Up until around 2010, both consumers and businesses could be counted on to upgrade their laptops every three years on average, because technology changed so quickly that anything older than that felt like a dinosaur. So why is it that many users now have notebooks that are old enough to enter grade school? Because new models haven’t given them a compelling reason to upgrade. Who wants to spend $700 to get something that’s just a little bit faster than what you have now?
Today, if your laptop is older than my toddler (2.5 years), however, you will see huge benefits that go way beyond minor performance gains. From sharper screens that seriously cut down on scrolling and chips that offer longer battery life to versatile 2-in-1 designs, here are the key features to look for to ensure your next laptop feels like a huge upgrade.
In the past few years, most laptops came with screens with 1366 x 768 pixels of resolution, even if you paid good money for them. Pictures are not only grainier at this rotten resolution, you also can’t fit a lot of text on the screen, forcing you to scroll a long way to read Web pages or edit documents.
Today, you can find an affordable system with a 1920 x 1080 or higher screen that will let you see more of your work at once while you’re viewing movies the way they were meant to be seen. For example, the $799 Dell XPS 13 comes standard with a full HD display.
Touch-screen technology has been available on laptops for a while, but it used to add a hefty premium to the price. Also, let’s face it: Windows 7 and XP didn’t work well with touch.
Today, you can find a touch-enabled laptop for as little as $250, though as with any computer, you’ll want to spend more for better specs. Windows 8.1 and the upcoming Windows 10 work well with touch, and there are a host of apps that are built for touch, including a special version of Microsoft Office that’s coming soon.
Intel, the leading PC chipmaker, has just upgraded its processors to a new generation. Code-named Broadwell but officially named Intel 5th Generation Core series, these new CPUs are not only quite a bit faster than the one in your 3-year-old laptop, but also promise significantly longer battery life.
Your 4-year-old laptop probably has a mechanical hard drive. SSDs (solid-state drives) are over 300 percent faster, radically changing your entire computing experience. An SSD lets you boot faster, wake your laptop from sleep almost instantly and open your favorite applications in a fraction of the time (Chrome browser and Microsoft Word, for example, open in under 1 second). Getting an SSD used to add $300 or more to the cost of a new laptop, but today the drives are more widespread, with some sub-$800 systems coming standard with a 128GB drive.
When you need to send emails, surf the Web or get work done, there’s nothing better than your laptop, with its keyboard and touchpad. However, when you’re on the plane and you want to watch a movie or you’re in line at the store and you just want to check Facebook, you wish it were a tablet. A new generation of 2-in-1 PCs gives you the best of both worlds: a laptop for getting things done that folds flat or detaches its screen for a slate experience. Your 3-year-old laptop probably can’t do that.
These days, most new laptops are available with 802.11ac Wi-Fi, a new wireless standard that gives you much faster speeds that are three to 10 times better, particularly as you move farther away from your router. Taking full advantage of this protocol may require you to get a new router that supports it, but 802.11ac-capable access points start at under $100. Most smartphones released in the last year have 802.11ac, so your handset would benefit, too.
While phones and tablets have gotten better and more interesting cameras over the years, laptop webcams have been in a holding pattern … until now. Intel’s new RealSense 3D camera uses two depth sensors in addition to its standard lens so that it can scan your face and turn it into an avatar, remove the background behind you without a green screen and do incredibly accurate gesture control. You can even do 3D scans of objects.
Several laptops, including the Dell Inspiron 15 5000, Acer V 17 Nitro and Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 15, have already been announced with RealSense. Many more models are likely to come later this year.
Everyone loves USB, the ubiquitous connector that charges your phone and tablet, writes data to your flash drive and even connects you to helpful docking stations. Your older laptop undoubtedly has USB ports, but does it have any that support USB 3.0? Probably not. USB 3.0 is 10 times faster and allows you to use a host of high-speed peripherals. My favorite: docking stations that output to two, full-HD monitors at once over a single USB 3.0 connection.
Four years ago, wireless display technology was just coming into its own with a few laptops supporting laggy, low-res transmissions. Now, almost every laptop (any with Intel CPUs and wireless chips, also many with AMD CPUs) can beam its screen contents, including full-HD or even 4K video, directly to your TV, provided it has this functionality built in or you connect an inexpensive adapter[L1] . While not long ago every type of device required a different type of adapter to connect to your TV, now most phones, tablets and laptops support the Miracast standard. Many Blu-ray players even come with Miracast built in.
For many consumers, the presence of Windows 8.1 (last year’s update to Windows 8) seems like a good reason not to buy a new laptop. However, even if you hate the operating system’s unfamiliar Start screen and live tiles, you’ll benefit a great deal from its speedy performance. We’re talking superfast boot-ups, shut-downs and wakes from a sleep state. You can easily install a third-party Start menu like Start8 and hide the live tiles to make your computer look and feel exactly like Windows 7.
You’ll also be getting a free upgrade to Windows 10, which will have a real Start menu and lots of neat improvements, when it comes out sometime in the next year or so. You’ll also be able to use Cortana as a digital assistant for answering questions, opening files and more. (You can try Windows 10 right now if you download and install the Technical Preview.)