My sister-in-law recently asked me for some advice on a new laptop that she wants to get. I’ve decided to generalize it here for any of you all that are seeking to get a laptop.

As people who know me know, I am a Thinkpad guy. And so, if you’re looking for a cheap PC, I am not your guy. My advice would actually be to buy a used PC of a good make and model (maybe I will do a separate post on that). Most of the advice I give here is not limited to Thinkpads, though. The options on Dell Latitudes E’s are very similar. Notably, LatE’s are a part of Dell’s business line. That is perhaps my first piece of advice: Go with a business-grade laptop, unless you are on a serious budget or want a gaming machine. The main reason being that more care is put into quality of business laptops. Why? Because when they sell to a business, there is a strong likelihood that the customer will be buying another laptop. Customer satisfaction matters more. When selling discount laptops, they know that either (a) the person won’t be in the market for a few years if their laptop lasts, and (b) they’re looking at price-points and are less likely to be loyal customers the way businesses are (or are at least more likely to be.

Outside of Lenovo, I have generally heard good things about Asus, though I have never owned one. Dell’s business lineup is probably okay, as well. I’ve heard good things about Toshiba and Sony, though my experiences with both have been abysmal (quite possibly because I went with the consumer line). I’d be wary about Gateway, too. Truth be told, though, a lot of the laptops are built in the same place with similar or the same parts. The difference is often going to be how much care they put into parts. That’s why I recommend business line machines, where they are likely to put more care. Though I wouldn’t bet my purchase on it, what is true of Dell (which at least used to be notorious for cutting corners) is probably true of HP, Gateway, and the others. Increasingly, Lenovo is releasing cheaper models. Though they may be quite good, I am going to steer you away from that, as well.


For Thinkpads, I most strongly endorse the T-Series. I’ve never had a bad one, and I’ve owned more than half a dozen. Since they canceled the R-Series, I’ve more or less committed to T’s. The only one I ever had that wasn’t an T or an R was an X60, which quite frankly was a disappointment. The current model for Thinkpad T’s are the T420, T420S, and T520. The T420S are stock machines, meaning that there won’t be much customizing involved. The T420 has a 14″ screen and T520 has a 15″ screen. So the first decision is what size monitor you want. This is, of course, a personal decision. Get what you want.


The processor is the main driver of everything. That makes it sound important, and it’s not *unimportant*, but processors have become so good over the years that it’s hard to go wrong. Since the conversion from Windows XP to Windows 7, though, this is less the case than it used to be. Windows 7 requires more in the way of resources and so you might struggle more than with a Windows XP machine with what used to be lower-end processors (excepting netbook processors, which can struggle with anything). This is the only reason I would steer anyone away from an Intel Core i3 processor. As more and more gets installed, it’s likely to struggle more and more.

When it comes to processors, the main thing you want to ask yourself is what you plan to be doing with it. If you’re only going to be using office software, email, and a browser, you don’t need much. The only exception is if you, like me, tend to keep a bazillion browser tabs open at once. Even then, I might suggest focusing more on RAM than on processor power. An i7 processor is still pricey at this point, so I wouldn’t get it unless you’re looking at a really good deal or plan on doing intense tasks. The other reason to consider it is if you want a quad-core processor. Quad-core processors can be useful to prevent overloading the CPU. With more flexibility, they generally keep responding even when your computer is hard at work. With single-core or dual-core processors, I occasionally have to killtask an overloaded Firefox. I’ve never had to do that on my quad-core processor. It’s also generally the case that newer processors will remain useful longer.

But the sweet spot right now is the Core i5, and for most people I think you would be okay going with a lower-end i5. In my experience, it tends to be processor model rather than hard speed that dates a processor. For instance, my lower-end Pentium and upper-end Pentium both became useless at about the same time. Ditto for the Pentium II. Speed is speed, and it’s nice. Pay for it if you want it. But this is a corner you can more easily cut.

Most Thinkpads come with Intel processors, though some will offer AMD. There is nothing wrong with AMD processors. For desktops, I almost always go with AMD. For laptops, however, since IBM and Lenovo have so long relied on Intel, I don’t have much in the way of good advice as to individual processor models. Phenom generally beats Athlon (and is more likely to come with more processors), and, be wary of anything that has a number with an “e” at the end of it (ie Athlon II 245e). AMD used to be a cost-cutting alternative to Intel without sacrificing performance, though more recently Intel has gotten their act together and done a better job of justifying the price premium.

Operating System:

I always go with Windows 7 Professional (and Windows XP Professional before that). However, Windows 7 Home Premium is going to be fine for most people who don’t tinker like I do. The main reason to consider going with Professional is if you want to be able to run programs in XP mode or the Backup and Restore. I’ve personally never used either; I just like to know that they are there.

I would go with Home Premium as a good way to save money by sacrificing features you probably won’t need if you’re not a geek. The Thinkpad T-Series doesn’t offer anything less, but if you do run across something that offers less, don’t do it. Just trust me on that. You never know what these lesser versions can’t do until you need to do it.

