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Posted by: Kim_Hamilton on 06/12/2012 08:36 AM Updated by: Kim_Hamilton on 06/12/2012 08:41 AM
Expires: 01/01/2017 12:00 AM

“So You Want to Buy a Laptop!”~by Blair Wiley of Wiley Computer Works

So you’ve gone through all of the decision points. Let’s recap:- Fix your old one or get a new one? The old one has to go eventually. It gets expensive to keep it running and it’s frustrating to use. Some people get disenchanted with PCs simply because they keep their old one going for too long. That’s like keeping your Michelin tires for too long and letting them get bald and warped, and so then you think Michelin reeks when they’re really a top quality brand....

- Buy a Mac or a PC? A PC does more. I say only get a Mac if most of the people you work with have them, too, and if it’s important for you to be like them; or if you already have a PC, you can handle merging the two different systems (not for the faint hearted) and you’ve just got a hankering to be different. A PC is designed to be all things to all people. A Mac is designed to be restricted just to what “they” allow you to do, and “they” are Big Brother Apple. Surprising, isn’t it, compared to the anti-establishment reputation they used to project during those early Super Bowl ads? They couldn’t compete in the unrestricted market where anyone could make and sell a compatible computer (could you imagine Steve Jobs allowing this?), so they focused on where customers liked the restrictions for one reason or another, which is about 15% of the market, which is better than nothing for them.

- Get a laptop or a desktop? A laptop is portable. A desktop is generally more productive and durable.

So today, we’re looking at purchasing a laptop PC. What should you look for, how much should you pay and where should you buy it?

The following is true of both laptops and desktops...

The difference in price has much to do with the difference in lifespan, although there are still decisions to be made within each price range.

Let’s make an analogy... You’ll love even a cheap car when it’s new. But how long before you start hating that cheap car? How long will the honeymoon last before you’re using body English and verbal encouragement to help it get you somewhere? That’s when you stop loving it.

Cars wear out sooner or later, but with computers it’s something else: the world around it changes, a significant amount within every five year span. It’s as if – for a car – the mountain roads get steeper and the car loads get heavier, much heavier. The computer is connected to this ever-changing world rather than isolated from it in a bubble, and so these world-changes get into the computer in order for it to keep up with revisions and protections in its service to you, because you don’t live in a bubble, either. Technology still moves at a frantic pace. We’re just more used to it, now, so it’s hardly news any more. Were smart phones as much of a culture shock when they hit as CDs were back in the day?

A more expensive computer is generally more “future proof”, meaning better able to handle the unstoppable changes that are coming. Do you want to get a cheaper computer and replace it more often (which, to most people, is a hassle and expensive), or get a more expensive computer now and have it serve you longer? The more expensive models will run better during their useful life, and they will be less expensive to have serviced because they’re more-or-less twice as fast at the cheap ones. I tell people that the money they saved on their purchase of a cheap computer they will pay to me more than once for service during the life of their computer because of how much weaker they are and how much longer it takes to service them.

In studies of manufacturing costs that I did in a former life, it’s surprising how much more costly human time is than equipment expense. The point is that your time is also worth something (it’s probably more than you realize – a useful starting point is a penny per second, and that adds up fast; this is around what an average employee costs a business, when the company’s expenses are measured against the time available for producing income; a penny per second equals $36/hr and this is a convenient number to use for estimating; you may find that yours is half that or twice that, but at least we’re on the right scale and it makes the same point). A computer that’s twice as fast will make your day more productive and significantly less frustrating. You may not think there’s a big difference right away between a cheap new computer and an expensive new computer, but you will start to notice the difference in six months, and in two years the difference will be painfully obvious to you.

So obviously, I’m advocating spending your money wisely on a better system. I don’t get anything out of it except the same worry-free satisfaction as you have with it. I don’t want to charge you an arm and a leg to fix up a cheap, slow system on which you thought you saved so much money.

But if a low cost system is your best option right now, then let’s do it right.

So now let’s look at purchasing a laptop.

