Buying a laptop for college or work? Here’s how to not get ripped off
The most important thing when it comes to choosing a laptop is value.
Don’t get swindled by retailers or laptop manufacturers just because you aren’t familiar with the cryptic lingo of tech. The fact of the matter is, most people can get by for years with a laptop they got for ₹30,000 (US$ 400) to ₹60,000 (US$ 800). So save your money and get yourself a nice phone or some good shoes instead.
This guide will go over everything you need to know to find the best value-for-money laptop suited to your needs, without confusing you with irrelevant numbers and marketing gimmicks. So if things like processors and clock-speed all seem like Greek to you, read on!
Lets first establish the types of laptop users that out out there. Identifying what category you belong to will go a long way in helping you know what you need. You’re gonna be one of these three user types, so take a moment to evaluate and decide which category you fit in best.
The Flyweight: This laptop user will only use their laptop to do four primary things:
- Write reports with applications like Microsoft Word
- Work on spreadsheets with applications like Microsoft Excel
- Browse the internet, make video calls and do other internet things
- Watch movies
Most people fit into this category and can find the most value with hundreds of reasonably priced laptop models available for their choosing. You can expect a laptop priced around ₹30,000 (US$ 400) to ₹40,000 (US$ 550) to never disappoint you for any of the above tasks.
The Middleweight: Along with everything the flyweight might do, the middleweight may also require their laptop for the following purposes:
- Edit photos and videos with applications like Adobe Photoshop and Sony Vegas Pro
- Create graphic designs with applications like Adobe Illustrator
- Do some light gaming at 1080p resolution or lower
- Develop mobile applications with programs like Android Studio.
If you’re a tech student who’ll need to run virtual machines and web servers on their system, you also fall into this category.
For someone in this category, a laptop priced between ₹40,000 (US$ 550) to ₹60,000 (US$ 800) will serve them well.
The Heavyweight: The step up from middleweight to heavyweight is more in speed than in functionality. As such, users in this category will only need their laptop for one thing:
- Do everything the middleweight can but faster!
Expect prices to start at ₹60,000 (US$ 800) and go till the sky.
The Gamer: There’s a fourth type of laptop user that I haven’t told you about and that is the gamer. But lets fact it, if you’re a gamer, you already know what you want and don’t need this article for advice.
Fundamental Laptop Components
When shopping for a laptop, a long spec sheet can be intimidating and it is sometimes intentionally fluffed up with marketing jargon. This section goes over the only technical specifications you need to care about in a laptop and briefs you about what they are. Some of you may already know these things, so feel free to skip to the next section.
CPU Processor: The CPU processor forms the heart of your laptop. It’s like an enabler of sorts in that you could exploit the full potential of your processor with sufficient RAM and sometimes a good GPU, but you couldn’t make up for a weak processor with anything else.
There are two major manufacturers for CPU processors: Intel and AMD.
For laptops, Intel’s processors are historically known to be more efficient, although AMD processors are more affordably priced, thus offering greater value. In the mid-range, however, you won’t notice much of a difference between equivalent processors from both manufacturers.
RAM: Random Access Memory is the amount of memory available to your CPU during runtime. If that didn’t make sense, don’t worry. Just know that RAM is measured in Gigabytes (GB) and most laptops today are offered with 4GB, 8GB or 16GB RAM capacities. More is better because you’ll be able to run more programs simultaneously and smoothly in your computer.
These days, you should try to aim for at least 8GB of RAM even if you’re a flyweight user because basic applications like web browsers are becoming a lot more resource intensive. For flyweight and most middleweight users, a RAM capacity of 8GB should be sufficient for at least the next five years.
Graphics Card and GPU: For this context, you can take the graphics card and GPU to be the same and we may use them interchangeably in this article.
The GPU is responsible for rendering all of the graphics you see on your laptop monitor. They are powerhouses when it comes to mathematical calculations, so they work great even for crypto mining.
Every laptop has a GPU, but a dedicate one delivers more power, and therefore, comes at a premium. You’ll only want a dedicated GPU if you game often. If you work with graphic design and video editing software, the main advantage of a dedicated GPU will be faster rendering speeds. Salespeople will often try to convince you otherwise, but know that you definitely don’t need a dedicated GPU to perform basic photo and video editing.
Still, don’t expect performance to be proportionate to cost from even the top laptop GPU’s. A laptop GPU is a significantly scaled down version of its desktop counterpart with very noticeable performance downgrades. So if you’re a serious gamer, don’t spend much on a fancy laptop and save your money for a good desktop instead.
Storage: Storage matters. The storage capacity and speed of your laptop’s storage drive is either going to make you really happy or really frustrated at the most crucial moments.
Solid State Drives (SSD) are all the rage today, performing exponentially faster than conventional Hard Disk Drives (HDD). However, you don’t need to shell out extra just for an in-built SSD.
In fact, let me tell you a secret that very few people know:
- Buy a laptop with a regular HDD
- Swap the HDD with a good 256GB SSD which you can get for about ₹3,000 (US$ 40).
- If you’re worried about how to swap drives, know that there are so many instructions available online and even a child could do it (though, I wouldn’t recommend that).
