I want to buy a Windows laptop that is as future-proof as possible. I have been looking at ones with at least a Core i7 processor, 16GB of memory, USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports and a 13-14in high-resolution screen. I am really struggling to identify the one I should get.
I realise the specs are perhaps overkill for my mixture of office productivity programs and media use. However, I intend to keep this laptop for seven to 10 years, and I want it to cope with updates and new software in the future. My budget is about £1,500-£2,000. Ed
It’s not easy to buy a future-proof laptop because the industry is moving in the opposite direction. The trend is towards ultra-thin laptops where the processor, memory and storage chips are all soldered in and cannot be upgraded. Further, sealed cases are making it increasingly difficult to replace failing keyboards, cracked screens and glued-in batteries. Unless laptops are still under warranty, it may be simpler to replace them than to repair them.
If you want to buy a laptop for long-term use, check iFixit’s website for a teardown and a repairability score. At the moment, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop is the worst product, with a score of zero. This beats the dozen or so Apple MacBooks that all score 1 out of 10. On the good side, there are products that score 10, such as the HP EliteBook 840 G3 and the Dell Latitude E5270. The HP EliteBook 1050 is among the laptops that score 9.
iFixit doesn’t do many teardowns – and, shockingly, hasn’t done a Lenovo ThinkPad – so you should try other sources such as Laptopmain, Notebookcheck and AnandTech. Also, search the web for a laptop’s service manual to see how easy it is to repair and upgrade. The harder it is, the less future-proof it is.
In general, it’s safer to buy laptops designed for business users rather than consumers. Many IT departments expect to be able to replace batteries and install memory and SSD themselves. Business laptops are also built to higher standards, and should be more durable in the long run.
As the old saying has it, prediction is difficult, especially about the future. A decade ago, you might have opted for fast FireWire ports, but you wouldn’t have foreseen the importance of M.2 slots for SSDs, the change from USB Type-A to Type-C ports, or Thunderbolt’s adoption. And if you had, it wouldn’t have mattered, because there is nothing you could have done about them.
In reality, you only have three things to worry about: memory, storage and battery life.
Now, the first option is to buy as much as you will ever need. This means you will pay the highest possible price – especially if you’re buying a MacBook Pro – and you will almost certainly buy more than you need.
The alternative is to buy a well-made laptop that you can upgrade in five years or so. Barring disasters, memory chips and SSDs will be cheaper, and your system will benefit accordingly.
To do this, your laptop must have one or preferably two memory slots, one or two M.2 slots, and possibly a drive bay that will accept an SSD or a traditional hard drive. (For space-saving reasons, drive bays are on the way out.) You should also be able to change the battery, because the one supplied is unlikely to last a decade.
There are three classes of laptop to consider. First are the business machines aimed mainly at large enterprises. The leading brands are Lenovo ThinkPads (originally, an IBM brand), Dell Latitude laptops and HP EliteBooks. Second, you could choose a mobile workstation, as these usually offer more configuration options. The models to consider include the ThinkPad P1, Dell’s Precision range and HP’s ZBook 14u G5. Third, there are gaming laptops, such as the Gigabyte Aero 14 and the Razer Blade Stealth, which is now available with a 13.3in screen. Dell, HP and Lenovo also sell gaming laptops.
If you really need the power for business reasons, the ThinkPad P1 and HP’s ZBook 14u G5 are excellent choices, and I recently recommended the P1 in a different answer. But you don’t.
If you needed powerful graphics for playing games, gaming laptops offer high specs at fairly reasonable prices. But you don’t.
However, a configurable business laptop would be a good solution, in that you could buy one with a lower specification and upgrade it later.
My favourite machine for this purpose is the ThinkPad T480, which I’ve also recommended before. It’s far from being the only option. Newer models are available – including a brand new T490 – and you could apply the same approach to other laptops you have been considering.
Configuring a T480
The basic version of the ThinkPad T480 usually costs £949.99 (currently £835.99) with a Core i5-8250U processor, 8GB of memory and a 500GB hard drive. A couple of upgrades would make this a good buy for your purposes while still leaving some expansion options.
You would obviously want to upgrade the base-level 1366 x 768-pixel display to an IPS screen. The options are 1920 x 1080 Full HD with and without touch, or a 2560 x 1440-pixel screen. You could opt for the 1920 x 1080 touch screen (£58.80 extra) because you won’t get all the benefits of having 2560 x 1440 pixels (£150 extra) on a 14in screen. However, the WQHD screen looks much better and should be more future-proof.
You could expand the 8GB of memory to 16GB (£115.20) or 32GB (£346.80), but 8GB should be fine for your purposes. If you really need more later, you can buy another 8GB memory module and plug it into the second, spare memory slot.
There are lots of options for upgrading the 500GB hard drive, and you could also add an Optane accelerator or a 128GB SSD. The most economical option is to replace the HDD with a 256GB M.2 SSD (£76.80), though you could go up to 512GB (£211.20) or more if you need the space.
The T480 comes with two 24Wh batteries as standard. If you need more battery life, you can swap the rear battery for a 48Wh version or a massive 17-hour 72Wh battery (£6 extra).
Finally, there’s the processor. The standard Core i5-8250U (Passmark benchmark score 7679) would be enough for your purposes, but an upgrade to the Core i7-8550U (Passmark 8292) might add to the longevity for the extra £103.20. The jump to an i7-8650U (Passmark 8820) isn’t really worth the extra £283.20. Core i7 chips are often throttled in laptops to prevent overheating, so you may not see the sort of performance gain you would expect in a desktop.
If you just upgraded the screen and disk drive, the T480 would cost you £1,085.59 (current sale price, £955.32). This should easily last you five years, and could well last seven or more years. But if it only lasted five years, you’ve only spent about half your budget, so you could sell it and buy another £1,000 laptop with whatever new technologies have been introduced.
In fact, you could guarantee your T480 for five years by upgrading the three-year warranty for £90.99. Better still, go for the five-year on-site warranty for £160.99.
Note: there is a newer, slightly smaller version of this machine, the T480S. It has better processor cooling and four PCI Express lanes instead of two, so it can handle faster SSDs. However, I still prefer the T480 for its extra battery life, hot-swappable battery, drive bay space, full-sized Ethernet port and the fact that you can upgrade both memory slots. (The T480S has an empty slot but the base memory is soldered in.)
This year’s T490 is also slimmer and lighter, and offers faster processors: you get a Core i5-8265U (Passmark 8084) as standard or you can upgrade to a Core i7-8565U (Passmark 9051) for only £96. But the T490, like the T480S, has soldered RAM, and it loses the drive bay and the hot-swappable battery option. Technically, it’s a better laptop, but it is less configurable and has fewer upgrade options.
Last month, Intel announced its ninth generation of Core processors, but due to long-running production issues – for which the company has apologised – it is concentrating on manufacturing high-end versions, which are more profitable. Core i7-9xxx chips are starting to appear in desktops and some gaming laptops, but most machines will still be shipping with eighth generation processors such as the Core i7-8550U.
The 8th generation chips were a useful advance on the seventh generation versions, so it’s worth having a Core i7-8xxx etc rather than an i7-7xxx. From the benchmarks, the ninth gen chips don’t offer enough extra performance to worry about, unless you’re buying a desktop with an 8-core i9-9900K or i7-9700K.
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