The first thing to decide is how large of a screen to get. The most popular size is 15 inches (or 15 plus a fraction). Smaller is easier to pack and carry, and larger is easier to read. 15 inches seems to be the most popular size for laptops intended to be both portable and productive. Those who rarely take their laptops with them anywhere often like to get a 17 inch laptop for the large screen, which is the largest common size. Those who need easier packing and portability and simply want something bigger than a smart phone and easier to type on than an iPad might get a 14 inch or a 12 inch model. But be aware that there comes a point where it gets more expensive as you get smaller (unless you get a netbook, but they’re really tiny, weak and inconvenient compared to a laptop although they’re really easy to pack and carry).

So now that you’ve decided on the size, the next thing to decide on is the internal engine. I strongly prefer the Intel i5 or i7 processors. There’s a long history of battle between Intel and their main rival in processors, AMD, and right now Intel is winning. I’m very fond of both companies and have worked with both for many years in a former life. There was a long time – during the life span of Windows XP before multicore processors came out – when AMD made the better (and less expensive!) processor, but those days are gone for now. Industry insiders say that Intel (like Apple) still has that rare spirit of innovation in the computing world (whereas others such as Dell and HP are now farming out even some of their development, let alone their manufacturing), while AMD let themselves fall behind in the last generation of processors and is now having trouble catching back up. To get a bit technical here, AMD took the lead in processor power during the last decade by employing certain multitasking features and techniques, catching Intel off guard and making them change their plans for a Pentium 5 and switch instead to multicore processors for better multitasking (after coming out with Hyperthreading Technology as their first response, since AMD really had them scrambling just to stay close). Intel caught back up by employing other processing techniques different from AMD’s in their next generation of processors (the multi-cores), which wasn’t what most industry watchers were expecting. Then Intel later came out with their new line of i-series processors that employed both sets of efficient computing techniques (both their own and their competition’s), and they have stayed number one ever since. Now Intel is already on their third generation of i-series processors.

Thus, my recommendation for the processor is the Intel i5 or i7. There’s also an i3, but it’s weaker and it doesn’t cost much more to get an i5. But if it’s a choice between a cheap AMD processor and a cheap Intel i3, I’d still get the i3. There are also differences within each of the i-something families, and that will be reflected in the price. Make sense of it if you can while you’re shopping and comparing features and pricing. But if you can’t make sense of it, you’re still safe sticking with the i-series. There are also older Intel processors that are still in use, but don’t be distracted just because you see Intel Inside. Your computer will still age faster with these older generations than with the i-series. (I just set up a $450 Dell Inspiron with an Intel i3 and was very pleased with its performance.) (And by the way, never, ever, ever get an Intel Celeron or an AMD Sempron processor. They’re terribly weak and will age quicker than anything. They’re like buying yellow bananas that already have lots of brown spots on them.)

The very least expensive computers (around $300 to $400) will have AMD processors (or older generation Intels), and some of the expensive ones do, too. I’d play it safe and stay away from AMD altogether right now. They do have new models of processors coming out, but they’re as-of-yet unproven to me. (One of my clients had a misunderstanding with a retail store employee. When she asked whether the more expensive laptop ($800) was a 7, he said it was. She meant an Intel i7. He meant Windows 7. She came home with an expensive AMD-driven laptop, although their new generation chip did run better than expected. But I don’t expect to see them in the lower price units any time soon.)

So on the lower cost units, once you have an i5 or i7 processor, most of the other details will fall into place. There should be at least 4 GB of RAM and the version of Windows should be at least Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. (Not Home Basic, not 32-bit, not 2 GB. These will cut down the efficiency of the computer.)

You can get a unit like this from $450 to $700, depending on size, sales, brands and models. Computer manufacturers make low end models for the price conscious. They may be made with parts that look good on paper, but usually there’s some other compromise inside that you can’t see, and that’s usually the quality of the motherboard and its parts, and the quality of the case. Pick out what you do have the power to choose, and let the rest fall into place based on your trust of the brand and product line you like. I have some opinions on that, as well, a bit later in this article.

For higher end laptops, a TERRIFIC new development is the Sold State Drive (SSD). As the name implies, they have no moving parts. They are must faster as well as rugged, and allow the computer to boot up or shut down in about 20 seconds, rather than waiting a minute and a half with standard hard drives. Every task you perform seems to process twice as quickly. And they’re far more drop-proof than a standard hard drive. The ruggedized laptops such as Panasonic Toughbooks come with SSDs in their top line for their superior ability to withstand being banged around. Most laptops these days come with 5400 RPM standard hard drives, whereas most desktops come with 7200 RPM standard hard drives, making laptop hard drives typically slower than desktop drive, which is noticeable in a side-by-side comparison. SSDs change this game by a long shot, making laptops achieve remarkable performance.

