By now, you’re almost certainly familiar with Black Friday: it’s a day (and following weekend) which sees some massively tempting discounts applied to all manner of technology and gadgets.
And naturally that includes Windows laptops (or those running other operating systems, which we’ll touch on briefly here, too). Indeed, expensive pieces of hardware, particularly premium notebooks, can often see chunky discounts applied, with retailers hoping that knocking a chunk off the price tag will help to pull in would-be buyers (who will also look at all their other products and offers).
Obviously, given these major discounts, this is a fantastic time to buy a new notebook, but equally, you need to tread carefully. That’s because hidden among the gems of deals are also sneaky offers which might not be nearly as good as they seem at face value.
For example, you may find retailers trying to flog off old laptops with ageing hardware innards – or weak models which are just plain badly configured in the first place – as apparent ‘bargains’.
Of course, we’ll be highlighting all the best laptop deals on TechRadar as they emerge on the day, but you might need some advice on how to pick out the best notebook for your specific needs. You might also spot other potential deals yourself, and want the knowhow to be able to weed out those discounts which are really duff deals, and be assured that you’re getting a genuine bargain.
And that’s exactly the knowledge we’re going to equip you with in this Black Friday primer for notebook bargain hunters.
The features to look out for
So what should you be looking for in any purchase of a Windows laptop?
First of all, bear the brand name in mind. On the one hand, something like Microsoft’s Surface Book is very expensive, and you can easily get a much cheaper 2-in-1 laptop by shopping around (particularly with a good deal).
But on the other hand, it could be unwise to take a leap in the dark, and buy a cheap purported ‘bargain’ from a completely unknown brand. In other words, exercise a good degree of caution when mulling over purchasing a notebook called something like the ‘CubeMaestro FireSpark 5000GT’.
In the long run, from a quality (and tech support) point of view, it’s safest to buy from an established PC manufacturer. By that, we mean the likes of Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo or indeed Microsoft – in other words, the common names you’ve heard of.
Of course, our extensive library of laptop reviews is always handy for helping to suss out the best brands and models.
Sizing things up
You need to consider the overall size of the machine. Do you want a 13-inch, 14-inch, 15-inch or 17-inch laptop? (There are also slightly smaller and larger laptops out there, but these are the most common sizes).
Smaller notebooks are obviously more portable, and generally speaking can be cheaper. Larger models offer a bigger screen, as the size of the chassis dictates the size of the display, obviously enough. More space inside generally means more powerful components can potentially be fitted, and a bigger battery (and full-size keyboard).
If you intend to carry the machine around with you a lot, then a more svelte, compact notebook which is lighter (at least less than 2kg, ideally less than 1.5kg, and indeed the closer to 1kg, the better) is likely to be a good move in the long run.
In terms of performance, the most important considerations are to ensure you’re getting solid core components inside the machine. We’re talking about the processor, system memory, storage, and to a lesser extent – depending on whether you’re looking for a gaming machine – the graphics subsystem.
Starting with the processor, the majority of CPUs you’ll see will be made by Intel, and the Core i5 model is a decently beefy choice. Core i7 models are the top-end, but most folks won’t need that sort of power (unless you’re into serious gaming, video editing or other heavyweight tasks). Indeed, the entry-level Core i3 is a fine choice for a budget machine that won’t be used for anything particularly taxing.
To confuse matters a little more with Intel’s mobile processors designed for notebooks, these also carry a letter (or two) in the name to indicate the product range and target market. For solid performance in everyday use, look for a ‘U’ model, such as the Core i5-7200U (a very commonly used mid-range processor).
There are also ‘HQ’ or ‘HK’ processors (for example, Core i7-7920HQ), which are speedier models (again for gamers and heavyweight usage). And there are also ‘Y’ models which can run without a fan to cool them, and thus fit into very slim laptops. But there is a trade-off here and that’s worse performance – an example is the Core m3-7Y30. Note that the Y series chips feature ‘Core m’ models (m3/m5/m7), which you can simply think of as another way of labelling these as slower CPUs.
Further note that the first number in the processor-specific model code – ‘7Y30’ in the case of the one we’ve just mentioned – refers to the generation of the CPU. An ‘8’ means the processor is part of Intel’s latest 8th-generation, and a ‘7’ (as present in our example) denotes Kaby Lake, with a ‘6’ referring to Skylake. Any CPU older than that points to a retailer flogging off a venerable old notebook, so be warned.
At the very bottom of Intel’s processor pile, there are Atom, Pentium and Celeron CPUs. These offer the lowest levels of performance, although you can get by with a Pentium or Celeron in a budget machine. Intel Atom processors are generally found in the truly bargain basement portables, and really, they aren’t ideal for keeping things running smoothly as a result. You’ll manage okay for, say, basic web surfing, but overall this may be a compromise too far for many folks.
An alternative to Intel is an AMD APU, an Accelerated Processing Unit which consists of a CPU combined with a GPU (graphics accelerator) on the same chip. These are a budget alternative used in some notebooks, but don’t expect any great shakes in the performance stakes. AMD’s soon-to-arrive Ryzen mobile CPUs may well change this picture considerably, though.
