Choosing a Good Value Notebook Computer in 2024
1st Consideration: Device Size
Notebooks come in two main varieties: with a no-numpad keyboard (generally speaking, the 13" and 14" screen size models) and with a full-size keyboard (generally speaking, the 15,6" screen size models).
I prefer the smaller 13" or 14" devices for a two reason: They are very portable, lighter and easier to get in a backpack; and the portion of keyboard that I use almost exclusively is centered with the screen (since there's no numpad).
There's also the “gamer” device size which is incredibly bulky. I'd not go with that. If portability is not a concern, I'd recommend considering a similarly priced desktop computer.
2nd Consideration: Processor Generation
Now for the technical side. The main determining factor for your experience while using the computer is how fast the processor is able to chew through what you asked it to do: be it browsing a webpage, installing a program, rendering an PDF, playing back video, and so on.
And the main factor for how fast the processor is is how recent is its generation. Recently, the clock speeds (measured in GHz) have been mostly stale, so the major performance gains have been related to including more cores, cache and micro-architecture.
When the manufacturer designed the computer, the processor choice also dictated other considerations and aspects, such as the RAM and SSD speeds, and I/O. So as to not dive too much into all that, let's simply use the processor generation as a proxy for how performant the computer will be.
At the time of writing, the latest processor generation from Intel is confusingly named “Core Ultra”. Before that, there were the 14th generation, 13th generation and 12th generation. Anything older than the 12th generation (which was launched in November 2021) is not worth considering.
To find out the processor generation, put the processor model number into your search engine of choice. For example, if the merchant site lists the processor as “Intel Core i3-1215U”, if you search for “1214U” you will be directed to a spec sheet from the Intel website saying it is from the 12th generation.
It also tells you it has 6 cores, out of which 2 are “performance” core and 4 are “efficient” cores. Well, for core count, anything 4 or greater I'd consider indispensable.
Now one last thing related to the processor is the performance segment, such as “Core i3”, “Core i5” and “Core i7”. In generation I'd prioritize getting a later generation much more highly than getting a higher performance segment in an older generation. As a rule of thumb, let's assume the newer generation's i5 will outperform the last generation's i7. (For the actual specifics, you'd have to compare both cases in single-core and multi-core benchmarks).
3rd Consideration: Memory
These considerations are eliminatory: once you've settled on the processor, there won't be much choice on these other fronts, but it's better to weed out what's insufficient.
If you are running Windows (and you are), anything lower than 8GB of RAM is insufficient. It will be a bottleneck for performance and the system will have to continually swap memory pages to disk to keep running, which is terrible for the SSD durability and, most importantly, terrible for your experience.
In short go with 8GB or more at the very lest. You can also consider if the notebook has SODIMM or soldered slots for memory. SODIMM slots allow for you upgrading the RAM capacity down the road, while soldered slots don't.
And once you have enough RAM for your needs, that's good. If you only ever use, say at most 16GB of RAM at most, having 32GB won't help you much. RAM is really about “capacity” and having “enough” for your use case, while for processor you can always get one which goes faster.
In short, having only 4GB of system memory should be a non-starter.
4th Consideration: Screen
I think it's almost criminal to keep selling HD (768p) screens today, but that's the case for most computers you will find online at the time of writing. I'd go with at least a full HD (1080p) screen. The entire time you use the computer, you will be looking at its screen, so having a nicer one is worth it.
Higher resolution screens let you see sharper text for reading and more details in images and videos. You will notice the difference when you get it and you won't be able to go back to lower resolution screens.
In short, an HD (768p) screen should be a non-starter.
5th Consideration: Disk
Again, this will most likely not be a choice once you've settled on the processor, but having an NVMe SSD with at least 256 GB of storage is nice. Solid-state media are orders of magnitude faster than mechanical hard drives, and they will help to keep your faster processor fed with data quickly for it to go at higher speeds.
6th Consideration: Manufacturer
While the specs are very important, choosing the computer according to the brand can be a proxy for other non-tangible qualities: build quality, durability and ability to get support and parts after the purchase. If you go with a reputable brand such as Dell, Asus, Lenovo and Samsung, you won't go wrong.
These brands are all known for manufacturing good electronics and for providing good support. They are also popular enough that you can expect to find replacement parts if you need them in a year or two.
Still, do some research in the particular model you are purchasing, as even reputable brands are not infallible and are known to put out models with have design defects, but fortunately those become quite public and you will most likely find out about it with a bit of research.
7th Consideration: I/O
Once again, most likely the other higher-priority considerations already settled the I/O your notebook will have, but just to bring up those considerations:
- WiFi 6e or a high-speed onboard Wifi connectivity standard.
- USB 3.0 ports are good for external hard-drives and high-bandwidth applications, such as a gigabit Ethernet dongle.
- A full size HDMI port is important if you are expected to plug into projectors for presentations on a daily basis.
- A RJ-45 Ethernet port (quite rare for the newer slim models) would be nice since the motherboard-provided port is far more reliable than any random dongle.
- The webcam quality and positioning (above or below the screen) should be at the bottom of the list of priorities by now, but it's still worth noting. You can always plug in a USB webcam if require constant video calls.
- As an addendum: A Thunderbolt port can be great for plugging in an external dock, an external display (through Display Port instead of HDMI), and even charging the computer. Thunderbolt-capable dongles and devices are pricier than USB counterparts (most likely due to the Thunderbolt licensing and certification, and maybe a premium on top for market segmentation).