Buying A New Laptop? Here’s What You Need To Know

When it comes to choosing a new laptop, the amount of choice available is almost overwhelming. Ultraportables, gaming machine, convertibles and more. Not to mention the age old debate – Windows (but which version?), OSX or something a little out of the box, like Chrome OS. To help make the process a little easier, we have put together a comprehensive guide to help you find the perfect laptop. Before delving into the complex world of hardware comparisons, let’s cover a few basic yet critical considerations.

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The Basics

Know Your Needs

It’s all well and good to drool over the latest shiny laptop, but before buying you need to lock down what you actually need. Do you travel a lot? Use your laptop at work? Edit 4K video? Watch movies in bed? Study?

Make a list, make a mind map or talk it over with your partner, parents or pet. But make sure you know exactly how you plan to use your laptop. There is no point buying a powerhouse with high end CPU if you only edit Word documents. Likewise, if your laptop rarely leaves your desk, an ultraportable model with 10 hours of battery life is pointless.

It’s also worth considering if your use is better suited to multiple devices. A cheaper but bulky gaming machine is perfect for home use, while a slim 10” laptop or tablet can provide on the go connectivity. You might even decide that a desktop coupled with a cheap laptop gives a better overall package than one expensive laptop.

Make a Budget

It seems obvious, but actually sit down and figure out how much you want to spend. Can you actually afford the latest Macbook Pro? The urge to get the best is strong which often leads to purchases which are totally overkill for their intended use. Don’t max out the credit card unless you really have to – a laptop that’s slightly slow is better than one you are paying off for the next few years.

Once you make a budget, stick to it. It’s all too easy to stretch to the next model up, just because you want it. That said, be realistic –-if you need a grunty laptop to run Solidworks for work, set a higher budget. Also check your salary sacrifice or tax write off options if you laptop will be used for work.

Keep an eye out for specials – you can often grab a bargain. Consider upgrading RAM and SSD yourself (check if is possible) as it will be almost always cheaper than getting the manufacturer to do it. Some brands (such as Dell) often sell the laptop you want, but you can downgrade the CPU and RAM or drop the discrete GPU to save a little money.

Research, Research, Research

This guide is a great starting point on the road to buying a laptop, but don’t be afraid to do other research. Once you have an idea of what you need and how much you have to spend, put together a list of models.

Search online for the latest reviews and jump into forums to get actual user feedback on your top picks. Look for common problems, real world battery life and how the manufacturer handles warranty issues.

Brand and Design

Once you delve under the sleek exteriors, many laptops are actually very similar. With the same CPUs, RAM and HDDs, performance will be close, if not the same. While perhaps not the most important consideration, style is an important aspect of buying a laptop. If you are going to be carrying it around for the next few years, you want something that you like to look at.

Make sure you consider the design carefully and do some extra research online if need be. The latest Core M laptops can be fan-less, giving a totally silent computing experience. Also check where the fan vent ports are – if you plan to use your new laptop in bed, on the couch or even on your lap, easily blocked underside vents are best avoided.

Materials like plastic feel cheaper, but metal can be unforgiving on the hands and will often feel hotter. Carbon fibre is a good compromise, but tends to cost a lot more.

The current state of play

Someone always points out that a hardware refresh is just around the corner so hold out before upgrading. That can be true in certain circumstances, but realistically, there is always new tech on the way. To get maximum use out of a new laptop, the best time to upgrade is right now.


Form Factors

Our Pick: Ultra-portables

Right now the coolest new tech is in thin and light laptops. New CPUs give enough grunt for day to day use while remaining very efficient. Ultra-portables also tend to have the best battery lives and the highest-res screens.

It used to be that laptops were all pretty similar – a screen attached to a keyboard and trackpad. These days we have laptops that act as tablets, tablets that act as laptops, ultra-portables, convertibles, slates, gaming and even modern day netbooks. Here is a brief explanation of the most common types.

Ultrabooks

Also known as ultra-portables, these laptops are designed to be very thin and light, but still offer excellent battery life and enough processing power for normal use. To officially count as an ultrabook (to the latest Intel standard) they need to be under 20mm thick, offer 6 hours of video playback, resume from hibernation in under 3 seconds and have a touchscreen.

2-in-1 Convertibles

A kind of hybrid between the tablet and laptop, convertibles can often give the best of both worlds. The downside is that in certain uses that can also give the worst of tablets and laptops. Touchscreens are universal, though convertibles are generally smaller, lower power devices – you won’t find a 17” gaming model. Here are the common types of convertibles.

