Finding the perfect laptop can be tricky, especially if looking at a spec sheet makes your eyes glaze over. It can be tempting to ignore these sometimes-confusing tables. Instead, many of us rely on a quick Google search for reviews of popular brands. That is a mistake.
Learning to read a spec sheet can be incredibly valuable. Not only will you be making an informed decision, you’re less likely to spend money needlessly. You should be looking for what you need, not just what sounds powerful and fancy. We explain some of the most important and head-scratch inducing parts of spec sheets mean.
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Size really does matter.
The dimensions on your rig determines how big and heavy it is — which is always important for something that prides itself on being portable.
On the lower end of the scale, 11-12 inch laptops are the thinnest and lightest on the market, though you do have to sacrifice other specs for the convenience. On the larger end you have 17-18 inches, which are really only good for sitting stationary on your desk, because they’re a pain to lug around.
15 inch machines tend to be the most popular, though 13-14 inches may outshine them more as their usability increasingly balances out their portability. Thinner laptops are definitely rising to power in every sense of the word.
Not sure what 1920 x 1080 and the like means? These are pixels, and the more you have on your screen the sharper everything is going to look. Also, you’ll be able to fit more on your screen.
You’ll find that a fair chunk of low end laptops will have 1366 x 768. On the higher end you’ll find 2560 x 1600, 3200 x 1800 and 3840 x 2160. These are going to look great but will chew through your battery life faster. 1920 x 1080 is usually a pretty decent sweet spot.
The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is basically your laptop’s brain. The amount of processing power it has will significantly affect its performance. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need the most hardcore processor available though. It depends what you’ll be using your machine for.
The Intel Core i7 are great if you’re looking for a gaming rig or high performance work station. But they’ll be pricey.
The i5s are generally good all rounders in terms of performance and price points. Even cheaper again are the i3s, but you’ll probably start really noticing the difference here.
If you’re looking to go as budget as possible, take a look at Intel Atoms, Pentiums and Celerons. Or you could go for the AMD series, which refer to CPUs as APUs just to be confusing. These options are good if you’re only looking to run light programs and browse simple websites.
Random Access Memory (RAM) is what allows your computer to store and retrieve information. Every time you open a program up on your computer, it’s loaded into the memory. If you have too many open at once your machine will swap data between the RAM and your hard disk. The more RAM you have, the more your laptop can handle at once.
This is why your computer may run slowly or programs begin to crash if you never shut it down. Keeping everything on and open constantly eats up too much RAM.
Generally you’ll want 4GB of RAM minimum, even when going for a budget computer. 8GB is a good amount if you want to pack a little more punch. 16GB+ should be reserved for those of you wanting a completely tricked out rig. Otherwise, you probably don’t need it.
This is all about how pretty everything looks. You’ll find that the majority of laptops will have on board graphics, meaning that it’s built into the motherboard. Higher end machines may have dedicated graphics cards, but you really only need this if you’re going to be doing some serious PC gaming (nobody likes ugly frame rate drops) or high-res video editing.
If that is your plan — go nuts! Both Nvidia and AMD have a range of options at different price points that are worth looking at.
How much stuff they can store is generally one of the first things people look at when it comes to laptops. (Confusingly, this is sometimes listed under ‘memory’ alongside the laptops’ RAM.)
Make sure that there’s enough room for your usual programs, as well as the plethora of other things (videos, photographs, games, etc) you’ll inevitably add.
Many newer laptops are opting for Solid State Drives (SSD) over a classic hard drive. This is because they are faster and can positively impact the performance of the entire machine.
This is definitely worth it, because you can always get an external HD if you need the extra space later on.
This let’s you know what you can plug into your machine. This is important, because we’re in a transition period where some previously stock-standard inclusions are being phased out.
Not all laptops will have SD readers and HDMI video-out ports anymore. Instead, they may offer dual 4K monitor support or Thunderbolt 3 USB-C.
Make sure that you’ll be able to plug in your necessary externals.