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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Ever since my laptop was broken beyond repair, I have been borrowing my sister's computer. Now I have a job *happy dance!* and have about $500 set aside to get a replacement. I'd like to get it from Amazon during the Black Friday sales so I can get the most bang for my buck.

The trouble is, as always when it comes to computers, I am not a computer person. You would think computers were tools to be used, not religions to study for the rest of your life. But it seems that no matter how much research I do, I am always just as behind as I was before. If I look up part A, I don't know what it does unless I also look up part B, which can't be understood without studying code X, which is meaningless unless you're familiar with electrical theory Z. Black Friday is 10 days away and I have spent so much time just figuring out what I need, I haven't even gotten to price comparing yet. So, as a fellow fish nerd, I humbly ask you computer nerds to help me out.

I mainly want to use the laptop to browse the internet, process digital photos, write stories or papers, watch movies, and create digital art. I'll be making heavy use of GIMP, which, like Photoshop, eats RAM like candy. From what I have gathered, these are the things I need:
  • Large memory (1 TB)
  • High ram (8-16 GB)
  • CPU 2GHz or faster
  • Warranty (at least 1 year, preferably including accidental damage)
  • Lifetime Microsoft Office (or something to write with that doesn't require a subscription or cost hundreds of dollars to purchase)

These are the things I'm not sure I need or which ones to get:
  • Operating system...? Don't even know where to start. Windows 10 sounds good except for the privacy issues and the fact that it's still very new. Linux might as well be a hobby of its own. Not sure what other options I have.
  • SSD hard drive
  • High-resolution screen (full HD preferred but not required); how do I tell if the color saturation is good?
  • Long battery life/replaceable battery, low heat
  • Ports for MP3, camera SD memory card, USB, etc.

And then there are the things I see on the specs list that I have no idea about. Do these matter? (Well, obviously, they do. But are they things I should bother worrying about?)
  • processor type
  • graphics coprocessor
  • processor count
  • hard drive rotational speed


Once I get the specs out of the way, I think I'll be able to compare actual models myself, but if you know of any good ones that would work for me, do tell.
 

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Windows 10 has worked fine for me so far.

An SSD would make a big difference in overall computer speed, if you have the money to get a regular external hard drive too (to store things on). More expensive but I'd recommend it.

Though generally more expensive, an Intel processor would probably be better at running GIMP than an AMD. Also, if by processor count you mean core count, go with 4.
I wouldn't think GIMP would be graphics heavy, though I'm not into the graphic design stuff so idk. A laptop with dedicated graphics would cost a lot more than $500 though. An integrated (one that is on the processor) chip would be fine.
 

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I didn't expect to find a computer question here, but I really enjoy computers, so let me lend a hand.
When you're buying a laptop, the following should help:

STORAGE SPACE AND SPEED:
SSD (A Solid State Drive) usually at least twice as fast as a HDD (hard disk drive or hard drive).
SSD are more expensive and tend to have less space. If you're on a budget, get a HDD with more space.
If you have the money, get a SSD in the laptop, and an external HDD for storing your photos.
Solid State drives, and higher speed Hard Drives, are really only important for speeding up how fast your computer boots, and how fast it goes through loading screens. Neither of which should be a major problem if you aren't gaming or if you're on a tight budget.


RAM (Memory)
As you said, GIMP can use a lot. Right now, any laptop that only has 4GB of RAM is a short-term investment. If you want this laptop to run well for years to come, you should get at least 6GB of RAM. Anything more than that may be overkill unless you want this laptop to last you 8 years or more, and even then, who knows what will happen between now and then?


CPU
Any CPU (processor) worth anything runs at LEAST 2Ghz.
You are more interested in the number of cores as indicated by the label. Processors by Intel are usually labeled as Celeron(1core), Pentium(2core), i3(2 that run like 4), i5(4cores), and i7(4 that run like 8cores) in general the more cores the better, and the higher the generation number the better. I'd try to find a generation 5 i5 processor inside your budget if possible.


WARRANTY
You aren't a computer person, so a warranty is a great idea. Not only does it potentially cover you for problems in how your computer was built, it covers you for the mistakes you make. Read into the details. Some warranties only cover damage to the computer parts, not the computer getting viruses and becoming unresponsive. In your shoes, I'd be more interested in a warranty that covers free servicing by a computer repair center. If you get your computer at a store, like Staples or Best Buy, they can often sell you 2 years of free tech-support or something similar. Go with that, you may need it.


