Laptop Spec Checklist

Being the family go-to resource for all information and advice computer related carries a certain burden. I don’t want be constantly playing the ‘it depends’ card, so when I was recently asked to recommend which laptop to buy by one of the kids, I decided to take a bit of time and write out as many of the variables on which it does depend. I hope others are able to derive some use from my efforts as well.

Notebook / Laptop Type, Size

Laptops typically come in four sizes:

Ultra-portables < 1.5 kg; 30 mm thick or less; has slimmest profile, but can be at the expense of built-in optical drive and features; high-priced.

Thin-and-lights 1.8 – 3 kg; < 40 mm thick; on-board optical drives and offers best compromise between an ultra-portable and the mainstreams with a good balance of speed, features and size.

Mainstreams 3 – 4 kg; around 40 mm thick; bulky though they offer good value with a good combo of features and speed.

Desktop Replacements 3.5 kg and above; > 40 mm thick; delivers the best performance and features but usually too bulky to be lugged around comfortably; top-end models come with TV tuner and PCMCIA remote.

Important Laptop Features to Consider

CPU / Processor

Processor Options to Consider

  • Vendor
    • Intel
    • AMD
  • Number of Cores
  • Speed

Dollars being equal, go with Intel vs. AMD.  There is nothing technically wrong with AMD products, but Intel is the market leader and my personal bias is toward Intel.  That said, being in the position of second place appears to make AMD try harder and there are a lot of great deals on AMD based laptops.

The minimum number of Processor Cores to get are 2.

Get no less than 2 cores. If you get less than 2 cores, you will regret it.

Note that I am talking about ‘real’ CPU Processor Cores, not Hyper-Threading cores.

If you can at all afford it, get 4 cores and no slower than 1.25 GHz.

Memory

4 GB is the minimum starting point for memory today. Do not get anything less. Do not let anyone tell you any different.

When it comes to memory, especially in a laptop, more is better and there is no such thing as too much.

8 GB would be awesome, 16 GB and up would be incredible, but probably impracticable.

Hard Drive

In a perfect world, get a laptop with two internal hard drives.

The first drive, the boot drive, would be a solid state disk (SSD) (no moving parts and very fast relative to ‘standard’, mechanical hard drives). The downside to SSD, is that it is expensive. Therefore, I would limit the size of then first SSD to 120 GB.

The second drive would be a standard type mechanical drive and would be used to store less frequently used files / data. Because these drives are relatively cheap, go big here. Minimum size of 500 GB, 750 GB would be comfortable, 1 TB or greater would be awesome.

If there is a restriction of a single internal drive, I would opt for as large an SSD that can be reasonably afforded; 250 GB if at all possible.

Screen

Screen size is a personal preference issue. If you want a smaller, lighter device that is easy to carry around, you have to go for a smaller screen. If you want to have a lot of windows open at once and be able to see and read anything, you will want a larger screen.

My personal preference is for a 17 in wide-screen format display unless the laptop will be kept in a set location the majority of the time. In that case, get a small screen on the laptop, 14 in or smaller, and buy an external display.

If you go with an external display, 22 in wide-screens are very value priced.

If you want sharp image quality, you might want to consider a reflective screen.

Graphics Card / Screen Resolution

The issue here is resolution and performance for graphics intensive applications (like games or Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator). If you’re not going to be doing a lot of hardcore gaming, you can limit your consideration to the resolution issue and set aside the performance consideration.

For that 17 in widescreen display mentioned above, I would go with no less than 1600 x 1200 resolution. For the 14 in or smaller screen, 1280 x 1024 would suffice.

If you go for the option of a smaller, lower resolution built-in display that would be used when away from your primary workspace, and outfit yourself with a larger, higher resolution external display, go for a 22 in wide-screen, 1900 x 1200 resolution or better.

Optical Drive

This is a must have item.

If you simply need a DVD player for your PC, the choices are relatively straightforward. Outside of the bells and whistles of “progressive scan”, bookmarking, and other enhancements, every DVD player is effectively the same for the basic functions.

