Earlier this month, I offered up a list of five must-have features for my next notebook. In that post, I suggested going beyond the usual "speeds and feeds" to focus on some of the lesser-known features that make a portable PC more usable and increase productivity.
Those were, of course, my personal preferences, so I asked readers what they consider to be the most important features for a portable PC. The comments to that post contained some great suggestions, which I've summarized here.
Let's stipulate right at the start that these recommendations are intended for PCs purchased primarily for work, not specialized workstations for graphics professionals or stock traders or software developers. I've organized this post by category.
There was, of course, the usual trolling, so let's get that out of the way first.
Commenter ckmb scolds me: "You forgot one--the ability to EASILY add Linux to the computer; to get around all the EFI/UEFI/Secure Boot horsesh*t which Microsoft is employing."
It goes on, but you get the idea.
In my experience, the features that make a good PC are mostly OS-independent. You can install Linux on just about any modern PC or Mac, in a virtual machine or on bare metal. UEFI support is indisputably superior to old BIOS-based designs, and Secure Boot is a security feature, not a lock-in strategy. Don't take my word for it, though. The official Debian Wiki, for example, notes:
UEFI Secure Boot is not an attempt by Microsoft to lock Linux out of the PC market here; SB is a security measure to protect against malware during early system boot. […] SB is also not meant to lock users out of controlling their own systems. Users can enrol extra keys into the system, allowing them to sign programs for their own systems.
The leading Linux distros all support Secure Boot, and every business-class machine I have tested in the past five years has supported the ability to disable Secure Boot. So this is a ... straw man.
But if you absolutely insist on a Linux-powered PC, though, you should probably head over to Dell's website. ZDNet's own Linux expert, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, regularly catalogs the latest Linux-powered Dell PCs, including this announcement of high-end Ubuntu Linux laptops from just a few months ago.
With that out of the way, let's talk about what the remaining 99% of the PC market will be buying.
CPU and RAM
Of all the "speeds and feeds" factors to consider, the combination of CPU and RAM is the most important by far.
Longtime commenter M Wagner argues that an Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB RAM is more than adequate for "mid-range performance [and] typical datasets," and I agree, with one caveat. The i5 and i7 labels are inadequate on their own. The CPU generation is much more important. I won't buy a new PC with a CPU and chipset that are more than two generations older than Intel's current offering. As of mid-2019, that means an eighth-generation CPU like the i5-8265U or better.
As for RAM, JustCallMeBC notes correctly that 16 Gb is a must if you intend to run virtual machines or perform other demanding tasks. You can upgrade memory easily on a traditional tower PC, but most modern notebook PCs don't allow easy user upgrades, so choose carefully when you buy.
Not surprisingly, the consensus among commenters is that a solid-state drive (SSD) is the way to go, with a size of at least 128 GB and preferably 256 GB. My survey of current business-class PCs suggests it's difficult to even find a modern notebook PC that uses only a conventional hard drive.
But even among SSDs, there are differences in performance. zerianis10 says an M.2 SSD is the way to go, and JustCallMeBC wants "Dual M.2 SSD slots, easily accessible." That latter option might be hard to find, although some gaming notebooks could qualify.
From a performance standpoint, the M.2 physical connector is less important than the storage interface: NVMe (non-volatile memory express) uses the PCIe bus and is dramatically faster than the older SATA standard. If performance matters, that's the feature you want to look for.
To touchscreen or not to touchscreen? I prefer a mobile display with touchscreen and pen support. That resulted in a long and frankly pretty tedious discussion of greasy fingerprints and smeared screens. (My recommendations? Don't use a touchscreen when eating potato chips or fried chicken, and keep a microfiber cloth handy so you can clean the screen occasionally.)
Commenter ron mvp notes that my insistence on a 16:10 or 3:2 aspect ratio is easily solved with an external monitor, preferably 4K. If you do most of your work at a fixed location, that's good advice. Add a docking station and an external keyboard and mouse and you don't need to worry about the resolution except when traveling.
If you're into gaming or you need a workstation that can handle demanding graphics processing tasks such as video rendering, you probably want to hold out for a discrete graphics adapter, such as an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060. Or, as JustCallMeBC summarized it: "A decent enough GPU for gaming and video rendering, aka 'Not Intel.'"
For mainstream business tasks and video playback, the integrated graphics on an Intel-based PC are just fine, in my experience. That discrete graphics adapter adds significantly to the cost, and it also uses more power, which reduces battery life. So don't insist on that feature unless you really need it.
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JustCallMeBC wants at least two standard USB Type-A ports and a full-size HDMI port along with USB Type-C. Fair enough. With a device that only has the newfangled Type-C ports, you're doomed to carry a collection of dongles to do even the most basic connections.
And KenoshaMJB makes a point that I should have covered in the original article:
I would suggest that Thunderbolt 3 is THE essential I/O technology. Thunderbolt 3 is a superset of USB-C port specs but unlike USB-C, Thunderbolt 3 can support eGPU graphic acceleration hardware. IMO, laptops that lack Thunderbolt 3 ports are severely compromised when it comes to future upgradability needs.
I'm not as sold on the need for Thunderbolt 3 (soon to be renamed USB4) for current PCs, especially not for mainstream use. The real advantage it offers is dramatically faster throughput for external storage devices, which matters to graphics professionals who need to work with very large video files. But those external drives cost a small fortune.
Mobile PCs with USB4 should hit the market at the end of 2020, and for those concerned with future-proofing their PC purchase, this is an item to add to the list.
Kidtree nominates a backlit keyboard as an essential feature. Commenter gahbyteme endorses that suggestion, calling it a "must have":
A few years ago I bought a cheap Lenovo without a lighted keyboard, what a mistake. Ended up selling it to a coworker and making her a great deal.
The other part of that suggestion is to look carefully at the keyboard layout, especially if the manufacturer changes the size or shape or location of keys you use regularly. I couldn't agree more. There's nothing more frustrating than continually hitting the wrong key. The feel of the keyboard is also important, and the only way to make that judgment is with hands-on experience. That's why I recommend only buying a new PC with a no-questions-asked return policy that allows you to try out the hardware for at least two weeks.