Notebook Purchasing Guide

Recognizing that there are a variety of notebooks which meet different needs, this Information Systems & Computing (ISC) purchasing guide presents three alternative configurations, each of which is a different blend of performance, capability, features, portability, and price.

If your School or Center is considering a notebook purchase, ISC strongly recommends a consultation to weigh pros and cons in today's rapidly changing environment (contact John Mulhern III in ISC, mulhernj@isc.upenn.edu; 573-3567).

Desktop Recommendations

These notebooks generally are used as a primary system or desktop replacement. They tend to weigh between four and seven pounds and have medium-sized (14.0-inch to 15.6-inch) screens. In terms of performance and capability, they tend to be relatively close to last year's desktop recommendations.

These notebooks represent the center of the notebook market and are designed to be a good match for most users' needs. They have good speed and mobility, but are not the best in either of these areas.

Specifications revised October 22, 2013 - Specifications are reviewed and updated as appropriate

Windows OS X
Processor

Core i5 (any)

(Core i7 optional)

Core i5 (any)

or Core i7 (any)

Memory (RAM) 4.0 GB to 8.0 GB 4.0 GB to 8.0 GB
Mass Storage

500 GB hard disk

or 256 GB solid state drive

256 GB solid state drive

Display & Graphics

14.0-inch to 15.6-inch

integrated graphics or discrete video card

15.4-inch

integrated graphics or discrete video card

Miscellaneous

optional DVD±R/CD-RW drive

internal Bluetooth

integrated webcam

optional DVD±R/CD-RW drive

internal Bluetooth

integrated webcam

Network Connection

10/100/1000BaseT Ethernet

internal 802.11a/b/g/n (Wi-Fi)

10/100/1000BaseT Ethernet

internal 802.11a/b/g/n or 802.11ac (Wi-Fi)

Recommended Operating System

Windows 7 SP1

OS X Mountain Lion
Support Period 36 to 42 months 36 to 42 months
Estimated Price $1,150 to $1,800 $2,150 to $2,650

Examples of these notebooks are the 14-inch and 15-inch Haswell-based versions of the Apple MacBook Pro, Dell Latitude, and Lenovo ThinkPad.

Note: this specification does not apply to extremely large portable systems sometimes called desknotes. Desknotes generally are not usable as notebooks - they are too large and have too little battery life. ISC has developed a separate set of desknote recommendations.

These notebooks tend to weigh two to five pounds and have small (11.6-inch to 13.3-inch) screens. With respect to performance, they tend to be relatively close to last year's desktop recommendations, but contain fewer features in exchange for less bulk.

Some lightweight notebooks are Tablet PCs - in other words, they support the touch and pen-based supersets of Windows 8.

Specifications revised October 22, 2013 - Specifications are reviewed and updated as appropriate.

Windows OS X
Processor

Core i5 (any)

(Core i7 optional)

Core i5 (any)

(Core i7 optional)

Memory (RAM) 4.0 to 8.0 GB 4.0 to 8.0 GB
Mass Storage

320 GB hard drive

or 128 GB solid state drive

320 GB hard drive

or 128 GB solid state drive

Display & Graphics

0.1-inch to 13.3-inch 

at least 1366 x 768 resolution 

integrated graphics 

multi-touch display for Tablet PCs

11.6-inch or 13.3-inch 

integrated graphics

Miscellaneous

internal Bluetooth 

integrated webcam 

optional DVD±R/CD-RW drive

internal Bluetooth 

integrated webcam 

optional DVD±R/CD-RW drive

Network Connection

10/100/1000BaseT Ethernet

internal 802.11a/b/g/n (Wi-Fi)

10/100/1000BaseT Ethernet

internal 802.11a/b/g/n or 802.11ac (Wi-Fi)

Recommended Operating System

Windows 7 SP1

Windows 8 for Tablet PCs only

OS X Mountain Lion
Support Period 36 months 36 months
Estimated Price $1,350 to $2,200
$1,300 to $2,000

Examples of these notebooks are the 11 to 13-inch Haswell-based versions of the Apple MacBook Air and 13-inch Haswell-based version of the Apple MacBook Pro (Retina), Dell Latitude, Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook, Lenovo ThinkPad X-series, and Toshiba Portégé. Examples of Tablet PCs include the Dell XPS 12, the Lenovo ThinkPad X230 Tablet, and the Microsoft Surface Pro.

