Ask Daley: How to Laptop Shop

Welcome fine readers of The Simple Dollar! Today, we’re going to cover my best practices for laptop shopping. I’ve never covered this topic in depth here before, though I have other places. Given the kindness of Drew over at TSD reaching out to me for feedback and advice on the topic for their own site, I figured it’s time to finally delve into the fullness of that topic here with a few pointers. Let’s get started!

Question #1

What specs and features should I be looking for or ignoring while I laptop shop?

Before I answer this, I always first want to posit the question: Do you really need to replace your existing laptop in the first place?

Frequently, people will trash perfectly good laptops simply because the external power brick went sour, the battery needs replaced, they keyboard and/or trackpad were damaged, the laptop screen cracked, the hard drive might have gone funny, or the worst of all – the operating system got infected with something or experienced bitrot and probably just needs a clean reinstall. Always try to research and see if you can cheaply and effectively repair what you already have first before shelling out for something new. Many of these parts can be cheap and surprisingly easier to replace than you’re expecting, depending on the laptop make and model you purchased.

If you’re experiencing problems and you don’t know what it may be exactly, consider learning how to use software diagnostics to check to see if there are any stability problems with your RAM, major errors with your hard drive, and any general flakiness with the processor. A good, free, general purpose tool for this sort of thing is Ultimate Boot CD.

If things just seem slow, consider a fresh OS install, switching operating systems to run something less resource intensive such as Lubuntu, consider a RAM upgrade if you have the slots and motherboard for it, or installing an SSD to replace a mechanical hard drive. These options too are frequently much cheaper than replacing the whole thing, and you get the added benefit of already being familiar with the hardware.

Regarding what to look for if you do find yourself needing to replace, the answer is frequently short and pithy for advice from myself. RAM is going to be your best bang for the buck, and one should probably go ahead and aim for 4-8GB these days. SSD drives are frequently good shots in the arms for overall performance as well. If you find yourself shopping for a separate SSD, try to stick with brands from known RAM manufacturers as they’re usually higher quality.

As for what to ignore? Here’s where I’m going to get a bit longer winded. It would probably have to be processor speed. Processor speed isn’t too relevant for most users these days, unless they’re into high-end media consumption or creation such as HD video and gaming. Most ten year old processors are still more than capable of performing the same tasks as today’s top processors for the average user. Where true progress has been made with modern processors has been with power usage and consumption, which lengthens battery life, reduces lifetime power usage costs, and can even extend the laptop’s functional lifespan through reduced heat exposure.

Unless you’re editing large media files, insist on watching 1080p or higher resolution videos, or game heavily… pretty much any dual core (or greater) processor running at 1.8GHz (or faster) should be plenty for most people’s needs.

Question #2

Will a more expensive and higher end laptop last me longer than a cheap one?

Absolutely not. Although pricing and market segments can play an important role in the overall durability and longevity at the lower end of consumer laptops, a pretty (in both senses of the word) expensive laptop is no guarantee that the device is designed to last much longer. What can truly impact the lifetime usability of a laptop will come down to overall engineering and basic software maintenance of the operating system.

Most cheap laptops (and frequently most expensive ones) will typically fail due to planned obsolescence, which is an engineering style that has the intended purpose of creating a finite usable lifespan for a device in order to drive future sales. Whether this is the result of deliberately engineering a component to fail after a limited service life or such generally poor engineering that it simply does not hold together long term, the same result is achieved – a prematurely broken device that must be replaced before it effectively needed to be. Generating further electronic waste in this manner just to drive sales is an unfortunate and frequently ignored side-effect of our consumer culture, and we should really be more aware of this as we shop.

When the time comes that you do need to shop, function should always trump form. With this in mind, the things that should matter most with longer-term usability are engineering for durability and ease of repair. This is why I usually direct people to buy new or refurbished business and enterprise-class laptops, mostly newer and older Dell Latitude E5xxx/E6xxx series laptops and older Lenovo Thinkpad T/W/X series laptops (x30 or earlier models).

However, these design considerations aren’t really reflected in the price as much as where and who they’re sold to. Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and law enforcement do not tolerate the fragility of electronics and lack of repairablity that the average consumer has come to tolerate and expect, so take a page from their IT departments: buy what they buy. Don’t buy your laptop from the same megastore that people using $800 cellphones while up to their eyeballs in debt get theirs from.

