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Technology Advice for the Tech Idiot

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Which of the following laptop brands (other than Apple) would you recommend?

  • Dell

    Votes: 1 33.3%
  • Asus

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Lenovo

    Votes: 1 33.3%
  • Toshiba

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Samsung

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Acer

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • HP

    Votes: 1 33.3%
  • Other (not a Mac)

    Votes: 0 0.0%

  • Total voters
    3

Stagg737

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I know this has probably been asked before, but I can't find any new threads. I'm in the market for a new laptop and I wanted to get some advice on which brand/laptop would work out the best for me. I've read a few reviews and know a few of the brands/companies, but I haven't bought a computer in a while, so my knowledge is probably pretty outdated.

I'm not looking for anything crazy, I just want something that's going to be reliable, has a strong battery life, and won't have a problem running apps like UWorld. I'm not planning on using it for gaming or any major programs like that. I stream movies on it rarely (Netflix, Prime, etc.), but usually just use it for going online and doing Qbanks. I do NOT want a Mac. I can't justify spending that kind of money for what I use laptops for. I'd also like to try and keep the price under $800 if possible. I was also considering getting a 2-in-1 laptop/tablet as I like the idea of being able use a tablet, but am also completely fine without one.

Any advice or knowledge people have on brands or specific laptops that are good or ones to avoid would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
 

DrMedEd

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I would suggest spending the money on a Mac. Obviously just my opinion but as a medical student and now practicing doctor in digital health I have found it the most versatile for health related software, apps and collaboration. Just food for thought :)

GP, Digital Health Innovator,
Dem Dx - Clinical app for medical students
www.demdx.com
 

Stroganoff

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Intro

Sup! I'm a tech nerd with a couple decades of personal experience as a power user and ~6 years of professional IT experience, so I'll offer my opinions and anecdotal experiences. By the way, I'm not claiming to be a know-it-all expert, so please take my ramblings here with a grain of salt and just a general guide to help you in your buying decision. Also of note, my professional experience has not been in the "desktop support" specialty, meaning, while I have a lot of general knowledge, it was never my professional job to fix or place orders or "tinker" with hardware all day, so I can't give specifics on which makes and models fail more often than others.

Before I ramble further, here's some links for some reading to give a general idea of what's out on the market right now, as well as their opinions:

I'd also consult YouTube for some reviews and a more "real" look at the products, but beware that some reviews are sponsored (and therefore could be influenced to give a good review). Same with going to a retail store like Best Buy (try not to get harassed...aggressive mofos) or Costco to get your hands on some. Re: buying, I buy my Dells direct, but I also buy lots of stuff from Amazon/Newegg. It's up to you if you want to buy in a physical store like Best Buy. Your mileage may vary.

I'm like you and value reliability. It sucks when things break, and you have to deal with calling tech support, going through the RMA and warranty process, and shipping things back and being without a computer, let alone your private data. Anecdotally speaking, I'm typing this on a Dell laptop from 2007 that I've taken very, very good care of. I spent like $2000-2200 back then. The only failure was the video card, which I replaced for $20 on eBay (and a difficult procedure), upgraded the RAM from 2 to 4GB, upgraded from Windows Vista Ultimate 32-bit to Windows 7 Professional 64-bit, upgraded the Wi-Fi, and upgraded the hard drive to Solid State. I reinstall Windows q 1 year for a clean slate and speedy performance. I ramble all this to state my personality: I don't mind spending good money, but I want things to last many years.

In the workplace, I've been issued 4 Lenovo laptops and 1 HP laptop, and they've all been very reliable. Except for the port replicator on one of the Lenovo laptops: the ethernet card didn't work so it was...weird having to use the ethernet port on the laptop.

All that aside, most corporate fleets these days are Lenovo, Dell, or HP, bought in bulk from the business/enterprise departments. They're supposed to be fairly rugged and good for travel.

Ramblings on brands

Personal opinions on brands? The IBM Thinkpad series of laptops are legendary, but unfortunately, IBM sold their entire line of desktops, laptops, and some servers to Lenovo (a Chinese company), and although the ruggedness of the Thinkpad laptops seems to continue (a good thing), you're supporting a Chinese company instead of an American one (see, there's my bias). The only sketchy thing I've seen was the Lenovo Superfish security fiasco. It also depends how paranoid you are with government surveillance. It's a fact that some Chinese brands like Huawei (networking equipment but they're more known for their smartphones now) come with embedded backdoors and spyware, but I digress. The Lenovo Yoga series seem to get good reviews if you want a 2-in-1 laptop/tablet. Their Thinkpad series have lots of models, and there's some higher end series like Carbon that are favored by traveling executives since they're lighter and beefier, but they cost more.

The HP Elitebook I was issued once was a high-end ultrabook, and it was great for the few months I had it. But expensive. I don't know about HP's cheap models. I'm personally biased against HP, but it's hard to explain why. They just never had the features I wanted, but I'm super picky.

Acer's always been a budget brand. Questionable quality. Your mileage may vary, so read reviews. But definitely cheap.

I'm not familiar with Samsung's laptop lines. I buy Samsung Solid State drives, but that's it nowadays.

I'm a big fan of the Asus brand, but mostly their motherboards and wireless routers. I don't know how well their laptops hold up.