In the Dell Latitude line, switching to an SSD costs an extra $220, currently. The savings to your time and frustration is well worth the investment. If you have to save up a bit longer before you buy, you’ll be glad you did. The down side is that they aren’t as large as standard hard drives, but for most people they’re large enough and worth the trade off of speed for size. It’s cost effective to get a 120 GB or 160 GB SSD. A 250 GB SSD is much more expensive. A 80 GB (or so) SSD is much less expensive but might be too small. Another down side is that they eventually wear out – as you will read here and there – but supposedly they will outlast the computer with new innovations supporting their longevity. (Get an on-line backup system with any kind of computer or hard drive.) (You’ll also read something about single vs multi-level cells in an SSD. Currently, what’s cost effective and in common use are multi-level cells, so don’t let this matter stop you from acting. And if you’re buying the SSD separately for later installation, get an Intel brand.)

So now we’ve moved into the higher end laptops. Here’s what I suggest.

- Consider purchasing from the Business Sales arm of a company rather than from the Home Sales arm. If you’re going to order a few computers over time, consider developing a permanent relationship with one of their business sales agents. This way, you’ll have someone to talk with about problems when you’re unsatisfied with something or even when you just have a less dramatic question. This is good insurance against having nowhere to turn with a reliability problem at a computer sales company. If you buy from the Home Sales side, it can be difficult to find someone to leverage no matter how unjust your situation.

- If the computer manufacturer has multiple lines of product on the Business Sales side, consider going up at least one level from the bottom line. In the case of Dell, this means going from the Vostro line to the Latitude line of laptop. For an extra two or three hundred dollars, you’ll get a computer made with much better parts, the kind of parts you can’t see nor will be listed on the spec sheet. This means the motherboard will run faster and the computer will be less easy to overwhelm, and the case will be sleeker and lighter and will be a bit easier to pack and carry. You’re getting what you pay for here, and you’re only going to buy it once but will have to live with it for years. Moving up to a higher line of product can be a good investment. Dell also has the Precision line of laptop on the Business Sales side – above the Latitude line -- but this is usually overkill for most people. I think the Latitude line is a good use of money.

- Consider getting getting a solid state drive (SSD), if it’s an option. This will speed up your laptop considerably, and will make the hard drive more drop-proof (although it won’t make the screen any stronger, just the hard drive is stronger, which is one of the most fragile parts of the laptop and holds your important records).

- As with the lower cost laptops, also look for the Intel i5 or i7 processor, at least 4 GB of RAM, and a 64-bit operating system.

- You might be happier with a mat screen rather than with a glossy screen, if you have a choice. If you will use the laptop outdoors or will have a window behind you indoors, a mat screen is much less annoying. A glossy screen shows better detail and might seem easier on your eyes, but any reflections negate this advantage.

So, a better line of business division laptop will run you $700 to $1000, and if you switch to a Solid State Drive this will add another $200 to $300. This is the kind of system that will last for a while and will perform very well while doing so. (The price can vary a lot with added features, accessories and software.)


One thing I look for in determining which brand I like is how much extra software of their own a computer manufacturer adds to their computers. Dell adds the least unnecessary software – especially in the Business line – HP adds the next-least, and the Japanese brands add the most (Sony and Toshiba). It’s not a show stopper, just a preference, because I don’t like having an extra few hundred pounds of gravel that’s not really needed for anything riding around in the bed of my truck, to make an analogy. I haven’t had a chance to evaluate the new Samsung brand laptops, but I’m usually impressed with anything out of South Korea lately, and thus I’d give them a serious chance to prove themselves and would expect good results. So, if the amount of proprietary software that a given manufacturer loads onto their laptops is the biggest difference between brands, then that’s saying they’re all good otherwise, and they are. The ease of service is also in the same order I listed above, with Dell being easiest to service. To be safest, stick with major brands, remember that you’ll get what you pay for, but there are still smart decisions to be made at each price level. Just like when buying a car.