Detachables

Typically running Windows 8.1, the hardware lives behind the screen which can be detached from the laptop keyboard. Often the keyboard acts like a base station, containing an extra battery, HDD and expansion ports. While versatile, they can be top heavy and generally have fairly low end hardware.

Flip, Twist and Fold

Rather than disconnecting the screen, these laptops simple fold it over so the entire device becomes a bulky laptop. The mechanism varies, but can be as simple as hinging back, to models that can twist sideways or flip the screen in a custom frame.

Slates

The most well-known slate is the Microsoft Surface. Generally using keyboard covers rather than the real thing, slates are more tablet that laptop. That doesn’t mean they aren’t useful though and can often have high end power. Many slates run full versions of Windows 8.1 and are functionally very similar to laptops.

Netbook Redux

Cheap laptops don’t get much attention, but these days you can actually grab a fully functional Window 8.1 mini PC for under $300. They use power sipping Atom or Celeron processors and just 2GB of RAM coupled to small eMMC SSDs.

The amazing part is that they are actually very useable for day to day computing. Many are super slim, have up to 10 hours of battery life and can weight under 1kg. Considering they cost less than most tablets, it is hard to go too wrong.

Two of the best ultra cheap laptops are the ASUS EeeBook X205T and the HP Stream 11.

The Great OS Debate

Our Choice: Windows 8.1

It gets a lot of hate for the touchscreen centric design, but Windows 8.1 is an excellent OS. Its stable, has great driver compatibility and runs faster than Windows 7 on low end hardware. If you don’t like the Metro UI, it’s easy to boot into desktop or install a third party theme so it looks just like Windows 7. Perhaps most importantly, it’s included on most new laptops.

You can also get the OS as a Windows 8.1 with Bing option for budget laptops such as the HP Stream 11. It’s actually a fully functional copy of Window, just the default search option is set to Bing – -something you can change later.

Windows 10

Currently available as a technical preview, Windows 10 is not yet ready for mainstream use. That said, it improves on a lot of the niggles with Windows 8.1. Cool new Windows 10 features include a better desktop, Cortana (Microsoft’s Siri and Google Now Competitor) and a totally revamped Internet Explorer called Spartan. A hard release date has not yet been announced, but Windows 10 is expected to launch later in 2015.

Chrome OS

Chromebooks are a somewhat weird option that continues to defy the expectation that you need more than just a browser on a laptop. They are cheap, fast and can offer great battery life. While heaps of apps are available, you can’t run your normal programs. That said, using Google docs and a selection of good aps, Chromebooks can do 90% of what a typical laptop can.

OS X

OS X is not really a choice unless you are buying an Apple device or want to go DIY. Still, it’s an excellent OS and only stuck in the mud Windows users can hate it. One major advantage for Apple users is that you can easily dual boot Windows and get the best of both worlds.

Laptop Sizes

Hot Choice: 13 inches

Laptops comes in all shape and sizes, but the sweet spot in terms of price and affordability is currently around 13”. Laptops in this size are portable, yet offer long battery life without compromising on spec.

Some laptops such as the new Dell XPS 13 manage to squeeze a 13” LCD into a smaller 11” chassis with an almost borderless screen.

There are plenty of smaller laptops out there, but once you get below 12” laptops often have cramped keyboard and smaller trackpads. If you want a real workhorse of a laptop, then 15” is generally considered the minimum size. For gaming 17” is a solid choice, but there are also plenty of 15” models available.

Display

Hot Choice: 1920 x 1080 with no touchscreen

Laptops are currently undergoing a weird competition to have the highest resolution but in many ways it’s hard to justify. High res screens, such as 3200 x 1800, looks great, but can also be fairly annoying. If you run at the native resolution, it is a fiddly process to get everything displaying correctly. Even then the occasional menu button shows up stupidly small or disappears entirely.

High res screens can scale down to lower resolutions, but that then kind of defeats the point. Extra pixels also need more powerful hardware to drive them, using more battery and slowing performance. Of course if you actually need the higher resolution for image or video editing, then you have plenty of choice available.

Touchscreens are pretty common on ultra-portable laptops, but unless you have a convertible model it’s not worth the extra cost. Apple have kept touchscreens out of their laptops entirely and even for Windows, usage is occasional at best.

The low end standard resolution for laptops is 1366 x 768. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great either. The low res does look better on smaller screen, such as 10” models. Once you hit 14” or 15”, a 1920 x 1080 screen looks a whole lot better.

If given the choice, an IPS screen over a cheaper TN panel is a good call, with better colours and viewing angles. A glossy screen will give you colours that pop, but can create a lot of reflections in a bright environment.