I used to be a diehard Toshiba fanboy in the 90's and early 2000's, but I've been out of the loop. Are they still around? I feel like they're waning in market share.

I'm personally a Dell fanboy, so there's my bias. They have some budget Inspiron series of various prices. Their XPS series is above your $800 goal (I think $1100 is the cheapest price point), but I'd totally get an XPS 13" right now, and though 4K is "better," I'd get it in 1920x1080 for better battery life. As much as I was leaning towards a 15" or 15.6" laptop, it *sucks* lugging around a beast like that around the country in airports or even on your back to/from work or class or somewhere to study. My poor back. I'll sacrifice screen size for overall size and weight now, but that's from years of being a gunner and wanting a 15-17" laptop. Oh, but if the $800 price point is important to you, there's some other Dells that are much cheaper. Heck, you can easily get new laptops for $499-799 now, especially around Black Friday sales.

Miscellaneous

Not sure what year in med school you're in so don't know if you'll care to take your laptop to lectures or not or if that matters.

Re: 2-in-1 tablet/laptop convertibles. They seem cool, but will you use it? You'll pay more for the functionality. Like, maybe you can use the tablet mode or "tent" mode for UWorld or Qbanks and just use your finger and the touchscreen. But most of the Windows laptops have a touchscreen anyways, so is the keyboard really going to get in your way if it can't fold backwards? Is it worth the $100-500 extra for this functionality, or is that money better used for other things?

[Edit: As I look back and proofread this post, I'll probably overshoot your $800 goal, especially with my recommendations below on a cable lock, keyboard, mouse, stand, etc., and 1080p, Solid State Drive. I tend to overshoot on price with the good intention of wanting something "better" that supposedly lasts longer. But no matter what, reliability cannot be guaranteed.]

Recommended Options/Specs

Just my opinions only, and prices can vary considerably. Based on your post, pretty much *any* laptop you buy, even the cheap ones, will be fine for school stuff like UWorld and Qbanks or looking at PowerPoints, PDFs, and OneNotes. Leisure stuff like YouTube, Netflix, Prime, etc? Anything new can handle it just fine. Very light gaming is possible on any of them, but depends largely on the GPU (extra $$$ and weight).

  • CPU: Intel Core i5 is the sweet spot. i7 is probably out of your price target. i3 may be acceptable for basic stuff. I'd avoid any Atom/Celeron CPUs. I won't split hairs on the actual CPU generation, clock speed, etc., but dual-core is bare minimum, and quad core is a luxury (and pricier on a laptop). Probably a non-issue (single cores haven't been around in years).
  • GPU: A discrete (separate) GPU card in a laptop is only really necessary for more serious gaming or professional video editing or 3D modeling work. It'll add price, power consumption, heat/noise, and weight. In this day and age, the modern Intel CPUs come with on-board graphics which is more than sufficient for basic school stuff, web browsing, Netflix/YouTube/lectures, and light gaming.
  • Screen size: 13-15". 13" will be easier for portability. You can always hook your laptop to an external monitor. Dual screen is awesome, and there's no going back.
  • Screen resolution: I wouldn't go smaller than 1920x1080. This will give you 1080p for streaming video and movies. A lot of the cheaper, smaller laptops come with something like 1366x768. I had that in my last Lenovo business laptop, but I personally like seeing "more" on my screen, whether it's notes or web browsing or whatever. 4K is not worth it on a laptop screen, in my opinion. Not at this point (price + battery)
  • Hard drive: Solid State Drive (SSD) all the way. It might cost more, but it's SO worth it. Things are considerably faster, and it's one of the best upgrades in any computer. Plus they last longer than the spinning hard drives, are much quieter (no moving parts), and give more battery life. I wouldn't go smaller than 128GB. Get 256GB if you can afford it. Depends how much stuff you have like photos or videos or music.
  • RAM: 8 GB minimum. I wouldn't go smaller than 8 GB in 2016, even for basic use. You'll be fine for several years with that. You can usually upgrade for super cheap to 16 GB (even as a beginner) in the future. If you want to get in the weeds, 2 sticks of RAM (e.g. 2 sticks of 4 GB = 8 GB) gives better performance because of dual-channel vs. single-channel (e.g. 1 stick of 8 GB RAM).
  • Ports: Personal preference if you want things like Ethernet built into your laptop, if you ever use that or just Wi-Fi 100%. Same with USB ports. Definitely at least 2, but it's up to you. Most will also come with headphone/microphone jacks. SD card reader is useful if you have a digital camera, but it's up to you. I'm seeing less DVD-RW drives in laptops now, but you can always buy an external USB DVD-RW drive for $30-50.
  • Random: Backlit keyboards are kinda convenient. Keyboard layout is also personal preference.
  • Wi-Fi: Probably a standard feature now, but it's worth making sure you get one with 802.11ac instead of just 802.11n. It's worth getting 802.11ac as 802.11n is being phased out, and you'll see some improvements even if your wireless router is still N. You might also see details like 2x2 or 3x3 (more is better...refers to # of antennas and spatial streams). You may also see the actual brand. Intel, Broadcom, Realtek, and Atheros are the top players. I'm splitting hairs, so I digress.
  • Bluetooth: Usually a standard feature but may not be available on cheaper laptops. But get version 4.1 or 4.2 if you have a choice. Bluetooth on a laptop will make it easier to pair a wireless mouse or keyboard without sacrificing a precious USB port.

