How to Buy a Laptop You Won’t Hate

I wrote the following article back in 2017 for my business site: I’ve since closed the business and shut down the site, but I still get asked for advice on technology purchases. In fact, someone asked me for laptop advice today which prompted me to dig this up and re-post it!

This article does a good job of filling in the blanks for people interested in buying a new computer. It also saves me a lot of talking and saves you a lot of writing 🙂

The advice here is relatively timeless. I’m sure processors will change over time but it’s still pretty relevant. You should feel comfortable making decisions based on it.

– Chad Hassler January 3, 2020

A guide for the average user

I’m in the business of answering questions. One of the most frequent questions I get from clients, friends, and family is “I need to buy a laptop, what do I buy?“ It’s not a simple question. There are just too many variables. Lucky for the people that ask me, I enjoy the process of figuring out what laptop to buy and what software they’ll need to go with it.

What about the rest of humanity? Sure, a small percentage will be tech heads that know exactly what they want. Another segment of the population is just doing everything on their phones (savages). But what do you do if you’re Joe User and you need a laptop? You don’t work with this stuff everyday and when you look for a laptop, you very quickly become confused, frustrated, and end up just buying whatever.

This is how you end up buying a computer that you hate. I don’t want you to do that so I’ve written a guide that breaks it all down for you. If you follow my advice, you’ll be the proud owner of a new laptop that you’ll actually enjoy using.

A little background – aka why you can trust this guide.

From 2007 to 2012, I was still in the business of answering questions. I just did it for Best Buy. During that time, I sold personal computing solutions to all kinds of people. There’s only a handful of places where you can sell technology to so many different kinds of people with varying needs in such a short time frame. Best Buy was one of them. I’ve sold computers to thousands of people. Chances are I’ve sold a computer to someone like you.

What I loved about selling at Best Buy

My favorite moments at Best Buy came when a customer would ask me to put together a full solution for them. It wasn’t just about which computer they should choose, but how that computer was going to fit into their lives and the lives of their family. I wasn’t just choosing the technology for them, I was helping them develop processes to get the most out of that technology. Sound familiar?

Being asked to solve multiple problems, on the fly, with the tools that surrounded me was challenging and gratifying. Sure, it felt good to watch that nice long receipt spit out of the printer. But what made it better was that the customer was thrilled with the solution and that wasn’t just the computer.

What I hated about selling at Best Buy

Best Buy’s business model is basically this:

”Sell the core product at a rock bottom price, then attach high-margin services, accessories, and protection plans (warranties) to that core product – the customer’s wishes be damned!”

I added that last part. Cynical, yes. But, there were certainly times it felt like that, or worse.

Should I really feel good about selling a $30 USB cable that cost us $1.50? I’m all for margins, but a 2000% markup? At what point should I be feeling guilty? What about the customer who has a tech-savvy nephew that’s going to help them set up the PC. Should I really try to convince the customer that their blood relative’s technical abilities in no way match up to the supreme power of the geek squad?

There were all kinds of factors that contributed to the cynicism. And yes, sometimes the job just plain sucked. But what bothered me more than anything was the idea that I couldn’t truly take care of the needs of my customer – with honesty and integrity. Perhaps TechFlow Designs and this guide is my way of atoning for sins committed long ago.

Who is this guide for?

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that you’re in the market for a Windows 10 laptop. Mac users already know what they want so covering Macs as an option in this article would be pretty pointless.

I’m going to assume that you’re a lay-user which means you don’t really get technology but you use it every day. You probably buy a computer once every 3-5 years. You probably do most of your “tech stuff” on your phone. You’re only buying a computer because it’s still advantageous to have one around. You’ll browse the web with it, type and print documents with it, listen to music, and maybe manage your photo library with it.

If that doesn’t sound like you at all, well… keep reading! The principles I use here can be applied to all kinds of purchases, not just a laptop.

Rule #1 – You get what you pay for.

