Tips for byuying a new laptop

People often ask for advice about which laptop is best. There is no easy answer to this question, but I can help to narrow down the choices based on a few factors.

All computers have a few things in common, so we can use these components when comparison shopping. The main components affecting a computer’s performance are its CPU (a.k.a. processor), its internal storage device (a hard drive or solid-state drive [SSD]), the amount of memory (a.k.a. RAM), and the size and type of screen. Let’s look at each of these components:

CPU / processor

Nearly every laptop sold today has a CPU made by either Intel or AMD. Intel CPUs are usually called a ‘Core-i Something’, such as a Core-i3, i5, i7, or i9, and AMD CPUs have names like Athlon or Ryzen 3, 5, or 9. CPU speeds vary considerably, but one of the most significant differences among CPUs is ‘cores’ and ‘thread’ count.

Today’s consumer-grade CPUs have anywhere from two to 16 cores and can work on between two and 32 threads at any given time. When comparing cores and threads, more is better. That is, a CPU that contains four cores and can process eight threads (sometimes shown as ‘Cores/Threads: 4/8’) is better than a Core/Thread value of 2/4 or even 4/4.

Rule of thumb: core/thread count of at least 4/4; 4/8 will be noticibly faster

SSD / storage / drive

Today, you should not buy a laptop that has a mechanical hard drive inside. Mechanical drives are much slower and more fragile than the newer solid-state drives (SSDs) that are becoming commonplace. Almost all new laptops ship with SSDs, but you need to ensure that the SSD is large enough for your requirements. Choosing a lower-cost, smaller SSD (e.g. anything less than 250 GB) can lead to issues in the future when the drive becomes full. This is especially true in some of the very low-cost laptops that ship with 32 GB SSDs–these fill up quickly, preventing Windows Update from functioning at all.

Rule of thumb: only SSD, at least 256 GB

RAM / memory

The amount of memory (a.k.a. RAM) inside a computer dictates how much you can do at any given time. The analaogy to humans is that RAM is like short-term memory. Each running appliation and open file uses some of the RAM in a PC, and when that RAM becomes full, Windows has to ‘swap’ some of the data out of RAM and onto your internal storage (hopefully a SSD)–a process that takes time and makes your computer feel slower than it should. Becuase of this, more RAM is always better.

Rule of thumb: at least 4GB, 8GB is best


The size of a laptop’s screen has a huge impact on the overall size of the laptop, so it often makes sense to start your search by deciding how big you want the screen to be. Many laptops are also available with touch screens and/or ‘convertible’ screens (e.g. where the screen folds all the way back, making it look like a tablet PC). If you know what size screen and whether yo need a touch screen, you can use those factors to significantly filter your laptop search results.

Rule of thumb: start your search by deciding whether you need a touch screen