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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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If you’re shopping for a new computer — perhaps taking advantage of yearly back-to-school sales open to all 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 fast performance, light weight, thinness and touch screen — you might think that laptops have an identity crisis, but it’s simply the new norm.

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Laptops now outsell desktops 3-to-1, evidence of a world shifting more toward mobile devices. About 77 percent of U.S. adults owned a laptop or desktop computer in 2021 vs. 85 percent who owned smartphones.

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.

A common setup is the use of a docking station, with monitor and other peripherals attached so “your laptop becomes a desktop” through a few easy connections, says Ed Bott, author of ZDNet’s Ed Bott Report. “And then you unplug it and you walk away, and it’s a laptop again. So you get the best of both worlds.”

Because of these exciting innovations, buying a new computer can be overwhelming. But before you think about features, you’ll need to decide on an operating system:

  • PCs generally use the Microsoft Windows operating system; Windows 11 is the latest version.
  • Apple Macs have a fan base of users who have other Apple devices. The operating system scheduled to debut in the fall is macOS Ventura; macOS Monterey is in place now.
  • Chromebooks are bare-bones and best for uses involving an internet connection. These laptops are based on the Google Chrome operating system, which is up to a variation of version 103 released July 20. 

After that, take a look at what’s trending and other items to consider for your next machine.

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 browsing the web, looking at photos, playing games and reading e-books.

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 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 Go 3, 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. Generally, SSDs are preferred.

Why? SSDs are like the flash memory in your smartphone or iPad — smaller, lighter and faster than a hard drive, but 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.

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But storage doesn’t matter as much today as it once did. Streaming services such as 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. That also means you can worry less about backing up files.

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 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 become the de facto means of communication? Leave it to a pandemic to force billions around the world to work or learn from home. In 2022 in the U.S., 58 percent of the workforce, about 92 million people, are able to work remotely at least one day a week, according to a McKinsey & Co./Ipsos survey.

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 HP Spectre x360 16 laptop or the 1080p FaceTime HD camera built into the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros.

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 — as well as 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 12th generation family give PCs much faster speeds, smoother multitasking, more reliable wireless connectivity and much longer battery life than earlier laptops. Core i5, i7, and i9 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. Though the i3 is still available, buy a Core i5 processor at minimum, 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.

This story, originally published Aug. 3, 2020, has been updated to reflect technological changes in the past two years.

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