Recommended Accessories

  • Bag: If I had a time machine, I'd have never bought a messenger bag, given my neck/back issues now. Laptop backpack all the way using 2 straps. Even in the corporate/business world, the trend just shifted from nice briefcase/messenger bags to backpacks.
  • Stand: Going along with the ergonomics/back/shoulder/neck issues, a laptop stand for home use is totally worth it. I just bought the Allsop Redmond about a month ago (cheap, sturdy, and metal), but there's a ton of makes and models, so get whatever you like. *SO* worth it for every laptop user -- I wish I had bought one 10 years ago. Laptops are MSK nightmares: the top of any screen is supposed to be eye level (vs. forward head/neck posture), and the keyboard is supposed to be low enough, but most people have their keyboard super high so their shoulders are shrugged upwards and tilted inwards towards midline since laptop keyboards are too close.
  • External keyboard and mouse: Same idea re: MSK/ergonomics. At home for extended use at a desk, I recommend using the laptop on the stand, with a separate keyboard and mouse. You might have some already, or buy some cheap ones. I'm a Logitech fanboy for everything, personally... If you insist on a wireless keyboard (overkill btw), avoid generic brands and avoid Microsoft. There's security implications with those.
  • Cable lock: Laptop theft happens all the time. I'm a security nerd, including physical security, so years ago I spent several hours on YouTube/Amazon looking up the best cable lock. Kensington and Targus are the main players. I learned a few things: 1) Avoid Targus and go with Kensington (the slots on laptops are called Kensington slots for a reason). 2) Avoid combination locks and go with a keyed lock. 3) Go with the flat key instead of the cylindrical key. The cylindrical keys/locks are easier to pick and defeat (with a Bic pen or metal shim). I can't remember the model, but I ended up spending like $40 or whatever for a Kensington cable lock with the red, flat key. If I leave my laptop at home, I literally have it cable locked to my desk 24/7 (in case of burglary), and if I travel with my laptop, I take the cable with me. And of course it's not fool-proof: the skinny cables can easily be cut with a portable angle grinder, axe, or 12" bolt cutters, but it'll deter smash-and-grab opportunistic thieves. *gets off soapbox*
  • External monitor: If you have one already, then yay. But once you go dual-monitor, you won't want to go back! I use my laptop with an external monitor and "Extend" my desktop in Windows. Makes it easy to multi-task. Notes/lecture on one screen, questions on another. YouTube on one screen, SDN on another. Blonde on one screen, brunette on the other.
  • Microsoft Office: You can often get a free or discounted copy of Office through your school.

Note: While I harped on ergonomics a lot in the above, if I had a time machine or could give advice to my younger self, it'd be to take good posture seriously. Obviously everyone's body is different, but man, I've been jacked up for the past 5+ years (I'm in my early 30's only), and an ounce of prevention trumps all the pain, stiffness, MRIs, neuropathies, and physical therapy. But I see this issue getting more prevalent as people hunch over their smartphones/tablets/laptops for hours at a time, even kids and teenagers now. And heck, I've seen my PCP and other attendings hunch over the clinical PCs to use EMR software.

