[Misc] Picking A Laptop

Posted on November 5, 2011

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Taken from Razer's image gallery

My laptop is over four years old.  Though I respect its valiant efforts to break 15 fps in League of Legends and run World of Warcraft at minimum settings, it’s almost time to turn it off for good.  Or, if I can’t get someone to sell me a laptop without Windows, time for it to become a blogging station/external hard drive with screen and peripherals.  It’s also not the laptop pictured above, which hasn’t been officially released by Razer yet.

The problem I now face is one  endemic to the general population: I have little idea what all these numbers and parts mean on their own.  Join me as I venture into the internet to seek advice.

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The laptop I’m looking at is a customized HP Pavilion dv7t.  Below is a screenshot of the features I’ve chosen, for a total of $975.  We’ll go through the most important features one-by-one.

Excerpt from HP's dv7t customization page

I’ll start by saying that the information I found was through searches of google and wikipedia, with frequent hits from various Windows FAQs and especially Notebook Check, a site with comprehensive specs and benchmark test results for laptop CPUs (processors) and GPUs (graphics cards + onboard graphics).

Excerpt from Windows 7 desktop image

Operating System: Genuine Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit

Ignore the “Genuine”.  We can divide the statement into Windows, 7, Home Premium, and 64-bit.

Windows is Microsoft’s operating system and is dominant in the operating system market.  Other major players are Apple, which offers the Mac OS X family, and Linux, a free open-source OS.  The advantage is, of course, that Linux is free, while the disadvantage is a lack of compatibility with many applications.  World of Warcraft runs only on Windows or Mac operating systems, while League of Legends is currently Windows-only.

Windows 7 is the current line of Windows, preceded by Windows Vista and to be succeeded by Windows 8.  At this point in time, Windows 7 is the “default” Windows OS, meaning if you see a Windows download, it’ll run on Win7.  Compatibility with Windows Vista is still very much the norm as well, and it’s also common to see programs work with Windows XP, the OS that came before Vista.

Home Premium is one of six different editions of Windows 7.  Two of these are pre-installs (Starter and Home Basic) which Microsoft encourages buyers to upgrade, while another isn’t available to home consumers (Enterprise).  The ‘baseline’ edition is Home Premium, which comes with features that the general public would have an interest in, such as a media center and full control over appearance options.  One step higher is Professional, which additionally has features that would be useful on a “work laptop”, including the ability to participate on a Windows Server and to enter a ‘presentation mode’.  Finally we have Ultimate, which is the consumer-available version of Enterprise, adding functionality for large organizations such as government offices.

64-bit describes how the operating system tells the laptop’s processor to do its job.  The alternative is 32-bit.  As you may have guessed, 64-bit systems are faster than 32-bit.  They also carry the advantage of supporting more RAM.  Each of the Windows 7 editions listed above support 4GB of RAM on a 32-bit system, while on 64-bit, Home Premium supports 16 GB and Professional and Ultimate support an unfathomable 192 GB.  A word of caution against 32-bit systems: I’ve read that for compatibility purposes, Windows sets aside RAM for things which might or might not be present, leaving the user with only 3.12 available, regardless of what System Properties or the Windows Experience Index say.  All said, Microsoft is pushing for 64-bit to become the new standard and based on what I’ve seen shopping around, they’re doing a good job.  Relevant to my uses, neither World of Warcraft and League of Legends have 64-bit releases.

Taken from notebookcheck.net

Processor: Intel i5-2430M

The components are “Intel”, “i5-2XXXM”, and “430”.  Confused about how I divided the last two?  Read on.

Intel is one of two major competitors in the processor market, the other being AMD, and there is no definitive answer regarding which is better, since both companies offer a range of products whose performance can be easily hampered by other parts of the computer.  We’ll leave this alone, since I’m still not a computer guru.  I will, however, say that Intel tends to be a bit more expensive since like Microsoft it’s got a bigger hold of the market.

i5-2XXXM is one of three options in its line of Intel processors.  The other two are i3-2XXXM and i7-2XXXM.  The ‘-2’ designation distinguishes these “Sandy Bridge” (I didn’t name them) processors from their predecessors, the original i3, i5, and i7 “Nehalem” processors.  The “M” indicates that the processor is for mobile systems (laptops).  Sandy Bridge units are faster, use less energy, and notably include integrated graphics processing units when compared to their Nehalem predecessors.  Unfortunately for gamers, dedicated graphics cards always outperform integrated GPUs, so there’s no cost-cutting to be had here.

