This is the second part in our series on how to choose the most suitable laptop for your needs. Please see the links at the bottom to the other parts in the series.
We should start off by pointing out that the overall computing experience, especially the perceived speed, is a function of very much more than the CPU alone. This is similar to how the speed of a car depends on a lot more than the horsepower developed by its motor. But, of course, if all other things are more or less equal, then a faster CPU is going to be faster than a slower one.
Extending that thought, simplistically it is fair to say a faster processor is always preferable to a slower one. But, like everything, choosing your processor isn’t quite that simple. For example, faster processors can add hundreds of dollars extra to the laptop price, and might end up not actually being much faster in theory, with their theoretically much faster speeds being limited by memory or storage or display or internet speeds. Sometimes you’ll get an overall faster/better experience by spending money on some other aspect of your computer – indeed, we’d suggest that the best “bangs per buck” these days is to ensure your laptop has an SSD rather than an “old-fashioned” hard-drive (we discuss this a bit further on, below).
There are several things to consider when choosing a CPU. And these days, we have so many different CPUs to choose between.
The key points I look for are :
- What “generation” is the processor? In the case of Intel, the current generation is termed the “11th generation”. Almost always, each newer generation is better than the previous generation – in power management if not in anything else. Which leads to a much under-rated part of evaluating CPU chips.
- Power consumption – all other things being equal, the lower the power rating of the CPU, the more life you’ll get from the laptop’s battery, and the less heat the chip will generate, making it easier to manage the laptop’s heat issues (always a problem in laptops). Less heat means smaller or no fans, a smaller case, less weight and space in heat sinks, and more flexibility in layout, all leading to simpler, smaller, lighter laptops. Low power CPUs can use three times less power than high power ones, while sometimes delivering almost the same amount of speed.
- Speed – this is very hard to rate these days, because there are so many different types of CPU calculation and factors that go into the effective real-world speed. The speeds themselves can even vary, being increased or decreased depending on how busy the CPU is. In the good old days, you simply checked to see if it was an 8 or 16 bit chip, and what the processor speed was. Now, things are more complicated, and processor speed in particular is now an almost meaningless measure, so I look for some type of consistent CPU speed test rating and assume the actual perceived difference in speed will be much lower than the simple rating numbers imply.
I use this wonderful website to tell me all about each different CPU. You can see how it rates the chip in my new laptop with the chip in my old laptop, and also, for interest, the laptop I had before that one, too, here. Things have obviously improved and accelerated over time.
The key points I focused on in my buying decision now were
- The new chip is a current 11th generation chip, so I’m not buying a hopefully long lasting laptop that already has its chip architecture obsoleted
- The new chip uses a very low 15W of power in typical use (slightly less than one third the power of the previous chip) – probably the most important of the considerations
- The new chip is rated at nearly twice the speed (“CPU Mark”) of the previous chip – the older laptop still felt “fast” so any increase in speed is a lovely bonus
This i7-1165G7 is far from the fastest chip out there these days – there are other laptop chips that are twice the speed, but it is one of the most power-efficient. I knew, from my experience with my now being retired Dell E6540 that I would be happy with a CPU even if its processing speed was similar to that of the i7-4810MQ that I was replacing, so a chip that is almost twice as powerful is a lovely “bonus”. With my key criteria being low weight and long battery life, the most important CPU measure to me was power usage.
One more point about CPUs. I used to always rely on Intel, but it seems for the last five years or so, AMD chips have been at least as good and possibly better than Intel chips, in terms of speed/performance and value for money. There appears to be no concern about compatibility these days, so if you see an AMD chipped computer, this is not necessarily a bad thing at all, it might even be good.
Do you remember back to the day when Bill Gates, defending the inability of MS-DOS to address/use more than 640kB of memory, claimed there’d never be a day when anyone would ever need more than 640kB of memory?
Well, things have certainly changed since then! Most laptops these days have 8GB or more of memory. How much do you really need?
Everyone has an opinion on how much memory is needed. I recommend most people should get 16GB of memory, because the cost difference between 8GB and 16GB is probably minimal, and the greater performance and flexibility you’ll get from 16GB is valuable. My Dell had 16GB, and often times it would be showing over 80% of all memory being used, and sometimes over 95% of all memory being used.
The Performance Monitor app within the free Advanced SystemCare app is very helpful for showing such things, and you can see on the left a screen shot of what is showing on my old Dell laptop currently. Note that if you install it, be careful to say no to the various other apps it tries very hard to install, too. Their newer SysInfo product is quicker and easier to install.
My memory consumption is much higher than average, because I sometimes have 50 or more tabs open in my various browser windows, and every tab uses appreciable memory. This may not apply in your case, but for me, due to my high memory usage, I was mildly keen to get more than 16GB, and all the more so because I guess, over the five or more years I might have this new computer as my primary laptop, memory requirements will continue to inexorably increase, the same as they have in the past.
Another consideration was the laptop had an integrated graphics chip on the main CPU and shared the same main memory (rather than having a dedicated separate store of memory), which might take as much as a 4GB chunk of the memory, to be used for graphics processing. So I decided I’d “future proof” the machine by getting 32GB.
One more thing about memory. It has different speeds. You may have noticed that memory is often described as DDR3 or DDR4, and has a number after it. DDR4 memory uses less power (less heat and longer battery life) and tends to have better transfer speeds, and also can support more than 32GB. It is a more modern standard than DDR3 (but first appeared in 2014), and at the risk of re-iterating, there is no sense in buying a new computer with older obsolete components.