Random Advice and Best Practices

  • Webcam: Cover it with a piece of electrical tape (less residue than something strong like duct tape or Scotch). All the cool people do it. This physical measure will provide the opacity that even if you are compromised, it will literally be impossible for a hacker to see you unless you take the tape off. I go a step further and disable the webcam in the BIOS +/- in Windows Device Manager. I'm planning on buying an external USB webcam if I really want to cam with people.
  • Backup Strategy: I've had so many catastrophes and data loss since like middle school. It sucks every time. Back up your stuff. Automated is best, since we're lazy humans. Look up what the "3-2-1 backup rule" is. It's something like 3 copies, 2 different kinds of media, 1 off-site location. What this means is basically a local backup (so maybe an external hard drive, NAS, or USB flash drives) that you keep in your house/apartment (NOT connected to your laptop at all times), and a separate, identical copy that is physically off-site, in case of natural disaster/fire/theft. So maybe another external hard drive or USB flash drive in a bank safe deposit box or parents' house or secured in the cloud (like Google Drive, CrashPlan, SpiderOak)... Is this thorough? Yes. Does this take planning and discipline to get a good backup system down? Yes. Is it overkill? No.
  • Some privacy measures. I don't want to ramble too much on security/privacy, or I'll write another 10 pages and pull an all-nighter, but suffice it to say, it's getting worse. Be it nation-state surveillance or corporate surveillance (Microsoft, Google, Apple, data brokers). With Microsoft's new CEO Satya Nadella's cloud background and with Windows 10, Microsoft has gone full ****** in telemetry/surveillance, even including things you type on the keyboard (like passwords) and other things. I'd disable everything in the Windows 10 Privacy Control Panel (such as Cortana's "Getting to Know You"), but there's 3rd party solutions that do a more thorough job, so I'd supplement with something like Spybot Anti-Beacon - free software. It's a once-and-done immunization, so it's not something that runs full-time in the background. Download it, intall it, and choose all the settings and additional options. (It's what I personally use and recommend for all versions of Windows, but there's a few other good ones.)
  • Full Disk Encryption (FDE) - I recommend considering using Full Disk Encryption for every mobile device: phones, tablets, and laptops. And any backup or portable hard drive. It's mostly to prevent someone getting your personal data if your device is lost or stolen. Choose a strong password, and memorize it/store it securely somewhere. If you lose the password, you're hosed (refer to Backup Strategy above).
  • Local vs. Microsoft Account: When you first set up your laptop, it'll make you create an account. In Windows 10, you can use your Microsoft account. I advise against doing this, for various privacy and security reasons. (Even with a lot of the preventive measures above like Spybot Anti-Beacon and turning off Privacy settings, Windows 10 is continually "phoning home" to Microsoft and other 3rd parties with telemetry/surveillance information, and it's slightly safer to not have that associated with your online Microsoft account and thus you as a person.) Make a new local account that only exists on your laptop. Even if you have a separate Microsoft account on Outlook/Live/Hotmail.
  • Authentication: I believe Windows 10 is getting cool and fancy and lets you log into your laptop with your face or with some pattern on the screen (like on a photo). I recommend using a strong password exclusively, but I realize this is not as cool or convenient as the first two options. There's a trade-off between security and convenience (inverse relationship): the more secure you want things, the less convenient it will be and vice versa. Ultimately it's your decision, but a password is the strongest compared to your face or a pattern.
  • Create a separate Admin and Standard account. This is one of the best things anyone can do on any computer (even you Mac users out there). When you first set up your machine, as above, it'll make you create an account, which will have full Administrator privilege on your computer. It's best practice to immediately create a 2nd account for yourself with "Standard" privileges and use that account every time you use your laptop. When you need to install software or make important changes, you can temporarily "elevate" your privilege to Administrator to install the app or change the setting, but it's a very bad idea to use the Admin account for normal day-to-day stuff. Reason being: both malware and hackers want the most power to take over your computer as possible, and if you are either infected with malware or hacked, the bad guy(s) will have the same privileges as whatever account you're using. So if you're already logged in as Admin, it makes the malware/hacker's job easy and they can more easily destroy you and your data. Whereas if you're logged in with your Standard account, it'll be harder to do as much damage.
  • Circadian rhythm/sleep hygiene/melatonin/cortisol cycles. I'm not a physician or other health care professional, so it's not my place to "lecture" anyone on SDN, but I'd like to pass along some really great, free apps that facilitate healthier computing habits. On Windows and Mac, download f.lux. It's free. Enable the additional color settings. This software automatically lowers your screen brightness and applies a red "filter" to the screen, reducing the blue/green frequencies of light that the sleep literature states inhibits or delays the release of melatonin. So as the sun sets according to your ZIP code, it'll automatically redden and dim your screen. And you can always adjust it as needed. On iPhone/iPad, Apple introduced something called Night Shift (I think) in iOS 9.3. The latest versions of Android has something, but most people don't have Android 6 or 7, so I personally recommend Twilight (also free). Same functionality: reddens and dims your screen for better sleep hygiene.

Anyways, that's about 3 hours of me rambling and neurotically editing this post. Apologies for the tl;dr, but I hope it gives you some food for thought, and I hope any of it benefits the SDN community as well if anyone else finds this thread. PS, please don't PM me for support/advice (it gets overwhelming) but feel free to post in this thread and the larger community can see the conversation.

Any other questions, let me know!
 
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nlax30

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Stroganoff has some terrific advice about, not too much to add to that.

Personally I've been using a Mac the last few years so my two windows laptops are old and I don't have much experience with Windows 10.

That said, I have heard very good things about the Dell XPS series of laptops, if you can configure on in your price range.

I'll also plug that site he mentioned, thewirecutter.com. Terrific site and for the most part I trust their reviews and I'll usually start there when looking for a specific item.
 

Stagg737

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Intro

Sup! I'm a tech nerd with a couple decades of personal experience as a power user and ~6 years of professional IT experience, so I'll offer my opinions and anecdotal experiences. By the way, I'm not claiming to be a know-it-all expert, so please take my ramblings here with a grain of salt and just a general guide to help you in your buying decision. Also of note, my professional experience has not been in the "desktop support" specialty, meaning, while I have a lot of general knowledge, it was never my professional job to fix or place orders or "tinker" with hardware all day, so I can't give specifics on which makes and models fail more often than others.

Before I ramble further, here's some links for some reading to give a general idea of what's out on the market right now, as well as their opinions:

I'd also consult YouTube for some reviews and a more "real" look at the products, but beware that some reviews are sponsored (and therefore could be influenced to give a good review). Same with going to a retail store like Best Buy (try not to get harassed...aggressive mofos) or Costco to get your hands on some. Re: buying, I buy my Dells direct, but I also buy lots of stuff from Amazon/Newegg. It's up to you if you want to buy in a physical store like Best Buy. Your mileage may vary.

I'm like you and value reliability. It sucks when things break, and you have to deal with calling tech support, going through the RMA and warranty process, and shipping things back and being without a computer, let alone your private data. Anecdotally speaking, I'm typing this on a Dell laptop from 2007 that I've taken very, very good care of. I spent like $2000-2200 back then. The only failure was the video card, which I replaced for $20 on eBay (and a difficult procedure), upgraded the RAM from 2 to 4GB, upgraded from Windows Vista Ultimate 32-bit to Windows 7 Professional 64-bit, upgraded the Wi-Fi, and upgraded the hard drive to Solid State. I reinstall Windows q 1 year for a clean slate and speedy performance. I ramble all this to state my personality: I don't mind spending good money, but I want things to last many years.

