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How to Buy a Laptop in 2019 that You will Likely still be Using in 2029

4-8-19



As I have written before, the laptop I use most these days was built in 2008. I bought it used on Ebay for $55 in early 2016, and I haven't had any significant trouble with it since. But, if I were to put aside my cheapskate tendencies and buy a new laptop in 2019, this article covers what I would be looking for as I shop.

There are two ways to save money on a new laptop: 1) buy cheap, and 2) buy long-lasting. I'll discuss the second option here. First, note that quality is a major factor in "long-lasting", but they aren't exactly the same thing. There are additional criteria that a laptop must satisfy to be long-lasting. Here is my list of features that distinguish a long-lasting laptop:

  1. Rugged construction.
  2. Manufacturer that maintains hardware drivers online for at least a decade
  3. Low CPU operating temperature
  4. Maximum replaceability and upgradeability of parts
  5. Operating system flexibility


Before I get into the details, let me cover what is not important. First, as I have already pointed out several times on this website, Moore's law is dead. By my estimate, the time for CPU's to double in computational power is now around sixteen years. That means you don't have to worry nearly as much as you used to that your laptop will be obsolete any time soon.

Now for the things you should worry about...



Rugged Construction

By "rugged construction", I don't mean that you should rush out and buy something like a Panasonic Tough Book. The thing weights nearly nine pounds. By rugged construction, I mean a well-constructed laptop that can handle a reasonable level of abuse without shattering, as some laptops are prone to do. Apple, Dell, and HP make several laptops with metal cases that fit the bill. Also look at the joint between the display housing and the rest of the laptop. Is it fairly beefy looking? This is where cases often develop problems first. Is there a lot of front-to-back flex in the monitor housing? Not a good sign. If the keyboard flexes as you type, I would definitely avoid this laptop.



Manufacturer that Maintains Hardware Drivers Online for at Least a Decade

I recently had to reinstall Windows Vista on my eleven-year-old laptop. I thought I had saved all the drivers three years ago, but I discovered that two critical drivers were missing. I don't know how I missed them. As it turns out, I found while trying to install my favorite game, Battlezone II, that I didn't have the video and sound drivers for my laptop. Due to the way I'm running the game, it won't run without hardware acceleration enabled by a Nvidia driver, and as far as I'm concerned, it's really not playable without sound. Fortunately, Dell's website saved the day. It still has those eleven-year-old drivers!

This is one of the main reasons I am so partial to Dell computers. I can't tell you how many old laptops I've owned in the past whose manufacturers seem to think they aren't responsible for archiving old drivers on their websites. Without drivers, your laptop may be unrepairable as soon as it's hard drive dies.



Low CPU Operating Temperature

My belief is that the number one predictor of the life of a laptop is the CPU operating temperature. You want it to be as low as possible. Unfortunately, as laptops have been getting thinner, CPU operating temperatures have been going up.

But how do you know what the CPU operating temperature range should be and whether the laptop you are considering is in that range? Often, you don't know the CPU temperature of a laptop until you've bought it, taken it home, installed some temperature monitoring software, and tested it under high computational load. By then, you may be looking at a 15% restocking fee to return it. Fortunately, one reviewer of laptops, NotebookCheck, usually gives external case temperatures and exhaust temperatures in its reviews. If Notebookcheck says the exhaust temperature is 85 degrees C, you know the CPU temperature is higher. Though you may not know from a review the exact CPU temperature, you can see which laptops have higher exhaust and external case temperatures than others. I usually refuse to buy a laptop that has any external case temperature reading above 40 degrees C, but it's getting harder to find laptops that meet this criterion. Of well-known laptop PC manufacturers, presently, HP seems to be the best in this regard.

But, remember that regardless of manufacturer, CPU operating temperatures vary widely across laptop models. I have a Dell Inspiron E1505 (now around 13 years old, I think) that has a CPU that never gets above 60 degrees C, no matter what I'm doing with it. Contrast that with my Dell Latitude E6220, that I had to down-clock when transcoding movies, because the CPU temperature climbed over 90 degrees C. I also had a Brix fanless mini desktop PC that often had a CPU temperature around 90 degrees C. It died after six months of infrequent use. CPU operating temperature is critically important; don't ignore it.



Maximum Replaceability and Upgradeability of Parts

These days, you can't replace much on a laptop--other than the RAM, hard drive, wifi card, and battery, if you're lucky. But, my opinion is that you still want as many replaceable and upgradeable parts as you can get. For one thing, although Windows system requirements are not skyrocketing upwards the way they were decades ago, depending on your habits, your software and data may still be taking up more and more disk space. It's difficult to predict how much disk space you'll want ten years from now.

But, the biggest issue is replaceability of parts when they die. Batteries usually only last about four years. Hard drives die on average after six years.

I've also been hearing rumblings lately of a new wifi standard on the horizon. If your wifi chips are soldered to the motherboard, you could conceivably be out of luck in a couple of years.

Having parts redundancy, non-proprietary parts, and higher functional capabilities are also important. Many laptops now come with connectors for both an SSD and a hard drive. I would jump on that, if you can get it for a reasonable price. More USB ports are better, especially if seven or eight years from now some are nonfunctional. I would also be conscious of file transfer speeds through USB ports. And, don't forget that you need to worry about whether those USB ports will still have things to plug into them ten years from now. It doesn't do you any good if the ports still work, but you can't use them. This applies to all types of connectors in the laptop. By the way, I love the fast-disappearing ethernet port, because ethernet ports not only provide increased speed over wifi and security against wifi attacks, but they also free up a USB port that might otherwise be taken up by a USB-to-ethernet converter.

And, keep in mind as you're shopping that some laptops are much easier to repair than others. Apple laptops are the worst.



Operating System Flexibility

By this, I mean the ability to run with more than one operating system. I now use Linux more than 95% of the time. And, the more I hear about Windows, the more I think it's circling nearer the event horizon of it's own self-created black hole. In fact, Microsoft is so desperate to kill off Linux that it has resorted to the weapon it has deployed so successfully against competitors in the past: it has added Linux for free to Windows. This time, however, its strategy may not work, because Linux was already free.

Another harbinger of Window's inevitable demise is foreign governments' strong fear of being spied on. Both Russia and China have been saying for years that for security reasons they want to drop Windows 10 in favor of Linux. They're just as afraid of being spied on by the United States through Windows as the United States is of being spied on by China through Hauwei phones and networking hardware. Whether Russia and/or China will succeed in dropping Windows any time soon is anyone's guess. But, what is not open to much debate is that Linux is more robust and easy to use than it was a decade ago. Linux Mint has run out of the box on every laptop that I have tried it on so far. Ten years ago, that would have been an astounding statement. Keep in mind, though, that I've only tried it on older computers that Microsoft hasn't managed to lock itself into with UEFI.

You should definitely research the level of Linux compatibility of any laptop you are seriously considering before you buy. Remember that, in addition to the UEFI issue, new laptops will often not have Linux drivers, yet. New Dell laptops are often more compatible than the rest, because Dell has made a commitment over the years to Linux users.



Related Articles:

Know what You're Buying Before You Buy a Computer

When Buying a Computer, More Knowledge Equals Lower Cost

Know What You Need Before You Buy a Computer

Moore's Law is Dead: Here's the Proof

Laptop Beauty is only Skin Deep, but Functionality goes all the way to the Bone

Computer Built-In Obsolescence

How Powerful a CPU do You Really Need?

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