So, despite Hither Green IT’s finest efforts to repair it, your laptop has given up the ghost and you need another one. Do you go new or used?
Update October 2020 - all prices mentioned below were correct at the time of writing (June 2020), but since then demand for both new and used computers has rocketed due to the pandemic. The advice below remains the same, but prices have definitely gone up.
NB - the guide below is for laptops - there are different considerations to make when buying a desktop machine, which can be found in a separate guide here .
Consumer grade PC laptops
Laptop PCs from eBuyer/Currys/John Lewis etc. (Acer/Asus/Lenovo/Dell to name a few brands) are considered consumer grade - this is why they are relatively cheap for a brand new laptop. They have the same internal components as more expensive business grade machines (more on those coming up), but they generally have much poorer build quality. These laptops are often hard to repair once they break (especially newer ones) - they are increasingly built to be thrown away when they do. Apple (more on them in a bit) has really led the way, and others have followed - components are often soldered to the main board and not repairable/replaceable. If it breaks, you usually end up having to replace the whole machine. This means that consumer grade laptops don’t make a good proposition second hand as they don’t tend to last that long in the first place.
Entry level consumer PC laptops usually cost around £300-500 (though you can spend more - this usually gets your better spec components, but the same poor build quality).
If you go consumer grade, they are all much of a muchness in terms of build quality (in fact many of them are actually made in the same factories then brands added later on). I personally have recently had decent experiences with Acer and Dell. MSI, Alienware (Dell’s gaming line) and Razer are also OK but geared towards gaming so likely a bit too expensive (and I don’t recommend gaming on a laptop anyway, it’s always better to use a desktop PC for that). Asus used to be OK but have got a bit worse recently and I frequently see broken Lenovo and HP ones (to be clear that’s specifically the consumer models - Lenovo Thinkpads and HP ProBooks are excellent business machines - more on this coming up).
Specifications to look out for in consumer machines:
Processor: Intel Core i3/i5/i7 or an AMD Ryzen 3/5/7. Avoid Intel Celeron/Pentium and AMD A4/A6/A9 unless it’s a Chromebook - they are too weak for Windows machines
RAM: At least 8GB - anything less is really too little these days. Ideally any laptop you buy should have the ability to be upgraded to 16GB in future too (not all new ones can as the RAM is soldered to the motherboard) - you can check with Crucial’s excellent System Upgrade Checker .
Disk: You want an SSD , at least 250GB and preferably 500GB or larger. Don’t get one without an SSD, as it will feel slow from the moment you take it out of the box!
Graphics chip: Most laptops come with a graphics chip integrated into the processor. These are able to handle basic desktop usage and video playback without a problem, and can even often manage some light gaming and video editing as well. Current Ryzen laptop processors have slightly better integrated graphics when compared to their Intel counterparts (but there isn’t much in it). Some laptops even come with a separate discrete graphics chip with slightly more power. But if you want a machine for playing games and/or editing video, you will get a much better experience if you buy a desktop machine with a separate dedicated graphics card.
Screen: Almost always at least 14”, and most are 15.6”. Most come with a 720p screen, which is fine at this size, but if you can find one in budget, 1080p or higher is better as it’s sharper
Battery: Pay attention to what the manufacturer states - often when they claim a 6 hour battery life, it’s more like 4, and when 8 is claimed, it’s 6 etc. There are usually real world reviews that can be sought out online where they do a battery test under realistic usage to see what the truth is. As it stands, Intel laptop processors tend to be more power efficient than their AMD counterparts (although the gap is now starting to close). Newer processors are slightly more power efficient than older ones as well, so this is where consumer laptops are superior to refurbished or used business machines (more on those to come).
Another option is a hybrid of both a tablet and a laptop - often referred to as a “2-in-1”. On paper, these seem ideal - you use it as a laptop when you need to type extended emails or do anything else that requires an extended period of typing, but it can also convert to become a tablet. Sometimes these devices have a 360-degree hinge to allow them to “flip” around to become a tablet, or the keyboard detaches. In general, I recommend treading very carefully if you choose to purchase one of these devices. Often they fail at both things - being either a decent and light tablet but with lacklustre performance as a laptop because the processor is weak and the battery is too small, or a decent laptop but a chunky tablet to accommodate the physical keyboard, more powerful processor and larger battery required.
In general, 2-in-1 devices are also harder to repair - the screen is often one single glued unit, meaning any repairs require the entire top half of the device to be replaced (unlike some laptops where you can just replace the damaged internal panel). Additionally, those with a 360-degree hinge often fail because the ribbon cable connecting the screen to the keyboard is put under repeated strain when you “flip” the device from laptop mode to tablet mode. A better solution is to buy a defacto tablet device like an Apple iPad or a good Samsung tablet and have a separate laptop for when you need to type for extended periods (although it does mean carrying two devices). Whilst external wireless keyboards are available for tablets, they are often cramped and perform poorly, with noticeable lag when typing.
