How to Buy a Laptop in 2016: Oh the Choices...

August 29, 2016
By: Rob Enderle

Currently people are replacing their laptop computers about once every five years, and for those reaching that five-year due date, the next couple of months will be a festival of ever thinner designs and richer capabilities. The kinds of things you’ll be seeing are more OLED displays, more 4K resolutions, even thinner designs and some really creative configurations. Not to mention performance has increased dramatically over the last five years, giving you anywhere from 2x to 8x the speeds you are used to, depending on what it is you do.  

Let’s talk about how you should approach picking a new laptop.  While this is mostly targeted at Windows users who get a ton of choice, some of this should also apply to Apple (News - Alert) users.  

Touch

This really depends on how much you use a tablet or a monitor.  I’ve found that people that don’t use monitors that often and use tablets a lot are the most likely to love touch screens on their laptops and/or catch themselves trying to poke holes in their non-touch laptop screens.   However, if you don’t really use a tablet much and if you are almost always plugged into a monitor (there are relatively few touch monitors) you probably won’t use touch, so paying extra for it may be a waste.  Given how rapidly sales of tablets are declining even buying for the future would suggest touch, if you currently don’t want it, wouldn’t be a good investment.  I use tablets a lot and living with a non-touch laptop is painful for me, so it remains on my short list.  

4K

4K is becoming more impressive the larger the display you have.   So on a 50” or better TV it is stunning; on a 15” or smaller laptop, not so much.  And with a lack of 4K TVs in hotel rooms and the likelihood that you’ll never plug your laptop into your own 4K TV— outside of pros who do high resolution picture or video editing, and some engineers and architects— I don’t see much of a need to get a 4K laptop.   You’ll trade off several hours of battery life for this feature and the availability of 4K video content is still pretty limited (not to mention that 4K video files are huge).   So, given that I think most would find more battery life better than more resolution they can’t yet use, I’d suggest giving 4K a pass.   However, unlike touch, 4K is ramping so you might find that two or three years out you’ll want 4K. My thought is that then you can replace the notebook because there will also be things that will go with it, like higher resolution cameras on the device, that you may want as well but that aren’t available now. 

OLED

This is a stunning technology in that it has the brilliant colors and deep blacks of a Plasma without the drawbacks of poor performance in bright lights.   You can use this technology today; however, it remains wickedly expensive.   It also pulls more power; so, for those that have a lower power need and can afford to have a laptop that will show movies and pictures in stunning color detail, this is likely worth it. I doubt that is most of you, though.   For now, it is something to aspire to and, I expect, you’ll get it on your next laptop, but likely not be able to justify the cost on this one.  However, I’d sure as heck look at it first so you know what you are missing.  I wouldn’t buy, or not buy, OLED without at least seeing it first, as you may regret your choice.  It really is stunning to see.  

Fingerprint Reader

Security is a massive problem right now and laptops are still a high theft item.  Passwords and PIN numbers are pretty easy to overcome, but a good fingerprint reader can allow you to better use obscure passwords because you don’t have to remember them— the fingerprint reader will do that for you.   I think this should be on the short list for most because if your PC is compromised you’ll likely have your identity stolen. That is still something like $250K to fix and it’ll take nine months out of your life (and your credit rating may never recover).   Make sure you get the touch kind (similar to an iPhone (News - Alert)) over the scan kind (where you have to drag your finger over the sensor) because they are far less annoying to use. 

Thinner Designs

Personally, I think we’ve now overdone the “thin” thing.  I’d be far happier with a slightly thicker laptop that truly got nine hours of battery life than a paper thin box that struggles to get six hours.   Yes, thin is sexy, but realize that most battery life claims are way off what you’ll actually get.  Getting a slightly less sexy box with far more battery life may actually be a bit cheaper as well, and I don’t care how sexy your laptop is, it still is a doorstop if it has a dead battery.   I’d shoot for 14 hours on spec (only Apple, of all the OEMs, has had claims pretty close to what you actually get).   By the way, there are some decent booster batteries you can carry that’ll extend most laptops past 15 hours, but they are not known for being light.  

Prioritize

You are going to have this laptop for about five years unless something changes, so don’t only think about what you’ll need today, but what you’ll need in four years.   The key elements are price, display size, resolution, battery life, carry weight (with needed accessories), performance (Graphics and CPU), security, vendor reliability, ruggedness and appearance.   Figure out which things will mean the most to you today and in five years and rank them.   This way you won’t trade off something you may need, like ruggedness, for something you may only want, like appearance.   You may not end up with the sexist laptop but you’ll likely also not regret your choice.  

Wrapping Up:

For a lot of you, it will be time to consider a new laptop.  You’ll have the greatest choice in October though, I know, there are some really interesting choices coming out closer to the end of the year that I only have heard rumors of.  Since a laptop is a personal tool, if you figure out what you value most and prioritize that, you are less likely to overspend and more likely to get a box that best represents what you want and need to do.   

For me, I like a bit of performance because I like to play games on the road, but I need decent battery life and I don’t want to have back problems so weight and battery life are higher priorities.  Fortunately, there are a number of vendors that seem to have what I want in their lines and I don’t expect to be disappointed this year.  I hope the same is true for you!   Good hunting!!!




Edited by Maurice Nagle