One of my clients recently had a laptop that completely died. The problem was listed by HP as known for a recall, but she took too long to call it in and now has to spend either $299 CDN to have it fixed by HP or pay for a new laptop. She requested to know information on laptops around $1000 and I figured it would be good information for everyone to know.
I have worked as a computer technician, web developer, sysadmin and designer, am currently studying as a computer scientist undergraduate and have been a computer enthusiast for quite some time, so I may not be a brilliant Intel engineer, but I know a thing or two about computers. So to you brilliant Intel engineers that may be reading this post, please note I am dumbing down this information enough for the general public to digest and is intended for those who are looking for a simple guide to laptops and have a budget of around $1000 CDN.
Online Stores for Purchasing Laptops/Notebooks
I usually shop online for computers because box stores such as Future Shop mark-up their computers quite a bit. Searching around online allows me to compare prices, research individual components and not be pressured by salesman. The only caveat is you have to wait for the laptop to be shipped (or pay for it to be expressed). Also, for example, if it is sent from the US to Canada, you’ll have to pay a customs fee.
Recommended websites to search for laptops:
(There are of course hundreds of other websites, these are just a few I am experienced with. Feel free to post more in the comments, especially for European, Asian, South American and Oceanic areas.)
I, if anyone knows me or reads my blog, whole-heartedly suggest, but will not force you, to use Ubuntu on your laptop. I have plenty of reasons for loving Ubuntu, but if Windows or a Mac are for you, then so be it.
If you’re purchasing a laptop with Windows on it, Windows 7 is the newest operating system in the Windows line-up, so make sure it doesn’t have Windows Vista on it. Many refurbished laptops will have Vista as an OS because the retail company has been holding on to the laptop for long enough, without selling it, that it was installed with Windows Vista, which means the laptop is at least 6 months old (at the time of this writing). In the world of technology, 6 months is a long time.
Thus, the computer will be that much more outdated (is it worth $100 off the price?) and you’ll have an older operating system (which means you’ll have to upgrade to Windows 7 for a price).
If you’re looking to buy an Apple, take a look at Apple.com.
The competition between Intel and AMD, the two major CPU vendors, plays out like the swing of a pendulum. For a couple years AMD will have the best processors, then in couple more years Intel will dominate. As of late, it has been Intel’s turn to release the fastest processors. With their current line of “Core” processors, Intel has outdone AMD in all sorts of benchmarks, especially outdoing themselves and their old Pentium line. The current selling family of processors looks like this (in general, from worst to best):
- Celeron Dual Core
- Pentium Dual Core
- Core (Duo/Quad)
- Core 2 (Duo/Quad)
- Core i3/i5/i7
Be careful that the CPU is ‘Core Duo’, ‘Core 2 Duo’ or ‘Core i3/i5/i7’ and not ‘Celeron Dual Core’ or ‘Pentium Dual Core’. Those are lower quality processors that have been slapped together to make it dual core. The quality difference between those and the actual “Core” series is incredible. Personally, I would look for any laptop that says Core i3/i5/i7.
Lastly, you can no longer look at a processor and compare them by their clock speed. A Core i7 running at 1.6 GHz can outperform a Pentium 4 running at 3.6 GHz. Intel and AMD have learned to make processors more efficient at a slower clock rate (those are the 1.6 GHz/3.6 GHz ratings I was talking about).
In general, memory has gone from SDRAM to DDR, DDR2 and now DDR3. DDR3 RAM offers lower power usage and larger throughput, which means you can run more programs at one time and higher intensity programs at that (games, video editing software, etc.). If you’re choosing a laptop that is Core i3/i5/i7, like I suggested, you’ll be forced to use DDR3 RAM anyway, so my only suggestion is to make sure you have at least 3GB of RAM or more. Anything less and your laptop will crawl with Windows 7 and a couple programs running. With Ubuntu, it should run quite smoothly, but you wouldn’t be getting your money’s worth if you bought a $1000 laptop with only 2GB of RAM.
The hard drive size is really up to you and is a good area to cut a couple dollars if you’re not going to be storing hundreds of videos. The only suggestion I have is to try and get a laptop that runs at 7200RPM for improved performance. I wouldn’t sweat purchasing a laptop at 5400RPM, however, as most laptop hard drives run at this speed.