MICROSOFT OFFICE
If you get a laptop, it will probably come with MS Office already on it, as a trial version. After using it for a few days it will tell you that you can keep using it if you buy it. That's not a bad idea. That tends to be cheaper than buying MS Office from the computer store. MS Office is very expensive. If you want to be as cheap as possible, download OpenOffice.org instead. (at Apache OpenOffice - Official Site - The Free and Open Productivity Suite) it's a FREE program. It doesn't come with the super technical bells and whistles that MS Office does. And it will give you problems if you need your papers to have very specific things in them (i.e. if you choose to be an English major in college, or have a very picky high school English teacher)


OPERATING SYTEM
Windows 10 does have some bugs. But these are things that computer geeks worry about, and you shouldn't be all that concerned about them. If all you're doing is surfing the web and editing photos then Windows 10 will do that. It DOES have some privacy issues, but unless your planning on becoming a terrorist, the president, an undercover FBI agent, or something else like that, I really don't think it will concern you. Even if you chose Windows 7 it would still have most of the privacy issues as Windows 10.


SCREEN
The screen saturation will most likely be something you won't need to deal with. And given the size of laptop screens, you don't need the best out there. Pick one that is HD (any kind) and it should be fine. Again, you don't have 3,000 dollars to spend, so the fact the laptop has a screen at all is great, but you should be more interested in size, than whether it is HD. If you want to be sure the screen has very bright colors there are two options: try it out in the store before using it, or use a program to change your saturation. Your TV has saturation, contrast, and brightness settings, well your laptop screen may not have those options built-in, but I'm sure there are a few free programs to adjust them, so don't worry about it.


BATTERY
Shouldn't be a major issue if you have an outlet nearby. But I do recommend trying to find one with a replaceable battery. Then you can buy a new one when your old one dies. In general, the faster your computer, and the bigger the screen, the less time the battery will last.


PORTS
These shouldn't concern you all that much. If your laptop comes with a card reader, great, if it doesn't, you can get a card reader that plugs into a USB port for about $20. And all laptops have USB ports.
If your laptop has USB 3.0 then it can use slightly faster USB ports but unless you need your camera card contents to be moved to your computer in less than 60seconds, it really doesn't matter if it is USB 3.0 or 2.0. They both work. And any USB device can be used in any USB port. You just wont get the fastest speeds unless you have a device that uses 3.0 and it's plugged into a 3.0 port.
Only other ports that are helpful are an ethernet port. If the wireless internet goes down, sometimes it's helpful to just plug in your computer. But really all you'll NEED to do what you've said, is a couple USB ports.


GRAPHICS
Most laptops in your price range will likely have integrated graphics. That just means that you won't be playing high-end video games on your laptop. Better graphics capability may help a tiny bit with photo editing, or watching HD video, but as long as the processor in your laptop is fairly recent, it should do what you need just fine, without any kind of special graphics processor.


OPTICAL DRIVE
lastly, if you want to watch movies, or install anything that comes on a CD (music, pictures, video game, program like MS Office) then you'll need an optical drive.
Some laptops don't come with them. You can buy one that plugs into your computer for about $20, but it's easier if the laptop already has one built-in.


EXAMPLE
Here is a link to a laptop on Best Buy. It seems to be about what you need, and for the budget you indicated.
HP Pavilion 17.3" Laptop Intel Core i5 6GB Memory 1TB Hard Drive Silver 17-g101dx - Best Buy

I know that's long, it may be overwhelming.
Feel free to ask questions or PM me.
 

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I was in the same boat about a year ago. Same budget even. I ended up buying 2nd hand...but your plan of getting a Black Friday deal is a good one.


What I ended up doing was prioritizing the physical build-quality first, above the specs. But I did make sure to get the 2nd latest generation Intel Core i7 processor, an SSD, and plenty of RAM. Definitely get the SSD...that's a huge upgrade! Also, go ahead with Windows 10, it's the best version out there currently.


I made sure to get one with a high-quality display. A lot of laptop screens use cheaper technology to display colors, which wash out when viewed from an angle. Without getting technical, the best way to assess this is in-person. Same for audio...many of them use really bad speakers, but some are really good.


What you'll find is that a lot of laptops, despite having expensive and "fast" components, fail to perform as expected because they're physically not built very well. So when you start running lots of GIMP filters or what have you, they get hot and slow themselves down. Or maybe the manufacture pre-installs a lot of unnecessary software that runs in the background. Or, and this is a big one, they use poor quality plastic and metal, and so when you drop the laptop one day, it never works right again. A good-quality laptop should withstand some physical abuse...being tossed in a backpack while turned on, knocked off a coffee table, or a little water on the keyboard.


I found the website notebookreview.com to be very helpful. They do a lot of hands-on testing which IMO is much more important than the specs...unless you're doing heavy-duty gaming in which specs is also important.
 

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If I had to go back to Linux, I would go with Slackware for the piece of mind. But I have been running OpenBSD for the last 2 years on 4 of my home computers and I am not going back to Linux anytime soon. That being said, if unsure about the OS, consider BSD family.

