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How to Choose an Inexpensive, Multipurpose Laptop

9-22-19



So, you want to buy an inexpensive laptop that will do everything well. Unfortunately, finding a laptop like this is not an easy task. Contrary to what you might expect, it seems that almost all multipurpose laptops on the market today suffer from being either too expensive or having a fatal flaw or two that prevents them from being able to perform well at everything you might reasonably expect them to be able to do. As Sheldon Cooper said on an episode of The Big Bang Theory, "Choosing a new laptop is an incredibly personal ritual ... involving weeks of agonizing thought, tedious research, sleepless nights filled with indecision..." Even if you are not an obsessive-compulsive person, finding a multipurpose laptop that you are likely to be happy with can be very difficult. Double or triple that level of difficulty, if you are looking for one that is also inexpensive.

The simple fact of the matter is that successfully finding a laptop that will be optimal for your needs now and over the next few years will require a lot of knowledge. If you lack the knowledge, I suggest you begin by reading through some of the core articles listed on the main page of this website. I'll provide links to the most important ones at the bottom of this page.

Although each person should have his own requirements for a multipurpose laptop, things many people look for are:


Features to Look for in a Multipurpose Laptop




You may have additional requirements. Perhaps you travel frequently and need a light-weight laptop. Or, maybe you have poor eyesight and need a 17" monitor. Perhaps you want more than one hard drive. Or, are you an audiophile who must have a higher-performance digital-to-analog converter?

After evaluating all potential candidates, you will find that the multipurpose laptop you end up buying will be a compromise. There are no perfect laptops, so you will have to expect that some capabilities of the laptop you buy will be of lesser performance than you hoped, especially if you are a thrifty buyer.

Before I go on, let me say a few words about purchasing a used laptop. If you are unable to find a new laptop that meets all of your requirements for the amount of money you have to spend, looking to meet them with a used laptop is a smart move. I say that because many high-quality, used, business laptops come up for sale every year on Amazon and Ebay. I have bought not one, not two, but several used laptops, some for as little as 5-10% of the original cost of the new laptops. My recommendation is that as you look for a new laptop, you simultaneously consider the used alternatives. This will save you from having to start your search all over again if you cannot find a new laptop within your cost constraints. Plus, you will begin your search with a wider pool of candidates from which to choose.

It is also a good idea to make two lists. The first will be a list of all the requirements on which you are absolutely not willing to compromise. The second will be a list of requirements that are less important to you. This will help you better identify and remain focused on the most important uses for your laptop. Remaining focused is essential for finding the laptop that is right for you, because this can be a complicated task, one that is more complicated than most non-technical people are used to dealing with. You will need to go about it systematically in order to get the best outcome.

Because the devil is in the details, I will now discuss in more detail each of the features that I listed above.



Sturdy Construction

For some reason, most consumers do not place enough emphasis on laptop cases. In my opinion this is one of the top three factors that determine how long a laptop will last. Case construction is especially important if you plan to travel with your laptop. So, do not buy a laptop with a flimsy, plastic case, even if this means you have to buy used instead of new to meet your budget requirements. All-metal cases are the best, but some laptops with plastic cases, like Thinkpads, are also quite sturdy.



Reliability

By reliability, I mean how long a laptop will continue to function without needing repairs. If you can't make repairs yourself, some can be almost as expensive as the price of the laptop. Reliability is something you should be very concerned about before you buy a laptop. You can get an idea of how long particular brands of laptops generally last by searching for reliability data on the internet. Another good source is the experience of friends and acquaintances. Ask as many of them as you can how well their laptops have held up over the years and what problems they have had.

For reliability reasons, I tend to stay with Dell and HP laptops. HP had a terrible track record up until a few years ago due to overheating problems. But they have apparently finally seen the writing on the wall that they needed to improve the quality of their products to continue to compete with other manufacturers.



No Overheating Problems

Overheating is also one of the top three causes of premature laptop death. Be very careful to pick a laptop that does not overheat. One great source of data on laptop operating temperatures is notebookcheck.net. They do an excellent job of evaluating laptops with regards to things you need to know before you purchase a laptop. Their information is so comprehensive and valuable that I would almost, but not quite, go as far as saying that if they don't evaluate a particular laptop model that you are considering buying, then don't buy it.