Also, out of Hatachi, Seagate and Western Digital, I suggest Western Digital, as I’ve never had a problem with them in the 10 years I’ve used them. The first time I bought a Seagate, I had to send it back because the read head was broken. This is a personal preference and anecdotal evidence at best.
If you want a representation of how fast the CPU and RAM are compared to the hard drive, I will modify an analogy from Gustavo Duarte’s “What Your Computer Does While You Wait” (a good read if you want to learn the internals of the CPU and memory). Don’t worry about what L1 and L2 cache mean, that is just the CPU’s internal memory.
Reading from CPU’s L1 cache is like grabbing a piece of paper from your desk (3 seconds), then CPU’s L2 cache is like picking up a book from a nearby shelf (14 seconds), and main system memory is taking a 4-minute walk down the hall to buy a Twix bar. Waiting for a hard drive, however, is like leaving your office and roaming the Earth for 1 year and 3 months.
That’s why fast hard drives are where you’ll see speed improvements in boot time, fetching files and (so long as you have a good enough CPU and enough RAM) the loading of programs (e.g. the length it takes to open programs like Firefox).
Just as with most components listed above, video cards are a hotly debated topic: which is the best for which gaming, video rendering and what is the best CPU/memory/video card combination is, etc. I’m not going to get into that. Instead, all I’m going to tell you is if you’re spending $1000 CDN on a laptop, look for a video card that is dedicated, not integrated. After that, if you want to compare the ATI Radeon HD 5470 and the nVidia GeForce GT 325M, then go ahead. Just make sure not to purchase a laptop with an integrated Intel or VIA video card. nVidia and ATI even make some integrated chipsets, so be careful.
Integrated video cards are not as terrible as I make them out to be, but they share memory from your RAM, thus allowing you use less of that RAM for other applications that might be running and tend to be slower and less responsive than dedicated video cards.
Other components you’ll want to look at on your laptop are:
- Screen size: if you’re older and find it hard to view small screens or like to watch a lot of videos or play games, or even if you’re working and need the real estate, you’ll want no less than a 15″ screen
- Outputs: Are you going to connect this laptop up to an external monitor or HDTV? Then make sure it has a blue VGA connector or HDMI connector respectively
- USB 3.0: is an upgrade from the current USB 2.0 specification (that little rectangle plug that may connect your mouse, keyboard, external hard drive, BlackBerry, iPod, GPS device, etc.). USB 3.0 is supposed to be up to 10x faster than USB 2.0 but isn’t that prevalent on the market at the moment. I would suggest, if you can find it, purchasing a laptop with at least one USB 3.0 connector.
- Optical Drive: If you like to watch movies or burn backups, make sure you know if the laptop has a DVD or Blu-ray burner/player.
- Lastly, do you want a card reader so you can view your pictures without a USB cord? Do you want to use Bluetooth so you can connect your phone wirelessly to your computer? And what about a webcam?
Look for a laptop with the following features:
- OS: Windows 7 or Ubuntu 10.04 (Lucid Lynx)
- CPU: Core i3/i5/i7
- RAM: 3GB+ of memory
- Hard Drive: whatever size you need, but if you can, try and get it at 7200RPM
- Video Card: dedicated, or anything that isn’t integrated
- Other: Make sure it has any ports you might need such as USB 3.0, DVD/Blu-ray player, HDMI to hook up your laptop to an HDTV, bluetooth if you like to connect wirelessly via your phone, webcam if you need it, etc.
- Price: ~$1000 CDN
My New Laptop
I can’t make all these suggestions without actually following them myself. I recently purchased an ASUS K72JR-X1 from NewEgg.ca for $979.99 CDN.
- OS: Windows 7 (Ubuntu will be install and ran by default)
- CPU: Core i5 430M @ 2.26GHz
- RAM: 4GB DDR3
- Hard Drive: 500GB 7200RPM
- Video Card: ATI Radeon HD 5470 1GB dedicated
- Other: 17.3″ (1600×900) screen, VGA and HDMI out, no USB 3.0 ports, DVD-RW
So I missed out on Blu-ray and USB 3.0, but I’m happy with my purchase.