Microsoft has made some strides in this form factor with the Surface line of hybrid 2-in-1 devices, although early models suffered from thermal issues - trying to cram the power demanded by a laptop user into a slim, tablet-like sized device is a real challenge. There are also some decent hybrid Chromebooks (see later on in this article for more about the pros and cons of those). If you purchase a hybrid device, my recommendation is to do plenty of research to find a good one (there aren’t many) and to make sure you treat them incredibly delicately (and/or take out insurance!) as repairs can be costly - especially if you damage the screen.
Apple Mac laptops
Apple laptops are obviously extremely popular, but from a small IT repair business perspective, they are a nightmare.
Now, forgive what follows, but Apple are really not my favourite company:
No serviceable components
Older Macbooks (up until about the early 2010s) have a removable and replaceable standard 2.5” hard drive. They also have removable and replaceable RAM.
After the early 2010s, Apple started to use non-standard disk connectors, meaning spares became limited to (more expensive) drives that use these proprietary connectors. Only Apple officially supply these drives, and a few brands (Transcend being one I recommend) also provide replacements with these proprietary connectors. NB - it is possible to buy converter boards that allow you to use more standard drives, but in my experience they cause more issues than they are worth.
A small side anecdote here: a recent client came with a 2014 Macbook Pro that had a faulty (removable) hard drive using a proprietary Apple connector. She had taken it to Apple, who quoted £850 to repair it, saying the entire board was faulty. I managed to get a replacement third party Transcend drive for £200, but the exact same drive for a PC, with the exact same components, and the only difference being the connector on the end, would cost less than £100. It was also a nightmare to install this new drive due to Apple’s software policy (I had to buy TWO drives. One was a working second hand Mac drive that had to be installed to allow me to update the firmware of the Mac, then returned, before I installed the brand new third party drive). All in all it took me a month to get it fixed. In the same period I replaced the hard drive on two PC laptops and reinstalled Windows. Each one took me just a few hours to do, and the replacement SSD drives were only £60.
However, to make things worse, in 2015 Apple made the hard drive and RAM part of the logic board. This means somebody like me cannot fix it at all. A helpful way to find out details for each model is EveryMac.com’s excellent Ultimate Mac Lookup Tool .
To make matters even worse, more recently Apple have also added a T2 security chip to some Macbooks, which locks out third party Apple repair shops. This means somebody like me cannot fix them at all.
The “butterfly” keyboard:
Introduced in 2015, this was an absolutely terrible design. It was thin and not durable at all. The video above is just one example of the hundreds of videos on YouTube of people who had the same issues. They broke with minimal usage, and Apple were too proud to admit that the design was fundamentally flawed until very recently. They only offer a one year warranty on new Macbooks, and AppleCare is £249 for three years cover. They tried to stumble as many customers out of warranty and then get rid of them. A client of mine mentioned this in an Apple Store when models with the butterfly keyboard were on sale and their response was “you can always bring it in for repair when it happens”. So they acknowledge the design is liable to break.
Thankfully, the very latest Macbook models dropped the butterfly keyboard and returned to the previous (superior) design.
In short, I’m only able to offer very limited support for newer Apple products (mostly software support), as they have made it impossible for somebody like me to offer any hardware support. That, combined with their poor quality assurance, means I don’t recommend buying any of their new products at all as it stands.
Now, if you wanted to still buy a new Macbook despite all of this, I’m happy to offer software support and help you migrate things from your current Macbook to any new one, but I wouldn’t be able to offer much support after that other than software issues.
If you have an older Macbook from the good old days, I can of course do my best to repair it and bring it up to speed. Speaking of which, what about used Macbooks?
is a notorious YouTuber (and an excellent repair technician who knows his stuff). Here is what he thinks:
As you can see, he recommends three second hand Macbook models:
13” A1466 Macbook Air 2013-2014
13” A1502 Macbook Pro Retina 2013-2014
15” A1398 Macbook Pro Retina 2013-2014 (dedicated graphics only)
If you look at his YouTube channel , he is an extremely experienced technician who is able to repair logic boards (as opposed to just replacing them, which is all Apple tends to suggest and hence is why their repairs are always so expensive). These recommendations are based on years of seeing Macbooks come in for repair and are the ones that have proven the most reliable. If you can get a decent used/refurbished Macbook from that list it would be worth considering. There is of course the caveat that the SSDs in these are those proprietary ones that my client struggled with, but at least they can be replaced by somebody like me. The RAM is still soldered to the board however.
When buying used, always buy from a reputable seller that offers a reasonable warranty.
There are of course cheaper and more easily serviceable PC laptops available, but I totally appreciate that if you are used to the Apple eco-system and love it, switching to a PC would be a big switch to make. But I honestly hand on heart cannot recommend Apple laptops at all as it stands.
