TECH QUICKIE: Which Computer Should I Buy?
We often get asked which computer you should buy when upgrading an old machine.
Firstly, as with any tool, the more you spend, the better they generally are and the longer they last. Buy once, cry once.
If you want something for dyno use, that stays in a fixed location, get a desktop PC.
If you want something more portable, we’d recommend an “ultrabook” or “thin and light” laptop as they are generally better built than anything else. That is unless your budget can stretch to a “rugged” laptop, which can be 2-4 times the cost but will survive a drop on the floor off a car roof or even an exhaust manifold dropping on it from atop a dyno cell (that happened to someone with a Toughbook). Note: cheaper, “mid-range” laptops can have inadequate shielding and in an electrically noisy environment (dyno cell), can drop out USB comms.
Regardless of what you get, you’ll want a good 5 years out of it at least so spec it well and it’ll stay relevant and useable:
All S-Series and T-Series software works fine with Windows 11. The Start Menu can be moved back over to the left easily. Windows 10 will go End Of Life in October 2025. Windows 7 went End Of Life in January 2020.
For laptops a 13″ may be too small if your eyes aren’t great but it will make it more portable. 15″ is about the best compromise but you may be a bit tight for space using one in a single-seater.
An IPS LCD is generally the best option. good viewing angles, generally bright outdoors, no issues with burn-in. OLED panels can suffer with burn-in when displaying the same thing for long periods and they’re generally not great in bright situations. Touchscreens are generally available on most decent laptops but can be a pain. They can easily be disabled in the device manager BUT touchscreens generally come with a glossy finish which makes them annoying to use in bright environments.
1080p is plenty for a 13-15″ laptop. 1440p at a push but no higher. The higher the screen resolution, the more battery will be used because the laptop uses more power to drive the display. older applications can also have issues with very high resolution displays (i.e. 4k) on smaller screens because when they were made, high DPI (dots per inch) counts were not a thing. On a desktop, 4k should be fine so long as your screens are big enough (27″+) but generally, 1080p is just right.
Processor (2022 on)
For Intel, 11th or 12th Gen Core i5 or i7 should do nicely unless you do CFD stuff and then i9 might be better. Avoid i3. For AMD, you’ll want a 5000 series Ryzen 5 or 7 (Zen 4).
16GB at a minimum. 8GB gets used up way too quickly these days.
256GB SSD at a minimum, ideally a 512GB.
For a laptop, be careful here. The trend toward minimalism is getting worse. Some top-end laptops now only come with a USB-C port which requires an adapter to provide full-size USB-A ports, SD card slots, Ethernet etc. However, adapters/hubs/dongles can be useful to have anyway so if you’re happy to carry one, don’t let it put you off.
Higher end laptops generally have excellent battery life despite their compact size and also have better charging circuitry to allow them to charge quicker.
We’re big fans of the Dell XPS here, both at home and at work. Extremely well built and durable (Mr. C’s XPS 15 survived a bit of crushing by a 2-post lift). The XPS 15 is a little large for in-car work (especially in a tight single-seater). If your eyes are up to it, the XPS 13 is excellent. Alternatives to consider would be the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Extreme or Carbon, HP Spectre, Asus Zenbook, Razr Blade, Fujitsu Lifebook, LG Gram. However, spend a bit of time reading reviews and ideally check forums/reddit for any reliability issues. A lot of reviewers only use them for a week or so and then to ensure they get more stuff to review, gloss over minor niggles which may actually be deal breakers for you.
Rugged Laptop Recommendations
Panasonic Toughbook or Dell Latitude Rugged.
If you’re out with the laptop a lot, a decent case is vital. We use a Thule Gauntlet and it’s been great.
Dell or HP with the above minimum specs. Avoid SFF (small form factor) units unless you really have to as they are not easily upgraded to add extra items (i.e. a big storage disk or a PCI-E serial port).
Where to Buy?
If you can find the laptop you want in a shop, go and have a play with it. Is it sturdy enough? Does the hinge wobble? What’s the screen like for glare? Don’t buy in-store though. Buy online, with a credit (not debit) card. If you buy in-store, you’ll struggle to get your money back if you don’t like it. Price comparison sites like PriceSpy and PriceRunner can often find you the cheapest price.