I see people asking this ALL. THE. TIME. It’s confusing to buy laptops. A computer is listed as a 15.6″ 8GB/1TB HDD Intel i5 — what does that mean? And why do they all seem to look sort of alike? It’s difficult to make sense of this — just tell me which one to buy!
I totally understand where you’re at. It’s terribly confusing! The problem is that there’s no one-size-fits-all response, unless you have an unlimited budget. And yeah, few of us fit that bill. There are 3 questions that you need to answer and you’ll be able to confidently pick one that works for you.
- What do you want to do with this machine? Internet browser and email? (This includes Cricut Design space.) Store lots of photos and video? Work on designing with advanced graphic programs like Inkscape or Photoshop? Share it with others in the household who will play video games? One very valid answer is, “Uh, I have no idea, but I just bought this Cricut machine, so whatever works with that.” (I’m kind of assuming the latter is your answer!)
- What is your budget? Over $1000? Around $500? Under $300? Obviously more is better, but be honest about your budget. You want to balance buying the machine you need vs. spending too much and not being able to buy more craft supplies! There is something available in your budget.
- What size screen do you want? Screens are measured diagonally and come in these general sizes: 11″, 13-14″, 15.6″ and 17″. Price generally increases with screen size. The amount displayed on the screen in a readable format also increases with size. Head to the electronics section at your favorite store and look at a few. I like to do very detailed work; I like a 15.6″ screen. Those of us with mature eyes really appreciate the larger screens, too!
Once you answer the three questions above, you’re ready to learn about the features of a laptop and figure out which ones YOU need (not me, not your best friend, and not the random people answering your questions on the Internet).
*Caveat: This was written in August of 2020. As months/years tick by, this will be dated and advise an underpowered machine.
There are three basic operating systems:
- Windows, used by a variety of brands of PCs and laptops
- iOS, used by MacBooks and other Apple products
- Chrome, used by Chromebooks
I prefer Windows machines. I’ve been working on Windows (and its predecessor, DOS) since their inception. Microsoft manufactures Windows (along with Office and other products). Many businesses use Windows computers. It’s available at a good price point. Windows machines can be had for a couple hundred up to thousands of dollars, with most in the $250-$800 range.
iOS is made by Apple and available on MacBooks, iPads, and iPhones. An iOS laptop, a MacBook, is a wonderful option. I don’t know of many people who dislike their MacBook. However, you’ll pay $1000 or more for the laptop. If this fits your budget and you like the brand, by all means, get the machine. You won’t be disappointed. You probably don’t need to read on — just get the MacBook.
Chromebooks are the other end of the spectrum. They are inexpensive machines that do the basics, like Internet, email, and basic word processing, spread sheets, and picture editing. There are a large range under $250, making them an attractive choice. HOWEVER, if you want to use Cricut Design Space and other kinds of programs, THEY WILL NOT RUN ON A CHROMEBOOK. Let me reiterate: do not buy a Chromebook for Cricut Design Space.
So, if you’re still reading, we’ll focus on Windows computers from here on out.
The processor is the brain and heartbeat of the computer. People talk about how fast they are and that faster is better. A sleek Porsche is faster than a Honda Civic or a Toyota Prius. But a Porsche won’t get you to the grocery store much faster because of speed limits and stop lights. Like cars are limited by rules of the road, processor speeds are limited by the speed of WiFi, disk drives, and if it has to stop and start with limited memory. (More on that in a minute.)
Like cars, processor models have names. They might be Intel i3, i5, i7, or I9. They might be AMD Athlon or Ryzen. You might see a reference to quad core or 6-core (similar to cars and cylinders). If you’re driving to the grocery store, a four cylinder car will get you there just like a V8, but is cheaper to buy (and probably have a lesser top speed, but if the speed limit is 55, does it matter?). Cores help with multi-tasking; however the software must be written to use multiple cores. Most standard software won’t use more than one core.
Which one do you need? Honestly, I wouldn’t sweat it. If you’re doing mostly Internet surfing, email, and Cricut Design Space, any of the processors will be just fine. You likely won’t notice the difference. If you’re using graphics software like Photoshop or Illustrator, you will want to check the software specs and make sure. What you really want is RAM.
RAM – Random Access Memory
Memory is probably the most important part. Memory holds everything you’re working on. If it fills up, it files some of it to disk, retrieving it later when needed. To put this in crafting terms: Memory is your craft table. A tiny table fills up quickly. When it fills up, you have to spend time shuffling supplies off the table onto the floor/sofa/shelf to make room to work, slowing you down. You want a big table. The bigger the table, the more you can spread out and the faster you can craft.
RAM is measured in GB, gigabytes. Today’s machines tend to have multiples of 4GB. Four GB is the minimum that Design Space needs. You’ll be hard pressed to buy a machine with less than that. Think of the number of GB as the number of people that can sit and eat at your craft table. 4GB is a nice kitchen table — a decent size. 8GB is the dining room table — yeah, now we’re talking. 12GB is a jumbo-size dining room table meant for large gatherings — oh yeah…this is awesome! (And it’s what I bought in 2016.) 16GB? That’s a cafeteria table! Great if you’re doing very high end graphic design (or gaming), but a little overkill for most crafts. (Here’s where the table analogy falls apart: if you want to sell your work, you’ll want a big workspace, right? But you only need enough RAM for the computer to do its work — unless you are designing in Illustrator, today’s software should comfortably fit in 12GB. If you don’t know what Illustrator is, you don’t need it yet.)
