It’s time to let you in on a secret: All of my blog posts have been written on a laptop that’s a decade old. Amazingly, this computer still runs as well as — if not better than — the day I first bought it. Oh, and it’s not an overpriced MacBook.
I paid about $900 back when I bought my Lenovo ThinkPad X220 in 2011, and I’ve spent about $220 on upgrades and maintenance as of 2021, including an SSD, more RAM, and a couple of new batteries (more on that technical stuff later).
Now, $1,120 is no small sum, and you can find budget laptops for as little as $200*. So as someone who is notoriously frugal, why would I be recommending such an extravagant purchase? Because a decent laptop legitimately gets the job done faster (and lasts longer) than a cheap one. A good laptop saves me time — my most precious commodity.
If you think about that $1,170 cost spread over the 10 years I’ve had this laptop — which I’ve used every single day for writing, editing photos and videos, web browsing, and literally making my living — it’s easily the best electronics purchase I’ve ever made.
There are a lot of factors that went into picking a laptop that would last 10+ years, and a lot of things I’ve done to keep this machine running so well for so long. I’m going to walk you through how to find a balance between quality and price in a laptop. Then, we’ll look at what you can do to make any computer last longer. Let’s get to it!
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What to Look For in a Laptop (and What to Ignore)
Most laptops last 3-5 years, but if you’re choosy about your purchase, and you learn a few maintenance tricks, your computer can last double or triple that typical laptop lifespan.
This article isn’t meant to be a specific laptop buying guide. It’s supposed to help you understand the difference between the features that are truly important and the ones that amount to little more than marketing hype. The model numbers and specifications may change over the years, but the concepts here probably won’t. These are the most important things to look for when buying a laptop:
First off, make sure you only consider computers with a solid-state drive (SSD) rather than a hard disk drive (HDD). This is one of the most overlooked factors in the speed and responsiveness of your computer — spinning hard disks are just slow. SSDs used to be very expensive, but prices have come down so much that there’s just no reason to buy a laptop with a hard disk any more. When it comes to storage capacity, needs may change over the years, but 500 GB* is probably plenty for most people. The size of your SSD matters more if you hoard a lot of photos (and especially videos) locally on your computer (rather than on an external drive or in the cloud). The good news is that most SSDs are reasonably simple to upgrade if you find that you need more space later.
Next, take a look at the processor, or the brain of the computer — another major factor for speed. The Intel Core “i” series (i3, i5, i7, i9)* is a quality line of processors (any recent model of these will be decent — the higher the number, the better), but you’ll want to avoid Intel’s budget models like Pentium, Celeron, and Atom. Apple’s “M” series* is also a solid processor, though you’ll pay a premium for it. If you look at a computer with an AMD CPU, be sure to do your research on that specific model before buying. Upgrading a laptop’s processor is difficult or impossible, so splurging on this spec makes some sense.
Another key component to how fast your computer feels relates to how much memory (aka RAM) it has. More is better, and needs will change over time, but 8 GB* is generally going to be plenty for most users. If you do intense processing, like video editing or gaming, you should look for 16 GB* or more. Adding more RAM to a laptop later on down the line is usually cheap and easy to do.
With the guts of the computer figured out, the next thing you’ll want to look at is the build quality and durability of the laptop. The first thing to break on any laptop is usually the monitor hinge(s) — make sure they’re not cheap plastic. It’s important that your laptop can take a little bit of a beating, especially if you travel a lot like us. I’ve dropped my ThinkPad more times than I should probably admit, and it still shows almost no evidence of that mistreatment. In all honesty, Lenovo ThinkPads and Apple MacBooks have the best track records when it comes to physically withstanding the test of time. If you want a durable and reliable laptop that will last into the next decade, just choose one of these (but beware that MacBooks are usually a bit overpriced for what’s inside). In my own personal experience, HP laptops are some of the absolute worst in terms of physical durability and quality — so steer clear of that brand.
Another consideration related to the computer’s build is ports. I personally hate computers with fewer than 3 USB ports, and unless you want to have to use an adapter every time you need to plug something in, try to get a mix of USB-C and classic USB-A ports. Aside from that, if you’re gonna be plugging your computer into external screens a lot, having an HDMI port, DisplayPort, or something similar can be helpful. You may also want to look into whether your laptop has a headphone jack or Bluetooth capability for when you need to listen to audio in public (almost all laptops these days will have speakers, a mic, and a webcam built in).
Lastly, give a little thought to the upgradeability of your machine. Apple laptops are notoriously difficult to modify. They purposely build their computers so that users are forced to take them in to authorized stores for repairs and upgrades. On my ThinkPad, I was able to upgrade my RAM and SSD with literally three screws total. Other models will vary, but it’s worth considering.
Outside of the above factors, nothing else really matters when it comes to how long a laptop will last, how fast it’ll run, or how future-proof it is. Almost everything else is just marketing hype designed to get you to spend more on stuff that won’t improve the computer’s performance. For example, here are some things you shouldn’t care about when shopping for a laptop:
- Screen — Sure, some monitors are better than others, but this likely won’t change how much work you’ll be able to get done on your laptop, or how long it will last. It’s just not worth splurging on an ultra HD 4K retina-whatever-else screen compared to other, more important features.
- Graphics — Unless you are a hardcore gamer or video editor, you’re not going to need to buy into any extra fancy “graphics” features (like an upgraded video card). The standard on-board graphics built into any laptop will be plenty for the average user.
- Webcam — Almost every laptop is going to have a built-in webcam that’ll be all you need for Zoom calls or selfies. You’re not going to be filming the next Star Wars movie with your laptop.
