Laptop buying guide for poker players
A while back I wrote a pretty comprehensive and lengthy post about computer security (which I will update soon or make a new version) because a lot of people have asked me about it over the years. I’ve found that a lot of my poker playing friends and a lot of PokerVT members ask for laptop suggestions, so here’s another lengthy post with a lot of details on the subject.
Because prices and deals change I’m not going to talk about specific models or parts too much but rather about manufacturers, stores, and specs you should be aware of.
The hardest part of buying a laptop is finding one with an appropriate screen size and resolution with decent performance for the right price. Keep in mind that a laptop is generally going to be more expensive than a desktop with similar specs. The first thing you need to ask yourself is if you’re going to be moving the laptop around a lot. Smaller laptops are better for portability, but larger “desktop replacement” laptops that have screens of 17″ and up are the best for poker. One option, as well, is to hook a larger monitor up to a laptop to use both screens, or just the monitor screen for tables and the laptop screen for lobbies and other things.
A lot has been said about laptop manufacturer reliability, and you can certainly find a lot of studies. I’d suggest checking out some like this and making your own decision. If someone tries to give you advice like “Don’t buy X brand because I had one and it broke after a month!” you should just immediately disregard everything they say. Yes, everything has a certain failure rate, and some makers are better than others, but the differences are usually small enough to be meaningless. In the linked article above you see a 2 year failure rate of 10% for the best maker vs 16% for the worst. If you’re saving several hundred dollars or getting exactly what specs you want in a laptop by taking a slightly higher failure rate then it’s probably worth it.
Screen size and resolution: This should be the first thing you look for. If you want to play up to 12 tables with no overlap then you’re going to need a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels (also called 1080i, 1080p, or Full HD), although slightly larger 1920×1200 (WUXGA) resolutions are also available (this will give you some space for your taskbar and such). Most of the time you will need to get a 16″ or larger screen in order to find resolutions this high, althoughI feel like such high resolutions on a 16″ screen make everything too tiny and I would go for 17″ at a minimum.
Screen coating: Glossy displays are more expensive, brighter, better looking, and easier on the eyes for most situations. This can be a matter of personal preference though, but personally I wouldn’t even consider getting a laptop without a glossy screen.
Processor: Honestly if all you’re doing is playing poker, browsing the web, running stuff like PT3 or HEM and other related poker software, this doesn’t matter a great deal although I would strongly suggest going with at least an Intel Core i5. i5 is the sweet spot right now in terms of price and performance and has been for all of 2010. If you end up getting a great deal on the slightly worse i3, that’s OK, but stay away from AMD Athlon. Not only does it have considerably worse performance, but if you find an Athlon as a component in another laptop then it’s a budget laptop, will have worse overall specs, and can run into some overheating issues because of sub-par builds.
Operating system: Windows 7 Home Premium should be the standard option for most laptops. If you have an option to get Professional or Ultimate, don’t. The only relatively useful feature is in Ultimate which has BitLocker drive encryption, however you can do the same thing for free with TrueCrypt, which I mention in my security post. If, for whatever reason, you decide you do need one of the more expensive versions you can activate it online and unlock the features without doing anything complicated like reinstalling.
RAM (memory): Because laptops ship with Windows 7 now, the base recommended RAM is 4 GB. I would suggest going with 6 or 8 GB however. Increasing the RAM allows more stuff to stay in memory which means it won’t have to be swapped out to the disk as much. Not only does this increase speed but it reduces temperature and puts less strain on your hard drive. If you can’t configure your laptop online or if you can and it would be prohibitively expensive then you can always buy some RAM cheaply and install it yourself. Laptop memory is extremely easy to install as you can see in this video and is one of those things that even someone with no computer experience could do.
Video card: Budget laptops will frequently only use on-board/integrated video, and unless you play a lot of the most recent PC games out there this is fine, however there are two concerns for poker players. First is if you actually find a laptop with integrated video the other specs probably aren’t going to be to your satisfaction, and secondly if you do get one with integrated video then it won’t have useful video outputs, like DVI and/or HDMI, for a second monitor. Trying to drive a decent monitor using USB or VGA and a VGA to DVI adapter is not going to be pretty. Things like RAM or manufacturer don’t matter much, although NVIDIA is slightly better than ATI in general.