SSD, sure why not, but any technology has it's drawbacks. And if you don't have a good data backup plan you are screwed.
 

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The best thing to do IMO if you want a good laptop with specific specs, is go to AVADirect, they have some pre-built laptops and you can customize the processor, hard drive and other things. Make sure to get SPECIFIC specs on a laptop "i7, 8GB RAM, Nvidia geforce graphics" doesnt mean alot when the RAM is the slowest, crappiest ram you can buy, they i7 is outdated, or a terribly low-quality one that can barely outperform an i3, and you could get a NVidia card that is 5 years old.
 

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I would prioritize the CPU, RAM and the screen. The CPU and the screen can not be easily replaced on a laptop. When looking at CPU, I'd look for a good balance of speed and the number of cores. The ones you'll be realistically looking at are probably 2-3 GHz and 1-4 cores. When looking at RAM, I'd look for 4GB-8+GB at the highest speed you can get within your budget; however, within your budget I doubt you'll be able to get more than 8 GB without a trade off somewhere else. Hard disk capacity would probably be the last thing I would look at as there are many easy options to expand hard disk capacity such as external hard drives.

I would suggest Open Office or Libre Office if you are looking for a no frills office suite. Unless you need some of the specific functionality of MS Office, either of these suites would cover most needs and can be obtained for little to no cost. Just make sure you download it from the official sites, and decline the bundled software.

I would suggest that you sticking to an operating system that you are familiar with. If you are adventurous you can always use a live boot Linux CD/USB to test drive Linux without installing.

A few bits on your other hardware options,

SSD - Personally, I like them as I have a low tolerance for waiting on a computer. Their only real advantage is decreasing boot up time, program load time, and document load time. The downside is that SSDs are far more expensive, though the prices are coming down.

Ports - This will depend on your accessories, but get a laptop with a few USB ports, preferably USB 3.0 ports. SD card readers are nice if you use SD cards, however, can bought relatively cheap as a USB attachment, as can many other things.

Graphics co-processors are IMO not worth their cost. It helps with some of the load on the CPU and RAM, however, it's almost always better to have a dedicated/discrete graphics processor if you are that graphics heavy. At your price point, money here would be better spent on a better processor or more RAM.

Batteries - My recommendation would depend on your usage. If you are the type to use your laptop with and outlet at hand, then it won't really matter. If you are the type to use a laptop far from an outlet, get a laptop with a replaceable battery so that you can replace it when no longer holds and adequate charge.
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
Wow, thanks for all the responses! Unfortunately, after writing this, I got hit with a really bad cold that has now turned into a lung infection. All the medicines have given me serious brain fog and left me staring blankly at the screen reading the same sentence over and over. Needless to say, I've gotten very little research done.

Which is all to say that, while I will still try to research as much as I can and look over the deals tomorrow, I'm probably going to pass on Black Friday and hold out for some Christmas sales. The discounts probably won't be as deep, but better to pay more for a laptop I know will work for me than to get a deal on one that's a bad fit.

With the help from you guys and the little research I've done, I've made a few decisions:
  • No Microsoft Office. Instead, I'll use the free online version and save documents to my hard drive. I'll use LibreOffice or OpenOffice as a backup if the internet goes out.
  • Probably will go with Windows 10 or upgrade to it if the laptop comes with 7.
  • SSD.
  • Replaceable battery. I'm okay with the stock one being cheap as long as I can swap it out later if I need to.
  • Multiple ports for USB, port for ethernet; camera SD memory card optional since I already have a USB connector for it.
  • Intel CPU, probably Core 5 or higher.
  • Screen 14-16". Would prefer something on the small side so I have more room on my desk for my graphics tablet.
  • And as before, 1 TB memory, 8-16 GB RAM, 2GHz or faster. (I know some of you said I probably wouldn't be able to get these specs with my budget, but I found a few by going to Amazon > Electronics > Laptops & Tablets. Scroll down to where it says, "Need help finding the right laptop? Tell us how you'll use it," then click on "Work with large files and programs". Then you can see the ones I'm looking at. They all have 1TB hard drives, 8+GB of ram, and cost under $800. (I'm hoping the sales will bring some of the higher prices down.) I also based some of my specs on the recommendations made by Adobe about Photoshop, assuming GIMP would need about the same.)