Battery Life

Must Have: 5 Hours Minimum

To ensure you are not tethered to the power cord all the time, you need battery life of at least 5 hours. More is always better, but don’t compromise performance if you need it. 7 hours will get you through a typical day of work. If you want true all day capabilities or the confidence to leave your charger at home, look for laptops with a 10 hour or higher battery life.

Typically ultraportable laptops have the best battery life. While larger models have more space for batteries, they also often have higher end hardware, so don’t offer extra time away from the charger. Smaller laptops generally have built in batteries, while larger models sport removable models that can be swapped with a spare.

Don’t always believe the manufactures power ratings. It might state 15 hours battery life, but that is with Wi-Fi off, a very low screen brightness and not a lot going on. Make sure you research online for real world battery life comparisons.

Consider your hardware carefully if battery life is important. SSDs use less power than mechanical HDDs and there are plenty of very efficient CPUs available. Also consider ditching the super high resolution monitor – driving all those pixels can take a significant toll on battery life.

Processor

Sweet Spot: Intel Core i5

The new 5th Generation Intel Core i5 processors offer plenty of power when you need it without compromising battery life. A popular model, the Core i5-5200U is a dual core 2.2GHz CPU that can boost up to 2.7GHz. Importantly it has enough grunt for some more intensive tasks, such as editing video. 2 faster cores is often better than 4 slower cores unless you have software that takes advantage of extra cores.

Dropping back to the Core i3 is best avoided unless you are not doing much aside from browsing the net and creating documents. If you need more power, ramping up to a Core i7 is easy, with many laptops models offering the choice.

Intel’s new Core M CPU promised Core i5 like grunt while only sipping electrons, but so far has not been quite up to expectations. That said, it’s a great option for low end efficiency and in laptops such as the new Macbook, runs cool enough not to need a fan.

Atom, Pentium and Celeron CPUs are common in small and cheap laptops. Depending on model these can offer similar performance to a Core i3. Windows 8 is actually well optimised for low end hardware, so these little CPUs can actually offer a good user experience.

AMD actually makes some solid CPU and GPU combinations (called an APU) but these are not very common. Some manufactures offer the same laptop in both an AMD and Intel option, but the AMD CPUs rarely offer a performance or price advantage.

Graphics

Sweet Spot: Intel HD 5500

Unless you need serious gaming grunt or hardware acceleration for certain software, Intel’s integrated graphics are now quite powerful. The minimum recommended for casual gaming is the HD Graphics 5500, though less powerful models get the job done if you dial back the detail level. If you want the best possible, look for Intel Iris and Iris Pro graphics.

Discrete Cards

For a better gaming experience or hardware acceleration, opt for a discrete graphics card. Options are available from little better than integrated graphics, up to hardcore gaming options in SLI.

NVIDIA is the common option and about the minimum spec GPU you actually would want is the GeForce 840M. A GeForce 860M will handle gaming at decent frame rates, but a GeForce 870M is a better prospect.

AMD also has some discrete GPUs, but they are not as commonly seen. Look for a Radeon R7 M270 or better.

Memory

Sweet Spot: 4GB or better

4GB of RAM paired up with a Core i5 CPU sits right in the sweet spot for affordability yet performance. More is always better and an upgrade to 8GB won’t go astray, but it won’t drastically change your computing experience.

Unless you have a very low end laptop or Chromebook, 2GB of RAM is just not enough. At the other extreme, 16GB is totally overkill unless you gaming or running intensive programs.

If your laptop can accept extra RAM, then it can be a cheap upgrade. Aim for as much RAM as possible per dim – most laptops only have one or two slots.

Storage

Sweet Spot: 256GB SSD

Opt for a SSD over a mechanical HDD – it’s faster, uses less power and is more robust. 128GB is acceptable, but these days even a small collection of music, pictures or video can quickly fill all the available space. A 512GB upgrade is nice, but overkill unless you need to store large files.

Increasingly common in laptops are M.2 SSDs. If your laptop has an available M.2 slot but no SSD in there, it’s an easy way to upgrade your storage.

Some laptops also use 32GB or 64GB eMMC SSDs. Slower but cheaper than a SATA SSD, eMMC is usually found on the more affordable models.

Mechanical HDDs

Many cheaper laptops feature 5400 RPM 500GB HDDs standard. While slow, on a lower end system the HDD is not much of a bottleneck. While you can swap in an SSD yourself, it’s not always cost effective.

