Processor speed, RAM, hard drive speed-- Where's the best bang for the buck?
February 4, 2004 2:03 PM   Subscribe

Processor speed, RAM, hard drive speed-- Where's the best bang for the buck? [more inside]

How can I determine the best way to add or subtract a few hundred bucks from the cost of a laptop? I doubt there's a formula, but I'm getting close to taking the plunge, probably on an IBM or somesuch with a Centrino, and I can't decide the best way to configure the damn thing. I notice that going from 256MB to 512 MB costs less than adding a tenth of a gig in processor speed. Is this a no-brainer? I'll need to do some math-intensive spreadsheet and statistical stuff, but I doubt I'll be demanding much else from the machine. Will I be throwing money away on anything faster than a 1.3Ghz processor?
posted by trharlan to Computers & Internet (13 answers total)
 
I'd consider 512MB RAM to be the minimum for anyone who's computer use affects their productivity and they use their PCs for more than writing emails to grandma.

For processor speed trusting the numbers won't get you a very good picture of what it can do. Read a few comparisons of actual performance for each part.

For laptops especially more than PCs I wouldn't ever recommend buying by the numbers. If a keyboard doesn't 'feel right' when you're using it it will impact your productivity a lot more than a few hundred megahertz.
posted by Space Coyote at 2:10 PM on February 4, 2004


If a keyboard doesn't 'feel right' when you're using it it will impact your productivity a lot more than a few hundred megahertz.

So will using a lousy display. I don't use a laptop myself, but my limited experience with them tells me that it's worth spending a little more on the display. Your eyes will thank you.

But definitely go with 512MB RAM.
posted by jpoulos at 2:13 PM on February 4, 2004


Things to consider beyond taking a test drive and making sure the screen is easy on your eyes and the machine feels good:

What are you doing? - super general examples: If you manipulate large graphics, or digital video, etc, you want a fast processor but TONS of RAM (with your math and statistics requirements, I think you'd be closer to this camp than the one below).

If you jump back and forth between a lot of small files, say Word docs and Excel spreadsheets, hard drive speed becomes more of a factor.

And finally, how easy is it to upgrade? RAM is fairly simple to add, assuming you have room for more. A hard drive upgrade is a bit more involved, and changing a processor on a laptop is generally pretty hard/impossible. But given what you said, I'd double the RAM rather than get a small megahertz upgrade...
posted by jalexei at 2:38 PM on February 4, 2004


My opinions...

Hard drive speed will affect starting programs and loading datasets - infrequent things. It's generally not going to have a big impact on you.

RAM: You want 512, like everyone else says. But it's much cheaper to buy the extra 256 separately from the laptop. The trick is buying the right kind. A 256MB PC-2700 SO-DIMM like this should suit you fine (given what you've said about getting a Centrino), but no guarantees.

Processor: Make sure it's not a Celeron. Otherwise, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5... in my opinion the cost of the upgrade simply isn't worth it in many cases.

Random recommendation: HP ZT3000. I spent weeks researching laptops to finally choose that one for my girlfriend's father (a man I've never met, and of whom I am somewhat afraid ;-), so it must be the perfect laptop for anyone! Well, it gets good reviews all around, and it's rather well-designed (try to poke at one in a store, you might like it).
posted by whatnotever at 2:45 PM on February 4, 2004


Regardless of whether it is a laptop or not, RAM is (in my humble experience) by far the best "bang for buck" with any PC. The issue with laptops (again, in my humble experience) is that they are much harder to upgrade than a desktop, so you should get all the bang you want from day one, rather than assuming that you can buy parts 2 or 3 years down the track. It may be cheaper, however, to buy the upgrade elsewhere unless you can get a good deal from the retailer. I would consider 512MB to be a bare minimum if I was buying a laptop and 1GB or more to be ideal.
posted by dg at 3:50 PM on February 4, 2004


I got a laptop in September of 2001 and have upgraded each part you mention (proc from 866 to 1133, RAM from 128 to 384 and then 512, and HD from 10GB 5400rpm to 40GB 7200rpm).

I noticed the greatest speed increase with the RAM increase and the greatest heat increase with the hard drive upgrade.

The Pentium-M processors that you'll find in the Centrino line are great processors, right out of the P-III tradition -- unless you're doing heavy gaming (in which case worry about the video card) a 1.3GHz will be more than sufficient.
posted by j.edwards at 3:53 PM on February 4, 2004


[Random FYI: The latest Mr. Roboto at the Village Voice concerns laptops and Centrino technology. Might be worth a quick read if you're in the market for one.]
posted by arco at 4:25 PM on February 4, 2004


RAM, and lots of it, is the key to getting a PC to age gracefully. Keep that in mind if you intend to keep it a long time. I'd even suggest giving serious consideration to getting more than 512 MB of RAM.

Memory vendor Crucial has a very handy feature front and center on their site that hand-holds you through finding the right RAM by asking you about your PC/digital camera/PDA, and they have a sterling reputation. They are marginally (~5%) more expensive than the lowest price you can find for Bob's Brand, but considering they are the retail face of the largest American RAM fabricator (Micron), there might be a bit of "you get what you pay for" to it.

If you jump back and forth between a lot of small files, say Word docs and Excel spreadsheets, hard drive speed becomes more of a factor.

Only if you don't have enough RAM to avoid swapping out to disk.
posted by NortonDC at 5:38 PM on February 4, 2004


A quick note: RAM and HD's will be easy to upgrade later. A processor isn't generally too simple to upgrade, as far as laptops go. I'd spend the money on a good processor (keep in mind the speed/price curve, mind you, don't get a high-end one that's unreasonably priced), and then upgrade the RAM/HD later if I found it lacking.
posted by Jairus at 8:26 PM on February 4, 2004


Just spend the money on something that is light and doesn't use much in the way of batteries.

The amount of time you can use the laptop on batteries and the weight will quickly become more important than a little bit of speed or space, trust me. :-)
posted by shepd at 9:38 PM on February 4, 2004


Another vote for RAM.
posted by yangwar at 6:15 AM on February 5, 2004


Only if you don't have enough RAM to avoid swapping out to disk.

True - that's assuming they're in RAM to begin with. If you open and close alot, you'd still be accessing the disk. But I still agree that RAM is the best place to spend money...
posted by jalexei at 7:44 AM on February 5, 2004


yet another vote for ram.

screen brightness may also be important for a laptop (this being posted from under a tree in summer sunshine ;o)
posted by andrew cooke at 8:03 AM on February 5, 2004


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