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Laptop Buying Guide: 5 Features to Look for in Your Next Computer

No need to be a student to take advantage of back-to-school sales

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Microsoft Surface pro 2

En español | If you’re shopping for a new computer — perhaps taking advantage of yearly back-to-school sales open to all around this time of year — you might have noticed that laptops have slimmed down considerably.

Who knew PCs were better at dieting than we are? Borrowing many of the features that make a tablet appealing — its thinness, light weight, touch screen and fast performance — you might think that laptops have an identity crisis, but it’s simply the new norm.

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Because of these exciting innovations, buying a new computer can be overwhelming. So here’s a look at what’s trending and a few other items to consider.

1. Touch screens and convertibles

Keyboards are still ideal for long-form typing, but touch screens are far more intuitive for other tasks. Tapping, flicking, swiping and pinching feel natural, especially when you are looking at photos, reading e-books, browsing the web and playing games.

Macs don’t have touch screens, but many Windows PCs and Google Chromebooks do. Computers called “2-in-1s” or “convertibles” are both a laptop and tablet, so you don’t need to buy two separate devices.

In most cases, the screen of a 2-in-1 bends back 360 degrees, like the ASUS ZenBook Flip family, which tucks the keyboard underneath when you don’t need it, so you can carry and use it like a tablet. With other models, like Microsoft’s Surface Book 2, you can remove the screen, leave the keyboard on a desk or table, and bring the screen with you to use as a tablet. For obvious reasons, sometimes this kind of 2-in-1 is referred to as a detachable computer.

2. Solid state drives, not hard disks

For storage, the number of files your device can hold, you’ll notice many computers today offer solid state drive (SSD) memory instead of a hard disk drive. Generally, SSDs are preferred.

Why? SSDs are like the flash memory in your smartphone or iPad — smaller, lighter and faster than a hard drive, with no moving parts. Hard drives spin. So solid state drives are less prone to damage and much easier on a battery.

SSDs do have a downside: less storage, on average, than a hard disk. A laptop may have 256 gigabytes of SSD storage compared to 1 terabyte, roughly 1,000 gigabytes, available with a hard disk.

But storage doesn’t matter as much today as it once did. Streaming services like Netflix for movies and TV shows and Spotify for music don’t require you to download files, and free cloud services can hold files for you offsite via a password-protected website or app such as Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud or OneDrive.

3. USB-C or Thunderbolt ports

Those ubiquitous USB slots on the side or back of a laptop are ideal for adding devices such as an external hard drive, flash drive, larger keyboard, mouse or smartphone. But the thinner these computers get, the less likely you’ll find those USB-A ports.

Instead, you’ll see smaller USB-C ports that offer a whole new world of functionality.

These ports carry data and power over a single wire; therefore, your smartphone can charge while synchronizing information between the two devices. USB-C cables also can transmit video to an external monitor or projector.

For accessing data, USB-C ports are typically faster than USB-A. If you run low on power, many USB-C laptops can be charged with a battery pack or power brick, just like your smartphone.

Even better: USB-C cables are reversible, which means you never have to worry about plugging them in upside down.

If most of your external devices still have USB-A cables, you might benefit from a hub that lets you plug several peripherals into one USB-C port. Some higher-end laptops, including MacBooks, have Thunderbolt 3 ports, which use the same USB-C connector and are fully compatible with USB-C devices.

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4. HD webcams and Wi-Fi 6

Who knew video calling would be the de facto means of communication in 2020? Leave it to a pandemic to force billions around the world to work or learn from home. Yes, as many as 4 billion people — about half the world’s population — now is engaged in distance working or schooling, according to Transparent Business, a remote workforce management and software company.

For that reason, you should consider a laptop with a stellar web camera, webcam for short. Oh sure, you can always pick up an external camera to plug into your computer, but why incur the extra cost and use up a valuable USB slot?

Look for a high-definition (HD) webcam, such as the 1080-pixel webcam on the Dell XPS 13 or the 720p FaceTime HD camera built into many MacBooks.

To ensure a fast and smooth connection, you’ll also want strong Wi-Fi when engaging in video calls as well as all other online tasks. The latest standard is referred to as Wi-Fi 6, sometimes advertised as 802.11ax.

As a conservative estimate, Wi-Fi 6 speeds are about 30 percent faster than what you’re using now, which is likely 802.11ac, with theoretical speeds up to a blazingly fast 10 gigabits per second. Real world speeds likely will be slower.

Any way you slice it, Wi-Fi 6 is worth considering. But be aware you’ll need a Wi-Fi 6-enabled router to get the most out of this next-generation wireless standard.

Wi-Fi 6 also supports more simultaneous devices. Chances are you have multiple Wi-Fi-enabled tech toys in your home. Plus you can enjoy greater range with fewer dead zones and less interference among devices.

5. Processors, graphics and system memory

Along with deciding whether you want a Windows PC, Mac or Chromebook operating system; your favorite brand; and which features you consider essential, the processor, also known as the central processing unit or CPU, is incredibly important. It’s the engine that drives your computer’s performance.

Processors such as Intel’s 10th generation family give PCs much faster speeds, smoother multitasking, more reliable wireless connectivity and much longer battery life than earlier laptops. Core i3, i5, and i7 are a sort of good-better-best scenario.

Core i9 is for serious animators, computer gamers, graphic designers and video editors, all of whom also could benefit from a powerful graphics card. At minimum, buy a Core i5 processor, so your computer won’t become obsolete too quickly.

Purchasing a computer is like buying kids’ clothes. Go a little bigger than you need today, so you can grow into it for longer-term savings.

Finally, for system memory, sometimes referred to as RAM and also tied to speed and multitasking, look for a minimum of 16 or 32 gigabytes instead of 8 or 12GB.

Marc Saltzman has been a freelance technology journalist for 25 years. His podcast, Tech It Out, aims to break down geek speak into street speak.

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