How to go about choosing a laptop

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If money is no object, the best laptop will just be the most expensive one, which will be one with high performance, long-lasting battery life while being lightweight, plus having looks that will turn heads. Obviously, that’s not how the majority of us choose a laptop. Most of us will try to get the best laptop within a certain budget. Having recently lost my laptop, i just went through such an exercise. Here’s how i arrived at my new laptop.

My budget was to get something under S$1000. That would get me the higher end of the entry level laptops, which starts from around S$600. The most important criteria for a laptop, to me, are, performance, battery life and weight. In terms of performance, a Core i5 processor is more than sufficient even for demanding tasks. Interestingly, most of the entry level laptops available now do actually come with a Sandy Bridge (2nd generation) Core i5 processor. A laptop is only useful if it can run on battery for at least a good few hours (4 hours would be nice), failing which you might as well just use a desktop. Entry level laptops typically claim to offer something between 2+ to 10 hours of battery life, from which you probably have to discount an hour or more to get the actual real-life usage figure since they usually quote the battery life of a laptop at idle. Finally, for the weight of entry level laptops, expect anything from 1.6 to 3kg, and they are predominantly 2+ kg.

With these in mind, i set about shortlisting the potential candidates, which turned out to be a very short list:

Their features tabulated:

Model CPU Claimed Battery Life Weight Other Specs Price (as at 26 Nov 11)
Asus U36JC i5-480M 10 hrs (5.6 AH) 1.6 kg 13″, GeForce GT310M, No Optical Drive $999
Fujitsu BH531 i5-2410M 5.5 hrs (4.4 AH) 1.95 kg 13″, GeForce 410M, ExpressCard, eSata, No USB3 $999 (Sitex: $949)
Dell 13z i5-2430M 3 AHr (*5 hrs) 1.76 kg 13″, USB3, Bluetooth 3, 7200RPM HDD, No Optical Drive, No discrete graphics $949 (Sitex: $999 with external optical drive bundled)
Samsung SF411 i5-2410M 9 hrs 2.19 kg 14″, GeForce GT520M, USB3, Bluetooth 3 $999
Lenovo Z470 i5-2430M 5 hrs 2.2 kg 14″, GeForce GT540M, No USB3 $999 (Sitex: $899)

*Figure for the Core i3 model

It is quickly evident that not one of them can be declared an outright winner – each has its strengths but requires you to give up something else. Elimination is the way to pick the winning candidate.

The first to be eliminated is the Lenovo Z470. The claimed battery life is only up to 5 hours, which means in real life it’ll probably last at most 3.5 hours. The battery life is probably made worse by it’s higher end processor and discrete graphics, plus the bigger screen, which are desirable qualities, but not so at the expense of battery life. On top of that, it is also the heaviest of the lot.

Next to be eliminated, the Asus U36JC. Despite being very lightweight and having good battery life, the use of the older generation Core i5 processor takes a toll on its performance (PassMark of 2742 vs 3348).

Also eliminated, the Samsung SF411. The battery life is impressive, and overall, the features are adequate. The weight, at 2.19kg, though classified as “light”, is rather heavy in actual fact.

It’s a tough call between the Dell 13z and the Fujitsu BH531. The Dell seemingly looks more attractive (yes physically as well), being lighter (no built-in optical drive though), with longer battery life (based on speculation, since there is no official figure given nor test carried out on the model with the exact same specs) while spotting a slightly faster processor than the Fujitsu. One suspects its good battery life partly comes from the fact that it has fewer components and circuitry compared to the Fujitsu, which has discrete graphics, a built-in optical drive, an ExpressCard slot and an eSata port, which probably adds to the vampire draw even when they’re not being used. These additional features of the Fujitsu are both boon and bane – though having discrete graphics, the nVidia GeForce 410M is hardly better than the integrated HD 3000 graphics already found inside the Core i5 processor, and the non-detachable optical drive adds weight while being under-utilized for most people most of the time. The Fujitsu also lacks USB 3.0, though this could somewhat be overcome by plugging in an ExpressCard USB 3.0 card. However, the ExpressCard slot found on the Fujitsu is likely to be a first-generation ExpressCard slot, which supports only half the USB 3.0 throughput (2.5 Gbps vs 4.8 Gbps). To achieve a data transfer rate comparable to USB 3.0, the eSata port on the Fujitsu could be used, but moving forward, USB 3.0 should prove to be more popular.

Finally, i decided on the Fujitsu, simply because of the sheer number of features it packs. It feels like you’re getting more out of what you’re paying. How is it so far you might ask? Performance wise, to be honest, it doesn’t feel like it’s on steroids, like you’d normally expect from a brand new machine. I think this has a lot to do with the harddisk that came with it, which is probably just an ordinary 5400 RPM harddisk. Swap the harddisk for an Solid State Drive (SSD) and i believe it’ll become a completely different beast. That’s what i plan to do once the one-year warranty is up. An SSD will boost the performance tremendously, while helping to save on power consumption, and might even shave some weight off the laptop. As for now, the price of an SSD is still prohibitively high (a 128GB SSD will set you back by S$230 or more). Hopefully in a year’s time, this will fall to a more palatable S$150 price-point.

I would consider netbooks a passing fad, especially with the popularity of instant-on tablets, which allows people to perform most of the tasks they had hoped to do with a netbook. The latest and greatest of portable computing devices are the Ultrabooks, which uses lower clock speed CPUs that will let it run longer, while still offering decent performance. They have an ultra-portable weight (under 1.5kg), come in ultra-slim sizes and with not-too-small screen sizes of 11.1′” – 13″. They also typically use an SSD to boost performance and battery life, which should be no less than 5 hours. As with the case of the SSD, they are still too expensive now, but should get cheaper by the day.

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