Normally when someone asks me about getting a computer, I say, buy a MacBook with Applecare (three year warranty because it runs Windows and Mac OS X. And while it might seem expensive to start, they certainly are durable and the support is terrific. We have MacBooks bought in 2009 (so five years old) that have nary a dent in them (unlike losing all those doors and things on cheap plastic notebooks) and with AppleCare, they’ve had lots of components replaced. In fact for $400 you can give them one last life boost when something really bad breaks (like a screen) in year four after the Applecare.
But if you just can’t bring yourself to buy a “PC from Apple” then there are plenty of choices. The good news is that performance hasn’t changed very much on these computers as Anandtech explains. Compared to a 2009 vintage laptop (Clarksfield), we are about twice as fast in five years, but in last year, Haswell was only 8% faster than Sandy Bridge. So, when you are buying a laptop, you have to look for other reasons than performance.
So what are the big things to look for. First, I benchmark the cost against an equivalent MacBook so I can get a sense of how much I’m saving or not saving. It’s a good way to make sure you are truly getting a good deal. But here are the parameters:

  • Service. This is going to be expensive, but it is for some reason a huge bummer when you have to throw a laptop away. For me, it is environmental (what a waste!) and for others all about lost data (because most Windows machines take lots of time to configure just so and only the most nerdy put everything on Dropbox). In particular, I use Amazon ratings as the main way to figure out reliability. Sadly, many of well know brands have just terrible reliability ratings, so don’t assume the Dell or the HP or the Lenovi you buy is wonderful. I’ve heard good things from Ludwig about the Microsoft Store, so maybe that is the place to go. (as an aside, I was shocked to see how dominant Apple is when you sort by customers reviews at Amazon)
  • Screen. Man, so many of these low end machines have screens that you just can’t see. It is probably the biggest ergonomic issue with notebooks. You really want 1080p in a notebook if you can get, but the brightness and color fidelity are even more important.
  • Size. It may not sound like it, but going from 3.5 pounds to 5 pounds to 7 pounds is a huge, huge, huge thing particularly if this is for the kids. And the bulk of these things with charger is important.
  • SSD. Having a solid state drive is a huge deal. It really has a dramatic impact on performance particularly as it doesn’t fragment so much. The first thing we did with old laptops was to add a $100 SSD. So if you are buying a new laptop, you should definitely get one.
  • Memory. Windows is memory hungry (as is OS X for that matter) and when you are swapping to disk all the time, it is super painful. Most Macs need 4GB and if you are writing software, 16GB isn’t so bad. For Windows, I actually only have one Windows machine now (and it is a hard core gaming machine), so can’t tell you the minimum, but I’d bet 4GB is about right.
  • Battery life. Machines can vary by 50% because most folks don’t spend much time on this. This is the biggest win in the last five years. We have gone from two hour to 7-9 hour battery life (12 hours for the latest MacBook Air) and that is amazing.

So given that, what do Anandtech and others say are the best and while you can get budget laptops for as little as $500, I’m not sure you would be happy with them. So, looking at the so called mainstream laptops in the $750 range, lets compare it with a benchmark machine, the MacBook Air 13″ at $1099 (you can get it for $1000 street according to Apple Insider) plus $289 for 3 year Applecare support (very good in our area as the Apple store is so close)

  • 13″ 1440×900 (so not quite 1920x1080p, but pretty close)
  • 12 hour battery life (wow!)
  • 128GB SSD (enough for ordinary uses like school work)
  • 4GB memory (enough for basic uses)
  • 1.3Ghz dual core i5 (as said above, probably the least important performance spec
  • 3 pounds (without the charge, but still amazingly light)
  • Intel H5000 graphics (enough for basic games)
  • 802.11ac, so up to gigabit wireless (a nice to have) 

So here are the Anandtech budget laptop recommendations:

  • HP Envy 15t-j100 (now that is a model number that just sings!) for $800. I had forgotten how hard it is to find particular models, but a search for Amazon didn’t turn up this specific one but it appears HP sells this direct (so you can’t find the user ratings of it unfortunately) for this base price you get some decent specs with the SSD the biggest issue
    • Core i5-4200
    • 6GB Memory
    • 750GB Hard disk (not SSD) but I would upgrade to a 750GB hybrid drive (this has an SSD cache for an additional $50
    • 1360×768 panel upgraded for $50 to 1080p.
    • HP 3-day support for 3 years (better than nothing). $151

Slightly higher up are the gaming laptops. Their main advantage is dedicated graphics chips:

  • Lenovo Y410p (Model 59399853) normally at $1200, but on sale (it is frequently) at $820 direct from Lenovo
    • 1600×900 display
    • 8GB memory
    • Haswell Core i7
    • nVidia GT 740M graphics
    • 1TB hard disk with 24GB caching SSD (a hybrid drive that gives lots of storage and much better performance)

I’m Rich & Co.

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