The Beginner’s Guide To Reading A Laptop Spec Sheet

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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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Dimensions

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.

Display

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.

CPU

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.

RAM

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.

GPU

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.

Storage

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.

Ports/Connectivity

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.


Comments

    All good advice, missing only two important issues.
    1: Check that it supports the OS you plan to run (driver issues suck).
    2: Go to newegg and read the best reviews and the worst reviews.

    My two cents:

    1. Do not buy a laptop with 4GB of RAM. It is not enough anymore even for basic usage.
    2. More powerful components will mean more heat, which may become excessive after 2 years and no "internal dusting".
    3. Unless you need a Unix OS with readily installable Office, do not buy a Mac or you will overpay for no reason and have trouble replacing parts in case of failure.

      4. Thinner laptops tend to flex. Not usually a problem for the daily commuter, but long distance travel may warrant a [slightly] thicker, more rugged unit.

      5. Beware "sealed unit" laptops - minor faults will leave you empty handed. Look for user replaceable RAM, hard drive, and battery.

        Very true, this trend of soldering components is really annoying !

      Macs tend to have fewer program conflicts than PC and are less prone to viruses. A well loved and reasonably specced 2nd hand Mac will likely provide years of hassle free computing.

    The part about CPU is a total bull..... Choosing a CPU is so much more complex then just clasify as i7 i5 and i3 and picking one of them. By the way those are just Intel products and it is not true that AMD processors are only for basic tasks. Please do not feed people with misleading and false information.

    Much better advise is to ask a friend who understands those specs to help you choose a good product than buying something that you don't understand especially that this guide won't make you understand.

    I am sorry Tegan for criticizing your work but I simply disagree with the content.

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