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For those who've subscribed to Advisorator for long enough, this week's feature topic might look familiar.

I last wrote about what to look for in a laptop back in August of 2018, addressing one of the most common questions I get from friends and family members. Instead of recommending specific laptops, the idea was to provide some guidelines that would help regardless of use case or budget.

Since then, laptops have changed a bit. And on a personal level, I've been writing laptop reviews for PCWorld since the end of 2018. That's given me a broader perspective on what really matters when buying one. With the back-to-school PC sales season approaching, here's what I've learned:

Still true: The operating system matters most. Every so often, I'll hear from a longtime Mac user who's tempted by a touchscreen Windows PC, or a Windows user who's curious about cheap Chromebooks. But as always, considering hardware first is a backwards approach. Your essential apps and features may not be available on the other platforms, and you'll have to deal with a learning curve. That's not to say switching isn't doable, but planning ahead helps.

Know your trade-offs: One thing I've realized lately is that there's no such thing as a perfect laptop. Portability, power, battery life, and design are inherently at odds with one another, so even if money is no object, you'll still have to make some tough calls based on how you'll use the machine:

  • Laptops that flip around into tablet mode, like Lenovo's Yogas and HP's Spectre x360, are nice. But they're also bulkier, heavier, and sometimes less performant than regular clamshells.
  • 4K displays look stunning, but they chew through battery life and cost much more than 1080p screens. They also don't run smoothly without some kind of discrete graphics card, further raising the price. MacBooks and Microsoft Surfaces offer a happy medium between HD and 4K, but most laptops make you choose between extremes.
  • Discrete graphics cards and high-powered processors remain mostly unheard of in laptops with 14-inch screens or smaller, which makes sense because smaller laptops can't dissipate heat as well. For gaming performance or video editing, you'll need much bigger and heavier laptop.
  • Aluminum bodies and glass-enclosed displays feel classy, but are heavier than magnesium alloys or matte displays. If you think Apple's aluminum-clad MacBook Air is the pinnacle of lightweight laptop design, you'd be wrong.

Don't overthink the processor Picking the right processor for your laptop can be a mind-numbing exercise, with Intel now offering more than a dozen mainstream CPU options, and AMD becoming a resurgent force in laptops like the HP Envy x360 and Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 5.

That said, all these options will feel pretty similar for web browsing, document editing, video conferencing, and answering emails. Even when I run benchmark tests, the big differences mostly emerge in gaming, media encoding, and battery life. If you're not a video editor or a gamer, narrow your choices down based on other factors first, then pick whatever processor fits your budget.

Brightness is underappreciated. If you'll be computing outdoors or in front of a window, a bright screen will matter more than a high-resolution one. Seek out a laptop with peak brightness in the 400-nits range, and if the vendor won't provide that info, find a review that does.

Cut advertised battery life in half. As was the case in 2018, a laptop that claims 14 hours of battery life will probably get you closer to seven due to outdated testing methodologies that wildly inflate results. Reviews usually won't give you accurate real-world estimates either, but they can provide a rough sense of how similar laptops compare. (One word of caution, though: If a review site says it tests all laptops at a specific system brightness level, disregard the results. At PCWorld, we use a light meter to test every laptop at the same brightness level, so that ones with dimmer screens don't get an unfair advantage.)

Good keyboards and trackpads cost more: I usually tell folks to test these things in person first if possible, but that's harder to recommend right now. The best I can say is that if keyboard and trackpad quality are important, you'll want to spend more to be safe. Apple's trackpads still reign, but pretty much every laptop I've tried in the $800-and-up range has been respectable, and companies like HP and Lenovo are making some of the best keyboards around right now.

Keep avoiding HDDs: Spinning hard disk drives are increasingly rare in all but the cheapest laptops and some gaming rigs, which makes sense as the cost of faster solid state hard drives has decreased. Just make sure you don't end up with an HDD by accident.

Don't worry about webcams. Laptop webcams are almost universally mediocre, thanks to the push for slimmer designs that leave less room for camera elements. While there are some exceptions, like Microsoft's Surface Go tablet, you're better off just buying an external USB webcam than basing your entire laptop purchase strategy around video calls.

Same goes for bloatware: Unfortunately, Microsoft no longer sells the bloatware-free "Signature Edition" laptops that I used to suggest buying whenever possible. The good news is that Windows 10 now has a feature called "Fresh Start," which you'll find under Windows Security > Device performance & health. Run it out of the box, and it'll wipe all the third-party antivirus software and other cruft that most PC vendors include, rendering bloatware as a non-factor in your purchase decisions.

Got questions on your own laptop purchase plans? Just reply to this email or hop into Advisorator's Slack chat room to work it out.
 

T-Mobile's scam blocking: T-Mobile is making a big to-do out of some anti-scam features that it's now offering for free. The new "Scam Shield" service includes automatic blocking of suspected scam calls, free caller ID, and a secondary phone number you can supply to untrustworthy sources. T-Mobile customers can activate scam blocking now by dialing #662#, and can activate caller ID from July 24 onward, either online or through customer service.

What T-Mobile doesn't tell you is that the FCC is requiring all carriers to block scam calls by next June. AT&T already blocks robocalls by default, and Verizon does so for Android users. Verizon also a has Call Filter app with extra controls for iOS and Android, and AT&T has a similar Call Protect app for iOS and Android. And as I mentioned a few weeks ago, you can easily set up a secondary number yourself with Google Voice.

