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Tech Column: Laptop Buying Guide

Ashley Hallene and Jeffrey M Allen


  • Here are the factors to consider between purchasing a new MacBook or a Windows Notebook: software, user experience, and compatibility with other devices.
  • Screen size will depend on your usage patterns and preferences.
  • Processor speed is a crucial factor and there are various options available for both MacBooks and PCs.
  • Storage space requires a balance between capacity and weight.
  • Ports are specially important for those who travel with their laptops.
Tech Column: Laptop Buying Guide Atanov

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Over time, the hardware we have come to rely on ages, and eventually needs replacing. Unfortunately, because you rely on it, you need to replace it quickly. This can lead to snap decisions and, on occasion, buyer’s remorse. Did you pay too much? Is your purchase soon to be out of date? Do you have enough ports? This month’s column will serve as a roadmap to guide you when making your next laptop purchase.

Step 1: MacBook or Windows Notebook?

The first decision you will make is whether to purchase a MacBook system or a Microsoft Windows Notebook. For ease of set-up, you may want to purchase a system like your old laptop. Or, one that is the same as your Desktop. You may see this purchase as a chance to try something new. Either way, choosing one or the other will eliminate a chunk of options and make it easier to focus your attention and find the laptop that fits your needs.

Starting from a tabula rasa, the biggest difference between the two boils down to the software and the user experience it creates. One thing to consider is the other devices you may have, such as a smartphone, smartwatch, or tablet. If you already use an Apple Watch, iPhone, and/or iPad they will connect more smoothly with Mac laptops. The Mac brand has had a reputation for high-powered graphics design for some time now. Overall, there are fewer Apple products compared to PCs, and as a result fewer viruses are created for OS X. Also, Apple maintains tight control over the software that is on its systems, which generally means there is less bloatware (all that pesky pre-installed software that you don’t need and probably didn’t want.)

The biggest PC advantage is price. There is a large supply of PC makers. With that supply comes a wide range of devices at different price points. PC laptops tend to have more in the way of touchscreens. Windows 8, 10, and 11 came out with touchscreens in mind, which means laptops can be turned into tablets, desktop monitors can use touchscreen technology, and tablets can function more like computers. With a large variety of systems and users, PCs generally have better backwards compatibility than Macs, which means you can run older versions of software or operating systems even on new hardware.

Step 2: Size matters.

A laptop’s screen size impacts the viewing experience, keyboard size, and trackpad. For frequent travelers, look for a screen size in the 13-to-14-inch range. Laptops less than 13 inches will be more portable but will also feel cramped if you are working on one for an extended period. If you rarely leave the office or your home with your laptop, you might like the extra screen real-estate that a 15.6-inch model affords. The best way to figure out what you need is to look at how you have used the laptop in the past.

For MacBook Pro, your choices are 13-inch, 14-inch, or 16-inch. The MacBook Air offers a M1 chip model and a M2 chip model, both are in the 13-inch size range. The M1 chip model offers a 13.3-inch display and the M2 chip model (available starting July 2022) offers a 13.6-inch display.

For PC laptops, you can have it your way. Almost every major brand offers a laptop in almost every size. They generally breakdown into the following size categories:

  • 11 to 12 inches: This size is your “thin and light” system, designed for ultimate portability, but again it can get a little cramped during long work sessions.
  • 13 to 14 inches: This size range is a good balance between portable and functional, particularly if you can find one in this size range for under 4 lbs.
  • 15 to 16 inches: This is the most popular choice. The 15–16-inch models generally weigh in the 4 to 5.5-lb range. Consider this size if you want more screen space and aren’t lugging the laptop around often. The 16-inch screen size is rare, but Apple’s MacBook Pro may start a new trend.
  • 17+ inches: If your laptop is sedentary, meaning it will stay on your desk most days, then you may prefer this larger size for workstation-level productivity.

Step 3: There is a need for speed.

The speed that we refer to here is processor speed. The CPU (Central Processing Unit, aka “processor”) is the brains of your computer, and a lot of your computer’s overall performance hinges on it. In general, newer processors will meet your needs for a longer period. Low-cost laptop deals often feature lower-end or outdated processors. What looks like a great deal can cost you if you are having to upgrade, or buy a whole new system, in a short amount of time. However, you don’t necessarily need the latest and greatest model either. Unless you are trying to run a high-end software that requires the latest processing speed, you should be fine with the second or third newest generation.
MacBooks come in the following variety:

  • Intel Core i7
  • Intel Core i9
  • Apple M1
  • Apple M1 Pro
  • Apple M1 Max
  • Apple M1 Ultra
  • Apple M2 (June 2022)

Most of the Macs that have launched since Fall 2020 have featured either the M1, the M1 Pro and M1 Max, or the M1 Ultra, or the M2 which was introduced in June 2022. Apple is phasing out intel chips, so you will only find the core i7 and i9 in older models. If you are buying an Apple laptop, something in the M1 range should be sufficient. If money is no object, then splurge for the M2.

PC’s have a lot more combinations to consider:

  • Intel 11th Gen CPUs
  • Intel Core i9
  • Intel Core i7
  • Intel Core i5
  • Intel Core i3
  • Intel Xeon
  • Intel Premium / Celeron
  • AMD Ryzen 4000 and Ryzen 5000

There are even lower-end varieties to stay away from. As of this publication date, we recommend you stay in the Intel Core i7 to i9 range.

Step 4: A case for storage space.

Laptops come in a range of storage space sizes, and the more storage space you have, the heavier your system will be. However, you need a place to store files. You will generally find laptops in the 256 GB to 1 TB range, though newer models can go up to 2 TB. We recommend you opt for something in the 512 GB to 1 TB range, especially given the number of cloud storage and detachable storage device options available.

Step 5: Don’t fall short on ports.

When considering your next laptop purchase, look at the number and type of ports available to connect external devices. This is especially important if you take the laptop on the road. For instance, in one of the author’s latest laptop purchases, she bought the Dell XPS 15, a powerful machine but it only offers 2 USB-C ports. All her peripherals (Mouse/Keyboard, Web Cam, Soundbar, etc) were USB-A connections. This is easily solved with a docking station or portable travel dock, but it is something you should consider and plan for accordingly.

While there are other things to consider when purchasing your laptop, this guide should steer you in the right direction. We hope it serves as a useful tool on your next buying adventure.