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Issue #7: What to look for (and avoid) in a laptop

Plus: Wake up with music, do more with voice assistants, and get a $10 smart plug

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One of the tech questions I get most from friends and family is also one of the trickiest to answer: What laptop should I buy? Unlike smartphones or streaming boxes, in which a few clear candidates exist in every budget, laptops present a seemingly endless number of choices.

So instead of just recommending specific laptops, I like to offer some guidelines. In the spirit of back to school shopping--during which many retailers sell laptops at a discount--here's how to find the right laptop for you:

Pick your operating system first. While it may be tempting to switch from Mac to Windows or vice versa based on what hardware they offer, you first need to figure out whether that's even feasible. Consider the apps, software, and operating system features you rely on, and investigate whether they're available on other platforms. If the answer is no, your frustration might cancel out whatever neat hardware features you gained by switching.

Portability or power: You can't have both. Let's use the MacBook Pro as an example. Apple's 15-inch model has a larger screen than the baseline 13-inch model, and it comes standard with a discrete graphics card for gaming or video editing. But it's also a pound heavier and won't fit into smaller bags. If spend significant time with a laptop bag over your shoulder, consider getting a laptop that weights three pounds or less--even if it means sacrificing some performance.

Buy Windows PCs from the Microsoft Store, if possible. Unlike the PCs you get from Best Buy or direct from laptop makers, the Microsoft Store's "Signature Edition" computers don't come with any "bloatware," like antivirus software you don't need or games you'll never play. That means your computer will be faster, longer-lasting on battery power, and generally less annoying to use. These PCs are available from both Microsoft's online and brick-and-mortar stores. (If you must forgo the Microsoft Store, PC Decrapifier can help remove bloat from your computer later.)

Beware of bogus battery life claims No one likes using a laptop while tethered to a charger, which is why most laptop makers puff up their battery life claims. (A common way to goose the numbers: Test an unlikely usage scenario that doesn't actually use much battery life, such as looping a video file while disconnected from the internet.) For Windows laptops, a good rule of thumb is to cut advertised battery life in half for a more realistic estimate of real-world use. (Credit where it's due to Apple, whose battery life estimates often line up with what reviewers experience.)

It's 2018, use SSD storage. In general, I advise against buying a laptop with a mechanical hard drive. Compared to solid state storage, hard disk drives are noisier, more prone to failure, and--most importantly--slower. Solid state drives are well worth the trade-off of getting less storage space for your money, especially now that so much computing happens through cloud-based services that don't use any of your storage space.

Watch out for old models: While perusing some current laptop deals, I noticed that some retailers are still selling laptops that are more than a year old, but not always making that obvious to buyers. Intel is currently on the 8th generation of its popular Core processors, so anything lower is likely outdated. While buying an older laptop is a fine way to save money, you'll give up some battery life, performance, and any feature refinements the laptop maker has implemented from one year to the next. Just make sure you know what you're getting.

Use the laptop in person, if possible. While you can tell a lot about a laptop from its spec sheet, hands-on time is the best way to judge the intangibles, like the smoothness of its trackpad, the comfiness of its keyboard, and the viewing angles of its display. These are things you'll notice every minute of every day that you use your laptop, and they should not be overlooked.

I'll highlight a few noteworthy deals later in this newsletter. And if you have any other questions, don't hesitate to reach out.


Tip of the moment

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Obscura 2 is an iPhone camera app that gives you fine control over settings like exposure and shutter speed. Normally it costs $5, but you can download it for free by jumping through some extra hoops:

Make sure you're running iOS 11, then download and open the Apple Store app (not the App Store, which is a different app). Select the "Discover" tab, then scroll down to where Obscura 2 is listed as the Featured App. Press "Download now for free," then "Continue." On the "Redeem your gift card" screen, hit "Redeem" in the top-right corner.

The app is iPhone-only for now, but an iPad-optimized version is coming soon, and you can lock in the free download on both devices in the meantime.


Need to know

Spotify's wake-up calls: Google added a neat feature to its Clock app on Android phones last week, letting users stream music from Spotify. To enable this, make sure you've installed Spotify and are using Google's official Clock app. Tap on the sound you've chosen for any alarm, then select the Spotify tab and follow the prompts to connect your account. You can wake up to any Spotify playlist for free, though you'll need to be a subscriber to play specific songs.

There's no word on whether Spotify and Apple might work together on a similar feature, but you an at least connect the iPhone's Clock app with Apple Music instead.

More on the voice assistant wars: Amazon Alexa and Google Home continue to add more features at a rapid clip as they try to outdo one another. On the Amazon side, you can now tweak the audio settings of Echo speakers through the Alexa app. (Head to Settings, choose your device, select Sounds, then tap Equalizer.) Amazon also added an accessibility feature to the Echo Show that puts handy shortcut buttons on the screen.

As for Google, the big news last week was the launch of Smart Displays, starting with a pair of devices from Lenovo. They're similar to Amazon's Echo Show, in that they offer visual responses to questions, but the killer feature is Google Photos integration, which lets you set any album as a slideshow on the home screen. It's like a digital photo frame, but much easier to use and with a bunch of extra music, video, and smart home control features on top. Lenovo's selling the 7-inch model for $200, and the 10-inch model for $250.

Google also added the ability to schedule multi-step routines through the Google Home app. So if you want to turn on the lights, crank up the thermostat, and play music in the morning, you can schedule a time instead of having to say, "Hey Google, good morning."

Around the web


Spend wisely

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If you already own an Amazon Echo speaker, you can grab a TP-Link smart plug or LIFX Wi-Fi bulb to control with it for just $10. Just add the item to your cart, then enter the code "SMART10" at checkout. (The discount only appliesfor existing Echo owners.) With a smart plug, you can automate any home appliance would normally activate when it's plugged into an outlet, such as lamps, humidifiers, or certain coffee machines. I wrote all about smart bulbs in last week's newsletter.

I also want to point out some sources of back to school laptop deals:

An Advisorator update

Thanks to all of you, Advisorator now has enough paid subscribers to justify the time I'm putting into it at the expense of my other work. Still, I'd love to invest even more time and make it even better. To that end, I could use your help on a couple of fronts:

This time, let's try holding the live chat session on Wednesday night, August 8, at 9 p.m. Eastern time. Use this link to join, and click here to get a reminder email before the session begins.

Catch you in a couple weeks,

Jared


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