Best Laptop Configuration

What configuration should you look for in a new laptop?

In most of my recommendations, things boil down to a few key components in a laptop that really matter.  Those things in order are:

1)      Brand quality reputation

2)      Microprocessor – CPU

3)      Ram – Memory

4)      Hard Drive Speed – RPM

5)      Screen Size

You might also want to tack operating system onto the end of that list.

1)      Brand quality reputation – You can read all about my thoughts on various brands on my page about which brand of laptop to buy.  To summarize what I say on that page “It really doesn’t matter which brand you buy as long as you stick with one of the major brands with a history of building quality laptop computers”

In my opinion, you are relatively safe buying any of the following brands:  Dell, HP, Compaq, Lenovo, Toshiba, Sony or Gateway.  If you prefer one of those brands over another, then you should stick with the brand you trust.  In my opinion, the quality level among those brands is close enough that it is not a major deciding factor for me anymore.  Just avoid any brands that I did not mention here.

2)      Microprocessor (CPU) – Next to the brand reputation, the CPU that you choose makes all the difference.  The CPU is the main brain in the computer.  It determines how smoothly things are going to operate and whether or not your programs are going to become unresponsive.  I insist that people purchase a laptop with a good CPU.  I am an Intel fan.  I have been an Intel fan for many years.  You can read about how I became an Intel fan on another page on this website.

I have stuck by Intel and I have not regretted it.  In my opinion, their chips are the best.  You get the power you need, superb reliability and plenty of cache as long as you are sticking with certain series of chips.

The vast majority of people should buy a laptop that has an Intel Corei5 microprocessor.  The Corei5 CPU has the necessary power that you need if you want the laptop speed to remain useful enough for a number of years.   If you buy a less powerful microprocessor, you will shorten the useful life of the laptop by at least a year.  That should be reason enough to justify the little bit extra it costs.

3)      Memory – Ram – With all of these new laptops running Windows 7, you need to make sure you have an adequate amount of Ram in your computer.   I tell everyone to make sure they get at least 4GB of ram in any new laptop.  Depending on which operating system you have on your computer and certain hardware specifications, 4GB might be the maximum your computer can use.

If you get less than 4GB in your new computer you can bet that you are going to be coughing up the extra money within a year to upgrade to the 4GB.  Just spend a little bit extra right now to get at least 4GB.  Once you get above 4GB, the cost to benefit ratio starts working against you.  After 4GB you start getting a lot less benefit from each additional gigabyte.  That is why 4GB is the magic number in my book.  That much ram gives you enough power to help multitask all of those Windows services while also running your desired programs.

4)      Hard Drive speed (HDD speed) – Notice that I did not say hard drive size.  I don’t mention size because laptop hard drives are typically 250GB at bare minimum now.  250GB is a lot of space for most people.  Therefore, I don’t dwell too much on how large the hard drive is.  Most of these computers come with drives that are much larger (around 500GB – 750GB).

Hard drives are electo-mechanical devices.  The mechanics inside the hard drive determine the speed at which the drive can read and write data.  The weakest link in the chain, so to speak, is the speed that the drive spins at.  The speed of the hard drive is measured in RPM (rotations per minute). The common speeds are 5400RPM and 7200RPM.

The speed of the hard drive will affect the performance of the laptop a lot.  This matters a lot more than most people talk about because your computer spends a great deal of its time transferring data to and from that hard drive.  It is an extremely important part of the laptop’s normal operation.  Unfortunately, manufacturers have cut corners recently by putting slower hard drives in their otherwise powerful laptops.  These slow 5400RPM drives are too slow for any laptop I would normally recommend for business use or for any power user.  The only people who should get a computer with a 5400RPM hard drive are people who aren’t really concerned about performance.  If your computer is being used at home for general purposes then maybe that extra speed isn’t a big deal.  If you are using the computer for work, then the faster hard drives are worth the investment, at least in my opinion.

Right now pretty much all of the low priced value computers are going to come with a 5400PRM hard drive.  If you are comparing various entry model laptops you are going to have a tough time finding one that has a faster hard drive.  If you are really limited by your budget then don’t let the hard drive speed be a deal breaker for the laptop.

As long as you can find it and afford it, I highly recommend that you look for a model with a 7200RPM hard drive.  I would rather get a computer with a faster hard drive even if that drive is smaller than the slower 5400RPM model.  I have seen the difference in performance with my own two eyes and it is very convincing.  Get the faster hard drive.  Your computer will boot faster.  Your computer will also be able to handle the multitasking much better when you are doing things that cause you to run low on available ram. Watch the video below to get a feel for how much difference in speed there is. How much do you hate waiting for something to happen when you click on an icon?