A dangerous thing (I believe) you can to do to your peace of mind is to buy a custom built laptop. I’m not talking about a manufacturer’s refurbished unit. Refurbs don’t scare me. I’m talking about a non-brand name unit that somehow got put together using generic or reclaimed parts by a private party. You’re asking for a service nightmare. If you do this, then plan on staying with the shop that sold it to you for the laptop’s life. Don’t expect someone else to be able to pick up it’s service mid-life when things go serious wrong with it. It’s like having a custom Chevy, at that point. Your new mechanic can’t just go to Chevy for replacement parts and support. Even software drivers can be very difficult to find on line. It won’t be clear where the shop got the parts or which one’s they used, which will make it much more difficult to repair. Hopefully it will be low cost enough to discard when it becomes unserviceable, and then you can just buy a new one.

Where to buy:

If you want to shop at a retail store on your own, I think the best one is Best Buy. The number one reason for this is the satisfying skill of their staff. This is a difficult business in which to become an expert, and Best Buy has found a way to have a lot of high level people available at any time. And if they don’t know an answer, they have someone to go ask, they’re not afraid to do so, and they usually won’t just tell you something they’re not sure of while thinking you wouldn’t know the difference anyway. They also have by far the largest selection available in the store.

The second place I recommend is Costco, because they usually only offer intelligently-put-together systems. The product managers and buyers behind the scenes will help prevent you from buying something that’s a waste of money, something that’s appealing in price but too cheap to last. But don’t expect the same high level of sales support on the floor, and don’t expect the same large selection as Best Buy. (The miscommunication I mentioned earlier over the word “7” happened at a Costco.)

The next level is other local electronics stores such as Staples locally. You can sometimes get good deals, but you have to be on your toes. You’re not as ensured to get good answers from all of their sales staff (you have to assess which ones know their stuff by asking lots of questions until you find their limit), you’re not as ensured to have as large a selection, and you’re not as ensured to be prevented from buying something too cheap to last. Some clients call me from there and over the phone we discuss what’s good to buy.

The computers at Walmart seem exclusively to have AMD processors of the slow kind. You’ll get what you pay for here -- on the down side. You won’t hate it at first, but you’ll be replacing it more quickly, like a cheap car.

You can also buy from the computer company themselves, either on the phone or on line. I often help clients order from Dell on line. When doing so, you can sometimes use an on-line coupon you can find at or If you call in to their sales department, you can usually also use these coupons if you tell them about it and have the coupon number. One caution about calling their sales department... they will rush you to buy. They will gloss over the details of the system so that they don’t fill you with uncertainty and confusion and thereby make you decide to wait until you get these questions answered by your friends or relatives or an IT specialist you know. If they get too detailed with you, they know you’ll likely want to hang up and go talk with your granddaughter’s boyfriend whose cousin is taking computer courses in college because he will certainly know which video card you should get, the Nvidia or the ATI, which is now part of AMD. (Go with Nvidia if you can, by the way. ATI’s driver support has never been good, although AMD is improving this nicely on the newer line of products.) A computer purchase is overwhelmingly confusing, and the phone sales person will shield you from the ferocity of the details, first of all to make the sale, and second of all for your own good so that you end up with a new and healthy computer. They’re not trying to take advantage of you, they’re trying to make a difficult process easier for you. You’ll most likely get a good deal, but you’ll most likely miss a detail or two and then will live with it for a few years (like, with a vehicle, forgetting to get four wheel drive or an automatic transmission or a SiriusXM radio). If you want to take the time, you could get their proposal and have me review it for details and then go back to them with any changes and your decision.

By far, the most popular method with my clients is to have me help them order their new computer on line. I know how to find the best features, the best coupons and the best deals, so it’s worth the expense to them. When discount coupons are available, I can partially or more than pay for myself in savings. Most people who have me order their computer seem to want to know all the details, and I will certainly provide them unlike the computer sales person on the phone. Or you can just trust my judgment. I’m fine with it either way.

So that’s it in a coconut shell, the important factors to consider when you think it’s time for a new laptop. The industry and my recommendations change with time, so check with me every few months whenever you’re ready to purchase.

In the next article, we discuss what to look for when buying a new desktop PC.

For all of your computer and networking needs, contact Blair Wiley of Wiley Computer Works at 209-768-2354.

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