To sum up: for solid performance, you’re looking for a Core i5-xxxxU (where ‘xxxx’ is the specific model number of the processor), but if you want a super-slim notebook, it’ll likely have a ‘Y’ model. If you’re looking at the budget end of the market, a Pentium or Celeron CPU is just fine, and indeed often par for the course – and an Atom can still do a serviceable job in a pinch, but set your expectations suitably low.
Moving on to system RAM, ideally you want 4GB, if not 8GB for future-proofing (and certainly that much for gaming). Some cheaper budget laptops may still run with 2GB, but that really isn’t enough to get a decently responsive experience out of Windows 10 (even though it’s technically within the system requirements). You may see the speed of the RAM quoted in MHz, but don’t worry too much about that; it’s the quantity which is the real defining factor in terms of performance.
When it comes to storage, many laptops will use an SSD (solid-state drive) these days, which means very responsive performance (apps will load extremely quickly). Some cheaper laptops will have eMMC drives which use flash memory just like an SSD, but they’re considerably slower. Bear that in mind if you want optimal performance.
eMMC is an effective way for laptop manufacturers to cut corners and costs, which is exactly why budget notebooks often use the stuff. This is often a worthwhile compromise to make to save some dough, as these drives are still faster than a traditional hard disk (if only slightly in some cases – but performance of any drive can vary quite widely depending on the exact model and manufacturer).
A traditional hard drive (often referred to as an HDD, or hard disk drive) is the slowest storage medium, but the strong suit here is that you can get far bigger capacity drives (like 1TB) even in budget machines. A speed in RPM may be quoted with a hard drive, and the faster ones run at 7200 RPM, with slower drives pitched at 5400 RPM. The latter may be rather sluggish, as a rule of thumb, but once again, bear in mind that as with SSDs, performance will vary across individual drives.
Reviews are your friend here, so don’t be afraid to Google a particular model and look for an evaluation or two (and again, you can check out TechRadar’s review section).
Graphics and display
Most laptops will have integrated graphics, meaning the GPU is built into the CPU, and as a result performance is always pretty limited. With integrated graphics – referred to as Intel HD Graphics, or Intel Iris, when it comes to Intel processors – you’ll be able to play casual games, but nothing more. And that’ll be fine for the majority of laptop users.
However, those who want to tackle some proper gaming on their laptop will need what’s known as a discrete GPU, which is just another way of saying a graphics solution that is separate from the processor. As an example, the GeForce MX150 is Nvidia’s current (Pascal-based) entry-level mobile GPU, but you may well need to fork out for something with more oomph than that (for example, a GeForce GTX 1060, although things quickly get expensive with the more powerful GPUs).
A quick word on the screen: many laptops will offer a Full HD display these days, which is a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080. However, towards the budget end of the market, you’ll still find plenty of machines with a resolution of 1,366 x 768 pixels, and that’s still fine, particularly with a smaller screen (like a 13-inch model). Indeed, a lower resolution can be a benefit of sorts for a lesser-spec laptop, insomuch as there are fewer pixels for the CPU and graphics solution to shift, so things are more likely to run a bit more smoothly on low-end hardware.
This is something gamers should bear in mind, too. That 4K screen might look great, but it will take a serious toll on the notebook’s core components – you’ve got to wonder whether a smoother frame rate isn’t more important than the image quality here. Also remember a 4K display really drains the battery, too, which is a component that can already struggle in a gaming laptop.
Oranges aren’t the only fruit – there are apples out there, too. As well as Windows laptops, there are also MacBooks and Chromebooks which may well be heavily discounted come Black Friday.
If you can cope with their lightweight cloud-centric nature, many Chromebooks are already priced very keenly, so can present some truly tempting offers when their asking prices are knocked down further.
MacBooks also present a slick alternative to Windows notebooks, albeit at the other end of the price scale from Chromebooks. But still, there are definite bargains to be had on the Apple notebook front, and we’ll be covering those angles in a separate feature.
Our deal predictions
Microsoft’s pricey Surface Book is a great candidate for a big Black Friday reduction, due to a couple of factors. Firstly, the sequel to the hybrid is (hopefully) not far away, and secondly, following the release of the Performance Base, the entry-level model of the Surface Book has already been reduced considerably from £1,449 to £1,199.
So it’s a fair bet that could be lopped down even further, possibly under a grand, particularly when you consider that we saw a stonking laptop deal on the Surface Pro 4 during Amazon’s big Prime Day sale earlier this year, where the entry-level model of Microsoft’s hybrid was reduced massively to £480.
Unfortunately, the SP4 itself seems to be almost out of stock everywhere now – following the release of the new Surface Pro – although certain higher-spec models are still available and we could see a big reduction on them as well. In short, Microsoft’s Surface range is certainly one to watch, as are the related accessories; and Office 365 subscriptions are likely to be heavily discounted, too.
As we already mentioned, there will probably be some extremely cheap Chromebooks on the go, so definitely keep your eye on them. Last year we also witnessed some laptops selling for not much more than £100 on Amazon, and the Lenovo IdeaPad 100s was reduced to £110 at some retailers (that represented a £40 discount).
Expect some similar super-wallet-friendly notebook deals, and bear in mind these will likely be older models running Intel’s Atom CPU (which we discussed above – but at this sort of price, it’s difficult to complain about the spec).