Still, T-Mobile deserves some credit for the free caller ID offering—Verizon still charges for this service—and for being savvy enough to use an industry-wide initiative for its own marketing purposes.

More VPN shadiness: If you needed more evidence that virtual private networks have become a kind of privacy snake oil, just look to this PCMag report about how several VPNs were caught logging user traffic despite claims to have never done so. Or, perhaps, to the report I linked to last month about how some of the most popular free VPNs have hidden ownership in China.

A VPN can prevent your internet provider from collecting data on your browsing history, and can prevent websites from knowing your location. It does this by creating an encrypted connection to a separate server before routing traffic onto your intended destination. But since the VPN itself has access to your traffic, you have to trust the VPN provider more than whoever you're trying to hide from.

That's not to say VPNs are worthless for privacy, or that they don't have other uses—like pretending you're in another country to access geo-restricted content—but there are too many unscrupulous offerings out there, being peddled by websites whose only interest is in racking up an affiliate sales commission. PCMag's own review roundup is a good place to start for unbiased suggestions.

Gmail adds a Meet tab: Google has started rolling out a dedicated tab for Google Meet video conferencing in the Gmail app for iOS and Android. This will appear at the bottom of the screen, and will apply to both G Suite users and personal Gmail users. I'm not seeing it yet, but once it arrives, you'll be able to disable it by heading to Settings > Your Email Address and unchecking "Show the Meet tab for video calling."

This appears to the first step in a broader move for Gmail, which Google wants to refashion as a "new home for work." On the G Suite side, Google's putting video calls, chats, and Slack-style "Rooms" all in one place, with greater integration between them, and The Verge reports that Google is "actively thinking through how and when" to offer a similar experience to individual Gmail users. Personally, I'm happy with Gmail just being a home for Gmail.
 

Another email removal tool: Last year, I recommended Leave Me Alone as a free and easy way to find and unsubscribe from unwanted emails. While that tool is still available, it no longer offers a free tier.

Fortunately, a new tool called Unsubscriber is just as effective. Once you connect your email address, Unsubscriber identifies newsletters, marketing emails, and other email subscriptions, then lets you automatically route them to the trash. You can also choose to get a weekly digest of everything Unsubscriber deleted.

While it doesn't actually remove you from any mailing lists, Unsubscriber's auto-trash option has its advantages. It can declutter your inbox by deleting the emails you've already received, and if you ever want to start receiving emails from a certain sender again, you can revisit the Unsubscriber site and re-route the sender back to your inbox.

The business model is straightforward as well: It's offered by Polymail, a paid email service for professionals, and Unsubscriber is essentially an advertisement for that service. That helps distinguish it from Unroll.me, a similar email removal tool that harvests users' email data and sells it to marketers. Polymail says it's doing nothing of the sort.
 

Share your phone's screen in Facebook Messenger: Although I'm instinctively skeptical of most things Facebook does, the new mobile screen sharing feature for video calls in Messenger is pretty neat. During a call, swipe up on the screen, then tap Share your screen > Start sharing > Start broadcast. You can then chat with friends while showing them what you're doing in other apps. It also works on the desktop version of Messenger, via the "Share screen" button in the bottom menu. (Both people on the call must update to the latest version of Messenger for this to work.)

Why do this? Maybe you want to look at photos together, show off some of your apps, or jointly judge people on Instagram. In any case, it's a neat trick for mobile devices that I expect Facebook's competitors to copy soon enough.

Get a window to the world: For those of us who could use a change of scenery right now, Window Swap is a charming source of virtual relief. The free website lets users submit 10-minute videos of the view from their windows, complete with ambient sound from outside. Click the "Open a new window" button, and you'll be in Scotland. Click it again, and you're in Singapore. Click again, and you're in Denmark. As I write this, I've got it open on my second monitor, and it's been strangely soothing to stare at—not just for the views, but for the reminder of what we have in common.
 

If you need to add Bluetooth connectivity to your car or your home audio system, Aukey has a couple of Bluetooth receivers on sale. While I don't have these exact devices, I do have a similar receiver in my car (which lacks built-in Bluetooth connectivity) and it's served me well.

The Aukey BR-C2 ($10 with coupon code I3VJ4ULX) is the smaller of the two, designed for putting in your car. It has a 3.5mm jack and cable for plugging into a car's auxiliary audio input, and connects to your phone over Bluetooth. It charges via MicroUSB cable and has a battery for several hours of playback off the charger.

The Aukey BR-C1 ($10 with coupon code 8DRV2G5K) is larger and has a bigger battery, and it comes with both 3.5mm and RCA cables to connect to a stereo system. According to this review, it has longer range than the smaller unit as well.

Also, for those who didn't catch my deal alert email yesterday, most of those deals are still available, including Anker's Liberty Air earbuds for $30 (with code MKTCEV), Amazon's Fire HD 8 for $60, the Roku Ultra for $69, and free AirPods with any iPad Air. (If you're not currently getting deal alerts, just email me and I'll add you to the list.)
 

As always, I'm happy to answer any questions you might have on this week's newsletter, cord-cutting, or technology in general. Get in touch by replying to this email or dropping into the Advisorator chat room on Slack.

Until next week,
Jared

 

 
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