If for some bizarre reason you are buying a laptop with Vista on it (first, I would question why I am buying this particular laptop…), go with the 32-bit version. My experiences with the 64-bit version cost me a lot of headaches. With Windows 7, go with the 64-bit version. The transition is going in that general direction and I fear that 32-bit will rot faster. I’ve noticed no difference in terms of reliability. Also, 64-bit allows for more RAM. I rarely see the 32-bit version advertised anymore.

Display Type:

My philosophy is “the higher the resolution the better.” The resolution is the pixel-width by the pixel-height. So 1366×768 means that you have 1366 pixels wide and 768 pixels of height. The main reason that I prefer higher resolutions is for things like spreadsheets and databases. It also allows for you to use splitscreen and more easily look at more windows at once. For instance, right now, on the left side of my monitor is the Lenovo customization page in the browser and I am typing this on the right. You can do this with less resolution, but it’s more cluttered. (Also, if you care, 1600×900 looks nice and in my opinion 1366×768 does not.)

However, this is something that a lot of people don’t care about. Plus, lower-resolution notebook monitors tend to be more reliable. So if you don’t really multitask and want to save a bit of money, here is a place you can do that. Also, while higher resolution looks nicer, it can also be a little harder on the eyes because the text is smaller (albeit much more clear).

I recommend 1600×900 if you have a 14″ monitor. Either 1600×900 or 1920×1080 should be fine for 15″. But if the price differential ($50 between 1366×768 to 1600×900) puts you in a pinch, it’s not hugely important and here is a corner you can feel perfectly okay cutting.

System Graphics:

Unless you intend on doing graphic-intensive stuff, the standard (usually something like “Intel HD Graphics 3000” or will contain the word “Integrated” and NOT the word Discrete) should be fine provided that you get enough RAM (see below). Some models (Thinkpad or not) will only list one or the other.

Total Memory (RAM):

Do not, under any circumstances, go with less than 4GB. Do not. Under any circumstances. I would recommend 6 or 8. My laptop has 6. I intended to upgrade to 8, but got an especially good deal on 6. It’s been acceptable, though I may still upgrade to 8. I think you would be fine with 6.

Memory remains one of the most important and often overlooked aspects of a computer. With too little RAM, it doesn’t matter how fast your processor is because the bottleneck will be swapping information back and forth from the hard drive. Cut corners on the processor (within reason). Cut corners on video, or audio. Do not cut corners on RAM.

The most miserable time using a computer (except when it’s broken) is when it is having to swap data from the memory to the hard drive and when the CPU is overloaded. If you’re buying a new computer, you don’t have to worry about the second part. The more RAM you buy, the less you have to worry about the former.

Pointing device:

A touchpad is a little pad below the keyboard that you drag your finger across or gesture to move the pointer. A trackpoint (also known as an eraserhead or a combo word referencing a part of the female anatomy) is a little stick that points out of the keyboard with a hat that looks like a pencil eraser. Almost all Thinkpads will come with both. Almost all non-Thinkpads will only come with a touchpad.

Hard drive:

Thinkpads generally come with 500GB and that is more than sufficient space. There is also something called a Solid State Drive. These are smaller and more expensive, so why get it? Because it’s faster. When a computer has to move data from the hard drive to the RAM, that immediately becomes the system’s bottleneck. With SSD, the bottleneck just became a lot larger. I won’t say that it makes RAM a non-issue, but it greatly mitigates the effects of RAM overload when it does occur.

Also, having an SSD means that boot-up will be much faster. I upgraded an old, struggling machine with an SSD drive and boot-up went from taking six minutes to taking under sixty seconds.

I love SSDs, but if you have a tight budget, I would go with the standard hard drive for now and just stock up on RAM.

Expansion slots (of the Cardreader variety):

They’re nice to have, but far from a necessity. Thinkpads often come with them standard. Sometimes there is a “smart card reader” option. Ignore it.


Whether to upgrade to a 9-cell depends on how often you want to use it without it being plugged in. If you want to be as wireless as possible, get it (I always do). But it’s not a necessity. You can always get a separate 9-cell later when you have more money. It can be helpful to have more than one battery.

One thing to keep in mind: On Thinkpads, at least, 9-cell batteries protrude from the laptop. So it makes it less likely to fit in a tighter carrying case and can be awkward-looking. This never bothered me, but I could see it bothering some people aesthetically.


Sometimes they come with it, sometimes they don’t. Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about getting it. If you need bluetooth, you can always buy a dongle later.

Wireless (WiFi) adapter and Mobile Broadband:

Here you can get the standard, as long as it is G-band and N-band. All of the Thinkpad options are (I would suspect the same is true for non-Thinkpads, too). Do not worry about “3G capable” unless you plan on paying a monthly fee for 3G access.

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