If the laptop is durable and well built, you should be able to repair, upgrade and replace parts easily – batteries, keyboards, touchpads, hard drives, and RAM especially. If you buy a laptop like that from a manufacturer selling the device to volume business and enterprise users, that laptop should be built like a tank and theoretically last you a good long while.

Keeping this in mind, stay away from devices from manufacturers that seal you out and prevent upgrades and part replacements, are near impossible to repair or replace consumable parts such as batteries on your own, or are so poorly built that parts flex in your hands and feel cheap. These are laptops frequently targeted at the average consumer, and is designed specifically with planned obsolescence in mind. Let me reiterate this point: planned obsolescence stinks. No amount of blatant corporate greenwashing will ever truly offset the intent of their engineers purposefully designing a device with the express intent of being replaced after only two to three years, and the sheer price in human suffering alone tied to the creation of that device fed through exploitative rare earth mineral mining, difficult and dangerous working conditions, and the environmental poisoning of regions such as Guiyu, China and Agbogbloshie, Ghana only makes that reality all the harder to blindly support. Some of these conditions may have improved over the years with some of these issues, but the lasting repercussions of the damage already done won’t ever vanish.

I encourage you gentle readers, please respect the true cost of these miraculous technological devices you have available. Care for them and treat them well. If you must replace something, stick with a device that won’t create any further manufacturing demand such as with open box, refurbished and used devices. Also buy something that’s actually designed to last and can be repaired or upgraded easily so you can help limit the very real continued cost of blood, sweat and tears of the countless others that helped provide you that miraculous tool in the first place. Fiscal stewardship may start with your money, but it also impacts your stewardship of the very planet you live on and the care you extend into the lives of your fellow human beings – and those are actions and values that will define your very soul.

Love is easy, and love leaves no debt. As our society grows increasingly colder, let me encourage you to consider the entire world that’s helped contribute to your cushy, fantastic, futuristic life. Let a little love and compassion inform your next purchase.

2 thoughts on “Ask Daley: How to Laptop Shop

  1. Good advice.

    I have an old Pentium Centrino Acer travelmate which works like a charm with Linux Mint (13).

    I can no longer upgrade to the latest Chrome version because my machine does not support “PAE”. Which only works with 64 bit processors. The latest Linux distributions are also tending to becoming 64 bit specific as well.

    So I suggest getting a 64 bit processor. While I agree old machines can work perfectly well, I think you need to keep up to date with the all important security updates if your machine accesses the internet (this means most everyone these days). I believe that you need a 64 bit OS to use more than 2 gigabytes of memory anyhow.

    • I do agree about staying current with software and buying 64-bit if you’re shopping these days, Greg. Also, 32-bit x86 caps out at 4GB of addressable RAM, not 2GB, though not all chipsets produced supported that much RAM – just for the record. PAE has also been around since Pentium Pro (1995) for Intel and the Athlon (1999) for AMD, IIRC. NX-bit on AMD has been around since the K8 architecture (2003), and its IA-32e variant on Intel showed up on P4-Prescott (2004) and later, again if memory serves correctly. However, I didn’t mention 64-bit architecture during shopping as it has pretty much been the rule and not the exception now for a solid decade with the line of laptops I recommended purchasing.

      This said, take heart! One doesn’t have to abandon their older, still perfectly serviceable 32-bit hardware because Google says so. Just because Google dropped 32-bit processor support for Linux doesn’t mean you still can’t stay current with your web browser and OS. Current 32-bit Chromium builds (the open-source builds of Chrome) are still available in most distro repositories, as are 32-bit Firefox builds among the still vibrant variety of Linux web browser options. It’s also worth pointing out that Vivaldi supports 32-bit Linux as well. For Chromium-based browsers on limited RAM systems, it’s also worth pointing out that The Great Suspender plugin is really handy for minimizing RAM usage.

      Also, just because Ubuntu (and subsequent downline distros by consequence) is looking to eventually abandon 32-bit x86 architecture sooner than later as well, doesn’t mean all Linux distros are either, or that support is ending overnight. Ubuntu 16.04LTS is good through April 2021. Although Debian is dropping i586 and older architectures, i686 is still alive and well in Debian SID and on-track as an official build for Debian 9 when it releases. Right now, there’s no reason why you can’t update today to the latest Linux Mint MATE 18.1 or Ubuntu MATE 16.04 LTS (or any other lightweight desktop environment) with that old Acer Travelmate, install Chromium or Vivaldi, and keep riding that machine through to at least April 2021 or hardware death, whichever comes first.

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