Are Review Site Rankings Real? Also, I need a laptop.
January 3, 2021 8:05 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the market for a new laptop, and the major sites that review laptops point to a particular make/model. I mentioned this to someone, and they said that "of course they do" as those reviews are all "pay to play" and the manufacturers are paying the review sites for favorable/featured reviews. Does anyone know whether this is true or the extent to which this is true? Also, I need a good Windows laptop, so hit me with your recommendations on that.

I would normally dismiss this as conspiracy mongering, but I know that a (great) restaurant in my area paid to be listed on a major site as the "best" in their cuisine. I don't know how explicit this transaction was (e.g., there was a fee for consideration or they paid outright to be #1 or they made a significant ad buy wink wink), but I do know that this stuff happens in some industries.

For a graduate program I am starting, I need to buy a Windows laptop with the following specs:
Processor: Intel Core i7
Memory: 16 GB
Hard Disk Drive: 512 GB Minimum
Display: 12.5 inches or larger
I have a strong preference for a 13 inch over larger laptops (my current laptop is a much-beloved 2016 Macbook that I was hoping to replace with a M1 Macbook Air, but alas NO MACS allowed in the program). Budget: Please, god, under $1500.

Based on these requirements, and perusing the review sites, it looks like the Dell XPS 13 is the best bet.
PC Magazine
The Verge
Tom's Guide
You get the idea. A lot of the laptops in different categories repeat across these guides, so is there some kind of pay for play at work here? Or are these just legitimately the best in the class? Or any recent laptop purchasers out there with recommendations for me?
posted by jeoc to Shopping (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I mean, the site I trust to be slightly less unbiased than the others is wirecutter. They aren't always perfect, but they ALSO say the XPS 13.

So, it seems like a good choice atm, but wirecutter does go on to review "competition" and stuff which I've found helpful.
posted by bbqturtle at 8:07 AM on January 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have an XPS13, non-touchscreen, and I love it.
posted by cooker girl at 8:21 AM on January 3, 2021

Best answer: Dell is usually a safe choice. I'd buy from their own Dell Outlet, slightly used, but generally save a bit of money.

Personally, I doubt there's that much shaninigans happening in the review sites. The ratings for the hardware can't be fudged "that" much. The only thing a review can really influence is like personal bias ratings.

I'd warn you to get a good carrier / briefcase or backpack, and a good carry solution, and depends on your setup, may want a stand and external monitor and other stuff.
posted by kschang at 8:44 AM on January 3, 2021

Best answer: There are plenty of places that have been around for so long and have a reputation that no ad money is going to really sway them I am pretty confident in. PC Magazine, CNET, Tom's Guide, RTINGS all review this technology and these components are usually known quantities and they're judging price/value/build quality/etc. backed by actual measurements. There are so many new laptops coming out that there really isn't value in "gaming the system" probably.

Also, you could use subreddits that are very useful for judging what kind of laptop you want. They had ones for business, pleasure, gaming, etc. rated last time I looked in a handy guide on like laptoprecommendations, I think. I don't see a grand conspiracy there. I was happy with the one I got.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:57 AM on January 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: FakeSpot is one tool I've used to help remove potentially fake or altered reviews on Amazon.

CNET wrote a short article in 2019 about browser extensions and sites that can be used to help remove fake reviews.
posted by forkisbetter at 9:07 AM on January 3, 2021

Best answer: Biggest proportion of lemons I've seen in laptops under $1500 has always been from Toshiba and HP/Compaq. The machines work OK for a while but then hinges come adrift and keyboards and touchpads break and weird mobo and thermal faults crop up and they're total pains in the arse to get inside and fix. Avoid those makes and you'll be pretty much good to go.

Acer, Asus, Dell, Lenovo all make solid hardware. Once your minimum specs are met, make your choice based on what appeals to you in screen appearance and pointer-controller feel.

Also, performance-wise you're far better off completely ignoring whatever garbage-laden monstrosity the machine will come with as far as an OS installation and "recovery" partition goes, and doing your own totally clean Windows install from downloaded Microsoft media. During the clean install, just delete all existing disk partitions (including "recovery" and "diagnostic" partitions, they're all useless bullshit) and then tell Windows to install into all available space on the whole disk as it sees fit.

The product keys for Windows 10 are held in ROM for modern machines that ship with Windows, and provided your clean install is of the same edition that came with the machine (Home vs Professional, 64-bit vs 32-bit), the installer will automatically pick up the licence key you need to make it work.

In the unlikely event that you need drivers that the Windows 10 installer doesn't find automatically, those are usually easily downloadable from the machine manufacturer's support site.

Seriously, this is totally worth doing. Microsoft's Windows 10 installer is the least fiddly one they've ever released and I have never yet seen an OEM's Windows installation that runs as well as a vanilla Microsoft one.
posted by flabdablet at 9:08 AM on January 3, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I've used an XPS 13 for my grad program and it's been a solid workhorse. No complaints, and this is coming from someone who has been a Mac user since 1996 and a Linux user since 1998. I think this is the first Windows computer I've ever bought with my own money.

I'm not sure where you're located, but see if your school has a way for you to purchase the computer at an educational discount. Mine did, and that saved me a bit of money - not a lot, but some.
posted by ralan at 9:45 AM on January 3, 2021

Best answer: Dells are reliably engineered, and surprisingly easy to upgrade yourself. We have that same model from two years ago, and in ten minutes (including Youtube time) I was able to add additional memory. Needed only a standard small Philips head screwdriver and one torx bit. Older Dells I've worked on only needed the screwdriver. They are designed to be easy to maintain in a corporate environment. Also, I don't remember any bloatware coming on our Dell that we ordered direct from them. I was additionally able to get 10% off (almost $100) with a military discount I kept asking for and they finally admitted they were allowed to give. Look around and you may be eligible for something similar.
posted by seasparrow at 10:57 AM on January 3, 2021

I have my eyes on a Lenovo Ideapad S540, for its 13" form and 2560x1600 retina-class display. There should be a 16GB i7 edition in your budget -- I'm waiting for a 16GB AMD Ryzen 5000-series.
posted by k3ninho at 12:29 PM on January 3, 2021

I am very happy (so far) with my recent purchase of an HP Spectre x360 14. (I was able to get it on sale on Cyber Monday, so the price I paid was under your budget).

It has a 13.5* inch screen; and I am pleased with the size. It has a screen aspect ratio of 3:2, so some reviewers have described it as the height of a 15 inch screen with the width of a 13 inch one. It is very nice to have that extra height on the screen.

*yeah, marketing calls it 14 inches.

Besides the screen aspect ratio and marketing, another thing to consider about screen size is that many current gen laptops have smaller bezels compared to past generations. This means that you could theoretically get a larger screen for about the same footprint as your current laptop. The HP Spectre x360 14 is 11.75 x 8.67 x .67 inches, which is very close to 12 x 8.4 x .6 inches of your current machine.

I ultimately went with HP Spectre x360 14, because it checked most of the boxes of things I wanted (including being actually available...ahem). The Dell XPS was on my short list, but I decided against it because I had some issues with Dell laptops in the past. That being said, after watching numerous YouTube videos, it does seem that the Dell XPS is the "daily driver" for multiple folks who review laptops on YouTube. I do not get the sense that many laptop reviewers on YouTube will "suffer fools gladly," and most seem to be pretty upfront about sponsored products.
posted by oceano at 12:04 PM on January 4, 2021

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