Here’s what to look for if you want to buy the best laptop possible
In the old days, you rarely needed more than 4GB of RAM or more to get the best out of your system.
These days, you’ll probably want to think about 8GB as a minimum. If you’re a power-user, 16GB is the way to go. Meanwhile, gamers should look at dialing things upwards all the way to 32GB (or beyond) if they want the best experience.
More RAM allows for more applications to be run at the same time, and for more data to be quickly accessible by the system at any one time, which comes in handy for tasks such as editing photos or video content.
There are a few interesting terms that you might see when looking into RAM specs, here’s what you essentially need to know about them. Alongside the brand and capacity of any RAM stick, you’re gonna find the letters DDR. There’s also usually a number attached. For example, the Gigabyte Aero 15 OLED laptop has two 8GB sticks of DDR4 RAM. This acronym stands for Double Data Rate and the number that comes after it refers to the generation of component design.
The most recent generation of RAM hardware is DDR4 but DDR5 RAM is expected to land sometime in 2021. As a rule, higher numbers are better than lower numbers here and most motherboards can only support certain generations of RAM. Thankfully, since you’re looking at buying a laptop, you don’t have too much to worry about here since no sane OEM is going to stick incompatible RAM into a prebuilt machine.
The number that comes after the DDR designation is a little more significant. That’s the transfer speed. Similar to the clock-speed on a CPU, this number measures the default theoretical maximum transfer speed. Again, higher is better here. Higher speeds means stuff happens faster.
Another detail to note here is whether or not the RAM in your laptop is single or dual-channel. In most everyday use cases, this might not make a huge difference but, if you’re trying to weigh up your options, a laptop with dual-channel is generally more desirable than one with an equivalent amount of single-channel memory clocked at the same transfer speed. This is because dual-channel RAM is able to transfer a greater amount of data at once.
In conclusion, while having more RAM is always going to be better than having less RAM, most users aren’t going to feel the difference between having 16GB and having 32GB unless they’re running the kinds of RAM-heavy applications where that 16GB or a secondary channel is going to make a big difference. Since RAM is relatively cheap and often easy to upgrade in modern laptops, it’s usually smarter and safer to buy for what you need here rather than what you might.
Hard drives used to be all the rage, but these days they’ve mostly out of favor, especially for thin and light laptops. This is because they can be slow, somewhat bulky, and produce noticeable heat and noise.
A solid state drive (SSD), on the other hand, offers a lot more speed than a hard drive, runs silently, and can be installed in a form factor that doesn’t add too much to the weight and bulk of a laptop. As a result of these clear benefits, most OEMs have embraced SSD storage as the standard for laptops.
Stick to an SSD for your new laptop and you’ll love the speed with which it can load programs, access your data, and also how quickly it can boot up your system.
The only problem is that SSDs don’t offer as much capacity. This means that SSD storage is often more expensive in terms of dollars-to-gigabytes than traditional hard drives. You’ll be stuck with a drive that’s either 128GB, 256GB or 512GB in size, but costs a lot more than one with a 1TB or 2TB hard drive would.
To compensate, many laptop and PC OEMs now pair a smaller SSD with a larger hard drive. This allows consumers to get the speed benefits of keeping their operating system on SSD storage while also having adequate storage space for the rest of their data.
If you opt to go for something with this two-pronged setup, you’ll generally want an SSD with a minimum of 256GB of storage and a secondary drive with no less than 1TB. Alternatively, if your laptop only has a single SSD drive at its disposal, you’ll want to make sure if includes no less than 512GB of storage space.
The newest, fastest laptops also have NVMe solid-state drives which are even faster than traditional SSDs but also more expensive. If you’re buying a new laptop in 2020, you’ll want one with an SSD. However, that being said, don’t feel overly pressured to spend extra on the latest model here. While it is true that more recent SSDs boast better speeds than older models, the biggest advantages you’re enjoy here are tied more to the fundamental advances that SSDs offer over traditional hard drive storage.
3. Battery Life
Manufacturer-quoted battery life is almost never indicative of what the real-world experience of using a laptop is like.
There are simply too many variables that affect battery life. There is the screen brightness, the screen resolution, the number of applications you have running in the background plus whether or not you actively remain connected to Wi Fi networks or Bluetooth devices.
The operating system a laptop runs on can also play a major role in determining battery life. It’s for this reason that ultrabooks and convertibles running on Chrome OS tend to offer superior battery life than those running on Windows 10.
If you run programs that need lots of processing, stream lots of online video, play graphics-intensive games or if you transfer lots of files over a wireless network, then your battery will drain a lot sooner than what the vendor has quoted.
A good practice here is to look at the rating of the battery in Watt-hours (Wh) or milliamp-hours (mAh). The larger these figures are, the longer the battery can last. For a 13.3in Ultrabook, for example, a battery with a rating from 44Wh to 50Wh will give you the best results.
Another key thing to look for here is fast-charging. Much like modern smartphones, many new laptops also support fast-charging, which is always good in a pinch.
4. USB 3.0
These days, if a laptop has only one USB 3.0 port on it, you probably ought to look at buying another laptop. Ideally, you should look for a laptop that has at least a couple of these USB 3.0 ports. They’re the most common connector port in the industry and, while you can find a dongle for anything on Amazon, it’s usually a better bet to just make sure your next laptop has them.
In addition to the baseline utility you get from USB ports (which allow you to plug in an external hard or SSD drive and backup your data or use conventional mouse or a fancy keyboard with your laptop), USB 3.0 is about ten times faster than USB 2.0. This means that data transfers over USB 3.0 take significantly less time.
Many modern peripherals also tend to deliver the best performance on or require USB 3.0 to function at all.
If possible, you should try and take things a step further and go for a laptop with USB 3.1 ports. USB 3.1 allows for a throughput of up to 10 gigabits, double that offered by USB 3.1.
If you’re ready to embrace USB Type-C, Thunderbolt 3 ports offer an even better option. Thunderbolt 3 ports have a peak data transfer speed of 40 gigabits per-second. At the moment, the peripheral ecosystem around USB Type-C isn’t quite as mature as conventional USB 3.0 but, as more device manufacturers switch to the connector-type, it’s becoming more compelling.