Buying guide: How to buy a laptop – finding the perfect machine for you

Introduction

HP laptop

When it comes to buying a laptop, there are plenty of ways to proceed. You can read TechRadar’s ultimate list of best laptops and choose which one you want to buy. Or you could look out for cheap laptop deals (although you probably have to move quickly on these).

Alternatively, for those who want to do the legwork and require a more bespoke solution for their needs, we’ve put together a list of 10 easy steps to follow in order to identify the perfect laptop for you, and the best way to buy it.

Note that this guide is crafted for a UK audience (although a lot of the advice is still valid for other territories) and deals mostly with new rather than refurbished laptops.

Moreover, this article will appeal mostly to consumer buyers rather than small and medium-sized businesses or enterprises whose needs and requirements will differ from the aforementioned group.

If you have additional questions or want some clarification about how to choose a laptop, feel free to ask these in the comments at the end of this article. So, without further ado, let’s look at the considerations you need to be mulling over.

Choose how much to spend… then add 10%

Macbook air

Determining what your budget is should be at the very top of your priority list. The overwhelming majority of Windows laptops cost under £700; on the other hand, all Apple laptops cost more than £700, with the cheapest, the 11-inch MacBook Air, costing £749.

I always advise prospective buyers to add a 10% buffer to their budget in order to avoid disappointment should there be a terrific buy which is positioned just outside their buying range. Very broadly speaking, in our books, £500 will buy you a very good all-rounder laptop. Spending above that is likely to bring marginal improvements especially in terms of performance.

Decide whether you want refurbished or not

Refurb laptop

Refurbished has for long been a taboo word in the world of electronics, often associated with dodgy, used and second-hand products. Things have evolved and refurbished laptop deals are amongst the best ones on the market.

All major vendors have set up their own outlet shops and not only competitively price the laptops but also offer the same level of aftersales you would expect from a new model. As usual, just make sure you know what to expect from a refurbished notebook, and don’t be afraid to ask the vendor for more details about the background story of the model.

Don’t dither too much though as refurbished are end-of-line, outlet or clearance models, and as such are usually very limited in numbers and are always, always, supplied on a first come first served basis.

What operating system will you use?

Windows 8.1

The laptop market is dominated by two main operating systems: Windows and Mac. Two others, Chrome OS and Ubuntu, are on the fringes. All four have their pros and cons (as well as their staunch fans and equally determined detractors). Technically, you should be able to run any combination of operating systems on almost any laptops, either as a replacement of or running alongside the main one (usually the case for Chrome OS, Windows and Ubuntu) or over and above the running one (Mac).

The Windows market, because of its variety, legacy and popularity, is where the bulk of deals and laptop offers are. It doesn’t come as a surprise therefore that Windows laptops tend to have the best value for money when it comes to sheer performance.

What will you do with your laptop?

Office

List five applications you will use on your machine, or things you want to do with it. Writing a small paragraph is helpful as it keeps you focused on your needs and narrows down your possible laptop candidates. For example:

“I send emails, do video conferences, browse a lot, read news, write long documents and do a lot of spreadsheets. I use Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Skype, Chrome and Irfanview. I do a lot of this on my daily commute.”

This works well if you want to migrate from a computer (desktop or laptop) to another – otherwise if this will be your first laptop (or if you plan to give someone a laptop), just have a quick guess. Other niche scenarios including gaming, DTR (desktop replacement) and creative work.

Do you actually need a new laptop?

Desktop PC

That sounds like a wind-up but is actually a pertinent question to ask. Maybe a desktop (as pictured) or tablet, to complement an existing laptop, would be a better investment. Desktops will always have an extra edge compared to laptops at any given price range, especially for niche markets like gaming or content creation. As for tablets, they will always be better for overall portability, as passive media consumption devices.

Also you could look to upgrade your existing laptop by increasing the memory, the hard disk drive or even the processor, or by swapping the battery. While upgrading is cheaper, the process has its own cons – you might get things wrong and end up with an expensive door stopper and the parts that you purchase might be incompatible for a number of reasons.