The first part of that video where there is only a two second difference does not accurately reflect the difference you would see. In that video, the computers did not load any programs at start-up. In your case, you are most likely going to have a handful of programs loading during that initial boot up phase. So, in your case, the difference in start times will be much more than two seconds. It will probably more like 30 seconds difference. The other measurements in this video are also not perfectly accurate. You would notice an even bigger difference in wait times than this. Hard drive speed is really important.

Some hard drives run at 10,000RPM which would be substantially faster than the typical 7200RPM drive.  However, I have not seen any of those 10K hard drives in mainstream laptops.  They are normally only found in regular sized desktop computers that are built for high performance.

The ultimate performance in a laptop can be achieved by getting a laptop with a solid state hard drive.  These are abbreviated as SSD hard drives.  These kinds of drives do not have any moving parts inside them like traditional hard drives do.  The SSD drive is like a computer chip.  It is more like RAM than a hard drive.  The difference between the SSD drive and RAM is that the SSD drive stores information even when the computer is turned off. That allows it to be used as a replacement for hard drives.  Some high performance laptops are now being sold with these SSD hard drives.   Those laptops are much faster than computers with traditional mechanical drives.  You would really be shocked to compare the two side by side.  The SSD hard drive based computers take a lot less time to start up than the traditional hard drive based computers.  Eventually, I expect the older traditional hard drive to be completely replaced by the SSD.  The only thing stopping that from happening is that the cost of the SSD is still pretty high.  In a couple years, you will probably see the older mechanical hard drive being phased out except in situations where you need an awful lot of storage capacity. A typical SSD is even faster than a 10,000RPM mechanical hard drive. The video below compares SSD to a 7200RPM SATA hard drive.

5)      Screen Size – LCD dimensions – This is a matter of personal preference.  Some people prefer a larger screen and some prefer a smaller one.  The larger screens 17” or more are very nice, but the laptop takes up a lot more space and is usually a little heavier.  The smaller 14” screens are convenient for business use and easier to manage.  For people who carry them around all day every day, this can be a concern.  Personally, I would not get anything smaller than a 14 inch screen.

The happy middle of the road size is the 15 inch LCD.  This is the size of LCD that I prefer for my own work laptop.  I find that the screen is large enough for anything that I want to do while still being manageable.  The larger screen would be nice, but it just wasn’t justifiable to me in the extra cost.

What Other Computer Components Might You Consider?

  • Operating System Version – (Which version of Windows) – I recommend that you get the 64bit version of Windows 7.  It is the latest version and the direction that everything is going to go towards.  For most people, it is not going to matter whether you get the home version or the business version of Windows.  My advice is that if you are using it for home, then get the home version obviously.  If you are using it for business then get the business (professional) version.  If you have are in a business environment with a Domain Server, then you must either get the business version or the ultimate version of Windows.  Otherwise you will not be able to join the domain.
  • Hard Drive size – This used to be one of the major factors in a computer purchase decision.  It still might be if you are going to be storing a lot of videos, photos or music.  Most business use applications and most home use applications will not require a huge hard drive.  Even the small hard drives are large by comparison to just a couple years ago.  A small hard drive now would be a 250GB SATA drive.   For most people, that is more than enough.I remember a time though when people thought a 20MB hard drive would be enough.  It seems like you never have enough or too much space.  For laptops though, I wouldn’t worry too much about running out of space.  I would only worry about it if you plan on collecting a lot of music, videos, movies or photos.  Otherwise it is not a big deal.
  • Wifi – Pretty much every single laptop you buy these days is going to come with a standard wireless (WIFI) adaptor.
  • Network Adaptor – They also come with an RJ-45 Ethernet connector.
  • Card reader – If you are going to use the computer to work with photos from a digital camera, then you want to make sure it has a card reader built into it.
  • If you are going to be getting this laptop for a student, make sure it has decent speakers.  Kids will freak out about this if the speakers are weaker than normal.
  • Battery life – Depending on what the laptop will be used for, you might want to see if there is an extended life battery available for it.  Batteries are still pretty darn expensive for laptops.  If the owner of the laptop is going to need to use it often in places where there is no power plug, then spending extra for a better battery is justified.
  • DVD burner – Pretty much every laptop comes standard with a DVD/CD burner now.

Depending on how you plan to use the computer, you should read the most appropriate article that I have written in regards to that usage. Look in the sidebar on this website for links to those articles. I will recommend which version of Windows to use there.