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What You Need to Know About Laptop Specs

John Brandon

Buying a new laptop is not always easy. Many of the best models look similar, use the same operating system and provide some of the same features. For anyone shopping around, you might not know what to look for in the guts of a machine. That's why we've pulled together this primer on technical specifications.

1. Screen

To choose the right laptop display for your needs, it can be helpful to go to a brick-and-mortar retail store to look at the latest models. Sizes range from 12 inches to 17 inches when measured diagonally. Many new models support touchscreens, some flip around so they work as a tablet, and quite a few run in 4K resolution. That means they have a super-high resolution of at least 3840 x 2160 pixels, or more than four times as many as a traditional HD screen. Whether you need such resolution will have to be a personal decision.

The important point here is to pick the laptop that looks best to your eyes. It can be highly subjective in terms of color quality, whether an anti-glare tech works for you, and if the size is important.

From a specification standpoint, the most important factor to consider when picking a display size and resolution is battery life. Larger displays use up a lot more power; smaller laptops with a 12-inch screen, for example, will last longer because the screen is smaller and requires less battery power to keep it running.

2. Processor

The processor, sometimes called the CPU (central processing unit), is the heart of any laptop and has the greatest impact on your productivity. A faster processor means apps load quickly, you can run multiple apps at once, and the computer won't lag and cause slowdowns when you run processor-intensive tasks.

There are lots of numbers associated with CPUs. For instance, you might see 16, 32, 64 or 128 bits associated with a chip. The higher the number, the more complex computing the CPU can do. For most people, a 32- or 64-bit CPU will be sufficient.

Clock speed on a CPU refers to the number of pulses per second the processor runs. It's usually measured in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz). Clock speed tends to double every year. The higher the number, the more power a CPU has, but that doesn't necessarily mean faster performance.

Originally CPUs had one core, meaning a single processing unit. Dual-core and quad-core CPUs are much more common today. You may even see some octa-core chips during your shopping. The more cores, the more processes your system can run simultaneously, speeding up your computing.

AMD and Intel are the largest makers of CPUs. Intel's tend to offer better performance but cost more. Generally speaking, though, they should be pretty close in performance. Intel's models of chips are broken down from least powerful to most as Core m3, m5, m7, i3, i5 and i7. AMD's model sequence is E2, A6, A9, A10, A12 and FX.

We're in the middle of a changeover when it comes to the processors in laptops. Many new models, like the Dell XPS line, use the brand-new Intel Kaby Lake R chipset. Dell estimates that Kaby Lake R provides a 31 percent speed gain from the previous generation of chip. It's known as "eighth gen" because Intel keeps revising its original Intel Core processors. AMD is on the seventh generation with its chips. The latest have four cores, which helps with battery management and speed. Importantly, many laptops still use the Kaby Lake seventh generation, and that still-current generation requires Windows 10.

3. Connectivity

Along with the processor, the connectivity on a laptop is important because it really determines how you can browse the web and which wireless gadgets you can use. The latest spec for Wi-Fi has to do with something called an active steering antenna, which is a way to automatically adjust the Wi-Fi signal for the best accuracy. Laptops tend to support both 2.4GHz and 5GHz signals. The 2.4GHz signal provides the greatest distance; the 5GHz signal provides the best throughput but not as much distance. If you care about the fastest speed, make sure the laptop supports that 5GHz spec. Also look for Bluetooth 4.2 support. That's the latest standard for connecting to gadgets like an external mouse and a wireless headset.

4. Operating system

Windows 10 is the most popular operating system; it's stable and highly secure, and it supports touch interfaces and a stylus for drawing on the laptop's touchscreen. The latest update for Windows, known as the, adds support for mixed-reality headsets from companies like Acer and Lenovo. You can use these headsets to play games where the animated characters seem to appear on a real table or desk.

Of course, the Mac OS is also an option here. Only Apple makes laptops, like the MacBook line, that work with this operating system. Mac is common at colleges and design shops and for those who edit video. However, the downside of Macs is that they often don't work with the latest VR and AR headsets, and the games have fallen way behind in terms of the latest releases like the "Call of Duty" and "Star Wars: Battlefront" series.

Google definitely believes that those shopping for Windows or Mac machines should also consider its Chrome OS. This web-based operating system is sometimes thought of as a glorified browser, but it might be just what the doctor ordered if you're only going to use a laptop for email, surfing the web, and some light gaming or picture editing. Chromebooks tend to last a long time on a charge and cost significantly less than PCs or Macs.

5. Battery

An incredibly powerful laptop with a bright screen is useless if it doesn't last as long as you need. Many of the latest models run 22 hours or more on a charge using an extended battery meant for keeping you productive. The 2-in-1 laptops that work as tablets tend to last about 10 to 12 hours per charge. Most of the innovations with battery tech, other than how they are made to last longer, have to do with the processor managing power. Intel can disable cores in the processor for everyday tasks, which saves battery power.

An important consider with battery longevity is the size and resolution of the screen. Larger high-res screens that run in 4K resolution use up a lot more power.

6. RAM

RAM is an acronym for random access memory. It works as your computer's active working memory. The more RAM, the more information a computer can work with at the same time, so it can have a dramatic effect on total system performance. It's also something you can often expand later if you're technically inclined.

Many new laptops now use 8GB of RAM as a standard specification, mostly due to the processor-intensive apps gobbling up more memory and the advent of virtual reality and mixed-reality headsets. For 2-in-1 laptops, the RAM allocation typically starts at 4GB. If you plan to browse the web and check email mostly, 4GB is fine. However, if you do plan to experiment with VR and gaming or run apps like Adobe Photoshop, 8GB is much better.

7. Storage

The big change with storage on a laptop is that most models now provide a solid-state drive, or SSD, which is faster than the old HDD (hard disk drive) tech. SSDs don't have physical moving parts and thus last longer.

Most laptops these days come with 256GB of pure storage. In many cases, cloud storage and backup services have changed how much local storage you might need — unless you plan to do a lot of video and photo editing. Using SSD means the laptop will boot quickly. Some models support as much as 1TB of storage.

8. Ports

Physical connections on a laptop keep going away. At one time, a business laptop would have an HDMI port and a VGA support so you could connect it to a projector, and you'd have plenty of standard USB ports. Lately, many new laptops only come with a couple of USB-C ports – the newest port that works with data, power and video. HDMI is far less common these days, and even the small Mini DisplayPort for connecting to a TV is not common, mostly because you can always stream the laptop screen over wireless. If you need more ports, you can add a dock that supports older USB cables and HDMI.

Image Credit: Vania Zhukeyvch/Shutterstock
John Brandon Member
<p>John Brandon is a technology expert, business advocate, and columnist. He has written over 12,000 articles in 16 years. His first articles appeared in LAPTOP magazine in 2002.</p>