I like many who work in the tech industry frequently get asked by friends and family outside of the tech space what they should buy for a laptop. While your mileage will vary there are in general some recommendations I can make and will attempt to cover them here.
Laptop Or Desktop?
Generally speaking the first thing that will matter when deciding on a computer is whether you need it to be a portable laptop or whether your use case is 100% to use at home and not travel with. With many people owning both tablets and computers today, most will travel with a tablet instead of a computer, but this will differ person to person. Generally speaking if you can get much more for your money if you buy a desktop, however it will also require a monitor and keyboard/mouse peripherals. If a desktop works for you this is your best bet. Additionally if you are planning to use the computer for graphic intensive games a desktop will be drastically more affordable and offer much better performance.
Windows, Mac, or Linux?
For many years Windows has been the defacto operating system of most home computers. Many creative people and developers will often gravitate towards Mac for various reasons, and there is also the Linux desktop, which has come a long ways over the past few years.
If your primary use cases for a computer are office productivity or gaming Windows will generally be the best OS for you. A wide array of PCs are available pre-loaded with Windows. Be sure to have a decent anti-virus such as Sophos or AVG as Windows machines are more prone to viruses than others, however being smart about where you go on the internet, what attachments you open, and using your head can save you the headache too.
For many people doing graphic design, audio engineering, or working in a development/devops capacity working mostly with open source stacks Mac OS may be the best choice for you. Mac OS is very stable and there are some excellent Mac exclusive software offerings in the creative space such as Logic Pro X and Final Cut Pro. For developers there are a ton of toolchains that are super rapid and easy to get installed and up and running. However if you work on windows stacks you may be best off with a PC.
If what you are after is a rock solid OS, with no frills and super unlikely to get viruses Linux may be a good option for you. Most of the internet runs on headless (command line only) Linux systems, and that’s for a reason, they are rock solid, highly stable, and the OS is free. The caveat here is that there is a more limited set of software available on Linux and you need to feel comfortable using some Google-Fu and not be afraid to use the terminal from time to time. Unless you are particularly savvy this may not be for you, if you’re curious I’d recommend installing Linux as a virtualbox virtual machine (if you aren’t sure what that is ignore me or Google it). Also adjacent to the Linux space is Google Chrome which is available on Chromebooks. ChromeOS is a very simple operating system that stores very little locally and is a great inexpensive option for a basic machine or for a young student.
Hard Drive (HDD, SSD, or Hybrid)?
When looking at computers you’ll typically see a handful of spec, usually the screen size if its a laptop, the CPU, the memory, and the disk. Here we’ll discuss disks and why more isn’t always better.
Many people when buying a computer think they need a 1TB or larger drive but I would encourage you to see how much space you actually use and rethink this. Typical laptops with a 1TB drive usually have an HDD, (a small 5400rpm spinning disk). These drives are slow and cheap, they are great for large storage capacity but they are awful for performance.
Solid State drives or SSDs are typically more expensive and you will see computers equipped with them having smaller drives (usually 256gb and up). SSDs are much faster and have no moving parts. They will typically boot in mere seconds and can feel up to 10x faster than the same machine with a magnetic disk. The trade-off is that you are paying more per gigabyte for performance. I would recommend looking at your current use of space and determine from there what works best for you.
In recent years there is a 3rd option of hybrid drives (Apple calls them Fusion Drives). They are basically HDDs with an SSD cache, these can be a decent happy medium however they will often not be as performant as an SSD but will be faster than the traditional HDD.
A final note on drives is to pay attention to whether or not drives are replaceable in the devices you are looking at. Often many Apple devices and some newer machines like the Microsoft Surface do not have replaceable/upgradeable disks
Memory aka RAM is also an important spec. Some machines can be upgraded later others (such as most Apple machines and other devices like the Microsoft Surface) do not have upgradable options. Typically for a reasonable amount of multi-tasking 8gb should suffice, however you are running multiple virtual machines, a docker environment, or running lots of plugins in an audio project more RAM is always better. 16-64gb is best for creative people and developers who will be using their machines hard, however for a typical user I would not advise any less than 8gb.
There are 2 things to pay attention to with CPUs. The first is the clock speed, anything about 2ghz is generally going to be a good CPU, anything below that will handle basic usage just fine but will become a bottleneck under high loads. The second thing to pay attention to is the core count. A dual core CPU can process 2x as much as a single core. It’s very uncommon to find a single core these days. For a user with basic needs a dual core should be sufficient, if you are purchasing a machine with an Intel CPU avoid Celeron processors and try to go for an i5 at minimum. For creative type and technical users 4-8 cores or more is recommended.
To compare CPU performance there is a site called Geek Bench that will show stats for processors based on single core and multi-core performance, the higher the number the faster the processor. Typically this a good place to research with some quantification just how different CPU options in the same laptop perform.
The final point I will touch on is the graphics card. In a typical budget desktop or laptop they will have an integrated graphics card which is generally sufficient for streaming netflix, paying bills, and basic office work. If you are playing games or rendering videos with any frequency a decent graphics card will pay off. There are a plethora of them for desktop PCs, but most laptops with a dedicated graphics card will not have it as an upgradable option after purchase. ATI and Nvidia are 2 major players in this space, be sure to look at some benchmarks for the cards you’re interested in.
Many of us have all of our important family photos and tax docs on our computers now. If you lose them because of a hard drive failure you will be devastated. Do yourself a favor and pay for a service like Dropbox, OneDrive, Box.com, or Google Drive and back your important info here so you don’t lose them. This is 2020, if you lose everything and don’t have a backup it’s your fault, don’t be cheap, don’t be foolish. Fires happen, theft happens, hard drive failures happen. Back your shit up!
Password managers such as one password and last pass let you save your passwords for sites, generate secure passwords, and all you need is a master password to login. This is something worth having as when you move to a new machine you don’t have remember all your passwords. Additionally many people use the same password on all their accounts. DON’T DO THIS…if one account gets hacked your basically screwed. Please use a password manager.