People keep asking me to help them buy / pick out a laptop. I decided to write up my advice on it so I no longer have to repeat it to people.
First off when buying a laptop, one has to decide between three trade-offs being cost, performance, and build quality. You can only have two, never all three. cost is inversely related to the other two factors. Whenever you increase performance or build quality you will increase cost. I am viewing this as an inverse relationship because people typically want to keep costs down, a higher cost is considered a bad thing. This brings me to how I go about purchasing a laptop. When I start looking around, I start off with the specs and build quality I desire and try to tweak them to bring the cost of the laptop down. What most people seem to do is say “Whats the best laptop I can get for X”. This is the opposite of the process I follow and starts off with choosing a price and seeing the most one can get out of it.
Laptops fall into a couple of different cost brackets that roughly equate to power/build. They start off at around $350, with minimal specs and quality. These are commodity machines that will only really last about a year. Next comes laptops that range from about $450 – $550. Still commodity machines, but they will last you 1.5 – 2 years and be a bit more powerful. This bracket is typically the price range people ask me to recommend a laptop in. Both of the mentioned types of machines are only really good for things like browsing the web or editing documents in office suites. (But not doing data manipulation in them. I’m looking at you, people who use spreadsheet software to manipulate/analyze data.) They will do an ok job of watching videos on youtube or DVDs, however they will have issues with HD content. This will be based on how much you spend, although the lower end systems are getting better at handling HD. These laptops are not meant for doing real work, computation, or playing games. They will be however serve as a fine remote terminal for running software on a power system to do real work. IE something over Citrix, SSH, or some similar technology.
Then we come to the two brackets of machines that are meant for doing actual work (I am not saying that writing papers isn’t actual work, just that its not computationally intensive) and playing games. First we start off with the systems that run from about $700 – $850. These will last you about 1.5 – 2.5 years and will be able to play games, watch HD video, and do work that needs some number crunching power. Then you have the high end machines that range from $1000 – $2000 and will last you about 2 – 3 years. They will be able to run computations quicker and play games on middle to max settings. This bracket is where I typically end up purchasing a laptop from.
Now some notes on buying better hardware and getting better quality. First off stay with Intel chips. While they cost more they have much better performance and are more efficient. AMD chips used to have a better price/performance ratio but it hasn’t been that way in a while. Look for a machine that has a hinge that is the whole length of the clamshell portions or is metal. Get dedicated graphics if you can, they are always better than the integrated stuff. Areas where you can save some money by going with the lesser option and upgrading after the fact are RAM and the disk drive. However price the upgrade cost against the cost the manufacturer has, sometimes it is cheaper to get the part from the manufacturer. A metal laptop will last longer than one made from plastic, however there are not many companies that make these. A good alternative is a machine that meets MIL specs, like the Lenovo ThinkPads.
Laptops can last anywhere from 1 – 5 years, depending on all sorts of factors. Since they are mobile they will undergo more wear and tear. Things that wear out over time are the hinges, disk drive, fans, battery, and cables. Based on usage these will go sooner or later. Backblaze has gathered some good statistics on how long hard drives last http://blog.backblaze.com/2013/11/12/how-long-do-disk-drives-last/. Expect drives to go quicker then they did because the drives will be bounced around.
I am also asked about what brand to purchase. I am currently a fan of Lenovo ThinkPads and Asus, previously I also liked HPs. Lifehacker has some good info comparing build quality and customer service http://lifehacker.com/computer-manufacturers-ranked-how-to-pick-a-laptop-tha-1467145338. If you’re looking for something that will last forever, get a ToughBook. They cost more and have lesser specs, but are build to last. Apple machines have decent quality but cost about twice as much as they should. Avoid things from Dell.