I also like Samsung even though their screens could be brighter). The machines from the business lines of brand manufactures may look boring spec-wise, but those lines are on the market longer and allow the manufacturer to recoup their investment over a longer time. This allows them to invest more in build quality up front. The parts have the same or even older specs than no-name or quick-and-dirty brands (Acer in my personal experience. More models and a faster release cycle than you can throw a stick at.), but they are put together better. Better thermal design (noise and longevity) and better debugged bioses/firmware (stability, fan noise) for example.
A bonus for me is that with brand business line machines you can often get non-glare lcd screens. I don't like the mirror finish on screens, even though they have become less annoying over time.

Price/performance wise the 15" models are still best. Sometimes you can get good deals on 14" models, which I think are a good compromise between readability and size.

In short, go for a business line 15" non-glare laptop with lots of RAM (2-3GB), integrated graphics and a comparatively slow CPU. But thats just my experience and would solidly fit into your price range.
posted by mmkhd at 4:50 PM on December 19, 2008

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