I know I probably won't be able to get a laptop that meets all of my specs; I'm just listing the ideals. I'll decide on trade offs when I get to the point of comparing one laptop to another.

~~~~~~

There are still a few things I need to sort out:

Warranty - I like the idea of getting a if-it-stops-working-for-any-reason-we'll-fix-it warranty, but not sure about the prices in store. Need to research more to see if I can get the same deal online.

Screen quality - Apparently, all laptops have low-quality screens in terms of color range. There's only one or two that are designed to have good color range, but they are $1500+. And even if I got one, with my budget, color calibration isn't an option. So it comes down to finding a laptop that is slightly less bad than average. This is really important to me because I'm going to be using this laptop for a lot of art and photo work. The screen on my sister's laptop is very washed out and I find myself overcompensating for it when I edit my photos. I am happy with my mother's Kindle Fire screen, though. Is the Fire screen unusually good or would it be easy to find something similar in a regular laptop?

Graphics coprocessor/GPU - I don't think I need a dedicated graphics processor. To be honest, I'm not sure exactly how the graphics stuff works. Does it only matter if you're gaming or is it something that would affect image processing, too? How do integrated vs dedicated graphics affect performance - is it just a matter of speeding things up or would not having it cause GIMP to crash? I don't know what is inside my sister's laptop, but when I use GIMP it can get slow when a lot of programs are running. It rarely crashes, though I haven't really pushed it to the limit. I'm okay with waiting a minute or so for a filter to take effect.

Memory - As I understand it, SSDs hold less memory than comparable HDDs. But a SSD is just a type of hard drive, right? So if the hard drive can hold 1 TB, it doesn't matter if it's a SDD or HDD, it will still hold 1 TB. Is that correct?

The best thing to do IMO if you want a good laptop with specific specs, is go to AVADirect, they have some pre-built laptops and you can customize the processor, hard drive and other things. Make sure to get SPECIFIC specs on a laptop "i7, 8GB RAM, Nvidia geforce graphics" doesnt mean alot when the RAM is the slowest, crappiest ram you can buy, the i7 is outdated, or a terribly low-quality one that can barely outperform an i3, and you could get a NVidia card that is 5 years old.
If I had the time and the knowledge, I would gladly design my own computer. But from the first step on AVA I didn't know where to go or what to choose. I feel like, even watered down, I can't figure this stuff out. The parts are all named with strings of random letters/numbers and I can't tell the brand name from the product name from the particular iteration from the generic part name. I could spend months researching what XYZ-107498-32049-AABBC1 means and how the 2014 version is awesome but tends to fail sooner than the 2015 one, the 2015 one is good but twice as expensive because it's new, the 2013 version is the best for _____ but if you're not using it for that, it's worse than all the others, and.... It's just too much.

What I ended up doing was prioritizing the physical build-quality first, above the specs. ... What you'll find is that a lot of laptops, despite having expensive and "fast" components, fail to perform as expected because they're physically not built very well. So when you start running lots of GIMP filters or what have you, they get hot and slow themselves down. Or maybe the manufacture pre-installs a lot of unnecessary software that runs in the background. Or, and this is a big one, they use poor quality plastic and metal, and so when you drop the laptop one day, it never works right again. A good-quality laptop should withstand some physical abuse...being tossed in a backpack while turned on, knocked off a coffee table, or a little water on the keyboard.
Is there a way for me to tell if the parts are well-built on a non-custom laptop without looking up every single part one by one? My number one fear is that I'll find the perfect $500 laptop, but keeping it functional will turn it into a $3000+ laptop.
 

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You mention SSD, and you mention 1TB, but you don't mention them together. Are you talking about an additional, external HD?
The point I made earlier about SSD's being expensive - a 1TB SSD is a $300+ component, internal or external. The price would drop some if it came packaged, but that's over half your starting budget as-is.

Yes, an SSD holds the same amount of memory as a traditional HD. It just costs several times more for the same amount of space. And that's cash you could use for several other key features.
 

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Discussion Starter · #12 ·
I just looked again at the Amazon laptops. None of them seem to be SSD. Darn.

Guess I'm going with HDD then, unless I can find a SDD in my budget. What specs would negate the slower speed of the HDD?
 

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I believe you have some very good replies here. I do desk top, not lap top so I won't
do the things most have. I just want to restate the importance of an External HDD for storing your pictures.
I built my computer for the same reason you find yourself in now basically.
I bought a "econo" model computer which was a T 6528 which is a Gateway economy
version computer. In 2006 it cost me just what you have now for a budget.
I quickly found out that the way they sell these cheaper is to buy large lots of almost
out of use parts at very good discounts. My research into this issue resulted in my
believing that I wasn't going to get what I wanted unless I built it myself.
Most people into computers would call mine a relic.
But photo shop was the primary focus along/w the usual web surfing.
Photo's take up an incredible amount of room even/w my 5mp camera.
I rely on a very low model number of a very high end CPU(at the time it was made)
and I have 16gb of RAM. The CPU is 3.1gz but still cheap because I did what Gateway
did when I bought it. Bought a very good but out of date CPU.
But this can be up-graded in a desktop.
But plan on getting a back up program that will let you duplicate the external HDD.
I guestimate that it takes 1000 picture to get one good one when you first start.
When a HDD goes out and you loose that one...BTDT...
 
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