The DDR4 standard evolved to LPDDR4X for laptops and power-critical uses. This new standard, requiring lower power than regular DDR4 memory, is designed for the smallest laptops, phones, and other similar devices. There is now a new LPDDR5 type of memory too. This article gives a good overview of the three technologies.
The DDR5 standard was unveiled back in 2019, but as of July 2021, there are not yet any readily available/mainstream laptops using it, and DDR5 memory is also appreciably more expensive than DDR4 memory. So DDR4 and LPDDR4X are the current states of the art.
The number after the DDR3 or DDR4 refers to the speed of the memory. LPDDR4X seems to offer one speed only (4266 MHz), DDR3 memory is (was) available at various different speeds. In all cases, these speeds are their maximum rated speed, there’s no guarantee that the computer they are placed within will drive the memory at that speed.
Now for the issue of storage. Storage these days is typically offered as 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB (1024 GB) of capacity. It is also available in either regular/”old fashioned” hard-drive or in newer solid-state form.
For me, this choice was easy, and it should be for you too. Insist on a solid state type of “drive” – an SSD.
Some years ago, when solid state drives had finally moved to a point of high capacity and not too ridiculously high price, I replaced the 7200 rpm hard drive in my Dell laptop with a Samsung Solid State Drive (SSD) and the difference in system speed/responsiveness was astonishing. I’ll never, ever, go back to a physical spinning hard drive (and note also that particularly in laptops, hard drives are sometimes slower than the 7200 rpm drive I replaced – 5400 rpm, and even as slow as 3600 rpm). SSD units can be smaller, lighter, use less power, and are much more physically robust than spinning-platter type mechanical hard drives.
SSD drives can either be in the same physical form as a regular hard drive (typically a 2.5″ wide form for a laptop, but other widths are sometimes used as well), or in a much smaller size, an M.2 form-factor type drive (pictured at the top of the article), of various length options (specified usually as a four digit number) that is simply a “bare” unpackaged SSD on a circuit board, and so takes up much less space in a laptop.
As for capacity, I’m using way over 512GB on my present 1TB SSD, so this was easy – either another 1TB drive, or possibly even a 2TB drive for more future-proofing, if the cost differential wasn’t too great and the option available.
In case you wonder how I use so much storage, I’ve over 200GB of FLAC music files (the best way to store music digitally), and almost another 200GB of images, in addition to programs, system overhead, and regular data files. For you, see how full your current hard drive is and consider what you’re likely to add to it in the future. Either get a generous sized capacity or understand how you can add to the storage in the future.
There’s one more issue with solid state drives – their speed for accessing and transferring (reading and writing) data. Not all SSDs perform the same, indeed, some are much more than twice as fast (or slow) as others. Frustratingly, many laptop manufacturers don’t disclose this performance data, and might not even tell you the manufacturer and model number of the drive they are including (because they “mix and match” whatever they can buy from time to time).
Even more frustratingly, Microsoft used to include a system performance report feature in Windows 10, but no longer seems to, so you can’t test a computer’s performance in the store prior to buying it, short of trying to load third party software onto the store demo laptop, and that is usually impossible.
In my case, I had to cross my fingers and hope it would be a good/fast SSD, and if it wasn’t at least as good as the Samsung SSD in my Dell, I resolved to make use of Costco’s excellent return policy and send it back.
Happily, LG didn’t stint on their SSD performance, and use a Hynix drive. Using a third party disk testing program (Crystal Disk Mark) showed the new laptop’s SSD to be so stunningly faster than the already brilliantly fast SSD in the older laptop (up to seven times faster depending on what was being tested) that I almost wondered if there was an error in the program reading.
I wondered if the faster speed might have been due to the faster laptop in general, being able to “push” the hard drive faster, so I also compared theoretical ratings of the drives, unrelated to the computers they are in, using the harddrivebenchmark.net website, which showed the new Hynix drive to be almost five times faster, using their average drive rating score summary mark.
Warranty and Service Contract
Many people urge you never to waste money on extended warranties and service contracts, whether it be for a car or for a computer or anything else. In my case, I tend to get my value with such things (and, yes, for cars as well as computers).
Especially with a laptop that is not only more fragile than a desktop computer safely nestled inside a strong metal case and sitting passively on/alongside your desk, and with the laptop traveling with you, being subjected to various stresses and strains while in your carry-on, being shoved into overheads, having other people squash things on top, and so on and so on, there are many more things that can go wrong with a laptop.
So not only do I seek out an extended laptop warranty (usually I look for about three years of total coverage – I tell myself that if something breaks in the fourth or subsequent year, it is probably about time to get a new laptop, anyway), and if possible, I’ll get a world-wide warranty rather than just a domestic US one. I’ve had my laptop (and its power supply) occasionally fail in foreign countries as well as in the US, and having a serviceman appear at my hotel the next day in rural England or New Zealand and replace/repair the faulty part is an amazingly positive experience.
If your laptop is “your life” and you can’t afford for it to fail and be down for an extended time, there’s nothing better than a world-wide on-site next-day service agreement. You only need to use it once in the three years to feel you’ve got your money’s worth.
My experience with Dell warranties, in the past, has been outstanding. I’ve got two years of warranty on the LG Gram, and am a bit anxious about what to expect, but we’ll see what we see. My first call (for advice, not to solve a problem) took almost two hours from dialing the number to an ultimate uncertain resolution.
Which Laptop is Best for You?
Hopefully you now have an idea for what is appropriate in terms of CPU, memory and storage. Let’s move on to the more tangible components – the screen and keyboard. Please now click on to the subsequent parts of this article series :
The Invisible Bits (Memory, Storage, CPU, Warranty) – this article!
Bonus Article : Choosing a New Desktop – Beware The Huge Lurking Trap! – to be published