Take a look at these two PC’s:

Two machines, nearly identical specs in the major categories, and almost a $500 difference in price. How? Well there are a number of factors at play here, but most often, the biggest contributor to price is not specs, but Build Quality.

All computing devices are made up of parts. Those parts have costs associated with them. So while two laptop screens can have the same screen size and resolution, one can look far better than the other. The better the parts, the more money it’ll cost the manufacturer and ultimately, you.

What makes a part better? All kinds of things. In this example, one laptop is from Dell’s home lineup (Inspiron Series) and the other is from their business lineup (Latitude Series). Those are two completely different use cases. One sits at home and sees use at night and on the weekends. The other is being used for work every day for at least 8 hours per day. One is a toy and the other is for getting work done.

Look and feel is paramount

Part of what makes a good computer good is how you feel when you use it. Is it a pleasure to use, or a burden?

Many prospective buyers look at laptops, desktops, and tablets as commodities. This is wrong. A laptop is an experience, not a commodity. It’s not as simple as “you either have one or you don’t”. You can have a laptop that is functionally as good as it needs to be. It can browse the web, create documents, and give you a way to organize the family photo library. But if the touchpad sucks, you’re going to hate it. If the keyboard layout is annoying, you’re going to hate it. If the colors on the screen are dull, you’re going to hate it. See where I’m going?

The same can be said for things like size, weight, how hot it gets, and more. All of these things are hugely important in the decision making process, and many of them are really hard to capture on a spec sheet.

Note: look and feel is directly related to the build quality of a laptop.

All battery life claims are lies perpetuated by the government

Ok, so maybe that’s a stretch. But, battery life is a really tricky thing to pin down. For instance, from the beginning of time, up until the time of this article, Google Chrome has been a battery hog. If you use the native browser in Windows 10, Microsoft Edge, battery performance improves tremendously. Edge also sucks and so most people use Chrome. And most people don’t get nearly the amount of battery life they think they should.

Also, every use case is different and so battery claims are almost always going to be bogus. Instead, I recommend you look at battery performance statistics (in terms of hours) and then reduce it by 30%. If the spec sheet says the laptop gets up to 6 hours of battery life, plan for 4. If it says 10, plan for 7. It’s a more realistic expectation and will reduce the chances for you to make a mistake on a laptop purchase.

Reviews are your friend

Ok. So far we know that build quality and look and feel matter, battery life is tricky, and Microsoft Edge sucks! When it comes to that all important look and feel, how do you determine what a device will feel like if you can’t get it in your hands? Brace yourselves…Customer reviews.

Many people will bemoan customer reviews for any number of reasons:

”Have you ever written a review before? Has anyone you know ever written one? Then why would you trust the reviews on anything?”

”I read an article in blah blah blah that said you can’t trust customer reviews”

Lots of companies pay for their reviews, so you can’t trust them

First of all, customer reviews are not gospel. It’s a stranger’s opinion. Of course that’s not going to align with your values every time. That’s not the point. Customer reviews are clues. You’re on a mission to buy a new laptop and you need as many clues as possible to help you determine if the laptop you’re looking at is worth buying.

Clues within the clues

What’s the primary thing to look for in a review? Surprise! It’s not the star-rating. Sorry, you’re going to have to put a little more work into actually reading the review in order to find the clues. When you read a review, you’re looking for clues as to what really ticked the customer off. Red flags for me on laptops are in the Look and Feel category. Things like keyboard and touchpad quality, screen quality, or comments about quality of the chassis (the plastic that holds the laptop together).

If I see one bad comment, I won’t worry about it too much. It’s when I start to see a trend that I get concerned. If I see the same comment in 3 or 4 reviews, it’s off my list.