As manufacturers continue to restrict the free flow of air inside laptops by making them thinner, their operating temperatures continue to climb. This is another reason to consider buying used, thicker laptops. Ideally, CPU temperatures should stay below 60 degrees C under heavy load. However, very few laptops manufactured in the last few years can qualify in this regard. So, you will most likely have to settle for a laptop with a CPU that gets hotter than that. Do not buy a laptop with a CPU that gets hotter than 85 degrees C under load. This will significantly reduce the life of the laptop.

One important thing to remember is that the vast majority of laptops made within the last seven or eight years are thermally throttled, meaning that they limit their CPU speed under heavy computational load to keep the CPU from getting too hot. This is especially true for the faster, more powerful CPU's. This means that powerful CPU's do not run in laptops at the speeds of which they are truly capable for more than a second or two. For this reason, as well as for cost savings, you should seriously consider not buying a laptop with a core-i7 or core-i9 processor. Thanks to thermal throttling, you will most likely not get your money's worth if you do.



Compatibility

One of the reasons I refuse to buy Apple products is that in my opinion they are intentionally designed to be incompatible with anything not manufactured by Apple. Apple makes money selling additional hardware solutions for this problem of their own devising--when it can be solved. Incompatibility is something you definitely do not want in a multipurpose laptop. In addition, you will find that spare parts, including batteries and power supplies can be purchased less expensively for laptops that are sold in large quantities. This is especially important when laptops get old enough to start having parts fail. For this reason, if at all possible, I recommend that you do not buy a laptop model that no on has ever heard of.



A CPU that is Fast Enough, yet Consistent with the Buyer's Cost Constraints

Since the CPU is often the most expensive part of a laptop, you can save money by carefully considering how fast a CPU you actually need, as opposed to want. Remember that CPU performance is no longer doubling every 18 months to two years, so you don't have to worry nearly as much about CPU obsolescence as you used to.

Since only you know what software you plan to run on your laptop, only you can decide how powerful your CPU needs to be. Remember also that the more powerful the CPU, the less time it will take to discharge the laptop's battery. For all websites, except those who try to pack as much obnoxious advertising as possible onto their pages, a Core-i3 CPU is currently more than sufficient for web surfing. In fact, I use a laptop with a Core 2 Duo T9600 CPU for web surfing most of the time. Since it is no longer possible to get a good idea of CPU performance simply by looking at the CPU model designation and clock speed, you should be using this website to get an idea of CPU relative performances.



A Monitor that is Suitable for Watching Videos

Many business laptops come with monitors that are either too dim or have such poor contrast that watching movies on them is not a pleasant experience. This is a real shame, since in many other ways they make ideal multipurpose laptops. Another problem is that some laptop models come with two or three grades of monitors. Especially with used laptops, this can make it difficult for the buyer to know exactly what he is paying for.

If watching videos and movies is important to you, pay careful attention to the quality of the monitor you are getting. The best way of telling if a monitor will be sufficient for watching videos is to watch a video on it in a store. Short of that, notebookcheck.net can give you an idea of the quality of the monitor on a specific laptop. For movie watching, the general guidelines that I follow are to avoid laptops with monitors that are dimmer than 200 cd/square meter or with contrast ratios of less than 250:1. Your eyes may be more discriminating than mine, so you may want to come up with your own guidelines. Color balance is important too. I also much prefer matte-finished monitors to glossy ones for all types of viewing. There is nothing worse than trying to get work done while having text on the screen drowned out by the reflection of overhead lights.

Higher quality monitors will be more expensive. Be sure to view some to see for yourself if the added cost of a better monitor is worth it to you.



Capable of Playing Music Well

Unfortunately, even though progress has been made recently, due to size constraints, you will still not find a laptop with really great speakers. So, if you are a real audiophile (and do not plan to use an external USB audio stick) you will probably want to pay much more attention to the quality of the sound coming out of the headphone jack. This is what determines the best quality of the sound you will experience with good, external speakers. However, remember that a wide variation exists in the quality of sound that laptops put out from their internal speakers. So, you may want to pay some attention to that as well, if you don't want to risk being stuck with absolutely horrible sounding internal speakers. It can be rather inconvenient to have to connect to external speakers every time you want to watch a video.