All three sets of mobile Sandy Bridge processors include hyperthreading, which doubles the number of cores the computer sees.  The i3 and i5 both use two physical cores (4 virtual) while the i7 is a quad core, meaning a computer will treat it as having 8 cores.  More cores are better, as it lets your computer run more and more processes while still giving each its “full” attention, but very few programs make use of more than a couple cores, regardless of how many are present.  World of Warcraft is designed for two cores, but can minimally utilize a third.

The i5 and i7 sets also include Turbo Boost, which automatically overclocks your CPU when the computer needs it.  This boost is significant – it accounts for over half a GHz, when the highest base clock speed of any of the Sandy Bridge processors is 2.7 GHz.  The other big difference is the size of the L3 cache.  This is a small chunk of memory the CPU uses to store copies of data from frequently-used locations, significantly reducing the time it takes to execute processes that need that information.  The i3 and i5 lines both implement 3MB cache, while the i7 features larger caches ranging from 6 to 8MB.  The larger cache of the i7 set is a further performance boost above the higher clock speeds for regular activities.

430 distinguishes this particular i5 from other i5 processors.  The main difference within a mobile set is simply clock speed, usually increasing in steps of 100 MHz, or 0.1 GHz.  In the i7 series, the higher numbers also come with the higher L3 caches.  The 2430 runs at 2.4 GHz base, while the 2410 runs at 2.3 and the 2450 runs at 2.5, all three of which gain a 0.6 GHz boost with Turbo Boost.  There are two additional units: the 2520  also at 2.5 GHz and the 2540 at 2.6 GHz, but both boast a higher 0.7 GHz boost.  Every model is 64-bit compatible, but I did notice that Notebook Check and Intel’s own site listed varying max memory sizes.  For the 2430, Notebook Check listed 8GB while Intel lists 16GB.  Intel notes that this capacity is dependent upon memory type, but the point to take away is that CPUs have their own memory restrictions in addition to OS restrictions.

Taken from notebookcheck.net

Graphics Card: 1GB Radeon HD 6770M GDDR5

1 GB tells us the amount of onboard memory the graphics card has.  Like the CPU, the GPU works faster when it accesses information stored in its own memory.  1 GB is quite a lot: online anecdotal reports say that there won’t be a noticeable difference between 1 or 2 GB until you exceed 1920×1080, which is only possible on the absolute largest of large laptop screens (18.4″ if Newegg is comprehensive).

(AMD) Radeon HD is the name of the product line.  Like the OS and CPU, graphics products are dominated by two competitors: nVidia and AMD.  Shoppers will also see ATI-branded products: AMD bought ATI back in 2006, so they’re actually the same thing.  Fortunately they’re easily confused anyway, since they’re both 3 letters long and begin with A.  Between nVidia and AMD, the impression I got from the internet is that nVidia focuses more on proprietary drivers – drivers which can’t be examined or substituted by open-source developers.

6770M: The model number.  Again, the M stands for mobile.  According to Netbook Check’s GPU comparison, the 6770M is at the lower end of the best class of mobile cards.

GDDR5: The full terminology is GDDR5 SGRAM, short for “Graphics Double Data Rate, version 5, Synchronous Graphics Random Access Memory”.  This designates the speed at which the graphics card can access memory.  GDDR5 is twice as fast as GDDR3.  This ties directly in with the following unlisted spec:

128 bit Memory Bus Width: This indicates how much information the graphics card can take in one hit.  Even for a laptop, 128 is “eh”: the top-line mobile cards have 256- or 192-bit widths.   Mathematically, since GDDR5 is twice as fast as GDDR3, this means that a 128-bit GDDR5 card should have the same performance as a 256-bit GDDR3 card.  The GDDR5 processes half-sized chunks of data twice as fast.

