[Geekery] Laptop specs – What do they mean?

laptop specs

This was asked by JoNa, my junior copywriter. He was looking to replace his aging Macbook Air, which has seen some pretty intense battles, but looks like it’s approaching the end of its life (5 years is pretty damn good for a laptop).

Now, a Macbook Air costs RM4K at least, which is rather pricey considering its specs. However, it is called “air” for a reason. It’s ridiculously light and thin, making it easy to lug about to and fro work (and when your commute is upwards of an hour, that matters). Thing is, me and Sid convinced him to look at options beyond the Macbook Air. Compared to say, five years ago, there are now many more options that can do the job for a better price.

So here’s a rough guide to making sense of those laptop specs when you’re out shopping:

Processors:

Almost all manufacturers use Intel, with a few gaming laptops utilising AMD. As AMD’s Ryzen has just been released, I’ll wait till we get a few more reviews before adding them to this list. Here’s what you should keep in mind:

How to read Intel Chip numbers:

Sample processor: Intel i3-7500U
What it means:

  • i3
    Brand name. From low to high, the current models are: i3, i5, and i7.

  • 7500
    The 7 indicates this is the 7th generation of the processor. Latest version (at point of writing).

  • U…
    Or other letters describe what special features the chip has. “U” denotes low-power in this case, meaning it should last longer. Here’s the full list.

The i3 laptops are great if you run only one program at a time, like Path of Exile or any other game. The i5s are good if you run many programmes simultaneously (think Chrome, Word, etc). The i7s are beasts and are generally meant for intensive applications, like game streaming, faster video rendering and the like.

Note that I tend to skip anything that isn’t the i-series. This is simply because my work processes tend to be browser- and Office suite-heavy, so I am targeting at least a i5 in a laptop for myself.

At the time of writing, the latest gen is 7.

GPU graphics card Pixabay pic

Graphic Cards

Again, because I expect my laptops to allow a touch of gaming, I generally avoid Intel HD Integrated Graphics-only laptops. However, in recent years, Intel has improved the tech to the point it’s actually viable for lower-specc’ed games. So if you know you’re going to be playing mainly older games or not doing a lot of visual work, then yes, you can skip this part and go straight to RAM.

Otherwise, read on a little more.

nVidia VS AMD
There are two behemoths in the marketplace – nVidia and AMD. A long time ago, when I was fresh out of college and building my own PC (a friend helped me assemble it, I bought the parts), I was warned away from AMD because it didn’t take overclocking too well and had a tendency to overheat.

So, I’m unfamiliar with AMD’s naming and will skip it for now. As for nVidia, this is all you need to know:

  • Cards that are numbered GeForce 1050 etc (aka 10-etc) are the latest gen at time of writing. It’s also generally the most expensive range at this point in time.

  • In most cases, you can get away with a 980 card (9-etc).

  • VR-ready cards are nice but unless you intend to game extensively, they’re not necessary.

RAM

I’m gonna keep this simple. For me, I just keep an eye out for DDR4 mentions. That’s the latest gen as far as I know. Anything before, I recommend skipping.

In terms of how much, well it really depends on your needs. The current baseline is 4GB. Again, if you are like me and you live in Chrome, then aim for a machine with at least 8GB of RAM. It’s for future-proofing.

HDD Pixabay laptop pic

Storage, aka harddisk

This is one of those things that can be rather polarising depending on who you speak to. See, there are two competing standards in the market now.

  • HDD-anything
    Need a lot of storage? Look out for specs with upwards of 1TB (that’s one terrabyte!) on the laptop of your choice. If you think you’re not going to need that much, then anything above 500GB will do. HDD tech is older but far cheaper compared to SSDs.

  • SSD
    These babies are generally far smaller than what you’d find on a laptop HDD. SSDs stand for Solid State Drives, and are generally quicker at booting up programs (think Windows 10 loading in 3 seconds and Adobe Photoshop in 10, if I remember correctly).

  • Hybrid drives
    Some laptops come with both SSD and regular HDD drives. In this case, I say put your program files (like your Windows OS, your program installation files and the like) on the SSD. For everything else, like your Word docs, your porno videos and random smartphone images, throw them onto the HDD. This lets you reap the best of both worlds – quick start ups for programs and having all your media in the same machine.

Generally I would recommend getting a SSD-only machine ONLY if you don’t keep a lot of data on your laptop. Base space start at about 256GB (which is about half of what you would find in a regular laptop HDD offering).

Pixabay laptop pic from user seagul

I/O Ports and Peripherals

Ok this is kinda getting too long so I’ll try to keep it short. I/O basically refers to input and output ports. These are your USB sockets, headphone jacks, power supply etc. The thinner it is, the less you’ll get. This you can’t look at the numbers. Just look at the side of the laptop.

Look out for USB 3.0 and above, as this means it’ll support a faster transfer rate (great for moving files from PC > phone/external HDD and vice versa). Having a few USB type-C and Thunderbolt connectors wouldn’t hurt (but not really necessary for now). A HDMI port is necessary for presentations, though depending on your circumstances, a VGA port might suffice.

My own personal preference is at least three USB ports; one each for a keyboard and mouse, and a third for any extra peripherals. An ethernet cable too, for those times wifi sucks.

And that’s a quick guide to laptop specs. Let me know if I missed anything and I’ll add it to the list!

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