If you are shopping for a DVD player-burner (that plays AND records DVDs), there are two formats to evaluate:

DVD-R or DVD-RW Format

DVD+R or DVD+RW Format

As of June 2006, there is no physical difference between a DVD-R/-RW disc and a DVD+R/+RW disc. The DVD+R/+RW format, however, offers subtle functionality for people who record their own movies and audio.

Either DVD-R or DVD+R will suffice, however, if there is a choice, choose DVD+R.

Some notebooks offer drive bays that have the flexibility to install a second hard drive or battery in place of the optical drive. This is a nice-to-have feature.

Blue-Ray Optical Drive

Unless this laptop is going to be the center of a home media PC, this is a nice to have, but a not really necessary item.

Connectivity

Connectivity Options to Consider (or Not)

  • WiFi Wireless Network
  • 4G Data Network Capability
  • Ethernet Network
  • USB (3.0)
  • FireWire
  • Modem
  • Fax
  • Bluetooth (4.0)
  • Audio Output / Input
  • Video Input
  • Video Out
  • Flash Memory Reader / Writer

WiFi Wireless Network

802.11 WiFi is not an option.  If you have a laptop, your network connection will be WiFi 99.8% of the time.

You will want an internal 802.11n WiFi interface that has capability of using both the 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz bands. The ability to use 40 MHz wide channels is a benefit.

The interface must be backward compatible with 802.11g WiFi standard using the 2.4 GHz band.

4G Data Network Capability

Laptops are more and more coming outfitted with 4G Cell Data Network (LTE) connectivity. Don’t be swayed by this feature. It is not important, will cost more to use than it is worth and can be added as a USB plug-in module should you want it in the future.

Ethernet Network

For that odd 0.2% of the time that you are connected to a network and it’s not WiFi, it’s going to be wired Ethernet.  As such, this is another must have.

100 MBps is the minimum, 1000 MBps (also called Gig-E or Gigabit Ethernet) is preferred.

USB (3.0)

3.0 is the current USB standard. You will want a minimum of 2 full speed USB 3.0 ports and a minimum of 3, preferably 5 total USB ports.

This will be particularly important if you can afford or get only a single small SSD Hard Drive and end up needing to add an external hard drive for file or data storage. The speed difference between USB 3.0 and the previous USB 2.0 is significant (10::1)

FireWire

If you have USB 3.0, you don’t need or care about FireWire.

Modem

Really? This is the 21st century. If you’re serious about the modem, we’re going to have to revise this list to be the ‘Luggable‘ Spec Checklist.

Fax

If we’re not going to talk about a modem, we’re sure as hell not going to talk about Fax.

Bluetooth (4.0)

The current spec for Bluetooth is 4.0. This is a nice to have, not a need. It can be added as a USB plug-in module should you want it in the future.

Audio Output / Input

It is fairly standard for there to be a headphone jack, a mic jack and line in and line out jacks.

In addition it has become common for there to be multiple middle-of-the-road mics built into the laptop display to act as a noise rejection array for VOIP or Skype audio input.

For reasons that escape me, it has become the rage to acquire endorsement rights from a once tolerable-to-listen-to hip-hop / rap DJ for the 3, 5, 7 or even 9 micro-sized speakers that get crammed under, on-top-of, or next to one of the several fans that serve an actual purpose in the cramped quarters of the laptop case and use that as a reason to charge a couple hundred dollar premium.

Having spent almost 10 years working with, around and as a professional audio engineer, I have a hard time spending any money on a speaker where the size of the driven element is measured sub-centimeter and not positioned within a couple inches of my eardrum.

Count on the built-in laptop speakers sucking.

Video Input

Any built-in video camera should be able to record full 30 fps HD video and not be considered an upscale or premium component. If its not there, don’t worry about it. It can be added as a USB plug-in module should you want it in the future.

Video Out

This is another one of those gotta have items, especially if you are planning to use an external display.

Order of preference goes:

  1. HDMI
  2. DVI
  3. VGA

Flash Memory Reader / Writer

An on-board multi-format flash memory reader can come in very handy. This is another of those nice to have items that can be added as a USB plug-in module (for well under $10) should you want it in the future.

Warranty

Notebooks generally come with a one-year warranty, but if you use it outdoors frequently, look for longer support plans.  If you have a pool or are planning to take your laptop to a pool, get the warranty option which covers you for when your laptop takes a swim.