A Decently-Sized Hard Drive or SSD

The size of the internal storage drive that you will need will be highly dependent on what you do with it. I prefer less-expensive, small storage drives, because most of the time I run Linux from USB sticks. But, I am the only one I know who does this. Many people dump everything they can find onto their storage drives. For them, a terabyte drive could be a tight fit. The bottom line on storage drives is that the size you need is dependent on your individual preference. Don't forget that you can put most or all of your data on an external hard drive. I carry around most of my data and software installation files that I use all the time on a 256 GB USB stick. That way, I can use them with any computer to which I may have access.

Most laptops these days come with SSD's, because they are thin and usually faster than hard drives. A few laptops come with both an SSD and a hard drive. This increases the versatility of the laptop, because the operating system can be run on the smaller, faster SSD, while copious amounts of data can reside on the larger, comparatively-less-expensive hard drive. This may be something to consider, especially if you are the type who likes to dump everything but the kitchen sink onto your hard drive. However, given that SSD prices are continuing to decline, this may soon not be an issue.



A Usable Keyboard

As manufacturers fixate on thinner laptops, owners complain more about their keyboards. The thickness of some keyboards has been reduced to the point where small grains of dust can cause keys to stop working. Not much can be done about this by laptop customers. About all I can suggest is that you wait a couple of months after a new laptop model comes out to see if owners complain about their keyboards before you decide to buy that laptop. It would also be a good idea, where possible, to go to a store and try out the keyboards of any laptop models that you are seriously considering buying.



Ports

Most laptops that have come out in the last five years or so have not had enough ports. This is a problem for people who use their laptops to get real work done. If you are writing documents or code or doing video editing on your laptop, you will no doubt be copying lots of files to external storage drives and transferring them to colleague's computers. Since new laptops haven't had plug-in cards for maybe seven years, cards with extra ports can no longer be added. Unless you want to be using a powered external USB hub, this means you should look for a laptop with at least three USB ports. Also pay attention to the spacing between the ports. Often manufacturers design laptop port arrangements so that users can't actually fill all the ports simultaneously.

You should also be aware of what other ports you may need. Do you want the extra security of ethernet instead of wifi? Do you plan on using VGA, HDMI, or some other type of external monitor? Do you care whether your USB ports are type A or type C? Personally, I couldn't care less. I think USB C is not much more than a way for some manufacturers to claim that their laptops are better than others.



File Transfer Speeds

In addition to having a sufficient number of USB ports, laptops should have USB ports that are fast enough not to cause you to waste much time waiting for files to be transferred. Backing up 200 GB of data with many small files onto an external drive through a USB 2 port can take an couple of hours or more. Be aware that just because a port is advertised as being USB 3 does not mean that it will transfer files at anything close to the maximum USB 3 transfer speed of 5 gigabits/s. Most USB 3 ports on laptops will not even transfer large files at more than about 1.4 gigabits/s. Many are significantly slower. Unfortunately, laptop manufacturers rarely advertise the transfer speeds of their ports, so you may have to do quite a bit of research to uncover the true numbers.



The ability to Run Operating Systems Other than Windows

Some people wouldn't dream of running anything but Windows. I wouldn't dream of buying a multipurpose laptop that couldn't run Linux. Even ardent Windows users should realize that if they buy a new laptop and all goes well, they may still be using it in ten years. A lot of things can happen at Microsoft in ten years. In fact, even at Microsoft, things seem to be moving more and more toward Linux. So, take it or not, my advice to you is not to buy a computer that is locked into Windows. For maximum operating system compatibility, find a laptop that lets the user turn off secure boot and boot from USB sticks. Few manufacturers advertise this capability, so you will have to research it on your own. Looking at laptop reviews on Amazon may be of some help. Dell, HP, and Lenovo business laptops are more likely to be Linux compatible and to allow secure boot to be turned off.



