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Notebook Purchasing Guide

Recognizing that there are a variety of notebooks which meet different needs, this Information Systems & Computing (ISC) purchasing guide presents three alternative configurations, each of which is a different blend of performance, capability, features, portability, and price.

If your School, Center, or department is considering a significant notebook purchase, ISC strongly recommends a consultation to weigh pros and cons in today's rapidly changing environment (contact John Mulhern III in ISC, mulhernj@isc.upenn.edu; 573-3567).

Desktop Recommendations

Mid-weight

These notebooks are used as a primary system or desktop replacement. They tend to weigh between three and six pounds and have medium-sized (13.3-inch to 16.0-inch) screens. Regarding performance and capability, they tend to be relatively close to last year's desktop recommendations.

These notebooks represent the center of the notebook market and are designed to be a good match for most users' needs. They have good speed and mobility but are not the best in either of these areas.

Specifications are reviewed and updated as appropriate

— Category — Windows macOS

Processor

Intel Core i or AMD Ryzen processor
(quad core or above)

Intel Core i or Apple M1 processor
(quad core or above)

Memory (RAM) 16 GB or 32 GB 16 GB or 32 GB
Mass Storage 256 GB or 512 GB solid state drive 256 GB or 512 GB solid state drive

Display & Graphics

13.3-inch to 15.6-inch
minimum of HD+ resolution
consider touch screen
integrated graphics or discrete video card

13.3-inch or 16.0-inch
all available displays are greater than HD+ resolution
integrated graphics or discrete video card

Miscellaneous

Trusted Platform Module (TPM)
Bluetooth
integrated webcam

Bluetooth
integrated webcam

Network Connection

802.11ac or 802.11ax (Wi-Fi)

 802.11ac or 802.11ax (Wi-Fi)

Recommended Operating System

Windows 10 version 1909 and above

macOS Big Sur (11.x)

Support Period 36 to 42 months 36 to 42 months
Estimated Price $1,300 to $1,800 $1,650 to $2,900

Examples of these notebooks are the Intel-based 13-inch and 16-inch versions of the Apple MacBook Pro, the Apple M1-based MacBook Pro 13-inch, and mid-range to high-end 13-inch to 15-inch versions of the Dell Latitude, Dell XPS, and Lenovo ThinkPad. A configuration in this space is the 2-in-1, where the display's hinges allow 180 degree rotation and an impressive degree of flexibility; two leading systems in this space are the Dell Latitude 7400 2-in-1 and the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga.

These notebooks tend to weigh two to four pounds and have small (12.1-inch to 13.3-inch) screens. With respect to performance, they tend to be relatively close to last year's desktop recommendations, but contain fewer features in exchange for less bulk.

Specifications are reviewed and updated as appropriate.

— Category — Windows macOS

Processor

Intel Core i or AMD Ryzen processor
(quad core)

Apple M1 processor
(all are eight core)

Memory (RAM) 8 GB or 16 GB 8 GB or 16 GB

Mass Storage

256 GB solid state drive

256 GB solid state drive

Display & Graphics

12.1-inch to 13.3-inch 
at least HD resolution
integrated graphics
strongly consider touch screen

13.3-inch 
all available displays are greater than HD resolution
integrated graphics

Miscellaneous

Trusted Platform Module (TPM)
Bluetooth
integrated webcam

Bluetooth
integrated webcam

Network Connection

802.11ac or 802.11ax (Wi-Fi)

802.11ax (Wi-Fi)

Recommended Operating System

Windows 10 version 1909 and above

macOS Big Sur (11.x)

Support Period 36 months 36 months
Estimated Price $1,350 to $2,200 $1,150 to $1,300

Examples of these notebooks are the 12-inch and 13-inch versions of the Dell Latitude and Lenovo ThinkPad X-series, along with Apple's MacBook Air. Examples of tablet/detachable PCs include the Dell Latitude 7210 2-in-1, the Lenovo ThinkPad X12 Detachable, and the Microsoft Surface Pro 7. Note that the Microsoft Surface Pro X is not supported.