In the workplace, I've been issued 4 Lenovo laptops and 1 HP laptop, and they've all been very reliable. Except for the port replicator on one of the Lenovo laptops: the ethernet card didn't work so it was...weird having to use the ethernet port on the laptop.

All that aside, most corporate fleets these days are Lenovo, Dell, or HP, bought in bulk from the business/enterprise departments. They're supposed to be fairly rugged and good for travel.

Ramblings on brands

Personal opinions on brands? The IBM Thinkpad series of laptops are legendary, but unfortunately, IBM sold their entire line of desktops, laptops, and some servers to Lenovo (a Chinese company), and although the ruggedness of the Thinkpad laptops seems to continue (a good thing), you're supporting a Chinese company instead of an American one (see, there's my bias). The only sketchy thing I've seen was the Lenovo Superfish security fiasco. It also depends how paranoid you are with government surveillance. It's a fact that some Chinese brands like Huawei (networking equipment but they're more known for their smartphones now) come with embedded backdoors and spyware, but I digress. The Lenovo Yoga series seem to get good reviews if you want a 2-in-1 laptop/tablet. Their Thinkpad series have lots of models, and there's some higher end series like Carbon that are favored by traveling executives since they're lighter and beefier, but they cost more.

The HP Elitebook I was issued once was a high-end ultrabook, and it was great for the few months I had it. But expensive. I don't know about HP's cheap models. I'm personally biased against HP, but it's hard to explain why. They just never had the features I wanted, but I'm super picky.

Acer's always been a budget brand. Questionable quality. Your mileage may vary, so read reviews. But definitely cheap.

I'm not familiar with Samsung's laptop lines. I buy Samsung Solid State drives, but that's it nowadays.

I'm a big fan of the Asus brand, but mostly their motherboards and wireless routers. I don't know how well their laptops hold up.

I used to be a diehard Toshiba fanboy in the 90's and early 2000's, but I've been out of the loop. Are they still around? I feel like they're waning in market share.

I'm personally a Dell fanboy, so there's my bias. They have some budget Inspiron series of various prices. Their XPS series is above your $800 goal (I think $1100 is the cheapest price point), but I'd totally get an XPS 13" right now, and though 4K is "better," I'd get it in 1920x1080 for better battery life. As much as I was leaning towards a 15" or 15.6" laptop, it *sucks* lugging around a beast like that around the country in airports or even on your back to/from work or class or somewhere to study. My poor back. I'll sacrifice screen size for overall size and weight now, but that's from years of being a gunner and wanting a 15-17" laptop. Oh, but if the $800 price point is important to you, there's some other Dells that are much cheaper. Heck, you can easily get new laptops for $499-799 now, especially around Black Friday sales.

Miscellaneous

Not sure what year in med school you're in so don't know if you'll care to take your laptop to lectures or not or if that matters.

Re: 2-in-1 tablet/laptop convertibles. They seem cool, but will you use it? You'll pay more for the functionality. Like, maybe you can use the tablet mode or "tent" mode for UWorld or Qbanks and just use your finger and the touchscreen. But most of the Windows laptops have a touchscreen anyways, so is the keyboard really going to get in your way if it can't fold backwards? Is it worth the $100-500 extra for this functionality, or is that money better used for other things?

[Edit: As I look back and proofread this post, I'll probably overshoot your $800 goal, especially with my recommendations below on a cable lock, keyboard, mouse, stand, etc., and 1080p, Solid State Drive. I tend to overshoot on price with the good intention of wanting something "better" that supposedly lasts longer. But no matter what, reliability cannot be guaranteed.]

Recommended Options/Specs

Just my opinions only, and prices can vary considerably. Based on your post, pretty much *any* laptop you buy, even the cheap ones, will be fine for school stuff like UWorld and Qbanks or looking at PowerPoints, PDFs, and OneNotes. Leisure stuff like YouTube, Netflix, Prime, etc? Anything new can handle it just fine. Very light gaming is possible on any of them, but depends largely on the GPU (extra $$$ and weight).

