Laptop Buyer’s Companion Guide 2017: Part 1

When I started the Laptop Buyer’s Guide back in 2012, I intended it to serve as a reference for people looking to buy a new machine, listing all the good options in a certain price category and comparing specifications. As time has passed, this format has been adjusted, because more and more models exist that fit the criteria I’d selected. However, it’s gotten to the point where efficiency is no longer a factor in writing the guide, and there are so many duplicate models of laptops out in the wild. In an age where computers are as disposable as Styrofoam cups, what use is a guide that tries to go in-depth with every model that’s out there, when most of them are all the same?

That’s what the Laptop Buyer’s Companion Guide is here for.

The Companion Guide is different to the Buyer’s Guide. Its purpose is two-fold: its main aim is to help you quickly narrow down your options based on readily available sources of information, and its second objective is to save us both hours of work trying to sift through laptops that are essentially clones of one another. The LBG will also undergo a format change to make it more relevant to readers today, because previous guides tried to encompass everything that was available in the market.

Let’s get down to business. Firstly, ask yourself some questions about the laptop you’ll be buying. You may already be doing this, but perhaps the questions and criteria you have in mind aren’t giving you all the information you need. I’ve narrowed them down to five necessary ones, but you might want to add in more to further narrow your options to cover things like USB connectivity and battery life, which are subjective.

The five questions you need to ask are:

  1. What will I use it for?
  2. How long do I intend on keeping it?
  3. Do I need to be able to rotate the screen for presentations?
  4. Will I carry it around with me, or will it be stationary?
  5. Does all the hardware work in a Linux live environment?

That seems a bit too simple, right? The answers you get out of them, however, make all the difference. Let’s do a sample run to see how it plays out.

  1. I’m going to be using the laptop for CAD drawings and 3D printing on-site.
  2. I intend on keeping it for three years.
  3. No, I’ll be hooking it up to a projector for my presentations.
  4. Yes, I’ll be carrying it around with me.
  5. I looked at the supported OS page and the hardware seems to be OK with Linux. I ran a Linux live USB on a model I liked in-store and it worked without driver issues, and I could see the internal drives when running the installer.

From answer one, we can limit the scope of our searches to notebooks with Core i5 or Core i7 quad-core processors and Windows 10 Professional, because the nature of the workload will be heavily CPU-dependent and done with professional software. GPU selection won’t be a significant factor, but a discrete one would be nice. Since it’ll be used in different environments, a matte display is a must.

Number two’s answer tells you to look at a laptop with a minimium of a three-year warranty, which narrows down your brand choice. If you travel internationally, that narrows the choice down to just GIGABYTE and MSI, who have international warranties as standard for their notebooks.

Answer number three tells us that you don’t need a touchscreen or a rotating hinge, so it shouldn’t be a selling point for you. If you’re hooking it up to projectors, you also need to find a notebook with a VGA or HDMI port.

Number four’s answer means you should look for a notebook that’s reasonably lightweight. Dell’s Latitude lineup might be a good fit, but the heavy weight of their models might not be appealing when you have to carry it around, so look for something that weighs less than 2kg. Perhaps a 13- or 14-inch chassis is most appropriate because it’s a slimmer form factor.

Number five’s answer tells you that the hardware is standards-compliant, and would run a Linux OS if it’s required or desired. This kind of answer avoids major pitfalls like buying the ASUS ZenBook 3, only to discover that ASUS blacklists every other NVMe device driver in the BIOS except the one that’s validated in Windows 10 for that drive. ASUS’ decision means you couldn’t repair a failed installation yourself unless you know how to slipstream drivers into your Windows installation files.

Let’s put a gaming slant on the answers instead of a professional one.

  1. I’ll be playing games on it and taking it with me to LANs. I play team-based shooters like Overwatch and Team Fortress 2, although I sometimes play Hearthstone and Grand Theft Auto Online.
  2. I intend on keeping it for two years and replacing it after that time.
  3. No.
  4. I’ll carry it around, but it replaces my desktop and will be stationary for most of the time.
  5. I don’t need to run Linux, I’m fine with Windows.

