The Advice I Give When People Ask What Laptop They Should Buy

The Advice I Give When People Ask What Laptop They Should Buy
Image: Getty Images

Over the last couple of weeks, it seems many of the people I know have been updating their tech and looking for a new laptop. And that’s meant several messages asking me “what laptop is best?”. Here’s how I answer that question.

It’s easy to get caught up in comparing detailed specifications. When you run your eye down the spec sheet, there are so many different details it can be tricky to tell the difference. That’s why I avoid the spec sheet, at the start.

Start With Budget

If you walk into a store without any idea of how much you’re prepared to spend, then it’s likely the sale associates will direct you to the higher end of the market. Set a budget and stick to it. That amount could be a monthly instalment, if you want to take advantage of interest free terms that may be on offer.

Size And Weight

If you’re planning to cart your laptop around, then size and weight are a big deal. Many of my friends purchase a laptop as they don’t have a bunch of space at home. In those cases, you can compromise on weight and size as you’re not likely to be carrying the computer too far. But if you’re a mobile worker, then a device that won’t weigh you down too much is important.

If you’re a frequent flyer, then remember that some airlines enforce weight limits for cabin baggage strictly. So, a lighter machine can be helpful.

Displays And Keyboards

While tech companies often boast about running the fastest CPUs and hardware architectures, I’m a firm believer that your computing experience will be influenced by two main things; the screen and the keyboard/trackpad.

I strongly suggest you head to a few local stores and try several devices out. Pay close attention to the quality of text and images on the screen and make sure you’re happy with what you see. You’re not going to ever look at a CPU for a machine you use for three years. But you’re likely to spend close to 6,000 hours looking at the screen. If you don’t like it, that’s a lot of time spent in front of something irritating.

Keyboards and trackpads are likely to the the part of the computer you spend the most time touching.

Keyboard layouts can differ significantly depending on the size of the machine and how the manufacturer has decided to fit things in. For example, you may find Shift keys are smaller than expected or function keys are half-height. When you’re in the store looking at screens, spend some time typing into a document editor and see what you like.

Mac Or Windows?

In a word – it’s doesn’t matter. Buy what you prefer subject to the other criteria I suggest.

Don’t Completely Ignore Specs

Once you’ve narrowed down your selection, my rule of thumb is 8GB of memory as a minimum and 256GB of SSD storage. Some cheaper models either offer less storage or still ship spinning hard drives. SSDs are way faster and you’ll appreciate that in the long run.

With processors, unless you’re doing something specific that requires a fast processor, the majority of people with be happy and productive with a Core i5 processor. If you’re budget can stretch to something faster – go for it. But that’s my minimum.


  • I usually start with “What do you need the machine to do?”

    Then start filtering based on budget etc.

    In a number of cases, I’ve had to go and look up software they were interested in as they were for jobs / interests I don’t have to determine the impacts of that software on the approach.

    I remember one couple who I helped where she was using a particular piece of software which was causing a large number of headaches for her on their existing system. When looking it up, I found out that universally the Windows version was panned but the Mac version was not and that the licence code was generic for platform.

    I ended up leading them a space MacBook Air configured with their software requirements so they could test drive the OS switch and more importantly the Mac version of the software, then after a month we then went through and determined the machine they should get once they were comfortable.

  • I’d add in Purpose as well. What do you want it for? Buying a gaming PC is much different to buying a work PC, and may find you looking at different specs and features.

    I went looking in December last year for a gaming laptop. $2000 budget, I ended up with a Dell because of the extra HDD space it offered. 16 Gb RAM, 256 Gb SSD, 1 Tb HDD, 1050 or 1060 GPU. A couple of other bonuses made the Dell a good deal.

    If you want it for work stuff though, that 1 Tb HDD, and GPU aren’t needed, so you’re better off with a bigger SSD and maybe a bigger screen. Which usually comes with a numpad as well, handy for some jobs.

    Specs aren’t the be all and end all for laptops, but they still matter when you’re considering what the person wants to do with it. You wouldn’t recommend a Dell 2 in 1 for gaming for example.

  • After telling them to set a budget.
    I then tell them you can have only two of these three things.
    Small size
    Long battery life
    Power for gaming and proccessing

    although the battery life is starting to be more flexible, it still pushes the idea across.
    then when they ask about what brand, like the article mentions, I tell them to focus more on the screen and keyboard.

    then when they have filtered down their list of prefered machines, they can compare the specs and price

    • i disagree, why limit yourself? And it’s not like they are really any cheaper either. For the same price you could get a decent lappy and put linux on it, you could even run android apps 😉

      • Chromebooks are definitely cheaper than Windows or Mac machines and many of them have a build quality far superior to other low spec laptops. Most have touchscreens these days too and many also now have a convertible form factor. Battery life is far superior too. While they don’t have all of the functionality of Windows or Macs, if all of your work is done online then Chromebooks suit that need perfectly.

        Many Chromebooks now run Android apps and they are even starting to roll out native Linux app support as well. Because it’s such a lightweight OS, they don’t need super duper specs either, and they comparatively beat the snot out of equivalently priced Windows laptops.

        If someone’s work is almost entirely web based (which these days, is quite common), I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a Chromebook. I recently purchased an Asus C302 for around $730, which is one of the higher end models available at the moment. I’ll take that over a $2000+ Windows or Mac machine anyday unless I really really need to use a specific application that doesn’t run on ChromeOS. As mentioned though, Linux app support is rapidly advancing so even that might be a thing of the past soon. I still have my Windows desktop as my workhorse but when I’m out and about the Chromebook is perfect.

        • “If someone’s work is almost entirely web based (which these days, is quite common)”
          What industry do you work in? Website blogging?

          • You don’t need to do website blogging to have your work almost entirely web based. I’m a game developer actually working in a distributed team and everything from our bug database to our build and release system to our project management system to our documentation to our communication methods are all online.

            Many professions these days purely use resources like Google docs and Gmail with everything saved in the cloud and have ditched the traditional office applications and exchange servers. I’ve worked at several companies even as far back as 5-6 years ago that had done that. It’s becoming increasingly common these days.

  • Hi folks, Help!
    I am almost 100% sold on buying the Spectre x 360 8gb. I have a very tight budget and can’t afford to make mistakes. My last purchase was a 2015 Surface laptop which is now failing me.
    I love both the above laptop and the Surface 3 x 8gb one. Which to buy? If I didn’t keep reading that the Spectre runs hot I’d like to purchase it.
    I’m not a gamer. I’m a retired senior and I don’t have a home business. Its for uni essays and research and recreational Netflix, multitasking, shopping, etc.
    Is this running hot thing a big problem? Could it be a deal breaker for me? Otherwise the Spectre looks stunning and is on special here in Australia for AUD$1590.
    Surface 3 also looks great and is a bit cheaper. I’m so torn. Have read reviews til the cows come home. Going cross-eyed here! Help needed.

    Please advise.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!