I really don’t want to be anti-Apple, but they make it very hard. Here’s a final insight into why they are such a problematic company:
UPDATE April 2021 - Since I originally wrote this article, Apple released a line of machines that use their own M1 ARM chips. For my thoughts on those, take a look at this article
An even cheaper option than laptop PCs is Chromebooks (although they aren’t as cheap as they used to be). These are very definitely designed to be throwaway, as basically nothing inside can be repaired or replaced. But they are an excellent choice for simple computing - they are fast, simple and get the job done. They are relatively weak (but good enough for ChromeOS) and have excellent battery life. The build quality is reasonable for the price too (they are often spill resistant and have rubberised edges to protect against droppages - they are very popular in bulk in schools as a result!) They are limited to stuff you can only do in a web browser though - which is most things these days. But if you need certain things (games for example, as well as things like full Microsoft Office or photo/video editing), you’ll probably need a full Windows machine.
If you decide to get a Chromebook, try to get one with at least 4GB RAM (there are still some 2GB models available, but they struggle with modern web content). Chromebooks need less RAM as ChromeOS basically just runs the Chrome browser and that’s it - the operating system itself takes a lot less RAM than either Windows or MacOS.
One final thing to note is that Chromebooks are only supported for a limited time (usually between 5-7 years). This is from their release date, rather than your purchase date. Once they get to the end of this period they reach Auto Update Expiration (“AUE”), which means they will no longer receive important software and security updates from Google. There is a list of AUE dates on Google’s website .
NB - Apple also follow a similar policy, although there is no official list of support dates - you can expect most Macbooks to be supported by new versions of MacOS for about the same period - 5-7 years from release date.
Business grade PC laptops
The laptops I recommend people really buy are business grade machines, that is: Dell Latitudes and Lenovo Thinkpads (it’s specifically these lines that are business machines, those manufacturers do also make inferior quality consumer grade models too). These are much more durably built compared to consumer models, and designed to be thrown around by employees of large businesses for the course of a three year lease (but often last a lot longer than that). They are also usually a lot more repairable, to make it easier for the IT departments of the business that use them to service and maintain them. Compared to consumer laptops, the chassis is more solid, the keyboard is better - they are just all round workhorses.
However, they cost around £700+ new because they are built to last. So getting one used/refurbished is a good option - they often cost around £200-300 and still have a lot of life left in them. Pretty much all the machines me and my family use are ex-business grade machines I have spruced up a bit. It’s worth bearing in mind that they may need an SSD added, plus a bit more RAM, as well as Windows 10 installed, so total outlay is often the same as a new consumer grade laptop - but the end result will be a lot more durable, and a lot more repairable, than the average consumer laptop.
An excellent guide to buying used/refurbished Thinkpads is Bobbletech’s ThinkPad Buyer’s Guide .
Specifications to look out for in refurbished business machines
Processor: Intel Core i3/i5/i7 4th generation or newer (you can tell generation from the first number, for example 4210U, 5200U, 6100U are 4th, 5th and 6th generation respectively).
RAM: At least 8GB - (if it has less, second hand RAM is cheap and easy to fit). Anything less is really too little these days. Ideally any laptop you buy should have the ability to be upgraded to 16GB in future too - you can check with Crucial’s excellent System Upgrade Checker .
Disk: You want an SSD , at least 250GB and preferably 500GB or larger (again, if it doesn’t have this, they are easy to fit and well worth installing)
Screen: A lot of these business machines are compact and have 12.5”, 13”, or 14” screens - this is a diagonal measurement. For reference, a lot of consumer laptops have a 15.6” screen. Smaller screens are handy for portability, but if you go too small it can get cramped.
Battery: Here is the one downside of refurbished business machines - newer laptops are more power efficient and older business machines have older batteries with less life left. Some refurb sellers offer a minimum amount of battery life though. If you want a guaranteed level of battery, this is where undeniably buying new can pay off.
Where to buy refurbished business machines
Try to look for reputable sellers that offer a warranty and have plenty of good testimonials. If you work in a large office, it’s often worth checking with the IT department to see if they have any old ones they can give you or sell to you cheaply. Because they are sold on a three year lease, companies often replace them every three years and sell the old ones off, even if they are in good condition.
In conclusion, if you have a moderate budget, your choice is to:
Buy a new consumer laptop PC on the high street, which may or may not last much longer than the one year warranty it comes with, and won’t be easily repairable if it does break
Buy a refurbished business machine, which will have better build quality, but because it is older will likely need upgrading to an SSD and some more RAM (which if you don’t do it yourself means paying labour costs to someone like me on top of the SSD and RAM). Also, business machines are usually more serviceable if things go wrong.
Of course, if you can spend a bit more on a new business machine, that’s even better.
And as always, for further expert advice and upgrade services, contact Hither Green IT .