- Now, you can boot Windows in seconds with your SSD and your old HDD won’t be wasted either. Put it in a ₹300 (US$ 4) cover and use it as an external hard drive.
This is something I’ve done to rejuvenate many of my relatives old computers. It’s really amazing how much this improves the performance.
Battery: The battery of your laptop is a crucial consideration, but you might be deceived if you only look at the battery capacity to guess how well it’ll perform. How long your laptop battery lasts on a single charge will depend on additional factors including usage and hardware.
As a consumer, there’s no science to this, but based on experience, I’d suggest you look at the advertised charge lifetime (usually given in hours) and set your expectation at about 80% percent of that. Just for your information, good laptops will come with at least 3000 mAh of capacity. But then again, don’t only look at that number.
Since battery performance in laptops varies drastically from manufacturer to manufacturer, reading user reviews will be the best place to look for actual performance.
Ports: There are two kinds of ports you need to be most concerned about when buying a laptop — USB ports and HDMI ports.
Most laptops today come with 3 USB port with at least one of them being USB 3.0 compatible. Try to set this as your ideal benchmark. You could settle for 2 USB ports if you’re a flyweight user, but make sure at least one of them is USB 3.0 compatible.
An HDMI port should be provided for every laptop above ₹30,000 (US$ 400). Know that the HDMI version (1.4 or 2.0) is not going to be so important for most people. You’ll be able to stream 4K videos with both.
If you’re a techie, you’ll appreciate an ethernet port in your laptop, but realistically speaking, most people won’t find much use for this on a personal device.
Not so important factors: There are additional components and features, laptop manufacturers will try to sell you on, but they’re not really crucial to consider when you’re hunting for value. Here’s a list of some of those things in no significant order:
- Keyboard backlight: This is something you will definitely appreciate, but you shouldn’t prioritize it over more important factors.
- Webcam: Webcams are all the more relevant in today’s times. Almost all laptops today come with built-in webcams, although quality will vary. You should strongly consider a laptop’s webcam quality, but make sure you don’t compromise on performance because of this. Good quality external webcams come very cheap these days.
- Optical disk drive: You don’t need a CD drive in your laptop. Also, external optical drives are very cheap to buy.
- Touchscreen and backward foldability: These features will add a significant premium to your laptop and you won’t get the performance specifications you’d otherwise receive on a normal laptop for the same price. I’d just not even consider laptops with these kinds of features when value is prioritized.
- Keyboard and touchpad quality: The quality of your keyboard and touchpad will greatly affect your long-term experience with a laptop. But then again, make sure you’re not wasting money on unnecessary conveniences. You’re better off spending on an extended warranty to cover for instances when your laptop components go bad (including the keyboard and touchpad). Also, good keyboards and mice are very cheap to purchase, these days and most heavy laptop users straightaway buy a mouse.
- Fingerprint reader: Just not necessary.
- Audio ports: Every laptop should come with either one input/output 3.5mm audio port or two 3.5mm ports, each for input and output. Generally, it doesn’t matter which one you take, and you can expect the quality of the ports to be tough enough for regular use (long as you’re not buying from some shady manufacturer, that is).
- Expandability: Some laptops will come with an expandable slot where you could fit in an additional storage or CD drive. This is really great and the good news is that even some low-end laptops come with this feature. Besides this, most laptops should provide an additional RAM slot for you to increase your RAM. This extra RAM slot is something that’ll be really valuable especially if you’re in the flyweight user category. Know that buying an extra 8GB RAM card for your laptop should cost you less than ₹4,000 (US$ 55).
- Speakers: This is a subjective area mainly because some people will be really affected by a laptop’s speaker quality and some won’t care at all. You can’t expect the best sounds from lower-end laptops but they will be functional and like most things in this list, remember that you can buy good external speakers for cheap.
- Wi-Fi: All modern laptops should come with Wi-Fi capabilities built-in. Some retailers may try to sell you on the speed of a laptop’s Wi-Fi receiver but be swayed but that. Stuff like Wi-Fi receiver speed are just one of those things where if you need it, you’ll know.
- Monitor brightness: Another common and rather overstated selling point for most laptops. Just don’t go for anything below 250 nits if you want to be able to read your screen in the daytime. 300 nits is more than enough for working in the balcony of a trendy coffee shop.
From this list, I hope you’ve picked up the general idea of: Don’t pay extra for something built-in if you can buy it for cheaper as an external accessory.
Remember, we’re living in the golden age of tech where computer components have become really affordable; so this practice will really help you save costs.
So what laptop is good for me?
So this is it. Time to decide what type of laptop you should get. Well, it’s simple as pie.
Below I’ve listed the minimum specifications for the three necessary components (CPU, RAM and GPU) you should look at in a laptop. Also, I’ve categorized them by the user types we established earlier. You’ll also find the amount of money you should expect to pay for the type of laptop you’re getting.
Note that these recommendations are relevant to the first half of 2021, so if you’re reading this a few years later, they may be a bit outdated.
