Though it’s not been around quite as long as Thanksgiving, Black Friday is now a well-established annual event in our calendars in the US. What once was a single day is now a whole weekend dedicated to cutting prices on some seriously tempting technology and gadgetry.
These delicious discounts even extend to Windows laptops (or those running other operating systems, which we’ll touch on briefly here, too). Black Friday is, without a doubt, one of the best times of year to pick up these usually expensive pieces of hardware, especially premium notebooks, at significantly lower price points.
Despite the exciting prospect of a much cheaper laptop, though, we need to tread especially carefully during Black Friday. While you might uncover a gem of a deal, you also run the risk of picking up an offer that’s not nearly as good as it seems.
This is because Black Friday is also the perfect time for retailers to air out their stock closets and disguise old laptops containing aging hardware or even models that weren’t ever any good in the first place as bargains.
You can guarantee that we’ll be highlighting all the best laptop deals on TechRadar as they emerge on the day, but before then we want to help you prepare.
In this article we’re going to advise you on how to pick out the best notebook for your specific needs so that when a good deal does inevitably appear, you don’t miss it.
The features to look out for
So, what exactly should you be looking for when you’re purchasing a Windows laptop?
First off, look to the brand name. Something like the Surface Book from Microsoft itself is a very expensive option and there are many other, cheaper 2-in-1 laptops to be found by shopping around.
On the other hand, you don’t want to leap into the dark with a brand name you neither know nor trust simply because it’s offering a cheap piece of hardware.
For long-term satisfaction, quality and tech support you should buy from an established PC manufacturer whose brand you’ll recognize such as Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, or indeed Microsoft.
If you want to dig a little deeper into the individual brands and the models they sell, our extensive library of laptop reviews is a good resource.
Sizing things up
First of all, you need to consider the overall size of the machine you’re buying. The most common sizes are 13-inch, 14-inch, 15-inch and 17-inch laptop? (There are also slightly smaller and larger laptops out there, but you’re less likely to come across those).
Smaller notebooks tend to not only be more portable but cheaper too. Larger laptops on the other hand will offer a bigger screen and, because there’s more space inside, you’re more likely to find more powerful components and a bigger battery.
If you’re looking for something to take on the go a lot, you’ll want to opt for a more compact notebook which is light (less than 2kg, ideally less than 1.5kg).
As far as performance is concerned, the most important thing to consider is the core components inside the machine. That’s your processor, system memory, storage and – to a lesser extent – the graphics subsystem.
When it comes to the processor, most of the CPUs you’ll come across will be made by Intel. While the Core i5 is a decently powerful model, the Core i7 is the top-end choice.
Most people won’t need the kind of power the i7 offers unless they’re particularly into gaming, video editing or other heavy-duty tasks so the i5 is a good mid-range option. There’s also the entry-level Core i3 and if you’re looking for a budget machine that you don’t intend to use for anything more taxing than browsing the internet or writing up documents.
Unfortunately, things get a little more confusing when looking at Intel’s mobile processors designed for notebooks as they also carry a letter or two in their name to indicate the product range and target market.
For solid performance in everyday use, look for a ‘U’ models such as the Core i5-7200U which is a very commonly used mid-range processor.
For gamers and more heavyweight users seeking a little more speed the ‘HQ’ and ‘HK’ processors like the Core i7-7920HQ are worth considering.
Very slim laptops are likely to sport a Y model processor as they can run without a fan to cool them. The trade-off here is that they don’t perform quite as well – an example is the Core m3-7Y30. Note that the Y series chips feature ‘Core m’ models (m3/m5/m7), which you can simply think of as another way of labelling these as slower CPUs.
Further note that the first number in the processor-specific model code – ‘7Y30’ in the case of the one we’ve just mentioned – refers to the generation of the CPU. An ‘8’ means the processor is part of Intel’s latest 8th-generation, and a ‘7’ (as present in our example) denotes Kaby Lake, with a ‘6’ referring to Skylake. Any CPU older than that points to a retailer flogging off a venerable old notebook, so be warned.
At the bottom of the pile in terms of performance you’ll find Intel’s Atom, Pentium and Celeron CPUs. These offer the lowest levels of performance, although you can get by with a Pentium or Celeron in a budget machine.
Intel Atom processors are generally found in the truly cheap portables and, unsurprisingly, don’t run particularly smoothly. If you’re only planning to use the laptop for basic web surfing you’ll manage okay but this isn’t a limitation that will appeal to the majority of users.
Intel isn’t, of course, you’re only option – you could always opt for an AMD APU, an Accelerated Processing unit which has a CPU and a GPU (graphics accelerator) on the same chip
You’ll find this budget alternative in some notebooks but you shouldn’t expect much in terms of performance. AMD’s soon-to-arrive Ryzen mobile CPUs may well change this picture considerably, though.