Taken from modreactor.com

Memory: 6GB DDR3 (2 Dimm)

For the record, I have no idea if Ripjaws is the actual brand of RAM in this laptop, though I would bet ten of these laptops that it isn’t.  Ripjaws is, however, a very popular brand of RAM for gamers who build their own machines.

6 GB: 6 GB is a nice amount for a laptop.  This is already beyond the capabilities of a 32-bit OS.  According to Blizzard, the bare minimum required to play World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is 1 GB, with a recommendation for 2.  6 is definitely sufficient.

DDR3: The same as GDDR3, except not for graphics.  DDR3 is currently top-of-the-line, with DDR4 in development and DDR5 not even on the table.  DDR3 is the industry standard.

2 Dimm: This means that the volume of memory is divided into two “Dual In-line Memory Modules”, or in layman’s terms, sticks.  The “dual” comes from the fact that the metal contacts on one side of the stick aren’t connected to their mirrors on the other side, so compared to now-obsolete SIMM (Single In-line Memory Module) sticks, DIMMs have twice as many pathways and are therefore up to twice as fast.  For the same volume of memory, a 2-Dimm combination will have twice as many pathways as a 1-Dimm, but you are of course using two sticks instead of one, meaning you can’t use the second slot to increase your RAM later on.  Unless you’re custom-assembling your own laptop, this isn’t an issue.  I don’t know of anyone with a Dell/HP/Compaq/etcetera who’s sent in their laptop to expand their RAM.

Taken from techfuels.com

Hard Drive: 640GB 5400 RPM

640 GB: The size of hard drives varies wildly these days.  Popular laptops from major manufacturers can range from under 250GB to over 1000GB (1 Terabyte).  I personally don’t have more than a handful of GBs of media, so I’d downgrade if it saved me any money.

5400 RPM: In a laptop, the two common options are 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM, RPM standing for Revolutions Per Minute.  Looking at things myopically, higher RPMs are better because the computer can access/record information that much faster.  The faster spin, however, creates two problems that are especially dangerous for laptops: shorter battery life and hotter temperatures.  These can both be mitigated: keep your laptop plugged in whenever possible and always make sure it’s well-ventilated.  For games especially, the higher RPM is very beneficial.  Both League of Legends and World of Warcraft make extensive use of the hard drive: the huge client and patch files are filled with maps, textures, tooltips, and more that are called from the hard drive during online play.

You might also see hard drives without any RPM indication – instead, you’ll see “SSD”, which stands for Solid State Drive.  Solid State Drives have no moving parts, which means they’re silent, generate less heat, use less power, and are also lightning fast.  Defragmenting them actually makes them die faster since moving data around doesn’t affect anything because the drive doesn’t need to spin to access a particular point of storage.  They’re also, unfortunately, laughably more expensive than traditional HDD (Hard Disk Drive) storage and haven’t reached near the same capacity levels.  For example, Newegg lists one 1 TB SSD for $500 and seven 3 TB HDDs ranging from $260 to $430.

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Conclusion

There are a few places where this setup isn’t absolutely ideal, most importantly the graphics card, which would be a lot better if it were sitting at a 192 or 256 Memory Bus Width.  The HDD would be better suited to gaming if it were running at 7200 RPM rather than 5400.  The other easy money sinks are things that games don’t utilize as much as companies want you to believe – I don’t need an i7 CPU and I don’t need a bigger HDD, and this would be true even if I were considering a desktop.

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Disclaimer: I am not being paid or compensated by HP for using their product as a reference point for my research and statements.  The product I have featured below, including all customization options, is openly available on HP’s website.  Nor am I being paid or compensated by any of the companies who own the products whose images I have included in this post (from top: Razer Blade computer (Razer), Windows 7 install screen (Microsoft), Intel i5 logo (Intel), Radeon Graphics logo (AMD), Ripjaws RAM (G. Skill), Barracuda 1TB HDD (Seagate)).

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Posted in: Misc