Last March I decided it was time for a new laptop.
I was doing a lot more writing on the go and the desktop computer I'd cobbled together for photo editing wasn't going to cut it. I briefly looked over my options and ended up buying a 12-inch Samsung Ativ Book 9.
It was a sleek 2-pound machine I'd briefly looked at for a short article on Intel's fanless, ultra-efficient M-class processors, which were brand-new at the time. I like innovation, so I committed.
And for about three months I was thrilled with my decision. The Ativ Book 9's slim frame was light enough to stow in a backpack and forget, and powerful enough for light photo editing on the go. Plus, it was fun to shock people with how light it was.
By mid-summer, though, I had regrets.
I never stowed the laptop without a sturdy egg-crate case or treated it rough, but it was already showing signs of age. The touchpad was noticably less responsive, the shift key stuck, and the screen tended to flicker once or twice every few minutes. I called Samsung, and they told me it could take as long as three weeks to get a repair under warranty, with a risk of having to pay if they decided the damage was my fault. I couldn't do without a computer for that long, so I never sent it in. And things went downhill fast. Now the touchpad hardly works and it errors out constantly.
The point of this story is that the machine that looks and feels best in-store isn't necessarily the one that will serve you best in life.
A laptop should work for at least three years to justify the hundreds of dollars you're going to spend on it. But it can be hard to tell how durable these machines are going to be; reviewers like myself can use our instincts and information about the materials involved to judge how well-built a new device is, but without spending time with one (as my experience demonstrates) it's hard to know for sure.
So go into the store yourself, pick the laptop up. Turn it over in your hands. Does it flex? Does it feel brittle? Does it feel like it could survive a drop? Should you really buy the thinnest possible laptop if there's a sturdier-looking option?
Is a 360-degree hinge more important than a rugged design? How does it does it do with water? Look online for stress tests.
The more research you do, the more likely you are to end up with a lasting device.
And while you're there, look for the second most important feature that will ensure you actually like your device over the long term: a comfortable, well-built keyboard.
It's easy to lose track of the keyboard among all the fancy specs and features that go into laptops these days. And when we do think about keyboards we often think about the less-important, but easier to distinguish things: backlights, detachability, and attractiveness. But a keyboard should first and foremost feel good to your hands. That'll change from person to person, but in general wide keys, spread-out keys, with a deep pressing motion will do you best. If your laptop's keys are all clustered like little dots in the middle of the machine, it'll likely start cramping your hands.
There are a lot of distracting features on laptops these days, but once you've found a few powerful enough for your needs your first task should be to narrow them by durability and keyboard quality.