Notes:

  1. Some manufacturers make Tablet PCs with 13-inch and 14-inch displays. ISC believes that heavy users of Tablet PC-specific functionality are better served by smaller, lighter 10.1-inch to 12.1-inch models.
  2. Some lightweight notebooks are Ultrabooks - in other words, they meet Intel's set of requirements for a Windows 7-optimized lightweight notebook. ISC sees Ultrabooks as adding substantially to choice and quality in the lightweight notebook category.
  3. Media slices and port replicators are not included in this pricing - these can increase the estimated price by these amounts: 
    • Media slices: $100 - $200
    • Port replicators: $150 - $200

Notebooks built to this specification are intended to be complements to the recommendations for desktop systems in ISC's Value Desktop Purchasing Guide. These notebooks tend to weigh three to six pounds and have small to medium sized (11.6-inch to 14.1-inch) screens. In performance, they tend to lag behind last year's desktop recommendations and contain fewer features. These systems are the minimum that will serve for a reasonable life cycle. 

Specifications revised June 10, 2013 - Specifications are reviewed and updated as appropriate.

 

Windows

OS X

Processor

Core i3 (any)

or Core i5 (any)

Core i5 (any)

Memory (RAM)

4.0 GB

4.0 GB

Mass Storage

320 GB hard disk

500 GB hard disk

or 64 GB solid state drive

Miscellaneous

optional DVD±R/CD-RW drive 

internal Bluetooth 

integrated webcam

optional DVD±R/CD-RW drive 

internal Bluetooth 

integrated webcam

Network Connection

10/100/1000BaseT Ethernet

internal 802.11b/g/n (Wi-Fi)

10/100/1000BaseT Ethernet

internal 802.11b/g/n or 802.11ac (Wi-Fi)

Recommended Operating System

Windows 7 SP1

OS X Mountain Lion

Support Period

24 to 30 months

24 to 30 months

Estimated Price

$550 to $1,200

$950 to $1,200

 

Examples of these notebooks are the Apple MacBook Air (in its lowest priced version), the Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (in its lowest priced version), the Dell Latitude 3330, the Dell Latitude E6330 (in its lower priced versions), the Dell Latitude E5430, the Dell Latitude E6430 (in its lower priced versions), and the Lenovo ThinkPad T430 (in its lower priced versions).

Low cost notebooks – not recommended for most users

Price reductions resulting from market competition and continued technical innovation make the definition of "Low Cost Notebooks" a moving target. It is generally true, however, that notebooks priced in the bottom 25% of the current range (currently ranging from $250 to $550) compromise some combination of performance, reliability, or compatibility, to achieve the lowest possible costs.

Bearing in mind that you get what you pay for, and that the costs associated with supporting these systems significantly outweigh the actual purchase price, ISC recommends that low cost notebooks not be purchased for general use.

Estimated prices for all notebooks except value notebooks include three year service plans from the manufacturers, which ISC strongly recommends. Note that the three year warranty is an extra cost for some notebooks (including those from Apple, which require additional AppleCare) and that this cost is reflected in the estimated price.

Pricing is generated using the online configurators available from Dell, Apple, and Lenovo and is for general reference only. Support providers will often be able to generate more competitive pricing using various means, such as purchasing components (RAM, etc.) separately and taking advantage of vendor bundles and rebates.

These specifications are revised when major changes in configurations from Apple, Dell, and Lenovo (or the industry as a whole) become generally available.

Processor clock speed is no longer considered important, but the class of processor (such Core i5, Core i7, etc.) is. A more detailed University-centric perspective on AMD and Intel processors is available from ISC's Processor Guide.

Other than some differences in peripherals, support for notebook systems is generally similar to support for desktop systems.

ISC has had good experiences with enterprise class systems from notebook manufacturers such as Apple, Dell, Lenovo, and Toshiba.

Operating systems

Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (32-bit and 64-bit Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions) is supported and recommended for all new systems except Table PCs. ISC does not recommend, but will support the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 7 Home Premium Service Pack 1. Home Premium lacks important networking, security, and compatibility features, such as domain-based authentication, that are essential to many Schools and Centers in the University. Note that Windows 7 Professional includes all of the multimedia features present in Windows 7 Home Premium, and therefore is recommended as superior to Home Premium. ISC does not recommend and will not support any version of Windows 7 Starter or Windows 7 Home Basic. Starter and Home Basic lack many important networking, maintenance, and security features that are critical to many Schools and Centers at the University.

Windows 8 (32-bit and 64-bit Pro and Enterprise editions) is supported for new systems and recommended for Tablet PCs. ISC does not recommend, but will support the consumer version of Windows 8, which lacks important networking, security, and compatibility features, such as domain-based authentication, that are essential to many Schools and Centers in the University.

OS X Mountain Lion is the only supported and recommended choice for new Macintosh systems, as Apple's newly released systems always require the latest version of OS X.

Apple's Boot Camp technology offers added flexibility for users who need to use Windows occasionally. It should not be used to turn a Macintosh into a full time Windows system. Boot Camp requires that both the Windows and the OS X operating systems be patched and maintained.

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Date Posted: May 25, 2013 Tags: Essentials, Purchasing Guide, Hardware Recommendations

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