Now the available options change drastically. Having a primarily gaming-centric slant puts you in the quad-core Core i5 and Core i7 market, and a discrete GPU is a requirement. A good display is a major consideration, as well as the correct connections for your headphones. Since gaming is a high-performance application for any hardware, you should look at a notebook with good cooling options. Notebooks that exhaust heat out the rear of the chassis are generally preferable, especially if you’re a left-handed gamer and your laptop vents out heat on the left side.

Answers two and three narrow your criteria down to notebooks with at least a two-year warranty and no touchscreen, although if you have touch capability it’s a bonus.

Answer number four tells you that weight shouldn’t be a special consideration since the notebook is a desktop replacement, and so anything above 3kg is still perfectly fine. Not needing to run Linux and the plan to replace it after two years tells you that you probably won’t be reinstalling Windows much at all, so hardware compliance isn’t a factor.

With that criteria, and a reasonably low budget, I’d recommend something like the ASUS FX553. It has everything you’d need in a budget gaming laptop, and it’s retailing at only a little over R16,000. There are some secondary considerations to be taken into account once you have some options lined up, some of which I’ll outline below.

Can I take it apart?

Source: iFixit MacBook Pro Touchbar 2016 teardown. It scored 1 out of 10 on the repairability scale.

The most important secondary consideration is repairability. I consider a laptop to be good only if there’s access to the internals for upgrades or repairs. If there isn’t, my recommendation is always a hesitant one. I’m not going to tell someone to buy a Surface Pro over a similarly priced Dell XPS 13, because the XPS 13 is user-serviceable, while the Surface Pro isn’t. The same argument applies if a MacBook Pro is in the mix as well.

You can assess this yourself without having much knowledge about hardware. Is the keyboard embedded into the chassis and not in its own separate island? Well, replacing it would require a near-complete teardown. Does the notebook have panels at the bottom with screws? Chances are you can gain access to anything and it’s easy to take apart. If the battery is removable, or removable with the removal of the access panel, then that’s a plus.

If there’s any sign of hot glue anywhere, or a noticeable lack of screws, keep in mind that you aren’t buying a laptop. You’re buying a technical tragedy waiting to happen. It will fail one day, and when it does, chances are it’ll ending up being a very pricey paperweight. Again, the Surface Pro needs to be mentioned here along with most other tablets. They’re disposable computing devices. They’re not meant to be your primary system for longer than three years.

Which display and what resolution?

This is a tricky thing to figure out in a few paragraphs, but I have a rule of thumb that should work for most cases. Unless your budget is super low, always prioritise an IPS panel and 1080p resolution if you’re looking at a 15.6-inch notebook. A 17-inch chassis is also perfectly acceptable for 1080p. Anything higher than that, like a 2560×1440 resolution, or even 4K, is a gimmick. Unless you’re buying in the seriously high-end price ranges where the GPUs are powerful enough, a high-DPI display shouldn’t be a priority for you.

When you start to be restricted by budget, then you might have to begin making concessions. Start with the display resolution, because you’ll always be happier with an IPS panel than TN. It doesn’t help having a high resolution if all the colours are constantly washed out. If you can’t have either, prioritise a display with a matte finish. They’re done much better these days, and you don’t want light glares to distract you. There are ways to tell the type, make and model of the panel without opening the laptop, which I’ll detail tomorrow.

What about a solid state drive and memory?

Most laptops support RAM upgrades, so for many of the models you look at, this isn’t going to be a problem. SSD upgrades, however, do matter. You don’t always have to buy a laptop with an SSD in it, because swapping out the hard drive and cloning it yourself is quite simple. Don’t allow yourself to be duped into a model that has an SSD by default, because rarely does the price increase make sense. There are caveats to this approach, namely that if you can’t open the notebook easily or replace the drive in the first place, it makes little sense to choose one with a regular hard drive. Most notebooks with this restriction are usually packing SSDs in any case.

There are also laptops with soldered in RAM and eMMC drives that have no maintenance hatches. Those are not the kinds of computers you want to be using generally, unless your requirements fall into a very narrow use case that makes netbooks and Chromebooks a good idea. Beyond their price and resilience to drive failure, for the most part, they’re not always suitable. They’re suitable devices for use in schoolwork, or as basic computing devices for low-income households, but they’re not great devices.

That’s all for part one of the Companion Guide. Tune in next month for part two!

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