5 Reasons to Spend More than $500 On Your Next Laptop

Geek's Geek: 5 Reasons to Spend Over $500 on Your Next Notebook

These days, you can purchase a passable laptop for little more than the cost of an iPad. As of February, the average Windows notebook cost just $513 and, for less than that, you can find a strong system that comes with modern specs like a Core i3 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. But just because you can grab a low-rent laptop for $399 at Best Buy doesn’t mean you should.

Whether you’re buying a notebook that’s made to order or choosing between different ready-made models, you need to pay a little extra to be happier and more productive. Here are five laptop features worth the splurge:

1. High-Resolution Screens

You can never be too rich, too thin or have too many pixels, but unfortunately most notebooks today come with lame 1366 x 768 screens that show even less of your favorite Web pages above the fold than their 1280 x 800 counterparts from 2007. When it comes to surfing the Web, editing documents, sending email or viewing photos, it’s all about vertical real screen estate. Having 900 vertical pixels instead of 768 can allow you to see an additional paragraph or more of text without scrolling. When you’re not scrolling all day, you can read more and get more work done.

Resolution Comparison

If you’re purchasing a MacBook, make sure to buy one with at least a 1440 x 900 resolution (MacBook Air 13-inch, MacBook Pro 15-inch or higher). If you’re buying a PC notebook, spend the extra money to get a screen that’s at least 1600 x 900. And if your notebook is 15.6-inches or larger, try going for a 1920 x 1080 resolution display.

On sites that provide configure-to-order notebooks, the cost delta between a 1366 x 768 screen and a 1600 x 900 screen is anywhere from $50 to $100. For example, HP.com charges $100 to upgrade the $579 Pavilion dm4t’s screen to the higher resolution, while Dell charges $50 to up the $499 Latitude E5420′s screen to 1600 x 900 and $150 to move the XPS 15′s screen from 1366 to 1920 x 1080. The one caveat is that many of the systems that come with a higher-res screen option are marketed as business notebooks, but that’s no reason a consumer couldn’t buy and enjoy them.

More: Why 1366 Resolution is a Joke

2. Solid State Drives

Every second you sit there waiting for your computer to boot or Photoshop to load is bringing you a second closer to the end of your life. Why not use those seconds to do something more rewarding, like opening more applications?

The speed delta between using a traditional hard drive and an SSD is greater than the difference between riding a Big Wheels on a cobblestone road and racing down the Autobahn in a Porsche 911. In our tests, our favorite SSD, the Samsung 830 Series, took less than half the time of a 7,200-rpm hard drive to open a 500-page PDF in Adobe Reader X (3.8  vs 7.1 seconds), and less than a third of the time to open a Excel 2010 to a large spreadsheet (4.2 vs 14 seconds) and to launch Photoshop CS 5.1 with a 400MB TIF (8.4 vs 25.9 seconds).

What can you do with the extra 17.5 seconds you won’t be waiting for Photoshop to open? How about opening 17 more browser windows (at less than 1 second each), reading five more tweets from your friends or observing 1.7 billion particle collisions

App Open Times: SSD vs HDD

Unfortunately, the price delta between buying a notebook with an SSD and a hard drive is significant, but anything around $200 for 128GB of storage should be considered good.  For example, Lenovo charges a reasonable $180 premium to upgrade a ThinkPad Edge E420s to SSD while Dell charges $230 to bump the Latitude E6420 to SSD. In those cases where the premium is unreasonably high, look for preconfigured models with an SSD built-in like the $849 Toshiba Portege Z835. Bottom line: SSDs are worth the money because you’re buying time.

More: Why you really need an SSD

3. Longer Battery Life

Unless you’re buying an 8-pound notebook you plan to leave on your desk as if it were a desktop, you need as much endurance as you can get. Most low-cost notebooks don’t come with enough to juice to last more than 3 or 4 hours on a charge, which is barely enough time to watch a single “Lord of the Rings” movie, let alone write a detailed report for work or school.

Whether you’re hopping from conference room to conference room in the office, heading from one classroom to another or walking around the show floor at CES all day, you don’t want to worry about finding an outlet. Even when you’re just lying in bed using your notebook, it can be a real pain to be tethered to the wall or stop to charge every few hours.

Save yourself from battery panic by choosing a notebook that gets a bare minimum of 6 hours on a charge, with 8 to 10 hours preferable. High-endurance notebooks like the ASUS U31 series cost a little more than the $500 average notebook price, but when you can get 9+ hours of battery life, spend the money.

If a notebook is available with different battery choices, always go for the higher-capacity battery, even if it adds a little bit of weight or sticks out the back. For example, the Lenovo ThinkPad X220 lasts a strong 7 hours and 51 minutes on a charge with its standard 6-cell battery. However, when you pay an extra $30 to upgrade to the 9-cell unit, it lasts an incredible 12 hours and 39 minutes while only adding 0.2 pounds to the laptop’s weight and 1 inch to its depth. If you don’t mind another 1.5 pounds of weight and another 0.6-inches of thickness, an optional battery slice takes the battery life up to 20 hours and 18 minutes, enough time to fly from New York to Taipei with a 3-hour stopover in Tokyo.

ThinkPad X220 Battery Life

More: 11 Ways to Increase Your Windows Laptop’s Battery Life

4. More Powerful Processors

When you invest in a new notebook, you want to hold onto it for a good three years, without feeling like it’s too slow to run today’s apps, let alone tomorrow’s updates. The lowest-priced notebooks on the market use sluggish Intel Pentium or AMD Athlon chips, while many average-priced systems sport modest Intel Core i3 chips.