- Fingerprint reader — Who are you, James Bond? Just use a password. It’s often more secure, anyway.
The specific numbers and models listed above are subject to change as time goes on. But the fundamental process of buying a laptop remains the same: Focus on the few most important features, and ignore the rest of the flashy advertising buzzwords. That’s the best way to buy anything.
Your Software Choices Matter Too (4 Operating Systems to Consider)
The two operating systems you’re likely to be familiar with are Windows and macOS. However, if you’re after a cheaper or more stable option, it’s also worth considering Chrome OS, which is expanding to offer users more functionality, and Linux, which is a completely free operating system. Here’s what you need to know when buying a laptop:
- Windows is relatively inexpensive and easy-to-use. It has the widest range of compatibility with other software (especially games), which also makes it the most susceptible to viruses and malware, slowing your computer down over time.
- macOS is the most expensive choice because it only comes on overpriced Apple hardware. However, it is also arguably the easiest to use. It also tends to be very stable and unlikely to need much service over time.
- Chrome OS primarily comes on low-end budget laptops and offers much less in the way of functionality and software compatibility. It’s easy to use because it doesn’t have much to it (a file manager, a media player, and the Chrome web browser — that’s it). If you only use your computer for web browsing, and you just want a cheap laptop, it could be a decent option.
- GNU/Linux is the cheapest ($0) full-featured operating system. Setting it up initially can be challenging (get help if you’re a novice), but once it’s ready to go, it’s one of the most stable operating systems in existence. Almost no viruses or malware afflict Linux machines, and they typically do not slow down over time. My favorite variety of Linux is Xubuntu — that’s what I use myself. It’s also great to install on old, used laptops, because it isn’t very resource-intensive. We put it on Steven’s grandma’s computer to keep it running fast over time, and she’s had no problems (she just uses it to check email and Facebook).
Regardless of which operating system you choose, the single biggest hack to keep your computer lightning fast in the long run is knowing how to reinstall the operating system once in a while. Whenever your computer starts slowing down, don’t buy a new one! Just back up all your data, wipe the hard drive clean, and reinstall the operating system from scratch. It’s like having a brand new computer without having to pay for one. Just Google it, and you can find guides on how to do this for Windows, macOS, or any other operating system.
Choosing a Lightweight Laptop for Portability and Travel
The one thing we haven’t discussed yet is form factor. But that’s probably the reason you’re buying a laptop in the first place, right? I mean, the whole point of a laptop is that it’s portable — you can take it anywhere! As someone who travels a ton and sometimes lives out of the back of a cargo van, this is an important laptop feature for me.
First, look at diagonal size. Anything over 15 inches is frankly ridiculous to travel with, whether you’re schlepping to and from the office or just trying to pack it into a carry-on. My laptop screen is 12.5 inches (32 cm) diagonally — perfect for the seat-back tray of an airplane.
Next, you’ll want to look at the laptop’s weight. My ThinkPad is around 3 pounds (1.4 kg), and for me it’s pretty lightweight. Keep in mind that you’ll be carrying it around — tucking it into your bag as you head for a getaway — so every extra ounce matters.
Another key feature for a travel laptop is battery life. A long-lasting laptop battery means you can actually use it on the go. I can’t tell you how critical it’s been to be able to use my laptop through a full day of flights without having to fight everyone else at the terminal for an outlet. Read some user reviews on the laptop you’re considering to get a feel for actual battery life. Bonus points if the battery snaps out with the flick of a switch like mine for easy, at-home replacement (all laptop batteries will go bad and hold less of a charge after a few years of use).
Finally, if you know you’re going to be using your laptop in all kinds of conditions — even in the dark — you’ll want to consider getting a computer with a backlit keyboard or some other light source. My ThinkPad doesn’t have a backlit keyboard, but it does have a light in the monitor that shines down on the keyboard — Lenovo calls this a ThinkLight. Check what features your future laptop has for using it in the dark.
If you’re looking for a good travel laptop in the ThinkPad family, take a look at the X-series first. They are the smallest and lightest, while still packing really impressive specs. In Apple’s lineup, the MacBook Air is the lightest, but most of the regular MacBooks and MacBook Pros are quite compact too (as they should be for such a high price).
To be straight-up with you, if you want a portable, compact laptop with great specs that will last you over a decade, just go with a new or manufacturer-refurbished Lenovo ThinkPad X-series or Apple MacBook. For under $1,000*, you’ll be able to get something amazing from Lenovo. For something similar from Apple, you can probably expect to pay around $1,500*. If you take great care of it and resist the temptation to buy something shiny and new along the way, either of these options will suit your needs for many years to come.
Don’t have that kind of cash on hand? No worries — just don’t fall for any budget brand PCs. If I absolutely didn’t want to spend $1,000 on a laptop, I still wouldn’t go with a brand new cheapo laptop from Walmart. I’d look at used laptops on eBay and Facebook Marketplace, along with refurbs on Amazon, to find a durable, premium brand like a Lenovo ThinkPad. Even good laptops depreciate pretty quickly in resale value, so you can probably find something with 5+ years of life left in it for $400* or so, as long as you’re willing to reinstall the operating system from scratch. By checking out used models on eBay or Facebook Marketplace instead, you’ll save money and still get more bang for your buck.
* This recommendation was written in 2021. As time goes on, the specific models, numbers, and prices will certainly change, but the fundamentals about which components are critical in a laptop have stayed the same for decades. This laptop buying guide was written to help you focus on the most important features to keep a computer running fast long into the future, regardless of what year you’re reading it in.