A note: as time passes, programs are written that use more and more resources like memory. While Design Space runs in 4GB, it’s a matter of time before it needs 8GB. You can make your machine “last longer” by getting as much as you can afford. The machine won’t physically have a longer life, but it will be able to keep up with the software for more versions. For eample, a 4GB machine may last until 2022, maybe 2023, while an 8GB one could take you to 2025. If you can only afford a 4GB machine, it’ll still last quite a while. But the 8GB will give you a bigger craft table and be ready for a larger upgrade, hopefully giving you another couple of years or so before having to upgrade.
Storage: HDD or SSD?
Hard disk drives (HDD) and solid state drives (SSD) is the equivalent of your craft supply storage cabinet. It can be a filing cabinet, a tall storage cabinet, a whole closet, or a room of built-in cabinetry with walk-in closets. They are measured in GB (gigabytes) or TB (terabytes, or 1000 GB).
Hard disk drives (HDD) use inflexible, spinning disks that have an arm with a head on it to read the surface of the disk. These have been around for quite a while, so they are quite cost effective, but a slower. (We’re talking slower by nanoseconds, which is 1/1,000,000,000th of a second.) While some are still 125GB, most are 250GB, 500GB, or 1TB (in machines under $1000, anyway).
Solid state drives (SSD) have no moving parts. They are fancy, new technology (well, they have been around quite a while) that are significantly faster and are much pricier than the same size HDD. You’ll find them in the same sizes as HDD, but the price of the laptop is higher for an SSD of the same size.
OK, so how much do I need? Well, it depends. Do you want to collect lots of fonts and designs? 500GB is a safe amount. Also want to store photos and videos of the kids and grandkids? Maybe 1TB. HOWEVER, I wouldn’t let this be a limiting factor. You can always buy another storage cabinet for your supplies! Likewise, you can buy an external drive, use cloud storage (OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive, Amazon Prime storage, for several examples), or even purchase a new hard drive that’s larger. If you find the machine with less storage than you like, there are solutions to fix that. (And 250GB stores A LOT of stuff! Like 30,000 photos.)
To give you an idea: I keep a lot of fonts, designs, clip art, documents, and 20 years of digital photos, plus I’m scanning in literally 100 years of family photos. I have almost every document I’ve written and every project I’ve designed in the last 20 years, with some folders reaching back another decade and a half. I have moved my kids’ numerous marching band videos to an external drive which is also used as a backup for my hard drive. I have used 386GB of my 1TB drive. Since I’m a pack rat, a 500GB drive should work well for most people. And you SHOULD have an external drive to back up your computer!
As mentioned above, laptop screens range from a small 11″ to an extra large (for a laptop) 17″. You have to figure out what works for you. If you have young eyes and don’t design things from scratch, 11″ may work for you. As your eyes age and/or the detail you want to work with goes up, you’ll want a larger screen. A 15.6″ screen is a good size for portability and what you can display on the screen.
Some screens are touch screens, meaning that you can touch the screen and move the cursor or select buttons. (So can your toddler or dog’s nose!) It’s really nice to have, but it does add to the price of the machine. Some touch screens will flip around and turn the laptop into a tablet. You may use this feature a lot, or not at all. That’s your choice as to whether to spend more money on that feature.
There are a few other things I look for when purchasing a laptop.
- Backlit keyboard. If you want to work in a dark room, like when the rest of the family is watching a movie and you can’t put your computer down, this is a WONDERFUL feature to have. Also wonderful for mature eyes!
- Numeric keypad. Typically found on laptops with a screen size of 15.6″ or larger, this is terrific for entering precise sizes. I find it’s easier to use a calculator-type keypad than a typewriter numeric layout for entering lots of numbers.
- Easily accessible mute button. I don’t like my computer blaring ads or videos at me. A mute key to easily turn it on and off is a must for me.
But what about brands?
I’ve been using computers for many decades. Manufacturers buy memory from one of a couple of manufacturers. Same with HDD/SDD. And processors. There’s little difference in the manufacturers of the parts inside machines of different brands. Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer, Microsoft — they are all good. With one exception, each brand has computers available at every price point. Microsoft Surface computers are the exception, with computers starting at closer to $1,000. The small, sleek, tablet-like machines with keyboards are nice computers, but they may not fit your budget.
The specifications, especially memory, is more important than the brand.
If you are someone that doesn’t understand much about computers and wants a good laptop on a budget (say, under $750) to go with their Cricut machine, I recommend looking for a Windows laptop that has 8GB of memory or more. All the rest of the specs should fall in line if it has 8GB of RAM. Also look at screen size, whether there’s a backlit keyboard, or a touch screen. If you’ve got a large budget (>$750), look at a MacBook or Microsoft Surface. If your budget is tiny (under $250), you can get a 4GB machine, but you may need to replace it sooner. Do not buy a Chromebook as it will not work with Design Space.