  • CPU: Intel Core i5 is the sweet spot. i7 is probably out of your price target. i3 may be acceptable for basic stuff. I'd avoid any Atom/Celeron CPUs. I won't split hairs on the actual CPU generation, clock speed, etc., but dual-core is bare minimum, and quad core is a luxury (and pricier on a laptop). Probably a non-issue (single cores haven't been around in years).
  • GPU: A discrete (separate) GPU card in a laptop is only really necessary for more serious gaming or professional video editing or 3D modeling work. It'll add price, power consumption, heat/noise, and weight. In this day and age, the modern Intel CPUs come with on-board graphics which is more than sufficient for basic school stuff, web browsing, Netflix/YouTube/lectures, and light gaming.
  • Screen size: 13-15". 13" will be easier for portability.
  • Screen resolution: I wouldn't go smaller than 1920x1080. This will give you 1080p for streaming video and movies. A lot of the cheaper, smaller laptops come with something like 1366x768. I had that in my last Lenovo business laptop, but I personally like seeing "more" on my screen, whether it's notes or web browsing or whatever. 4K is not worth it on a laptop screen, in my opinion. Not at this point (price + battery)
  • Hard drive: Solid State Drive (SSD) all the way. It might cost more, but it's SO worth it. Things are considerably faster, and it's one of the best upgrades in any computer. Plus they last longer than the spinning hard drives, are much quieter (no moving parts), and give more battery life. I wouldn't go smaller than 128GB. Get 256GB if you can afford it. Depends how much stuff you have like photos or videos or music.
  • RAM: 8 GB minimum. I wouldn't go smaller than 8 GB in 2016, even for basic use. You'll be fine for several years with that. You can usually upgrade for super cheap to 16 GB (even as a beginner) in the future. If you want to get in the weeds, 2 sticks of RAM (e.g. 2 sticks of 4 GB = 8 GB) gives better performance because of dual-channel vs. single-channel (e.g. 1 stick of 8 GB RAM).
  • Ports: Personal preference if you want things like Ethernet built into your laptop, if you ever use that or just Wi-Fi 100%. Same with USB ports. Definitely at least 2, but it's up to you. Most will also come with headphone/microphone jacks. SD card reader is useful if you have a digital camera, but it's up to you. I'm seeing less DVD-RW drives in laptops now, but you can always buy an external USB DVD-RW drive for $30-50.
  • Random: Backlit keyboards are kinda convenient. Keyboard layout is also personal preference.
  • Wi-Fi: Probably a standard feature now, but it's worth making sure you get one with 802.11ac instead of just 802.11n. It's worth getting 802.11ac as 802.11n is being phased out, and you'll see some improvements even if your wireless router is still N. You might also see details like 2x2 or 3x3 (more is better...refers to # of antennas and spatial streams). You may also see the actual brand. Intel, Broadcom, Realtek, and Atheros are the top players. I'm splitting hairs, so I digress.
  • Bluetooth: Usually a standard feature but may not be available on cheaper laptops. But get version 4.1 or 4.2 if you have a choice. Bluetooth on a laptop will make it easier to pair a wireless mouse or keyboard without sacrificing a precious USB port.

Recommended Accessories

  • Case: If I had a time machine, I'd have never bought a messenger bag, given my neck/back issues now. Laptop backpack all the way using 2 straps. Even in the corporate/business world, the trend just shifted from nice briefcase/messenger bags to backpacks.
  • Stand: Going along with the ergonomics/back/shoulder/neck issues, a laptop stand for home use is totally worth it. I just bought the Allsop Redmond about a month ago (cheap, sturdy, and metal), but there's a ton of makes and models, so get whatever you like. *SO* worth it for every laptop user -- I wish I had bought one 10 years ago. Laptops are MSK nightmares: the top of any screen is supposed to be eye level (vs. forward head/neck posture), and the keyboard is supposed to be low enough, but most people have their keyboard super high so their shoulders are shrugged upwards and tilted inwards towards midline since laptop keyboards are too close.
  • External keyboard and mouse: Same idea re: MSK/ergonomics. At home for extended use at a desk, I recommend using the laptop on the stand, with a separate keyboard and mouse. You might have some already, or buy some cheap ones. I'm a Logitech fanboy for everything, personally... If you insist on a wireless keyboard (overkill btw), avoid generic brands and avoid Microsoft. There's security implications with those.
  • Cable lock: Laptop theft happens all the time. I'm a security nerd, including physical security, so years ago I spent several hours on YouTube/Amazon looking up the best cable lock. Kensington and Targus are the main players. I learned a few things: 1) Avoid Targus and go with Kensington (the slots on laptops are called Kensington slots for a reason). 2) Avoid combination locks and go with a keyed lock. 3) Go with the flat key instead of the cylindrical key. The cylindrical keys/locks are easier to pick and defeat (with a Bic pen or metal shim). I can't remember the model, but I ended up spending like $40 or whatever for a Kensington cable lock with the red, flat key. If I leave my laptop at home, I literally have it cable locked to my desk 24/7 (in case of burglary), and if I travel with my laptop, I take the cable with me. And of course it's not fool-proof: the skinny cables can easily be cut with a portable angle grinder, axe, or 12" bolt cutters, but it'll deter smash-and-grab opportunistic thieves. *gets off soapbox*
  • External monitor: If you have one already, then yay. But once you go dual-monitor, you won't want to go back! I use my laptop with an external monitor and "Extend" my desktop in Windows. Makes it easy to multi-task. Notes/lecture on one screen, questions on another. YouTube on one screen, SDN on another. Blonde on one screen, brunette on the other.
  • Microsoft Office: You can often get a free or discounted copy of Office through your school.

Note: While I harped on ergonomics a lot in the above, if I had a time machine or could give advice to my younger self, it'd be to take good posture seriously. Obviously everyone's body is different, but man, I've been jacked up for the past 5+ years (I'm in my early 30's only), and an ounce of prevention trumps all the pain, stiffness, MRIs, neuropathies, and physical therapy. But I see this issue getting more prevalent as people hunch over their smartphones/tablets/laptops for hours at a time, even kids and teenagers now. And heck, I've seen my PCP and other attendings hunch over the clinical PCs to use EMR software.