On larger laptops with dual HDD bays, running as SSD as the primary drive and a normal HDD as a secondary drive. This can give the best of both worlds – fast boot times and snappy operation, but plenty of space for all your extra data.

Hybrid Drives

Not very common, hybrid drives add a small SDD cache to a traditional mechanical HDD. The SSD size varies from as little as 8GB up to 120GB depending on model.

A hybrid drives works by dynamically caching your most used data onto the fast SSD portion of the drive. It actually learns as you go, so each time you launch your favourite game, it knows to keep it cached and ready.

Hybrid drives can provide fast boot ups and an overall performance increase, but are still limited for large file transfers that have to use the larger mechanical section of the drive. On the plus side, some models cost no more than their non-hybrid counterparts.

Gaming

Must Have: 17” Screen, discrete graphics, SSD.

Shopping for a gaming laptop is a whole different ballgame to picking up a laptop for day to day use. Ultraportable and long battery life are not the focus – instead look for high end Core i7 CPUs and powerful discrete GPUs. Super high resolution screens look pretty, but will just reduce your playable frame rate, so stick to 1920 x 1080 if you can.

Don’t bother with GPUs in SLI – they don’t offer much extra performance considering the cost and heat issues. A NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980M is king and will handle all modern games. The older generation GTX 880M and 870M is still very common and also offers good gaming performance. The big names such as Alienware, Razer, Toshiba, MSI and ASUS all make excellent gaming laptops, but there are a few other options available. Some local Australian shops import Clevo (a Taiwanese OEM) laptops and sell them under their own brands.

These laptops are typically fairly boxy and boring looking, but can offer top notch hardware at very affordable prices. Even better, you can often customise the specification to exactly what you want for no extra cost.

While large fat gaming laptops are still the norm, many manufactures have made an effort to slim them down. In fact there are a range of thin and portable gaming laptops available.

Accessories

Laptops are the sum of all their parts, but there is more to it than just the core hardware. You also need to consider keyboards, trackpads and connectivity options. Generally most laptops include features such as webcams, SD card readers and 3.5mm audio I/O.

Keyboard / Touchpad

If you plan on pounding out a novel on your new laptop, a solid keyboard is must have. Ideally you want to find a model on display on try it yourself, otherwise fall back to online research and other user’s experiences.

Look for extra features – backlighting makes it easy to type in dark areas and adds a higher end feel. Some manufactures choose to go all out – such as the MSI GT80 Titan (there is a Giz story on it) which features a full size mechanical keyboard.

A good trackpad is also key to getting the most from your laptop. Apple Macbooks have some of the best available, while Windows machines range from poor through to excellent. As always, research your laptop of choice.

When using a laptop on a desk, some people prefer an external mouse while others become trackpad masters. To minimise USB port use (and have one less thing to carry) a Bluetooth external mouse is better than one with a plug in dongle.

Connectivity

The latest connectivity option is USB-C – the do everything connector that can be plugged in either way up. For now it is only available on the new Macbook or Google Pixel Chromebook, but you can expect it to start showing up on other devices soon.

Most laptops have USB 3.0 standard, and honestly, if it doesn’t then give it a miss. Grab yourself a USB 3.0 flash drive as well, the extra speed is well worth it. Even a single port is fine as long you get a smattering of USB 2.0 connections.

You would have to actively try to find a laptop without Wi-Fi, let alone a pretty new spec. 802.11n is plenty fast, but for the ultimate connectivity and speed look for Dual Band 802.11ac.

Typically video output is handled by HDMI or DisplayPort, and you can convert between the two with adaptors. Some smaller laptops use mini connectors instead, or ditch the HDMI in favour of DisplayPort.

Say goodbye to older legacy connections – most modern laptops don’t include ports like VGA or even RJ45. But what if you actually need these ports for work or gaming? The exception is larger desktop replacement laptops, which typically hold onto every last connectivity option just because they can.

Optical drives are a little more common, but once again generally only available on larger laptops. Some models are removable, letting you swap in an extra HDD or second battery instead.

Second-Hand?

There are new laptops available for every budget but it’s not always possible to get the power you need for a price you can afford. Buying a second hand laptop is actually a viable alternative and can let you upgrade to a more powerful model for the same price.

As always, research is key, but check out our new vs second hand laptop guide to get you started.

Warranty

While still a personal choice, we recommend you give the extended warranty a miss and instead put the money towards some extra tech. Make sure you know your rights under Australian consumer law – the manufacturer might state a one year warranty, but it’s actually expected to last a reasonable amount of time.


What do you look for when you're buying a new laptop? What's the most important thing? Tell us in the comments!