Notes:

  1. Media slices and port replicators are not included in this pricing—these can increase the estimated price by these amounts: 
  • Media slices: $100 - $200
  • Port replicators: $150 - $250

Notebooks built to this specification are intended to be complements to the recommendations for desktop systems in ISC's Value Desktop Purchasing Guide. These notebooks tend to weigh three to six pounds and have small to medium sized (10.5-inch to 14.1-inch) screens. In performance, they tend to lag behind last year's desktop recommendations and contain fewer features. These systems are the minimum that will serve for a reasonable life cycle. 

Specifications are reviewed and updated as appropriate.

— Category — 

Windows

macOS

Processor

Intel Core i or AMD Ryzen processor
(quad core)

Apple M1 processor
(all are eight core)

Memory (RAM)

8 GB or 16 GB

8 GB or 16 GB

Mass Storage

128 GB or 256 GB solid state drive

256 GB solid state drive

Miscellaneous

Bluetooth
integrated webcam

Bluetooth
integrated webcam

Network Connection

802.11ac or 802.11ax (Wi-Fi)

802.11ax (Wi-Fi)

Recommended Operating System

Windows 10 version 1909 and above

macOS Big Sur (11.x)

Support Period

24 to 30 months

24 to 30 months

Estimated Price

$650 to $700

$900 to $1,300

Examples of these notebooks are the Dell Latitude 3300 and the Lenovo ThinkPad L13, along with Apple's MacBook Air. A tablet example is the Microsoft Surface Go 2, when specified with the Core m3 processor.

Low cost notebooks—not recommended for most users

Price reductions resulting from market competition and continued technical innovation make the definition of "Low Cost Notebooks" a moving target. It is generally true, however, that notebooks priced in the bottom 25% of the current range (currently ranging from $250 to $550) compromise some combination of performance, reliability, or compatibility, to achieve the lowest possible costs.

Bearing in mind that you get what you pay for, and that the costs associated with supporting these systems significantly outweigh the actual purchase price, ISC recommends that low cost notebooks not be purchased for general use.

Estimated prices for all notebooks except value notebooks include three-year service plans from the manufacturers, which ISC strongly recommends. Note that the three-year warranty is an extra cost for some notebooks (including those from Apple, which require additional AppleCare) and that this cost is reflected in the estimated price.

Pricing is generated using the online configurators available from Dell, Apple, and Lenovo and is for general reference only. Support providers will often be able to generate more competitive pricing using various means, such as purchasing components (RAM, etc.) separately and taking advantage of vendor bundles and rebates.

These specifications are revised when major changes in configurations from Apple, Dell, and Lenovo (or the industry as a whole) become generally available.

For many years, the class of processor (e.g., Core i7, Ryzen 5, etc.) was the primary criteria for selecting a processor. This is no longer true. For Intel and AMD processors, ISC suggests four or more cores while ensuring the processor also has capable integrated graphics (AMD Radeon Graphics or better, or Intel UHD 630 or better). Most notebook users are well served by Intel’s Core i5 or AMD’s Ryzen 5 processors. A more detailed University-centric perspective on AMD and Intel processors is available from ISC's Processor Guide.

Other than some differences in peripherals, support for notebook systems is generally similar to support for desktop systems.

ISC has had good experiences with enterprise class systems from notebook manufacturers such as Apple, Dell, and Lenovo.

Operating systems

Windows 10 version 1909 or above (64-bit Pro and Enterprise editions) is recommended for new systems. ISC does not recommend but will support all 32-bit versions of Windows 10 and the 64-bit version of Windows 10 Home. Home lacks important networking, security, and compatibility features, such as domain-based authentication, that are essential to many Schools and Centers in the University. ISC does not support Windows 10 S.

macOS Big Sur (11.x) is the only choice for new Macintosh systems as Apple's newly released systems always require the latest version of macOS. Apple's Boot Camp technology offers added flexibility for users of Intel-based Macintoshes who need to use Windows 10 occasionally (it does not function with Apple Silicon-based Macs). It should not be used to turn a Macintosh into a mainly Windows system. Boot Camp requires that both the Windows and the macOS operating systems be patched and maintained.