Decide what form factor you will settle on

Thin laptop

Laptops, whether they are Mac or Windows, are usually categorised according to their screen size, measured diagonally. There are four broad categories: Sub 12-inch, between 12.1 and 14-inch, from 14.1-inch to 17-inch, and 17.1-inch and bigger. Other than screen size, the other categories laptop form factors can be split into are binary: convertible (or hybrid, or 2-in-1) or not, thin-and-light or not.

Note that I am not using the term Ultrabook here as it is a trademark term owned by Intel and its actual specification is fairly loose. A fair few retail outlets use it as a synonym for thin-and-light laptops. The laptop’s form factor will have an influence on cost and will be influenced by what you plan to do with it. For example, if you commute a lot, lugging around a laptop with an 18.4-inch display doesn’t make much sense.

Do you have a brand preference?

Macbook 2015

That’s actually a question that doesn’t pop up often in buying guides from other computing outlets. Brand loyalty is something worth exploring when buying a laptop because more often than not, it is irrelevant.

Like smartphones and tablets, most laptops – even Apple’s – are built by a handful of so-called OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) based in China and Taiwan. So the build quality of any laptop is likely to be determined by the chosen budget bracket rather than the brand.

Obviously, if you do narrow your search to a particular brand, your choices will be limited. Additionally, some of the lesser known brands deliver fantastic value for money when it comes to niche markets and they often offer more flexibility.

Do you plan to change your laptop frequently?

Asus Laptop

Laptops are increasingly becoming more and more difficult to upgrade – blame the race towards more integration and the urge to get everything squeezed in and compressed. As such, most recent laptops, especially the expensive ones, tend to have the memory (RAM) and the processor soldered on the motherboard which means you won’t be able to upgrade if you wanted to.

What’s more, the battery is often enclosed which makes it difficult – but not impossible – to swap. These components, which are essentially chemical cells, age badly and after 12 months or so will not hold charge as well as they did initially. Paradoxically, upgrading tends to be much easier on cheaper laptops because economies of scale demand that models at the lower-end of the spectrum need to have shared components.

How important is battery life?

Battery pack

Battery life is a tricky one. Not only does your laptop battery life depend on what you do with your notebook and how much strain you put on the battery, it involves a large number of other variables. Battery life figures quoted by manufacturers usually refer to best case scenarios (i.e. under a controlled environment) and unfortunately rarely reflect real life.

This is particularly true for resource intensive jobs – you won’t get more than a couple of hours of intensive gaming time on most gaming laptops unless you opt for an extra big battery. Which brings us to our next point. Not all laptops have extensible batteries; you can improve the battery life of those with an enclosed battery by using a portable or emergency laptop battery charger (usually with capacity quoted in thousands of mAh).

For the rest, you can either buy a spare battery (which you will have to swap when needed, and also ensure you keep it charged) or go for a bigger battery altogether.

Settle your priorities and buy, buy, buy!

Lenovo Thinkpad

Once you’ve mulled over all the aforementioned points, define what your priorities will be, to end up with something that will read like a mission statement:

“I will buy a brand new laptop costing less than £500, that will be used for playing games mostly, one that I can carry about to university and runs Windows. I don’t mind a short battery life.”

There is no ideal time to buy a laptop. Sure you could wait for the sales, for a new operating system or a new processor range but embracing that frame of mind means endless procrastination. In other words, the best time to buy a laptop is ASAP.

Also do consider things like an extended warranty and accessories. The former allows you to get extra peace of mind and can usually be bought at the time of purchase. Just make sure that you read the small print and abide by the terms; note that they usually don’t cover wear and tear.

Laptop accessories I thoroughly recommend investing in include things like a decent laptop bag, a docking station (to connect your peripherals and improve your productivity) and portable batteries (to increase your laptop’s battery life, as we’ve previously discussed).

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