The question I inevitably get 5 times a day at work is “Who Makes the Best Laptop?”.   And yes, although I do have a generic answer for it but since there is no such thing as a generic customer, I don’t give it up.   Honestly, there are at least five manufacturers that make solid machines out there and I wouldn’t risk my reputation by blindly suggesting the most recent model they release.


The Apple MacBook Pro.You wanted to know which was the best, didn’t you?

So instead first let me tell you what criteria I use today when helping a customer find their perfect laptop. After six years of selling notebooks, and nearly the same amount of time servicing them, I have learned a few things to look out for.  Here they are:

Operating System

For the vast majority of us, there are two choices of operating systems: Windows and Apple’s IOS.  And most of us looking for a laptop know if we want a Mac or Windows-based machine before we set out to purchase.

If you are of those few who are undecided, Let me sum it up a straightforward as I can.   Apple Macintoshes, otherwise known as MACs , are designed with the non-technical user in mind.  For this reason they are big with Graphic Designers and Musicians.

But while Macs are simple to use, they are more expensive than Windows based machines.   Furthermore, there isn’t as much software available for them, and much of it tends to be more expensive than similar programs that run on Windows.

So if you can comfortably spend 1500 dollars on a laptop and are willing to sacrifice a little computing power for ease of use, by all means buy a Mac.  I have heard very few complaints from customers that did.

For the rest of us, there is Windows.

Now Windows comes in many different versions.  The latest is Windows 8, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t consider buying a machine with Windows 7.   The user interface of Windows 8 is a big change from Windows 7, so if you are comfortable with the later, I would say stick with it until Microsoft gets any bugs out of Windows 8.

There are older versions of Windows available, and you might come across them if you buy a used or refurbished machine.  Windows Vista, the precursor to Windows 7 was largely billed as a failure and I don’t suggest you buy a machine with it installed.  Windows XP, while much more efficienn that newer versions of Windows it is not longer updated by Microsoft, and this may lead to security vulnerabilities in the future.

Memory

These days the minimum amount of memory a laptop should have is 4GB.

Anyone with 30 dollars and a screwdriver (and a basic idea how to use it) can add more memory,

But some cheaper machines come with only  2GB .   And in some cases this means there are two 1GB memory sticks, which means in order to upgrade from say 2GB to 4GB you must buy 4GB of memory.  The memory sticks must match in size in order for the operating system to recognize them.  As the supply of 1GB memory sticks depletes this is less of an issue these days, but beware that it may happen and could cost you a bit more to upgrade.

Disk Drive

Hard Disk Drives have multiplied in size in the past few years and these days the smallest disk you will see on a new laptop is 320GB.   Even some of the cheaper notebooks are coming with 540GB drives and if you spend a bit more you can get a Tetrabyte (1024 GB) of storage or more.

Mind you, unless you plan on saving a bunch of videos and thousands of images and songs, you shouldn’t have to worry about filling any modern disk drive up.  And if you do you will be amazed how much space you can free up by deleting temporary files and other logs that you operating system makes.

What some overlook is the speed of the disk.  These days a standard less-expensive drive will spin at 5400 RPMs.  This is sufficient unless you are working with very large files such as video in which case I suggest a more modern at 7200 RPM drive.

Warranty

Right out of the box your laptop usually works fine. It’s nice and shiny and in almost all cases it will be faster and sleeker than what you were using before. But as you add and remove different programs and daily use takes it’s toll, you might run into problems.

Most laptop manufacturers offer a one year parts and labor warranty from the date of purchase.  Just about anywhere you go, somebody is going to offer to extend that warranty.  While for the most part I would have to say that extended warranties on electronic goods are not worth the extra money, on laptops they are.  The reason for this is simple: laptops take much more abuse than other electronics and are more expensive to repair.  But I don’t suggest you buy an extended warranty from the retailer – they are usually overpriced and the time you wait for service can be long.  Buy the warranty from the manufacturer after you have bought your purchase home.

Keyboard

Cheap keyboards tend to have problems later on in their lifespan and as a general rule, cheaper laptops have cheaper keyboards.  You can expect a 400 dollar laptop to have a cheap keyboard.  Sure if your keyboard dies after a couple of years you can always plug in an external one.  But having to lug around a bulky keyboard kind of negates the reason for buying a laptop, doesn’t it?

Display

In recent years that gap between good and bad displays seems to have closed a bit and quite honestly, I don´t pay as much attention to them anymore.  But you still be should be concerned about the size of the display.  I find small display screens hard to read and for this reason I have never been a fan of netbooks. Furthermore with the popularity of mobile phones equipped with internet access, I don´t see the reason for buying a small screen laptop just to save a bit of room in your briefcase.  If you absolutely need to read your email when you are traveling, you can do it on your phone.

The standard size screen these days seems to be 15 inch.  While a 14 and even 13 inch displays are acceptable, I would think twice before going much smaller.

Webcam

To me, this is one of the most overrated things you can have on a laptop. I personally don´t want somebody watching me when I talk to them over Skype and am always afraid that I will somehow activate my webcam when I am lying in bed in my underwear. I wouldn´t fret too much if your laptop doesn´t have one.

Processor

Years ago technicians and electronic reviewers were obsessed with the speed of microprocessors.   I might have been one of those geeks at one time, but these days I couldn’t be bothered to learn every spec of the latest Intel or AMD chip.

However I would avoid the absolute bottom of the barrel chips made by both Intel (the Atom) and AMD (Fusion).  Not that there is anything wrong with them, but for a few extra bucks you can get a machine with a full-fledged dual core processor.

