Laptop Buying Guide 2015

” What makes a good budget laptop and how to choose the best one?” This is a common question that leave us baffled. Most of Maceans are planning to get a laptop for their academic as well as other purposes. So I thought of making an article based on a guide for buying laptops that might help you out.

So let’s try to make it simple and short. The following are some of factors that have to be considered before buying a laptop.

 Opting Platform or the Operating System

 This is not an easy task if you’re not familiar with both the Macs and PCs. For most potential laptop buyers, Microsoft Windows is the ultimate option. The main reason for this is its simplicity and familiarity. Above all Windows notebooks are generally more affordable than Macs and offers wider range of options from more than a dozen vendors. Unlike Apple Inc. Microsoft and its partners provide notebooks with touch screens and features like convertible designs that lets you easily transform a notebook to a tablet mode. Most Laptops come pre-installed with a Windows 8.1 licence which can be easily upgraded to Windows 10.

Mac OS-X, the easy to use operating system that comes with Apple Macbook, Air and Pro, is entirely different from the Windows OS. In fact one may even find OS-X much easier to navigate than the latest Windows 8.1. MacBooks offer many additional features like gesture control and ability to sync and work with your “ I” products. The thing is Macs work well in an ecosystem of Apple products which is not easily found in the present MACE setup. But times change, so have your fingers crossed! Moreover Macbooks tends to outclass most Windows machines when it comes to Industrial Design and touchpad.

If you are a person who prefers Open Source, then there are tonnes of options to choose from. The reason being its compatibility with any hardware including all the Windows machines and even the Macs. The most common choice is Ubuntu which is pretty much simple and easy to use. But the app installation and other maintenance process may not be a breeze as that in Windows and Macs. If you need a dedicated Graphics card, Linux distributions may not be your pick (we will discuss about which later). This is because even though graphics drivers are available, they are not as effective and functional as that of their Windows counterparts.

I’m not discussing about the Chrome OS, the OS found on inexpensive, lightweight laptops like the Google ChromeBook, even though it is the most safest and secure platform, because it is a browser and the limited offline apps that are available won’t even suffice the needs of a college student. So let’s skip that for now.

 Physical Size

The physical dimensions of a laptop is more or less determined by its display size. Before you decide anything else you need to figure out how portable you need your laptop to be.

Usually the display size varies from 11” to 18”. If you want your laptop to be super-portable you should go ahead with the 11/12” models. The only demerit is that these models won’t be with enough power under the hood except for MacBook Air or the Dell XPS 13. However at this screen size the keyboard, trackpad and the display maybe a bit cramped for some users. So I think that this wont work out for college students very well. Moreover the ports available will be limited like the single USB-C port available in the 2015 12′ MacBook.

For me, 13/14” is the sweet spot. It is in fact a perfect balance between Power and Portability as its good enough to move around with and you don’t have to worry much about power for portability. There are plenty of options in this range at prices ranging from 30k to around 125k with increased power and portability. Most importantly these are lightweight and provides generously sized keyboard and trackpad with reasonable screen. But at this size, gaming and video playback won’t be a treat to your eyes. While the bulkier options provide optical drives and many ports, the slimmer one’s doesn’t.

15”( the most popular size), laptops are usually bulky and heavy but at the same time the least expensive. If you’re not planning to carry your notebook in and around, often a 15” system might be a good deal for you. These laptops have full sized HDMI-A ports, 2+ USB ports, and even a VGA port which is quite useful in regard to the projectors mostly available at MACE, else you would have to carry adapters. Some of them include dedicated GPU’s which are good enough for casual gaming and content creation. You can get laptops at reasonable prices (from 25k) at this size.

If your laptop stays on your desk all day, a 17-18” laptop would provide you with the enough processing power for hardcore gaming, video/audio editing as well as content creation. Because of their girth these could carry high voltage multi core CPU’s, power hungry dedicated graphics cards, and multiple storage devices. Carrying these 4kg plus laptops around can be pretty much tiresome! Even though they provide enough power for high-end games, they lack portability and these are the most expensive ones available in the laptop market.

Keyboard and Touchpad

 Even the most impressive spec sheet won’t make much sense if your laptop lacks good economics. Keyboard and the touchpad are probably the one’s with which we interact the most unless it’s a touch screen laptop. Try answering these questions before choosing a laptop. Does the keyboard have solid tactile feedback, sufficient key travel and enough space between the keys? Is the track pad smooth to operate or jumpy? Or does one find touch screens easier to use?

Some of the notebooks come with a backlit keyboard which is pretty much a useful feature if you were to work in dark environments. Moreover high end gaming laptops comes with a mechanical keyboard which could handle the strongest clicks without much trouble. A well spaced chick let keyboard should cater the needs of a college student unless you got plans for hard core gaming.

The mouse buttons should provide you with a satisfying click and feedback. You should be able to zoom in and out with ease, as well as select text with the track pad without the cursor skipping around. If you’re shopping for windows laptops, make sure that they don’t initiate gestures accidently as you get close to the edges.

In general, though Dell and HP is reliable, Apple and Lenovo offers the best keyboards and touch pads.

 Specifications

Notebook Specs such as CPU, Hard Drive, Memory, and graphics chips can confuse even the so called “Tech Experts”. Don’t feel discouraged if the spec sheets seems to be a random combination of alpha-numeric characters. What you need depends on what you plan to do with your laptop. More demanding tasks require the latest, fastest and expensive components.

 Here are the main components to look out for.

