Notebook Purchasing Guide
Revised May 1, 2013
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.
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.
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.
Examples of these notebooks are the 11 to 13-inch Ivy Bridge-based versions of the Apple MacBook Air, Apple MacBook Pro, 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.
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.
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. Users with modest needs may choose to investigate netbooks, but should be mindful of their significant limitations.
General Notebook Observations
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.
Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (32-bit and 64-bit Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions) is supported and recommended for all new systems excapt 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 7 Service Pack 1 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.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org; 573-3567).
Information Systems and Computing
University of Pennsylvania
Comments & Questions