Laptop Buyer’s Guide

Brian Lipscomb
Apr 13, 2020 06:12 PM ET

Buying a new computer can be an exercise in confusion. You may be overwhelmed by the number of options available. In this guide I break down the most important things you need to consider as you shop, whether in person or online.


First things first, let’s get some terminology out of the way. Knowing these terms will make your shopping experience easier.

RAM. RAM is the amount of memory the computer has for use while it is operating. More RAM means you can smoothly run more apps at the same time. In general, the more RAM, the better. Think of RAM as your workspace as you perform a task. The less space you have, the more crowded things are. But if you have more space, your work becomes easier and more efficient.

RAM is measured in gigabytes (GB). Whenever you shutdown or restart your computer, its RAM is erased.

Storage. Storage is the amount of space you have for permanently storing files such as documents, photos, and music. Think of storage as the file cabinet where you permanently store all of the documents you’ve created and want to keep. Because storage is also measured in gigabytes, it can easily become confusing when comparing storage to RAM. As with RAM, the more the better, but there are different types of storage.

Mechanical hard drives are the traditional type of storage found in most computers, and offer a lot of capacity for a great price. An SSD, or solid state drive, offers much faster data speeds than a traditional hard drive, and they have the added benefit of no moving parts to break down, but they cost more to produce. A new computer may come with a 1TB (Terabyte, or 1000 GB) hard drive, while a similarly priced model may come with a 256GB solid state drive. Which you choose is important because there is a tradeoff between space and speed. If you want your computer to be as fast as possible, get an SSD. If you want as much space as possible, get a traditional hard drive.

No matter what type of storage you choose, know that hard drives and SSDs can and do fail. A regular backup schedule is absolutely necessary!

Screen Resolution. Screens are made up of small dots called pixels, and the number of pixels are expressed as resolution. Many laptops come with a resolution of 1366×768 pixels, which is usually referred to as HD and is adequate for most uses.  However, a 1920×1080 (Full HD) resolution display will be much sharper, and is desirable if you will be working with photographs or watching HD content.

Processor. The processor represents the “brain” of the computer, and they are described in terms of speed, measured in Gigahertz (GHz). As with RAM and storage, the more you can get, the better, but more power also means higher cost.

Sometimes you will see a processor listed as dual-core, quad-core, or even six-core. This means that the processor is made up of discreet units that can operate independently of one another. Often this can translate into better performance, but it depends on what software you’re running.

The two major processor makers are Intel and AMD. Intel labels their processors with the names Celeron, Pentium, i3, i5, and i7. AMD labels their processors with the names Ryzen 3, Ryzen 5, and Ryzel 7. You should avoid the Intel Celeron and Pentium lines, as well as the AMD A6 and A9 lines due to their slower performance.

What should you buy?

So now that we know all these things, what are the minimum specifications you should look for when buying a new laptop? The answer to that question will depend on what you need the laptop for.

An average high school student or employee working from home will need a laptop for typing documents, doing research, and video conferencing, so a somewhat basic laptop will suffice. I would focus on RAM and Storage more than the processor. Look for at least 8GB of RAM; for storage, choose at least 256GB for an SSD or 1TB for a traditional hard drive. For the processor, the Intel i3 or AMD Ryzen 3 processors would be sufficient.

For a college student, the minimum for RAM and storage remain the same, but I would look for a quad-core processor for better multitasking capabilities. Here, the Intel i5 or AND Ryzen 5 processors would be my first choice.

If you envision doing photography or video editing, you will need a much more powerful system. I recommend at least 16GB RAM and 500GB or more of SSD storage. I would not use a traditional hard drive in a system for those purposes. I would also recommend an external hard drive (minimum 4TB) to store completed photo and video projects. The Intel i5 and AMD Ryzen 5 lines are good choices here, but if you can afford it, step up to an i7 or Ryzen 7.

Knowing all these terms and remembering them when walking into a store may seem like a lot, and many people just want whatever is on sale. But know that buying the cheapest laptop you see will get you just that: the cheapest laptop. Performance will be inadequate, the screen will be of lower quality, and you will generally be unhappy. Take the time to consider what you will use the computer for and choose accordingly. And watch out for deals! You can often save hundreds just by catching a sale.

Other Considerations

Screen size. The screen on a laptop is measured diagonally in inches, and usually represents a 16 to 9 width to height ratio, much like a modern television. The most common screen size is 15.6”, which is great for most people who will not be travelling with their laptops often. If you do envision taking your laptop with you several days a week, you may want to consider a 14” display, which will make the laptop physically smaller and therefore easier to carry. You can also find laptops with 13” and 17” displays.

The screen is one of the most important things to consider when buying a laptop, and is one of the reasons I recommend that you go to a physical store when shopping. For some, a 14” or 13” screen is too small, so for them a 15.6” or 17” would be the appropriate choice.

Keyboard. Most people don’t give keyboards a second thought, but it is very important! The keyboard will be your primary method of inputting information, so how the keyboard feels is very important to your ability to work efficiently. To understand why keyboard feel is so important, you need to test a few models in person. Things like key travel (the distance a key moves when you press it) and key spacing can make a big difference in how well you work.

PC vs. Mac. This is really a matter of personal preference. Most major software is available for either platform, so choose the one that’s right for your needs. Note that all new Macs come with an SSD drive.

A third option: Chromebooks. Chromebooks are laptops that run an operating system from Google built around the Chrome browser. While Chromebooks can only run web-based software, they are popular in education environments where easy management and security are desired. A Chromebook may be a good choice for a student, but be sure that their use is supported by their institution or school district.

The same considerations for PC and Mac laptops apply to Chromebooks, though like Macs, all modern Chromebooks come with SSDs.

In Conclusion

Take a few moments to think about what you need your laptop to do, and write those things down. Use those needs to determine the RAM, storage, and processor specifications required, and use those notes to shop. Making the right choice now will save you a ton of headaches later.