Hard drive: You actually have some options here aside from just picking a size that’s useful for you. If you’re willing to pay a bit extra you can get a system with two drives in it that will do RAID 1 (mirroring), so if one drive fails you still have your data. Slightly higher price, very slightly lower performance, but greatly increased reliability. You should be backing up important stuff anyway and unless this laptop will be the computer you use for absolutely everything then I would not suggest upgrading. Very few makers will offer this option, and if they do it will only be on a handful of laptops.
The other option you may have is getting a SSD (solid-state drive). Basically think of it like a big USB flash stick in place of your hard drive. These are quite expensive though. A standard 400GB laptop drive is only $40, but a 256GB SSD costs over $400. The performance increase is very noticable though. The hard drive is usually the bottleneck of a system and SSD drives are MUCH faster than a HDD. This means faster bootups, faster application launches, better application performance, and better overall system performance. SSDs are also less susceptible to damage from drops since there are no moving parts like a HDD. Because of the prohibitively high price, however, I would not suggest getting a SSD. The price is usually only going to be right if you get a very small drive, and then you will likely only use the computer for poker because the small drive will limit it’s usefulness for other stuff, so then you don’t really need the performance.
Warranty and protection plans: Many companies will offer you extended warranties and protection plans. I’m a big fan of things like accidental damage protection. It’s the most expensive option, but basically if anything ever goes wrong whether you did it or not they’ll fix it, replace it, or give you a newer model if they don’t have the parts/model available. If you travel with the laptop a lot you will definitely want this, but even if you don’t travel, just regular usage over years will cause minor problems like case cracking, dead pixels, power connector becoming loose, RAM or a HDD dying, etc. If you are spending around $1k or more on a laptop it is a good idea to spend $200 or so to get a 3 or 4 year plan. I’ve found most people tend to replace laptops in about 2-3 years, in part to get the latest and greatest, but also in part to get something that doesn’t have a few things broken on it.
Other stuff: Speakers are not a major concern on laptops, none of them will sound fine and it’s easy enough to hook them up to a cheap system that sounds decent if you are so inclined. Laptops ship with DVD burners as standard, but some may have Blu-Ray. If you have the option then you shouldn’t pay extra for Blu-Ray if you won’t use it, obviously. Every laptop has wireless included so you don’t need to worry about that. If there’s an upgrade for something like 802.11n don’t bother with it.
Getting the best deal
As far as manufacturers and places to shop go, you should be aware of what companies will allow you to configure your laptop and which won’t. Configured laptops are generally more expensive than pre-made models, but you will be able to get exactly what you want rather than compromising on certain specs. Dell, HP, Sony, Lenovo, and Toshiba all allow you to configure laptops on their website. Asus, Acer, and Gateway do not.
Whether you are going to buy a pre-made laptop or configure one yourself, be aware you can frequently get up to 5% cash back and find all available coupons and sales for stores at FatWallet. Also be sure to check out TechBargains. If you’d like to peruse a good selection of pre-made laptops that will have decent prices, check out Newegg or Amazon. For individual parts (like RAM) check out Pricewatch and for anything related to cables or adapters check out Monoprice.
So, after all this I feel like I should share some of my personal experiences and feelings on the matter. 10 years ago I felt like Dell was definitely the best but lately I’ve liked HP and Sony a lot more. I have put my Vaio through hell and it’s held up remarkably well after 2 years, though the only reason I bought it was because Sony has a nice program where you can get a discount by trading in old laptops, even if they are broken, and at certain times they even give you an extra $100 on top of that. In terms of value for money I feel like HP is the best, though. When you compare HP to Dell, for instance, you will frequently be able to get equal or better specs all around and for $100-$200 less.
The pre-made laptops are really starting to catch up, though, especially if you aren’t picky. As a plus, because you don’t have to get someone to make it you will get it a lot faster than the 2-3 weeks it takes for a place like Dell or HP to deliver.