Spring for a system with an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processor to give yourself enough oomph to crunch videos and spreadsheets today while future-proofing you against the next couple of years of innovation. Core i5/i7 CPUs can turbo boost up to a higher frequency while performing processor-intensive tasks, so your 2.5-GHz laptop can actually overclock itself up to 3.1-GHz while you’re playing a game. 

The cost delta between Core i3 and Core i5 is fairly minimal in most cases. The price difference between a Dell Inspiron 14R configuration with Core i5 and one without is just $70 on Dell.com. However, when you jump up from a bargain basement Intel Pentium CPU, you pay a larger premium. For example, HP.com charges $170 to upgrade its Pavilion G6t from Pentium to Core i5. Spend the money.

Upgrade the HP G6t

5. Discrete Graphics

While the integrated HD 3000 chip on Intel’s 2nd Generation Core Series processors offers decent graphics performance for everyday tasks and video playback, many applications benefit from discrete graphics. Though we’re able to run “World of Warcraft” at modest settings on integrated graphics, we don’t even bother to test out serious titles like “Crysis” or “Batman: Arkham City” without a dedicated Nvidia GeForce or AMD Radeon chip on board, because those games won’t be playable at even low settings.

When you have a discrete chip, you can also achieve significantly better performance in photo and video editing apps, as many are optimized to run filters, compress files and show previews more quickly by using the GPU. More importantly, the latest Web browsers have hardware-accelerated graphics capability that affects the playback of next-gen Internet applications. More and more sites are adding 3D elements and animations that run so much smoother with discrete graphics.  Check out Microsoft’s Beauty of the Web site to see some great examples.

The cost of upgrading from integrated to discrete graphics is usually in the $75to $150 range for vendors that sell configure-to-order or sell notebook configurations with this feature. For example, HP.com charges just $75 to upgrade from integrated Intel HD Graphics to an AMD Radeon HD 7470M GPU when you buy the Pavilion dv6t.


AUTHOR BIO
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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  1. Alexandra Says:

    On the other hand, if all you’re going to do is toddle to the corner store, no need to buy a Porsche.

    Are you a globe hopping, high end businessman with the need for as much power as you can get? Then buy the best you can afford since the machine is your mobile office and your bread and butter.

    If all you want to do is answer e-mail, use Skype or Google voice or do light web surfing, you may as well save money by giving the latest high tech fire breather a pass in favor of a more sedate basic model.

  2. David Kneiber Says:

    I’m typing this on my T400 ThinkPad with a Core2 Duo processor.
    Are you telling me that the average consumer needs more than an i3 or even a modern pentium processor to use office applications and chat on facebook?

    What people should really be doing is looking at laptops that they like – focus on things like design, build quality, and features. You shouldn’t judge buying a car based on how much horsepower it has, but how it drives and the overall feel.

    You’re really misleading consumers by telling them they need the best and highest spec’d options they can get on their laptops.

    Even if i had the highest spec T400 – at around $2000, i would still lose in performance benchmarks compared to a modern i3 processor – similar to that in a $449 laptop.

    As for all the high resolution screen stuff, many prefer large font text. At the accounting office that i work at, i find that employees have actually set their 22 inch 1080p displays to lower – non native resolutions so that they can better see text. It looks terrible, and i can’t stand it – and as much as i love pixel density, i think they would have been better off with lower native resolutions.

  3. Andrew Says:

    Be very wary of the screen resolution thing mentioned in #1 above. Our school district purchased laptops with the 1366×768 resolution and when they are plugged into a video projector in mirroring mode the lower part of the screen gets cut off. The only way to get the full size image on the projector is to switch to extend mode and treat the projector like a second monitor. The small screen is fine for web browsing, but if you have full screen apps that require more pixels top to bottom stay away from the smaller resolution screens.

  4. Zippy the Frog Says:

    What a bunch of garbage. Buy an iPad if it is such a big deal.

  5. Dennis Says:

    Hello everyone; I have a 11 year old gateway with 1-gig of ram and a 2-gig processor.
    Also with an ATI video card with 128 ddr agp 4x. Not the latest technology but i love this
    windows XP computer.It does every thing well from ms word to internet browsing.
    The latest technology is not needed for a home user. Back in 2001 Gateway had a good reputation,
    but today i am not sure. Point being whom ever makes the most reliable product and
    stands buy that product is the one i would buy. My only gripe is there are no more copies of system
    disks being sold with computers these days,a must have if you need to restore your computer for
    whatever reason.

  6. Chris Says:

    I think the poster was trying to say, if you love gaming and don’t want to be disappointed with your discount computer, spend the cash. In the long run, you’ll get more out of it.
    It’s like buying a household toaster versus a commercial toaster. If you plan on using your toaster once or twice a day, get the cheap one. If you plan on extreme toasting all day and through the night, opt for the pricier one with 8-slot “wide mouth bagel mode”.

  7. Richard Says:

    So you do think 1600×900 is the hell of a resolution? Or even 1920×1080? My aging Lenovo W500 has 1920×1200 and there is no way to get that or better with any newer sane notebook. I’m saying sane, because that means to exclude Apple and I’m not talking about the price. But I do sincerely hope, that other manufacturers get their high resolution 15″ displays ready. Ideally Lenovo would show up with a W540 with a 2560×1600 display (or better).

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