Choosing a New Laptop

To me, the ideal setup is two computers: a powerful desktop and a convenient ultrabook. Indeed, even a more budget user might benefit from having a combination of a Chromebook and Desktop – a $300 Chromebook and a $700 Desktop probably beats a $1000 laptop – especially if you build the desktop yourself, as you can progressively upgrade the parts as you want in the future. I have a Linux VPN home server allowing me to wake-on-lan and remote into my desktop from my laptop securely, but Chrome Remote Desktop would provide a similar experience in a similar way – allowing you to access the power of the desktop while away from it on your laptop.

Right now, I have a great desktop, and indeed not one but two laptops. Yet the Alienware laptop I have has a terrible battery life – it was a great college laptop but is not travel friendly. The Razer Stealth has a good eight hour battery life but is lacking in horsepower – in particular the non-upgradeable 8 gb of RAM (soldered RAM is just the nature of life in ultrabooks) and the dual core i7 7500U is rather meek for my uses. The Stealth is the laptop I intend to replace – and perhaps the Alienware as well if I really like the new computer. The Stealth I plan to give to my sister, it is still an awesome laptop, it just isn’t capable of hardcore scientific computing as much as I would like.

A number of classes of computer for consumers exist as I see it:

  • Cheap laptops (<$500) – get a Chromebook
  • Gaming laptops – good multipurpose for students, but I’d recommend a desktop/slim laptop combo for others
  • Business or “Creator” laptops – tend to be highly overpriced for what they offer, gaming computers are better value
  • Ultrabooks – expensive but the slim metal builds and long battery life are great for travel
  • Desktops – buy these for raw power, and generally best performance/$, obviously not really portable
  • Macs from Apple – overpriced, nice but terrible performance/$

First, ask yourself if you need a dedicated GPU. That’s the graphical processing unit, for gaming and video editing.

A discrete GPU means a bulkier computer and more battery consumption (so shorter battery life), and adds hundreds of dollars in extra cost. I have a discrete GPU in my desktop, but see no need for one in my laptop – it would actually be a negative overall in my use of it. The latest Intel integrated graphics are good enough for plenty of games on low settings (Civ VI for me) and for most hobbyist video/photo editing. If you are a gamer or professional video editor: Nvidia is the best, AMD is fine, and I am very curious about the new Intel discrete GPUs.

The heart of a laptop is the CPU, it determines the overall performance and is usually a quick indicator of the overall quality of the computer. You generally can expect an Intel i7 equipped computer to be on the higher end of things. CPU’s are one of the fewer explicitly quantifiable things about a computer – they have exact numeric benchmarks, and thus tend to be one of the best places to start your search for a laptop as you can relatively easily figure out what the the performance to price ratio is.

Not all Intel i7s are created equally even in the same generation – they have slow, good for battery life variants (1065G7), fast but bad for battery life laptop variants (10750H), and then full-power desktop variants (10700). I see laptop companies selling 8th Gen i7 processors for the same price as the new 11th Gen i7 – which is crazy because there is actually a significant performance difference between those chips. Even the same chip in different model computers can have different performance due to how well it cools and power save settings – although I somewhat ignore this factor as it again becomes too subjective. A quick search of reviews and CPU benchmarks can usually prove helpful if you think it will matter to you.

Generation sometimes matters and sometimes doesn’t: 11th Gen vs 10th Gen is a noticeable step, 8th vs 10th Gen is not. For the first time in about four years, Intel has started releasing a smaller node – 10nm over 14nm. Intel has also started to take the GPU side of things seriously in 11th Gen Core processors, with the Intel Xe integrated graphics starting to challenge entry level MX Nvidia graphics – hardly elite gamer worthy, but great for most everyday use. Intel’s competition, AMD uses TSMC’s 7nm node, but ‘7nm’ is just a name, the actual density of transistors seems to make the 10nm of Intel comparable or even perhaps slightly better than the 7nm of TSMC. Still, the core count and pricing of AMD means you get equal or better performance than Intel for a cheaper price, and probably the better choice for most people who need more powerful laptops. Personally, I stuck with Intel largely because I want to see how ARX-512 instructions do in Intel MKL. These matrix algorithms may be noticeably faster in some data science cases but probably will not matter in the slightest to an ‘average’ user.

At this point in my search I had decided I wanted an Intel i7 11th Gen 1165G7 – a low power processor for ultrabooks, but being of this newest 10nm technology, actually benchmarks in the same performance group as the high power 10th gen processors – which most people are still buying naively – it probably won’t hit the mainstream until next spring. Indeed this decision made my search much easier as only a handful of these computers were to be in stock in the next month or so. Actually, to be fair to AMD, the ASUS ROG Zephyrus G14 with an AMD 4800H was a close run – on sale for only $900, with upgradeable RAM, 8-core processor, a graphics card, and generally great horsepower and great battery life- that would have been my choice for a single do it all laptop as a college student – but with a mediocre screen, touchpad, and keypad, and no webcam, I’ll save the more amazing horsepower needs for my desktop.

