How to Configure Your Laptop: Specs That Matter
When you're shopping for a laptop, you need to pick not only the make and model you want, but also the configuration. While a few available models offer only one set of specs, many come in several flavors with different options for processors, RAM, storage, screens, batteries or Wi-Fi cards.
Some vendors, such as Lenovo, allow you to customize the specs when you buy directly from their sites, while others simply offer an array of preset configurations. In either case, you need to decide which upgrades will offer enough of an improvement to your computing experience to justify the increase in price, and which you can cut to save cash. Here are some tips for choosing your next notebook's configuration.
Processor: Pay up to $100 for Core i5
Most mainstream laptops use Intel's Core Series processors — Core i3, i5 or i7 — while low-end systems use AMD chips or Intel Pentium, Celeron or Atom chips. Low-power 2-in-1s use Intel Core M. Expect to pay up to $100 to upgrade from one major model of CPU to another, though going from a base-level Core i5 to Core i7 usually adds over $200 to the cost. If you want solid, mainstream performance, pay extra to get Core i5, if it's an available option. However, if you're using a laptop only for surfing the Web and sending email, a Core i3 processor will probably suffice. Moving from a slower Core i5 CPU to a slightly faster one probably isn't worth the price increase, unless the jump is under $50.
Storage: Hard-drive upgrades cheap, SSDs expensive but worth it
Moving from a smaller hard drive to a larger one is usually inexpensive. For example, it costs just $20 to upgrade your HP 15t Touch laptop from a 750GB to a 1TB hard drive. Moving from a 5,400-rpm to a 7,200-rpm hard drive is also quite inexpensive and, if you can't fit a Solid State Drive (SSD) into your budget, it's well worth the money. Toshiba charges only $10 to upgrade the Tecra A50 from a 500GB, 5,400-rpm drive to an identically sized 7,200-rpm model, which promises noticeably better performance.
However, if you can afford it, getting an SSD instead of a hard drive is the best thing you can do to increase your laptop's overall performance. Because SSDs have no moving parts, everything from booting up to switching apps to launching new programs or saving files is significantly faster, often as much as 300 percent faster.
However, it usually costs $100 or more to go from the base hard drive to a 128GB SSD, and moving from 128GB to 256GB costs another $137 on average. That's way overpriced compared to what SSDs cost on the open market, where you can find a 256GB drive for under $150 and a 128GB for under $100. However, many laptops make it difficult if not impossible to replace your own hard drive, and doing so may void your warranty.
Consider getting a128GB SSD to save money and then backing up your data to an external drive or the cloud. Any SSD upgrade (going from hard drive to SSD or 128GB to 256GB) that's $100 or less should be considered a good deal.
Memory: Don't overpay for 8GB or more
The more programs or browser tabs you run at once, the more RAM your computer needs. Large programs such as photo and video editors also consume a lot of memory. These days, 8GB is optimal, while 4GB is the minimum for mainstream performance, but is acceptable in most cases. Only the least expensive systems come with less than 4GB.
The typical pattern we found with RAM upgrades was that every 2GB more of RAM costs about $40. As with SSDs, RAM is way overpriced in comparison to the cost of purchasing components on the aftermarket, where a 4GB DIMM costs only $20. If you can move from 4GB to 8GB for $50 or less when configuring, that's a bargain.
If you're a more advanced user, download the laptop's instruction manual before buying, and find out if it's possible to do the RAM upgrade yourself after purchase.
Screens: Pay extra for 1080p, not for touch
You'll see a huge difference in image quality and be able to fit more windows and text on-screen by upgrading from a lower-resolution display (1366 x 768 or 1600 x 900) to 1080p (1920 x 1080). There's usually just a $100 increase between low res and 1080p, but the improvement is easily worth paying up to $150.
Some higher-end laptops also give you the option of upgrading to higher-than-1080p resolutions such as 2K (2560 x 1440), 3K (2880 x 1620) or 4K (3840 x 2160). While you probably don't need the extra resolution for office productivity, you'll benefit from sharper images and videos. If you do graphics work or serious gaming, pay up to $150 to bump your resolution up.
A few laptops are also available with different color or brightness options. You'll get better viewing angles and more-vibrant images by paying up to $100 extra for an IPS or ultrabright display.
However, it's not worth paying to add touch-screen functionality to a laptop that doesn't convert into a tablet (and if it did convert to a tablet, it would come standard with touch). Touch screens not only add to the cost, but also decrease battery life.
Gamers should definitely pay extra for Nvidia G-SYNC technology, which eliminates tearing and ghosting. Laptops in the Asus ROG G751 series charge only $100 more for this feature.
Wi-Fi: Splurge for 802.11ac, Intel chips
Here's an inexpensive upgrade that could make a huge difference in your overall computing experience. If you're given a choice of Wi-Fi card, you can usually upgrade to a better one for $30 or less. For example, Lenovo charges just $20 to move from its Lenovo-branded 802.11n card to the Intel 7265 card with 802.11ac, which is compatible with faster networks and promises better connectivity overall.
Unless you're buying a gaming rig with souped-up connectivity, you should always choose Intel-branded Wi-Fi cards, because they provide strong performance, have good driver support and offer WiDi (wireless display) technology. This allows you to mirror your laptop to a TV, which is useful for presentations.
Battery: Inexpensive and worth the weight
Not many laptops come with a choice of battery capacities, but when they do, the cost increase is usually minimal but the added endurance is significant. For example, Dell charges just $20.36 to upgrade the Latitude 15 5000 from its default 3-cell battery to a 4-cell unit with about 30 percent more juice. Lenovo charges a mere $5 to move from its 3-cell, 23.2-watt-hour battery to a 6-cell, 72-watt-hour battery that has over three times as much juice. A larger battery usually adds about half a pound to the overall weight and may add a small bump to the back or bottom, but being able to stay unplugged all day makes all the difference.
Consider a Business Laptop
If you want to maximize your choices, consider buying a business laptop over a consumer model. While some companies, such as Dell, offer a number of different configurations for each consumer model, most manufacturers don't let you pick and choose the exact specs you want. Dell, HP, Lenovo and Toshiba each offer business models in which you can choose most of the key specs, from the CPU to the screen. These notebooks generally have the added benefit of more-robust customer support, too.
The Bottom Line
By customizing your laptop with the right components or picking the most appropriate pre-made configuration, you can get all the performance and usability you need, without paying extra for unnecessary features. While you can only customize a laptop on the manufacturer's site, if at all, you should also shop around, because a retailer may actually have a better deal on a unit that's ready to ship today.
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