So who makes the better chip, Intel or AMD?  If you must know, I would still give the advantage to Intel.  There chips on the average run a bit quicker and slightly more efficiently than similar models produced by AMD.  But that could change tomorrow, so please don’t fret too much over it.

My Picks

#1 Apple Macintosh

Among computer manufacturers Apple has lead the field in customer satisfaction for the last 8 years. And I don´t think I have ever met a customer that was looking to go back to using a Windows based machine after switching to a Mac. Macs are simply much less complicated to use than Windows laptops.   They are also much less prone to viruses.

If you are thinking of buying a Mac, don´t try to compare the specifications to a Windows based laptop.  Think of it like trying to buy a car: would you make your decision solely based upon the size of the engine?

I could go into a lot of technical details here, but simply said, if you want something that is user friendly and relatively problem free, spend the extra money and buy a Mac. Think of the higher price as insurance against wasting valuable time later on.

Pros: Simple to use, less prone to viruses, good battery, good phone support, does not come loaded with lots of trial software.  Sleek slim, lightweight.

Cons: Expensive and not all software that is available for Windows is available on Macs. It is true that you can run both OSX and Windows on certain Macs, but you will have to pay for the Windows license.

Where to buy: If you live near Los Angeles, MacMall has locations in Torrance and Santa Monica.  The rest of us can visit them online here: MacMall. They offer free shipping on orders over 25 dollars.

If Mac Mall doesn’t have the lowest price on the Apple product you are looking for I can almost guarantee that Amazon will. Check prices here:
Amazon

#2 ASUS

Asus Laptops

Good quality and
great customer service

Quite honestly, I don’t ever buy the top of the line laptop.  The reason is that in 6 months, it will be an average laptop and after a year, it won’t even be sold new anymore.  I don’t buy the absolute cheapest laptops either, since they usually come with inferior quality components.  Today what I would look for is something between 500 and one thousand dollars, and if you are looking for the same, ASUS blows the competition away.

Pros: Good value, reliable. Simply said the best in the mid price range. Some models come with a three year warranty on the battery.

Cons:  The touchpad mouse on many ASUS machines seems to be quirky.  I myself use an external mouse, so this isn’t such a big factor for me.   I have never really learned how to type on a laptop without hitting the touchpad every few minutes.

Where to buy: Amazon, of course.  If you are in the market for a thin and light yet powerful notebook, they have a deal on the ASUS A53E-AS31
right now.  This is a full sized laptop with a nice big 750 Gig drive and 4gig of memory. And at under 500 dollars it’s the best value out there right now.

Think Pad

#3 Lenovo Think Pad

In 2005 IBM sold its PC division to Hong Kong based Lenovo group.  This was a huge in geek history, since IBM had always been know for being innovated and producing quality notebooks and desktops. Doubt existed wether Lenovo could carry the reputation IBM had.  But Six years later, they seem to be doing it.

Now not all Lenovo laptops are Thinkpad models, and those that are are not cheap.  If you do come across a cheap Thinkpad (under 700 dollars), chances are it is an older model and lacking in power.

Non Thinkpad Lenovo’s are still solid machines though.  An example of a great machine at a low price can be found here: Lenovo G570 4334DBU

Pros: Great customer service.  Some models come with a 3 year guarantee.

Cons: Looks the same that it did ten years ago.

#4 HP-Compaq

First of all, Hewlett Packard and Compaq are the same company and produce more or less the same laptops.  They sell a lot of laptops, not to mention desktops and printers and a slew of other electronics.  Despite having had a few hardware issues in the past, today I consider HP laptops to be a good value.

Pros: Like ASUS, HP produces a good value product.

Cons: Hp has added a new column of keys on the left side of many of their new keyboards.  It takes a little getting used to adjust to the new layout, and you will inevitably end up opening the calculator dozens of times while adjusting.

Hp laptops come preloaded with a lot of their own proprietary software.  The software is free, but in many cases Windows already has a program that does the same thing.  Ironically, Hp likes to use the word smart in the name of their software (ex. Photosmart).  If you are looking for a smart way to free up disk space, delete these programs.

Where to Buy:

Besides Amazon, check out Hp.com. Prices tend to vary greatly on the HP website : somedays Amazon beats them by a mile, and other days they offer free upgrades that make them the best deal in town. You can visit their site here: HP.

Laptop Brands to Avoid

Sony Vaio

When Sony first came out with its Vaio some 11 years ago a bunch of us smirked.  It seemed to be more designed for appearance than performance and carried a hefty price tag.

Sony is a brand that has always represented quality, and they have upheld this reputation with their line of notebooks. However, Sony isn’t the only electronics company capable of making quality products, and the high price they charge for their notebooks seems unjustifiable. The only reason you should buy a Vaio is if you have a high profile job where you need to look sharp, such as a sports announcer on TV.  But lets face it, if you are a sports announcer on TV, Sony has already given you one.

Pros: Looks good.  Some models are lightweight.

Cons: A bit more expensive than justified.  Customer service does not seem to be up to Sony’s standards.  Some models are difficult to do hardware upgrades on.

Dell

A few years back Dell began to outsource it’s customer service and boy, did the %^#! hit the fan.  I remember the days when irate customers would come in complaining that they had been on the phone for hours with somebody that barely understand English and never did get their problem resolved.

Three years later and while Dell customer service has definitely improved, if you buy a Dell laptop, chances are that you are going to need customer support.  Dell laptops are cheap, no doubt about it, but they have a lot of problems and for a few dollars more, you can buy an HP.