How to Buy a Laptop in 2021

laptop buying

It isn’t often that I get a new laptop.  In the past 17 years, I’ve had three personal laptops.  You would think since I’m a tech guy that I would have had a lot more than that.  However, when I buy a laptop, I spend a lot of time reading reviews and lay out a solid plan on what I need from the laptop.  I want something that will not only perform what I need to do right now, but I need it to last me for years to come.

What I Look For When Buying a Laptop

Each time I buy a laptop it’s a painstaking process that I have to complete in a very small window of time.  Technology changes quickly and new models come and go in the blink of an eye.  I typically give myself three to four weeks before making a final decision.  The first decision you’ll need to make before shopping for a laptop is if you’ll get a Mac or PC.  This decision may ultimately affect what computer you end up buying.  Macs tend to cost a lot more, but if you are a Mac guy and prefer macOS over Windows, then your decision might be pretty easy.

When it comes to buying a laptop there are 4 things that I look for:  standard specifications (CPU, hard drive, RAM, graphics, etc.), features (all the nice to have, but not necessary, like a touch screen or the color of the chassis), reliability and lastly price. 

Standard Specifications to Look For

Sometimes I know exactly what I want, but with so many different CPU options it’s hard to say which one is the better option?  I’ve been a tech guy since the 4th grade and my first computer was the Commodore 64.  I didn’t choose this computer based on its specs, but rather I wanted to learn how to write programs and become an astronaut.  Unfortunately, it did not help me to achieve my dream.  It did, however, lead me down the technology path.

CPU Type and Speed

There are several chips manufacturers out there, but you will only find two big players found in laptops:  Intel and AMD.  Each manufacturer has a slew of variations of its central processing unit (CPU).  The type and speed of the CPU will affect how the software on your computer performs.  Although I have used PCs running the AMD processor, I have always been an Intel guy.  And when I buy a laptop I look for the most processing power for my buck. 

laptop buying - Intel vs. AMD

Random Access Memory (RAM)

It’s important to know the difference between RAM and hard drive space.  A lot of people associate memory (or RAM) with storage.  Although, RAM is a form of storage it’s considered volatile or temporary.  The more RAM you have, the more your computer can do in a faster timeframe.  It’s kind of like your computer’s to-do list.  There is a list of tasks that the computer needs to perform and an order to do it.  As it checks off those items, they are released from the memory.  Currently, (as of January 2021), you really only need 4GB of RAM to do all of your basic computing, like surfing the web or word processing.  However, when you get into more graphic-intensive applications (like Adobe Photoshop), the more RAM the better.

laptop buying - RAM memory

Hard Drive and SSD

The hard drive and SSD are where the operating system (OS), software, and all the pictures, videos, and files are stored.  The hard drive and SSD are permanent storage space.  Although hard drives are getting larger for less money, many laptops will have hard drives of 128GB up to 1TB.  If you backup your data to the cloud and typically access it from there, you might not need that much hard drive space, and 128GB to 500GB might be perfect for you.  You may have a need for several applications on your computer or maybe you don’t use cloud drives very often, then the larger hard drive is the way to go.  If you are doing video editing, I highly recommend going with a drive that is at least 1TB.

laptop buying - HDD vs. SSD

SATA HDD

Another thing to look for in laptops is the type of drive.  There are a couple of variations available, you have the serial advanced technology (SATA) hard drive and the solid-state drive (SSD).  The SATA drive isn’t really the drive itself, but rather the connection to the hard drive (HDD). It is the least expensive of the two options, as it uses spinning magnetic platters (disks) to store your data.  This type of drive has only been around for the past 60 years or so.

SSD Drive

The SSD drive was developed in 1976 but wasn’t small enough to have a practical use until this century.  This type of drive uses flash memory and controller board and has several advantages over the SATA drive.  First off, it’s blazing fast!  It will only take a few seconds to boot up your laptop, compared to a minute or two with the SATA, plus the data transfer speeds are amazing.  The SSD drive uses less power so it won’t kill your battery.  Lastly, and this is an important one for me, SSD drives are more durable.  If you drop your laptop, the SSD drive won’t “crash” since there aren’t any moving parts in it.

Laptop Features

After you determine which CPU to buy, determine how much RAM and drive space (and type) you need, now you can determine what features you want on the laptop.  This part of the process is rather easy for most.  When buying a laptop you have a choice of screen size, type of screen (touch or standard), number of available USB ports, battery life, and weight. 

If you travel a lot, then you will want something that is lightweight and has long battery life.  Everything else might not matter too much to you.  If you don’t travel a lot and expansion is important to you, then you might go with something a little heavier that has more ports on it.  You also might like to have a blue laptop over a pink or black one.  The choices are completely up to you!

Laptop Reliability

One of the most important factors when determining what laptop to buy is reliability.  Nobody wants to buy a lemon or drop a $1000 on something they are going to have problems with.  It’s important to do your research before deciding on what laptop to buy. 

Unless you a buying a new model right off the assembly line, chances are someone has already purchased the model you’re looking to buy. And hopefully, they’ve written a review on it.  This will give you a good understanding of what you are getting and the reliability of the product.  Of course, you can’t base your decision on a single review, so try to find as many as you can so that you can get a good comparison.

Laptop Price

Lastly, the final determining factor when choosing a laptop is the price.  I save this one for last because I don’t want to limit myself to what I need from the laptop.  If I have an $800 budget, I don’t want to rule out a laptop that is only $200 more with a ton more features.  However, if you are on a strict budget when it comes to buying a laptop, look for the features that matter to you the most.  Then break it down into pricing tiers:  $100-$400, $400-$600, $600-$800, and so on.  This will help you in determining what you can get for your money.

The types of things you’ll sacrifice with going for a less expensive laptop will be the type of processor, amount of RAM, and the screen size.  Honestly, a 13” to 15” screen is really perfect for everything, especially travel.  If you go bigger you are looking at a heavier laptop with a bigger price tag.

Wrapping Up

There are so many different models and configurations available to suit your type of computing.  Everyone has a different need so it’s really important to purchase exactly what you think you’ll need.  Most laptops can only handle simple upgrades like RAM, so don’t get into the mindset that you can just upgrade later. Unless you plan on upgrading the whole thing.  Hopefully, this quick guide on how to buy a laptop in 2021 will give you a better idea of what to look for as you hunt for your new computer. 

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