Overall, for solid performance, you’re looking for a Core i5-xxxxU (where ‘xxxx’ is the specific model number of the processor), but if you want a super-slim notebook, it’ll likely have a ‘Y’ model.
If you’re looking at the budget end of the market, a Pentium or Celeron CPU is just fine, and indeed often par for the course. If you’re looking to go really budget, an Atom can still do a serviceable job but you should set your expectations suitably low.
The next thing to consider is system RAM. Ideally, you want 4GB, though 8GB is the preferable option for future-proofing and any kind of gaming. Some cheaper laptops still run with 2GB of RAM but these days that really isn’t enough to run Windows 10 well even though it’s technically within the system requirements for the OS.
Sometimes the speed of the RAM is quoted in MHz but don’t worry about that too much; it’s the quantity that’s the more important factor in terms of performance.
These days, you’ll find that many laptops use an SSD (solid-state drive) for storage. SSDs offer very responsive performance and you’ll find that apps and programs will load very quickly.
Cheaper models are more likely to have eMMC drives and though these use flash memory just like an SSD, they’re considerably slower.
eMMC is an effective way for laptop manufacturers to cut corners and costs, which is exactly why you’ll often find it in budget laptops.
If you’re looking to save some dough, an eMMC drive is often a compromise worth making, though, as these drives are still faster than traditional hard disks if only slightly.
Traditional hard drives (which you’ll often find referred to as an HDD or hard disk drive) are the slowest medium of storage. Their strength lies in the fact that they usually have far bigger capacity – you can find storage of up to 1TB even in budget hardware.
A speed in RPM may be quoted with a hard drive, and the faster ones run at 7200 RPM, with slower drives pitched at 5400 RPM. The latter may be rather sluggish, as a rule of thumb, but once again, bear in mind that as with SSDs, performance will vary across individual drives.
Reviews are your friend here, so don’t be afraid to Google a particular model and look for an evaluation or two (and again, you can check out TechRadar’s review section).
Graphics and display
Most laptops will have integrated graphics, meaning the GPU is built into the CPU and you’ll usually find that performance is pretty limited as a result. With integrated graphics – referred to as Intel HD Graphics, or Intel Iris, when it comes to Intel processors – you’ll be able to play casual games, but nothing more than that.
This will be fine for the average laptop user but those who want to play some more heavy-duty games will need a discrete GPU – a graphics solution that sits separate from the processor.
As an example, the GeForce MX150 is Nvidia’s current (Pascal-based) entry-level mobile GPU, but you may find you need to fork out for something a little more powerful than that for really good performance. An example of a more powerful GPU would be the GeForce GTX 1060, but it’s worth noting that prices can soar quickly when it comes to powerful GPUs.
As far as screens are concerned: most mid-range laptops will offer a Full HD display as standard, which is a resolution of 1920 x 1080.
However, when you slide down the price spectrum towards more budget models, you’ll still find there are plenty of machines which only offer a resolution of 1366 x 768. Don’t let this put you off, though.
This resolution is actually perfectly fine, especially on smaller screened laptops. Indeed, a lower resolution is often a benefit to a laptop with lower specs as it means there are fewer pixels for the CPU and graphics solution to shift, making things more likely to run smoothly.
This is something gamers might want to remember, too. Though a 4K screen looks and sounds like a great idea, it’ll take a serious toll on your machine’s core components and sometimes it’s worth sacrificing a bit of image quality for a smoother frame rate.
4K displays will also drain your laptop battery much faster and given this is an area where gaming laptops already struggle, you may want to consider what you’re losing to gain 4K.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Windows laptops are far from your only option; there are also MacBooks and Chromebooks which may well also be heavily discounted come Black Friday.
If you can cope with their lightweight cloud-centric nature, many Chromebooks are already priced very reasonably so finding one in the Black Friday sales can be very tempting indeed.
MacBooks also present a slick alternative to Windows notebooks, though they sit at the opposite end of the price spectrum from Chromebooks. There are still definite bargains to be had on the Apple notebook front, though, and we’ll be covering those angles in a separate feature.
Our deal predictions
There’s a good chance that this price of the original could temptingly drop below $1499, particularly when you consider that Microsoft has placed its entry-level models in previous Black Friday sales.
Unfortunately, following the release of the new Surface Pro, the SP4 itself seems to be almost out of stock everywhere. Certain higher-spec models are still available, though, and we could see a big reduction on them too. In short, Microsoft’s Surface range is certainly one to watch, as are the related accessories and Microsoft Office software subscriptions.
Extremely cheap Chromebooks are also likely, so make sure you keep an eye on them. Last year we witnessed some laptops selling for not much more than $150 on Amazon so it would be unsurprising to see this again.
Although many of these super-affordable notebooks will likely be older models running Intel’s Atom CPU, the price will certainly be appealing for anyone willing to compromise on power.
- We're hoping to see some of our best laptops of 2017 get some great discounts this Black Friday