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Issue #591: November 18-24, 2018

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Q: My wife has decided that she needs a new laptop for the upcoming holiday shopping.  We have two now, one HP and one Lenovo which are 5 and 6 years old.  What would you suggest as some of the best name brands (HP, Lenovo, Dell) or some other?  Should someone ever consider a refurbished laptop?  She does not need a gaming machine, just something relatively fast and stable, around 15- or 17-inch screen.  She uses for word processing, watching videos and surfing the web.  What should we look for such as RAM and SSD hard drives?  We are looking to spend around 4-8 hundred dollars.  I know you normally deal with people’s computer problems, but I was thinking with the big shopping days coming up you could possibly throw some advice out for all the people thinking about purchasing a computer in the next couple of months.  We are looking to buy around Black Friday sale holidays.  Thanks and love reading your columns every week.

 – Roger J.
Fort Walton Beach, Florida

A: Your question was quite excellently timed, Roger, with Black Friday right around the corner.  And you are generally correct about when to buy.  Prices go up and down all the time, but some of the best deals seem to be available mainly at two times of the year:  Back-to-school, and Black Friday, along with its not-so-little brother, Cyber Monday.  I have long recommended these times to people who are looking to update their hardware.

Ever since I started writing It’s Geek To Me 11 ½ years ago, I’ve had a longstanding policy of not recommending any particular brand name over any other.  Nobody pays me for my opinion, so I don’t stand to make or lose anything through product endorsements.  Until and unless a company wants to make me a paid endorser, I’m afraid I can’t give you the brand suggestion you asked for.  I will tell you that because of certain personal experiences, I won’t purchase another HP-branded computer.  I don’t have that edict about their other products, such as printers.  Refurbs?  I’m torn.  Again, it depends on the vendor.  Some of them put out refurbs in the exact same condition as their factory-new machines.  Others explicitly mark them as refurbs – both physically and electronically – which can cause problems with software installations, including certain Windows updates.

Let’s clarify what you mean by “gaming machine” for the sake of my other readers.  Among the various tasks that computers can perform, one of the most demanding is playing immersive video games.  All of the visual aspects that you see on the screen are rendered in real-time, and modern games contain incredible simulations of reality.  They include models for things like gravity, smoke, and real physics.  This makes the environment in the game react in a similar manner to the real world; but it takes a lot of computing power to pull that off.  Hard-core gamers want the most realistic experience they can get, so they demand the fastest hardware, biggest memory capacity, and best and fastest video output.  As you alluded to, none of these things are required for the rest of us, and we can get along quite well with PCs that cost a third or half of what a so-called gaming machine might cost.

You could get by quite comfortably with 8 gigabytes of RAM, although I would recommend 12 or 16 if you can fit it in your budget.  Solid-state drives are nice, and can improve performance and reduce boot time, but again, they add to the cost of a computer.  Remember that unless you purchase a machine that comes completely maxed-out, additional RAM or an SSD can typically be added later as an upgrade.

Screen size is largely a matter of personal choice.  Of course, larger means you get more screen real estate, which is highly desirable for watching videos, and even document editing.  The flip side is that a bigger screen means a bigger overall device, which can be a concern if you will be travelling with it.  I can tell you from experience that many carry-on bags don’t easily accommodate a 17-inch laptop.  Another difference that many people don’t think about is the system’s keyboard.  Most laptops with a 15-inch display won’t have a separate numeric keypad.  If that’s a deal-breaker for you, make sure you check for one before purchasing.

Other things you might want to consider as you compare laptops are quantity and speed of USB ports, presence of external video ports, touch-screen capability, Bluetooth, SD card reader, and so on.  Having them and not needing them is no big deal, but if you wind up with a model without something you need, you may find yourself making yet another purchase.

Finally, let me say that I think your price range is very reasonable.  You should be able to find quite a nice machine within that budget, and even have enough left over for a carry-bag, wireless mouse, and a good thumb-drive.  Good luck and happy computing!

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