New Operating System Considerations for Home Users

Until a few weeks ago, your choice of Windows operating system would be Home or Professional and unless you’re buying a premium laptop, that choice has already been made for you (Windows 10 Home). But recently, Microsoft unveiled a new version of Windows 10 called Windows 10 S. The “S” stands for Streamlined for Security and Superior Performance. I guess they couldn’t market it as “Windows 10 SSSP”. I’ll just see myself out…

It’s streamlined because the OS will only run applications that you can download or purchase on the Windows Store. Oh and anything you can run inside the Microsoft Edge browser. That’s right, no Chrome for you. Unless it’s on the web or in the store, Windows 10 S won’t run it. But again, you’re an average user. Unless you can think of a program that you download off a website and run on your computer, this won’t be a problem for you.

The trade-off is the security and performance. Since the environment won’t run unapproved apps (read: not in the Windows 10 store), you have an operating system that is far more secure, and way easier on your battery. Windows 10 apps aren’t bad, per se. There’s just not a ton of them out there. But don’t worry, all the mainstream goodies are there and many “apps” are now just web apps. They’re easier to develop and they can be accessed by users on all sorts of different platforms.

Also, Microsoft is bringing it’s dominant Office suite to the Windows 10 store. This wasn’t possible until the announcement of Windows 10 S. So if you’re like most users and need a PC to create documents, browse the web, and run a few mainstream apps (Netflix, Hulu, Minecraft, whatever), Windows 10 S will work just fine for you. And if it doesn’t, you can always upgrade to a normal version of Windows 10.

Note: This handy FAQ should tell you everything you need to know about Windows 10 S

Office – just get it

Let’s talk about Office for a minute. Should you buy Microsoft Office? If it’s in the budget, then yes. Are you going to use all of the office apps to the fullest extent? Probably not. But one day, someone is going to send you a document, and your PC isn’t going to be able to read it. The apps are just handy.

There are multiple versions of office that I’ll break down for you in a future article, but for the sake of simplicity follow this rule:

If Office is just for you, get Office 365 Personal for $70/yr. If it’s for you and your family, upgrade to the $100/yr subscription. You’ll always have the latest office and Office 365 comes will a number of other features which you may not appreciate at the outset – but can be really powerful when you need them.

Note: If Microsoft Office isn’t in the cards, you can run Libre Office – an open source Office Suite, for free. Your mileage may vary.

OneDrive – just use it

Another quick note on OneDrive. You should use it as your primary method of storage. What I mean by that is that your documents, photos, music (if you have it) and videos should go on OneDrive (the OneDrive folder on your PC) first, and then you can back it up locally if you want to. But again, you’re the average user and you don’t have a backup strategy. Which is why I’m recommending you use OneDrive.

The reason is a simple one. PC’s die. When it dies, you want to be able to get back up and running as soon as possible, right? Well if you didn’t back up all your stuff, that’s going to be difficult. I do a lot of PC restores for clients and data recovery is almost always part of the conversation.

Also, if all of your stuff lives on OneDrive, you can access it from anywhere on any device. Plus, it’s built right into Windows 10. Sign in and you’re done. It’s the simplest way to manage all of the important digital “stuff” in your life.

Where to buy your laptop

BEST BUY of course! Just kidding. I mean you can. Just as long as the laptop meets the criteria I’ve laid out here.

Actually, the Microsoft Store offers a great selection of laptops at good prices. The real reason to buy it directly from them is because it ships with a clean copy of Windows 10. In all the years I spent selling computers, I cannot even begin to describe the abhorrent level of crap-ware manufacturers install on PC’s. It’s like they want their customers to hate them. I don’t get it. If you buy it from Microsoft, it will most likely be a Signature Edition PC and I can’t recommend it enough.

Wrapping up

Based on my many years of helping people purchase laptops, the above guide covers all the basics and will ensure you end up with a laptop that you don’t hate.

Notice what I didn’t talk about in this article? Brand. All the major manufacturers make good PC’s and if you follow this guide, you’ll wind up with a good one for yourself. Don’t be afraid to buy a cheaper laptop either. Sometimes you get lucky and find a great machine at a phenomenal price.

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