Thursday, February 17, 2022

Buying a laptop for everyday use

The focus of this blog is generally on higher-end hardware for video production. I've written several articles on that subject in the past year. But this article is for people who:

a) Need a laptop but have minimal funds.

b) Don't want to contribute unnecessarily to e-waste.

c) Don't want a crappy commodity computer that might fail at any time.

d) Don't want to buy from Apple (see a and b). 

The Specs

For simple daily use, almost any laptop from the last decade will do just fine, so long as it's running a "real" operating system. (Avoid Chromebooks.)

Unless you are playing AAA games, don't focus on powerful graphics, as this simply eats the battery and decreases the life of the components. A laptop for video performance is always a compromise, and won't be obtained cheap. 

Buy a smaller, lighter laptop to save your back. You can then treat yourself to an ergonomic work setup where you most often rest your feet. Add an external monitor, mouse, and keyboard to maximise utility. (But that can all come later.)

Get a matte screen, not one that's glossy. Don't get a high resolution screen (2.5K or 4K) since text will be hard to read. Avoid a touchscreen, since this adds weight, decreases battery life, and becomes the number one point of failure. Likewise avoid "2-in-1" models and "detachables". In other words: stick to the basics

Only buy a laptop where you can replace the battery and hard drive / SSD yourself. This cuts down on service fees and increases the life of the unit. Just say "no" to soldered laptops. 

Specifications are hardly important for a general-purpose laptop. Even 8GB of RAM is plenty, and 16 GB will be luxurious. Any Pentium processor is fine. A Pentium i5 will save money over an i7. Avoid the Pentium i9 as overkill. Avoid the Celerons as toys.

Get an SSD (not a hard drive) and you won't ever worry about data speed. You need a minimum of 256 GB in size, but more is always better. 

After this, you just need to ensure you have all the ports you need to connect to your external devices. So, if you have an HDMI monitor, you need an HDMI port. USB ports are used for mice, keyboards, external drives, etc. There are two basic types: the rectangular, chunky Type-A and the slim, lozenge Type-C. You can buy adapters, but it helps to have the right ports in the first place. 

Brand Names

What brands to buy? That's complicated. Most consumer brands (HP, Acer, ASUS, etc.) are crap. Or rather, one particular model might be crap, but the next model might be OK. Basically, it's a lottery. Parts come and go; the companies buy whatever is cheapest that week. 

For this reason, I only buy from business lines, not consumer lines. These tend to have better components that last longer. However, business laptops are more expensive, so look for models 2, 3, or 4 generations old. Little changes in the world of computers... sometimes older models are in fact better-made.

Consider a Dell Latitude model starting with a "7" or "E7". These are the top of the line in Dell's business class of ultraportables. The next number tells you the screen size. The "73" / "E73" models have a 13" screen while "72" or "E72" have a 12". All are nice and small. 

Consider the Dell Latitude E7240 (2013) or Latitude E7250 (2015). These both have backlit keyboards and an easily swapped battery, with full access to other internals. The Dell Latitude E7270 (2016) is similar, but requires removing the back panel entirely to get to the battery. That's not a big deal, but it is an unfortunate trend.

The only thing you'll give up with an older model is the USB-C port. But you'll have plenty of other connectivity options.

Where To Buy

Buying a used computer from an individual is a gamble, since you don't know how it's been maintained. Instead, buy a refurbished unit, from a firm that specialises in repurposing "end-of-life" units from businesses. 

For 15 years I have sourced these through eBay. In fact, that's the only thing I use that (once good, now often junky) sales site for. Since Brexit, buying from the UK can be annoying. Be sure to use only sellers who include both shipping and import charges in their invoice. Then there will be no surprises. 

For other audio and computer products, I purchase from Germany, in order to avoid buying from outside the EU. But I haven't found the same number of sellers specialising in refurbished computers. I'm not sure why!

You can get one of the Dell models mentioned above for under £300 delivered. Add £50 for a new battery, if needed... battery life is never guaranteed on a used computer. Swap in a large (1 TB) SSD for £75. Total price is then about €500.

Compare these prices to the contemporary model, the Latitude 7320, retailing for €2600. It won't improve your work, despite costing five times as much. 

I purchased a Dell Latitude E7240 in July 2016, and another in June 2017. These models are now nine years old but have worked perfectly in that time, with one battery upgrade, once the originals lost charge.

Final Tips

If someone wants to charge you big bucks for a Windows license, don't do it. Not everyone realises, but you can download and use this operating system free of charge. Even if you require a Windows 10 Professional license, you can get one instantly for £20 from Unity Soft.

A refurbished unit should be clear of the junk applications that are pre-loaded onto a new unit. But be sure and uninstall any bloatware from the beginning. 

This includes any anti-virus software. Get rid of it. Windows just a fine job without needing any third-party applications. Unless you inhabit the dark web, you're much more likely to be the victim of credit card fraud than get a virus. 


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