Random Paternalistic Advice (lol, sorry)

  • Webcam: Cover it with a piece of electrical tape (less residue than something strong like duct tape or Scotch). All the cool people do it. This physical measure will provide the opacity that even if you are compromised, it will literally be impossible for a hacker to see you unless you take the tape off. I go a step further and disable the webcam in the BIOS +/- in Windows Device Manager. I'm planning on buying an external USB webcam if I really want to cam with people.
  • Backup Strategy: I've had so many catastrophes and data loss since like middle school. It sucks every time. Back up your stuff. Automated is best, since we're lazy humans. Look up what the "3-2-1 backup rule" is. It's something like 3 copies, 2 separate locations, 1 off-site location. What this means is basically a local backup (so maybe an external hard drive, NAS, or USB flash drives) that you keep in your house/apartment (NOT connected to your laptop at all times), and a separate, identical copy that is physically off-site, in case of natural disaster/fire/theft. So maybe another external hard drive or USB flash drive in a bank safe deposit box or parents' house or secured in the cloud (like Google Drive, CrashPlan, SpiderOak)... Is this thorough? Yes. Does this take planning and discipline to get a good backup system down? Yes. Is it overkill? No.
  • Some privacy measures. I don't want to ramble too much on security/privacy, or I'll write another 10 pages and pull an all-nighter, but suffice it to say, it's getting worse. Be it nation-state surveillance or corporate surveillance (Microsoft, Google, Apple, data brokers). With Microsoft's new CEO Satya Nadella's cloud background and with Windows 10, Microsoft has gone full ****** in telemetry/surveillance, even including things you type on the keyboard (like passwords) and other things. I'd disable everything in the Windows 10 Privacy Control Panel (such as Cortana's "Getting to Know You"), but there's 3rd party solutions that do a more thorough job, so I'd supplement with something like Spybot Anti-Beacon - free software. It's a once-and-done immunization, so it's not something that runs full-time in the background. Download it, intall it, and choose all the settings and additional options. (It's what I personally use and recommend for all versions of Windows, but there's a few other good ones.)
  • Full Disk Encryption (FDE) - I recommend considering using Full Disk Encryption for every mobile device: phones, tablets, and laptops. And any backup or portable hard drive. It's mostly to prevent someone getting your personal data if your device is lost or stolen. Choose a strong password, and memorize it/store it securely somewhere. If you lose the password, you're hosed (refer to Backup Strategy above).
  • Local vs. Microsoft Account: When you first set up your laptop, it'll make you create an account. In Windows 10, you can use your Microsoft account. I advise against doing this, for various privacy and security reasons. (Even with a lot of the preventive measures above like Spybot Anti-Beacon and turning off Privacy settings, Windows 10 is continually "phoning home" to Microsoft and other 3rd parties with telemetry/surveillance information, and it's slightly safer to not have that associated with your online Microsoft account and thus you as a person.) Make a new local account that only exists on your laptop. Even if you have a separate Microsoft account on Outlook/Live/Hotmail.
  • Authentication: I believe Windows 10 is getting cool and fancy and lets you log into your laptop with your face or with some pattern on the screen (like on a photo). I recommend using a strong password exclusively, but I realize this is not as cool or convenient as the first two options. There's a trade-off between security and convenience (inverse relationship): the more secure you want things, the less convenient it will be and vice versa. Ultimately it's your decision, but a password is the strongest compared to your face or a pattern.
  • Create a separate Admin and Standard account. This is one of the best things anyone can do on any computer (even you Mac users out there). When you first set up your machine, as above, it'll make you create an account, which will have full Administrator privilege on your computer. It's best practice to immediately create a 2nd account for yourself with "Standard" privileges and use that account every time you use your laptop. When you need to install software or make important changes, you can temporarily "elevate" your privilege to Administrator to install the app or change the setting, but it's a very bad idea to use the Admin account for normal day-to-day stuff. Reason being: both malware and hackers want the most power to take over your computer as possible, and if you are either infected with malware or hacked, the bad guy(s) will have the same privileges as whatever account you're using. So if you're already logged in as Admin, it makes the malware/hacker's job easy and they can more easily destroy you and your data. Whereas if you're logged in with your Standard account, it'll be harder to do as much damage.
  • Circadian rhythm/sleep hygiene/melatonin/cortisol cycles. I'm not a physician or other health care professional, so it's not my place to "lecture" anyone on SDN, but I'd like to pass along some really great, free apps that facilitate healthier computing habits. On Windows and Mac, download f.lux. It's free. Enable the additional color settings. This software automatically lowers your screen brightness and applies a red "filter" to the screen, reducing the blue/green frequencies of light that the sleep literature states inhibits or delays the release of melatonin. So as the sun sets according to your ZIP code, it'll automatically redden and dim your screen. And you can always adjust it as needed. On iPhone/iPad, Apple introduced something called Night Shift (I think) in iOS 9.3. The latest versions of Android has something, but most people don't have Android 6 or 7, so I personally recommend Twilight (also free). Same functionality: reddens and dims your screen for better sleep hygiene.

Anyways, that's about 3 hours of me rambling and neurotically editing this post. Apologies for the tl;dr, but I hope it gives you some food for thought, and I hope any of it benefits the SDN community as well if anyone else finds this thread. PS, please don't PM me for support/advice (it gets overwhelming) but feel free to post in this thread and the larger community can see the conversation.