Maximum Upgradeablility

Even the most upgradeable laptops are not very upgradeable. The most you can expect to be able to upgrade on a laptop these days is the storage drive and RAM. I strongly suggest that you not buy a laptop that has the SSD or RAM soldered to the motherboard. Be aware of how much RAM you can add to your laptop. Often you are limited to 8 GB, but some laptops will go all the way up to 64 GB. However, these will be expensive workstations, not budget-priced laptops. In the past, after the CPU, RAM was the most important upgrade required to move up to a new version of Windows.

Laptops with user-removable batteries are ideal, but there are few of these left. However, most internal laptop batteries can be easily replaced by a user who is not afraid to take the back off of his laptop and weild a screw driver. There are many Youtube videos that show how to replace a battery.



Repairability

Even more than upgradeability, repairability has been greatly reduced in manufacturers' recent frenzied flight to thin-at-all-costs. Apple, however, is the worst offender. On some models, it has gone to additional lengths to prevent its laptops from being repairable. This not only includes soldering SSD's and RAM chips to motherboards, but also gluing together the top case assembly--the keyboard, battery, speakers, and touchbar. On some models, Apple has also made the Touch ID sensor double as the power switch, meaning that fixing a broken power switch may have to be done by Apple. And if that isn't bad enough, Apple uses proprietary pentalobe screws that further hinder repair efforts. For these reasons and for others already mentioned, I do not recommend that anyone buy any Apple laptop.

Manufacturers that make repairs of their laptops easy in comparison to the rest are Dell and HP. Their business laptops are more repairable than their consumer models. This is because, unlike uninformed consumers, corporations will not stand for manufacturers making their laptops hard to repair. Lenovo Thinkpads are also more repairable.

To get an idea of what to expect in terms of repairability, perform an internet search on "laptop tear down" and add the laptop model you are considering buying. Ifixit also publishes repairability scores for some of the more popular laptops.

One point that I should make here is that gaming laptops are generally thicker, more repairable, and more upgradeable than most other types of laptops. So, for those who are especially concerned about these things, gaming laptops are an option. However, keep in mind that, thanks to their more power-hungry GPU's, they are generally more expensive, less portable, and have shorter battery life than comparable, multipurpose laptops.



A Video Card that is Powerful Enough to Appeal to the Non-Hard-Core Gamer

While the GPU's integrated with intel CPU's are fine for office work and watching videos, they are not powerful enough for anything but very light gaming. Often, one of the lower-cost, dedicated video cards is a nice compromise for those who would also like to do some gaming with their laptops. However, as just mentioned, more powerful video cards drive up price, increase power consumption, and reduce battery life. So, don't go overboard on a dedicated video card in your multipurpose laptop.



Decent Looks

We are far from the days when a laptop had to look like a beige brick. You can now get very nice looking laptops in both metal and plastic. My opinion is that metal laptops look better when new and stay looking nice longer, especially if you take good care of them. However, metal laptops are more expense than plastic ones. Should you be willing to lower your cost by buying a used laptop, you can usually get a very nice-looking, metal laptop on Ebay for not much money. The older, metal HP Elitebooks and Dell E-Series Latitudes are both nice-looking and cheap.



Putting It All Together

When you go out hunting for your ideal, budget-priced, multipurpose laptop, you are likely to find that, while the capabilities you are looking for likely exist, they do not all exists in a single laptop, let alone at the price you are looking to pay. This is the point at which compromises will have to be made to find the closest combination of characteristics to your ideal laptop that you can get in a single laptop. Often you will find that you have to re-evaluate your priorities to get something that gives you a combination you can live with. Perhaps you will even have to settle for less on a requirement or two that you had your heart set on. When Sheldon said that this process, "involv[es] weeks of agonizing thought, tedious research, sleepless nights filled with indecision,..." it may have been meant to be funny. But, for those who are doing it right, it is also true.



Related Articles:

Know a Quality Computer when You see It.

Know What You're Buying Before You Buy a Computer

How to get a Cheap Laptop

When Buying a Computer, More Knowledge Equals Lower Cost

Know What You Need Before You Buy a Computer

Why used Computers can be such Good Deals

Why are there so many Lousy Laptops?

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