To me, after CPU, the most important things are a metal (usually aluminum) laptop body, battery life, keyboard, and then to a lesser extent, the screen. Intel has an “Evo” certification for ultrabooks that denotes computers than fit these criteria, but mostly it comes down to reading countless online reviews (from PCMag to NotebookCheck to TomsHardware and so on). I went into Best Buy to try out the computers, and this is a great way to get a feel for keyboards (and to some extent the screens, although manufacturers tend to cheat by putting nicer demo videos on their more premium models). I would have bought at Best Buy too, except they only offered a 12 GB RAM version of the computer I liked, too little RAM for me (8 GB RAM is probably fine for most ‘average’ users).

There are plenty of reviews on all types of computers. For ultrabooks, the Dell XPS is the overall reviewer’s favorite, and it is quite nice – it is just a little too expensive for the computer power I was looking for. The HP Spectre is much the same. The HP Envy was an attractive option as basically keeps all of the best features of the Spectre/XPS computers at a cheaper price – except one big issue (to me) is it can’t charge over USB-C, and the ability to charge my everything with USB-C is important and convenient to me while traveling. MSI Stealth looked great but since I decided I don’t need discrete graphics, the steeper price didn’t seem warranted. ASUS has a fleet of new ZenBook and Vivobooks which look better value, but I hated the touchpad on the older generation version of it I tried, and screens were rather dim on the cheaper variants. The top-end Lenovo Yoga 7i I choose is basically an XPS equivalent for half the price.

If I were to make the same choice but on a lower budget, I think the Dell Inspiron 7000 (metal body) with an Intel i5 or i7, and also the ASUS Zen/Vivobooks are both probably the best value. They lack a number of the luxury touches, but honestly are probably good enough and more likely to go on sale. If I were to spend more money I would get either an MSI Stealth or an ASUS ROG Zephyrus.

My Minimum Recommended Specs:

  • Intel i5 or better, or AMD Ryzen 5 or better
  • 8 gb RAM (more better)
  • 256 gb or larger SSD (actual HDD’s are rare now, with good reason, they are sloooow)
  • Nvidia discrete graphics only if you will use them
  • Full HD IPS display with good color range (I actually find higher res screens annoying and pointless on a laptop, get higher quality but not higher resolution screens, the two are not as correlated as you might think)
  • WiFi 6 (ax)
  • Fingerprint reader or Windows Hello face login camera (keep in mind a Windows Hello camera is pointless if you are the kind of person to always cover over your webcam for privacy reasons)
  • Good port selection. Decide what that means for you. For me, a 2 thunderbolt (usb-c), 1 usb-a, and 1 headphone jack is about as ideal as one can get on an ultrabook. On a bigger laptop I would like something like: 2 usb-c/thunderbolt, 2 usb-a, 1 headphone, 1 ethernet rj45, and 1 hdmi.
  • Six hour battery life (more better). Assume you will get only 70-80% of the advertised battery life.
  • Decent keyboard. Keyboards with a larger travel (usually 1.n millimeters) are usually but not always better. Mostly you need to try and see.

Here was my list of “finalists” from my own search:

  • ASUS Zephyrus G14
    • Ryzen 4800H, 8 GB, GTX 1650, Best Buy $900 -upgradeable RAM!
    • Ryzen 4800H, 16GB, GTX 1660Ti, Best Buy $1300
    • 10750H, 16GB, GTX 1660Ti, Best Buy $1300
  • ASUS Vivobook (intel discrete graphics) + Zenbook 13 EA
    • 15 1165G7, 16GB $850
    • (ship early November)
  • New Acer Swift 3X (intel discrete graphics) (plastic-y)
    • $1200???
  • Dell XPS (expensive, linux friendly)
    • 1135G7, 16GB, $1200
  • HP Envy (no USB-C charging?!)
    • $1119 1165G7, 16GB
    • $1000, 1165G7 8 GB BestBuy
  • Tiger Lake Chromebook -spring 2021?
  • MSI Stealth m15
    • $1400 1185G7,  16GB, GTX 1660Ti
    • $1500 RTX 2060
  • Lenovo Yoga 7i
    • 14, 1165G7, 12 GB, $1030 Best Buy
    • 14, 1165G7, 16 GB, $1150 Lenovo
  • New Inspiron 14 7000 Laptop

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