 CPU : Least expensive laptops comes with an AMD E series processors or an Intel Pentium chips. But these might struggle to handle most graphics hungry applications like content creation and gaming. The integrated graphics is sufficient enough for HD movie playback and other operations. Intel Atom processors are comparatively slower but are highly efficient in terms of battery consumption.

Expensive tablet-notebook hybrids and ultra books often come with a Intel Core M processors but these are not as quick as their Intel Core i (i3, i5, i7) processors. If you plan on buying a Core “I” series processor, try getting hold of the latest 5th Generation (Broad well) processors. The integrated graphics (Intel Iris Pro, Intel HD 6000+) along these chips are good enough for basic photo editing operations, casual gaming and bits of video editing. Trust me the integrated graphics have advanced a lot in recent times even if they won’t match up with the latest dedicated Graphics Cars.

If your focus is on performance, then don’t settle for anything less than Core M processors. If you’re spending more than 35k, then Core i5 system might be a good idea. Cutting corners in the CPU to fit the budget is not a wise decision at all! Power users and Hard Core gamers should settle no less than the Core i7 CPU’s. For an average MACEian a core i3 or i5 should get the job done though Core i5 is more preferable.

 RAM : When it comes to memory even the cheapest laptops come with a min of 4gigs or memory. So try not to be stingy. Getting a system with 8gigs onboard is a good idea because higher the memory better will be the app performance and multi-tasking. Gamers and Power Users should go with 16gigs system. Note: Memory in most cases is both upgradable and expandable.

 Storage : A large storage device is always better than a bigger storage device. Most laptops come with a 7200RPM HDD (Hard Disk Drive) with 500GB or 1TB storage options. This is more than enough for a normal user. If you’re on the bleeding edge go for an SSD (Solid State Drive), which is faster than HDD’s but less in storage and expensive. The thing is laptops with SSDs are limited to Ultra Books and Mac Books so you don’t have a wide range of options to choose from. The SSDs are getting cheaper, thanks to 3D NAND, and you can always swap your HDD for an SSD in most cases. So it’s not a deal breaker at all. Choose the storage depending on your needs though in my opinion go for a HDD.

Display : More pixels you have, the more content you can fit on screen, and sharper the image looks. Most laptops come with a resolution of 1366 X 768 which is pretty much acceptable. However higher resolution displays like the Full HD (1920 X 1080) panel will offer you more pixels and thereby sharper images. The extra 5k for a Full HD panel is worth the every penny you spend.

Windows 8.1 is fun to use with its touch interface though in my view it’s not a necessity. Personal preferences may vary.

GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) : As I have mentioned before Integrated Graphics (the one that shares system memory) have advanced a lot in recent times and it’s pretty much good enough for Casual gaming and Movie Playback. But a discrete graphics processor from AMD or NVIDIA (which has dedicated video memory) will provide much better performance when it comes to the most-demanding games. Plus, a good GPU can accelerate video playback, as well as speed up video editing.

For a laptop buyer under 50k he can get an NVIDIA 900 series or an AMD R series chips, while the latter having an added edge in the latest processors under this price bracket as of 2015. But when it comes to high end GPU’s NVIDIA (GTX 950M +) is the best and the leader for the past few years.

Even though a dedicated graphics card is always preferred sticking to GPU is not a good idea (relay more on CPU). For example if you have to choose from an i3 with dedicated graphics and an i5 with integrated graphics, i5 system is a better choice. Trust me on this, you won’t regret it later!

Brand Matters

At the end of the day you made all the calculations , did online research and then come up with a brand that offers the highest specs for the lowest price. But you’ll be lucky to find a reputed brand with such an offer.     Yes, your laptop is only as good as the company that stands by it. In all the tech surveys and others Apple stands the unbeatable king for the past few years. But to the majority of the one’s who’ve made upto this part of the article may consider other options. DELL, HP and LENOVO are among the top brands with a respectable build quality and after sales supports too. When it comes to Support from personal experience, DELL lends its ears to you than others!

Support is only part of what makes a notebook brand worth your money. You also have to consider how the manufacturer stacks up to the competition in terms of design, value and selection, review performance, and other criteria. You can do some research on it in a browser.

Price

Now comes the most important part. How much does your machine costs. I,m not gonna mention about the high end AlienWares or ROG’s, just what you might end up with. So lets split the price bracket into two 25k-35k 35k-50k.

25k-35k  :- starting with 25k you can easily get a laptop that is good enough to cater you needs as a college student. Don’t expect to get a 5th gen i processor equipped one under 30k. You could easily get an older generation processor or and AMD processor laptop for 30k. For the RAM part do go below 4gigs. On the higher end you could easily find 5th gen i3 laptops some of them even with a dedicated graphics chip. 4 GB RAM and 500 GB HDD is   the bare minimum. Keep that in mind. You could easily get a RAM upgrade for 2k. So 8GIGS is not that hard to get within this price bracket.

35k-50k :- On the lower end you can get 5th gen i3 machines with dedicated graphics chips and 8gigs of memory, and also find 5th gen i5’s too. On the higher end you can easily find a 5th gen i5 machine with dedicated graphics chip along with 1TB HDD and 8GIGS OF RAM which is expandable. You can also get older generation intel laptops but better stick on to the newer versions.

Above 50k you’ll will find i7 processors more than 8 gigs of memory, SSDs more portable and stylish designs and better build quality. If you can afford go for this range. But for a typical college student a 35k laptop is sufficient enough. (Conditions Applied 😉 )

Article by,
Amal Augustine Jose
S3R

 

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