Any other questions, let me know!
Sorry, I've been working 16 hour days most of this week, so I haven't been on here in a while. Thank you though! This post has some great advice and I learned quite a few things here, especially in the "parternalistic advice part". I'm a 3rd year, so I'm out of the years where I'm watching lectures or downloading a ton of powerpoints to study, but I still use it pretty regularly.

Also, I should add I'm looking for something that will be ready-to-go out of the box without much work on the hardware. I just don't trust myself enough not to break something before I even really get to use it. I'll probably PM you when I narrow it down to 2 or 3 options to make sure I'm not missing anything important.

Thanks again!
 

nadinnadin

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  • Webcam: Cover it with a piece of electrical tape (less residue than something strong like duct tape or Scotch). All the cool people do it. This physical measure will provide the opacity that even if you are compromised, it will literally be impossible for a hacker to see you unless you take the tape off. I go a step further and disable the webcam in the BIOS +/- in Windows Device Manager. I'm planning on buying an external USB webcam if I really want to cam with people.
Hi! I wanted to ask you whether you think it is a necessary thing to do. How often webcams of ordinary people are being hacked?
Thanks!
 

Master Crane

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Lenovo Yoga or X series are good options with sturdy metal build and portability. Looking at the Yoga 910 myself.
 

Stroganoff

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Hi! I wanted to ask you whether you think it is a necessary thing to do. How often webcams of ordinary people are being hacked?
Thanks!

Whoa, first post on SDN, and it was to ask me a question. I'm flattered, and welcome to the community. :)

To answer your first question on whether covering a webcam with tape is a necessary thing to do, that's a personal decision for everybody to make, so I can't make that decision for you. In security (not just computer security but home security or personal security as well), there's a concept called "defense in depth." It basically means that a layered, redundant approach provides the strongest defensive posture and best chances to protect yourself. Multiple safeguards would have to fail in order to be compromised. For example, in home defense, it goes beyond just having a fence around your property or good "locks" on your doors, but reinforcing the door itself, the door frame, the windows. It means trimming external bushes and vegetation to reduce the hiding places for burglars. It means having a home security system. It means having lights everywhere (outside your house and inside your house) to make your home look busy and lived-in. It means having a plan to have spouse and children in a safe room while you call 911 if somebody breaks in, and potentially -- as a last resort -- having a lethal means of protection (such as a firearm) should the bad people break into your safe room and try to harm you and family.

So in computer security, there's no magic bullet. (And I'm not just talking to Windows users but to everybody, Mac users alike.) Following best practices are all important to reduce the chances of both infection and hacking and any kind of attack. Specifically to the webcam, it is demonstrated that taking control of your computer is possible, and remotely turning on your webcam to spy on you and listen to you is possible and is done in the real world.
^ Nude photos were taken by hacking this woman's webcam and then used to blackmail/extort her, and the webcam light didn't even turn on.

I don't believe it's necessarily difficult, either. But people are not using their webcams 100% of the time they are at the computer. It's much less than that. The defensive posture to take is to physically obstruct the webcam (I recommend electrical tape or some kind of soft tape) to cover the webcam. It's a physical security measure that is literally impossible to defeat even if you get infected/hacked. A webcam built into a laptop, tablet, or phone is a convenience factor, and as mentioned before in the longer post, Security and Convenience are inversely proportional: the more convenience you want, the less security you have. So having a webcam built into your laptop/tablet/phone is super nice to have, but the compromise is it can be used to spy on you.

I don't ever recommend paranoia or hypervigilance or anxiety. That's not a healthy psychological state. We wear a seatbelt 100% of the time but aren't freaking out about getting into an MVA, but the seatbelt is nice to already have in place if/when that happens. I simply recommend taking practical defensive measures, and one is to physically cover one's webcam with tape as its default state: not because we're guaranteed to get infected/hacked and nude pictures taken of us, but simply taking the precaution to significantly minimize the possibility of it happening, since the damage would be too great if it does.
 

nadinnadin

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I go a step further and disable the webcam in the BIOS +/- in Windows Device Manager.
Thanks for welcoming me and making time to answer my question.:) I think I'm gonna cover my webcam with a tape!
Yeah, my first post on medical forum is about computer security.
I go a step further and disable the webcam in the BIOS +/- in Windows Device Manager.
When you do this, your camera doesn't work at all? I mean, if I wanted to do this, I couldn't skype, could I? I'd have to enable camera again and do it every time I use skype?
 

Stroganoff

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When you do this, your camera doesn't work at all? I mean, if I wanted to do this, I couldn't skype, could I? I'd have to enable camera again and do it every time I use skype?
Look at the next sentence I wrote after that:

I'm planning on buying an external USB webcam if I really want to cam with people.

With an external camera, I can physically unplug it when not in use and only plug it in when I wish to use it. This significantly reduces the attack surface and puts me in control of my devices instead of the other way around.
 

nadinnadin

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With an external camera, I can physically unplug it when not in use and only plug it in when I wish to use it. This significantly reduces the attack surface and puts me in control of my devices instead of the other way around.

Thanks! This was really helpful!
 

randybrandy

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I have HP and it works pretty well for me. Though I'm a little bit if tech idiot as well.
 
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