CPU — Intel i3 10th generation or AMD Ryzen 3 3250U
RAM — 4GB barely cuts it, 8GB is much better
GPU — No need for an external GPU
Expected price — ₹30,000 (US$ 400) to ₹40,000 (US$ 550)
CPU — Intel i5 10th generation or AMD Ryzen 5 3500U
RAM — 8GB is good, 16GB may not be necessary
GPU — No need for an external GPU
Expected price — ₹40,000 (US$ 550) to ₹60,000 (US$ 800)
CPU — Intel i5 10th generation or AMD Ryzen 7 processors; Intel i7 processors will be better, but at significant premium
RAM — 8GB may suffice, 16GB is best choice
GPU — Start from NVIDIA’s GTX 970M or AMD’s RX 570M.
Expected price — Above ₹60,000 (US$ 800)
That’s it! If you can find a laptop at the lower end of its expected price, congratulations! You’ve found a great deal. Just make sure it’s from a reputed manufacturer and a warranty of at least one year is offered. Read on for more tips on purchasing laptops.
Laptop components’ longevity
How long should you expect your laptop’s components to last? Well here’s what I’ve gathered from experience:
- CPU: A laptop’s CPU could last up to a decade on normal use. Performance may gradually degrade over time, but you’ll likely never need to worry about it.
- GPU: Just like a laptop’s CPU, its GPU will likely outlive most other components.
- RAM: This is another component that you can expect to work for up to a decade — well beyond the expected lifespan of most laptops.
- Battery: A laptop’s battery is probably what will show its age the earliest. Expect to need to change your laptop battery after about two years if you don’t want to be carrying a charging cable everywhere.
- Storage: While SSDs are expected to last more than a decade, HDDs are likely to slow down much sooner. If you haven’t already swapped your HDD for an SSD, you’ll strongly be considering it by three years.
These are all the components you may need to maintain or replace in a laptop. As you can see, the list is short and with most of them, you likely won’t ever need to worry about issues. Laptops are built to last and they can easily outlive most other electronics if maintained well.
What about an even cheaper laptop?
Should you go for a laptop priced below ₹30,000 (US$ 400)? I wouldn’t recommend it, honestly. Most laptops at that price-point have a significant compromise that you’ll find out about soon after buying them.
They also don’t do very well when it comes to longevity. You may have seen some, but I’ve never come a cross a sub ₹30,000 (US$ 400) laptop that’s been usable for more than three years.
Google’s Chromebooks are a big hit among some people and they’re priced really competitively. You should only go for them if you’re very strictly in the flyweight category because I’m not exaggerating when I say they have really limited functionality when compared to Windows laptops.
All in all, I’d strongly recommend setting ₹30,000 (US$ 400) as your baseline for buying a laptop because this will ensure you have sufficient functionality and better longevity as well.
Brands I’d recommend
There are probably a thousand companies selling laptops under their own brand names, but there are only a handful that are trusted worldwide and these are the manufacturers you should prioritize buying from. Here’s a list of the top five laptop manufacturers I have recommended to friends and family and will continue to recommend in the future:
- Dell: Reliable laptops with great customer support, a bit more expensive than competitors
- ASUS: Probably the best value for money, some laptops definitely look cheap
- Lenovo: Great reliability, basic designs
- HP: Usually reasonably priced, lower to mid-end laptops certainly feel cheap
- Acer: Value for money, not the best customer support
Retail vs Online: Which offers better prices?
This is probably something you’ve contemplated before and the answer will vary based on where you live.
I suppose the biggest factor in determining where you would get the best price would be competition. If you live in a small town with only a few computer retailers, you’re less likely to get a eager salesperson because they know you don’t have many other places to go to. In such a case, buying your laptop online would be a better option.
New Delhi has a well known tech shopping center known as Nehru Place where you’ll find hundreds of retailers located within the same area. Due to this, you’ll find very competitive prices and most salespeople will be willing to give you a free mouse, an MS Office subscription or some more accessories in order to convince you to buy from them. Some of them will even show you laptop prices on Amazon in order to convince you you’re getting a better deal with them.
I love these kinds of settings where you’re spoilt for choice and I’m sure most people would too.
I always believe it’s best to feel a laptop in your hand before buying it. That’s why I’ll always prefer retail stores to online merchants when it comes to buying laptops. Still, if you’re clever, you could always physically check out a laptop at your local retailer and then order it online.
A word about Macs
You may have noticed that there’s no mention of any of Apple’s products as a choice here. That’s because Apple’s MacBooks are definitely not value for money.
Additionally, some recent variants of Apple’s most affordable MacBook offerings — the MacBook Air (starting at above ₹60,000 or US$ 800), have reportedly had heating and performance issues, primarily as a result of Apple sacrificing some cooling functionalities in order to achieve a thinner profile.
Basically, if you’re looking for value in a laptop, MacBook products wouldn’t even come close to being considered.
I hope this article has been helpful to you. As you may have noticed, this article is mostly aimed at non-gamers looking to get laptops in prices below ₹60,000 (US$ 800).
I truly feel that most people will never need to spend any more than this amount on their personal laptops, especially because tech hardware is getting so much more affordable everyday. I know a laptop will be a major investment for many, so please don’t be swindled by manufacturers and do as much research as you can before making a decision. All the best and happy hunting!