For many of us, purchasing a new laptop can be an intimidating experience. There are a ton of manufacturers and price points are all over the place. You may be equally fearful of spending too much money on technology that you’ll never put to full use, or spending too little and being unsatisfied with your new computer’s performance. Computer makers all seem to claim superior performance whether the laptop costs $500 or $1500. It can be incredibly confusing and frustrating.
Luckily, there are a few basic questions you can ask yourself to determine what your needs actually are. Then you’ll be able to narrow your purchase into one of three categories: Basic Use, Moderate Use, Power Use.
Basic Use ($300 – $500)
These are laptops in the $300-$500 range, including Chromebooks. These systems are meant to be used only for basic tasks. Most will have minimal storage and memory and often lower resolution screens.
Moderate Use ($500 – $1,000)
These laptops typically fall in the $500-$1,000 range that are meant for power users. They will offer more storage (or faster flash-based storage), more memory and generally better screens.
Power Use ($1,000 – $3,000)
These laptops start at $1,000 and can exceed $3,000. They feature speedy flash-based storage, plenty of memory for hungry software, and high resolution screens with the best color around. While prices for Power Use laptops can easily push $3,000, you should never spend that kind of money unless you know exactly what you are getting into. There are even more expensive laptops out there, but unless you work for a film or animation studio, these should not be on your radar.
Question 1: Do You Want to Play Cutting-Edge Games?
I don’t mean Solitaire or Mine Sweeper… I mean Doom Eternal or Red Dead Redemption 2. If the answer is yes, then prepare to spend a lot of money on a laptop, because you fall 100% into the Power Use category. Just keep in mind that it could potentially be cheaper to buy a less powerful laptop computer along with a game console. But if you are stuck on PC gaming, then be ready to spend.
This guide isn’t intended to cover choosing between cutting edge CPU/GPU options. For that I recommend looking into MSI, Lenovo and Razer Blade systems. Definitely stick with Windows systems and avoid Apple if gaming is a priority.
Question 2: Are You Using the Laptop to Create Video, Animation or Audio?
If you plan to install the Adobe Creative Suite, then you can eliminate Basic Use from your options. Consider Moderate Use if you are only planning to do light photo touchups using Lightroom or Photoshop. But if you are planning on delving into the world of After Effects or Premiere Pro, or any other serious video editing or animation software, you should stick to Power Use. However, people who are just getting started can often get away with a Moderate Use system and then upgrade later.
If digital art is your main purpose, consider a tablet such as Apple’s iPad Pro paired with a desktop computer. You’ll still get the portability with more bang for your buck on the desktop computer for around the same amount of money.
Audio work is less intensive than video or animation. If you plan on diving into the world of digital music production, you may be able to get away with a Moderate Use system. Be prepared to spend a lot more money on other equipment, though. It will be important to make sure your laptop has the proper ports, which will require some additional research on the kinds of equipment you plan to connect to your system.
Question 3: Are You a Heavy Internet Researcher?
One mistake is buying a cheap laptop because it’s only needed for web work. Web browsers such as Chrome, Firefox and Edge, all use significant memory to operate. The more tabs you have open, the more demanding they become. If you are the type of user who needs to have 25 tabs open in a browser, then forget Basic Use laptops. Get a Moderate Use system with 16gb of memory. You’ll need it.
Question 4: Windows or Mac?
While a new Macbook Pro system does not come cheap, if you are otherwise fully enveloped in Apple’s ecosystem, you may want to consider one. If the idea of your iPhone working seamlessly with your laptop – including text messages, FaceTime, phone calls and easy file sharing – is appealing, then the extra money spent may be worth it. Apple has a reputation for higher prices, but when you compare a Macbook Pro to one of Microsoft’s new Surface laptops, they both share similar “premium” price ranges.
On the other hand, if you are a devout Android phone user and have a Roku attached to your television, there really isn’t a need to jump to an Apple laptop.
Question 5: Do You Need a Rugged Laptop?
If you plan to take your laptop on the road because you are a wildlife photographer, you may want to invest in something sturdier than a typical business traveler might. It’s important to check reviews on the “build quality” of laptops you are considering. After all, there are a lot of cheap plastic parts floating around out there. Even a fully metal body like a Macbook Pro isn’t meant to withstand very much abuse. Research various “rugged” options, but the price can come at a premium (even when the hardware inside is fairly basic).
Another option is to invest in a sturdy cover, but these are usually only available for major brands.
And of course, make sure that any system you purchase has a decent warranty. If you plan to travel with your system, then definitely consider additional coverage for accidental damage. If you spend more than $1,500 on a system, another $300 for a good extended warranty is a no-brainer. After all, you may be hit with an $800+ repair bill, or you may need to replace the entire system.