My 2019 Laptop Buying Dilemma

By Joe Callison
14 January, 2019

It has been quite a while since I have provided updated buying tips for laptops. Partly it has been because of frustration with my own search for a replacement for my wife’s 2009 model Dell Inspiron 1750 laptop. It is still working and does everything she wants, and she does not want to give up the features it has that she loves. Even though it is approaching 10 years old, it is still plenty powerful and fast, especially with a solid state drive replacing the hard drive, has a beautiful large (17 inch), high resolution display, powerful premium sound, a full size keyboard and number pad with excellent feel, and it is pink! It does have some negative features (other than the color, for me). It is quite bulky and heavy by today’s standards at 7 pounds, and has a relatively short battery duration even with the larger 9 cell battery option. My problem has been finding a replacement that is likely to be as good or better.

One of my main concerns is what I consider a very troubling trend in the consumer market. In the quest to have the latest gadgets at the lowest cost, we have made consumer laptop computers, tablets and smartphones disposable items with maybe 2 or 3 years of useful life before replacing them with the next new thing. The average annualized failure rate across the consumer laptop industry is 11%. Over 20% will experience a failure within the first 2 years of use. Repairs are expensive, if you can even get the parts after a model has been out for more than 2 or 3 years, so we are more likely to just buy something new. Americans seem to be okay with that for products under about $1000 because we keep buying them.

I have been using the term “consumer laptop” so far. There are other categories that can be considered. There are designs specifically for gaming, business and industrial use. While these are generally more reliable than consumer products, they tend to have other tradeoffs beyond a higher price. Gaming laptops emphasize processing power and graphics speed. They tend to produce a lot of heat and fan noise. Business laptops tend to emphasize durability in construction for road warriors and less on graphics and audio quality. Industrial laptops are designed for durability and environmental hardening against heat, moisture and dust and tend to be bulky and heavy.

My minimum requirements for a new laptop to be purchased in 2019 are as follows:
Display: 15” Full HD with 1920 x 1080 or better resolution LED backlit
Processor: 8th Generation Intel i5 or better
Graphics: Built in graphics should be sufficient for most users unless you are a serious gamer, in which case you would want discrete graphics with its own graphics memory.
RAM: 8GB (2 x 4GB) or more of DDR4 dual channel memory (i.e. 2 x 8GB or 2 x 16GB)
………Note: Many are sold with a single 8GB or 16GB to save a few dollars. Dual channel operation requires two identical memory sticks which are sold in pairs.

Disk Storage: 256GB or more solid state disk or M.2 solid state card (no eMCC memory!)
………Note: If furnished with a standard 2.5” SATA HDD instead, it can easily be changed out with a SATA SSD later. Additional storage beyond the capacity of an internal SSD can be an external USB-connected drive. A 1TB USB 3 external HDD is currently $50, and 1TB external SSD is $220 (and falling fast).

Audio: Premium sound with front-facing speakers
Wireless: AC gigabit
Ports: 1 or more USB 3.1 Type C           
          2 or more USB 3.1 Type A
          1 HDMI           
          1 Headphone
          Note: The trend in ultra slim laptops is to reduce the number of ports, providing only USB 3.1 Type C or Thunderbolt ports that can be used with travel docks that provide all of the other ports. The cost of the dock should be considered when comparing prices with these types.
Warranty: 1 year or more

Other optional nice-to-have features:
Keyboard: Full size, with backlit keys
Ports: 1 or more Thunderbolt
Operating System: Windows 10 Professional
Other: Memory Card Reader

Finding a new laptop that meets my requirements with good reviews and at a reasonable price (under $1200 preferably) has proven to be difficult. Some are on sale for as low as $1000 that meet my technical specifications but have too many bad reviews about reliability for my comfort. I could take a chance that I won’t end up with one of the lemons after the warranty expires, or buy an extended warranty hoping that if it has not failed by the end of the second or third year of warranty it will be less likely to fail later. Since the old Dell is still working, I will keep on looking, probably at gaming models if we stick with a 17” display or business models if she can be convinced to go with a 15”. 

For those who are thinking why don’t you just get a MacBook, besides the high price, I would be concerned about the long-term reliability of the “butterfly” keyboard for 2016 and later models and I would also be concerned about the Intel-powered models being abandoned by Apple in future macOS updates once they start producing their own design of ARM-powered models, possibly by 2020. Some reviewers have said that an Apple-certified refurbished 2015 MacBook is the best model to buy if you want an Apple, and is hundreds of dollars less than a new one.

Posted by Joe Callison

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