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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
(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
minimum of HD+ resolution
integrated graphics or discrete video card

Miscellaneous

Trusted Platform Module (TPM)
Bluetooth
integrated webcam

Bluetooth
integrated webcam

Network Connection

802.11ac (Wi-Fi)

 802.11ac (Wi-Fi)

Recommended Operating System

Windows 10 May 2019 Update and above

macOS Catalina (10.15.x)

Support Period 36 to 42 months 36 to 42 months
Estimated Price $1,300 to $1,800 $1,550 to $2,900

Examples of these notebooks are the 13-inch and 16-inch versions of the Apple MacBook Pro, along with mid-range to high-end 13-inch to 15-inch versions of the Dell Latitude, Dell XPS, and Lenovo ThinkPad. An emerging 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)

Intel Core i
(quad 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
at least HD resolution
integrated graphics

Miscellaneous

Trusted Platform Module (TPM)
Bluetooth
integrated webcam

Bluetooth
integrated webcam

Network Connection

802.11ac (Wi-Fi)

802.11ac (Wi-Fi)

Recommended Operating System

Windows 10 May 2019 Update and above

macOS Catalina (10.15.x)

Support Period 36 months 36 months
Estimated Price $1,350 to $2,200 $1,550

Examples of these notebooks are the 12-inch versions of the Dell Latitude and Lenovo ThinkPad X-series, along with the Apple MacBook Air 13-inch. Examples of tablet PCs include the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet and the Microsoft Surface Pro 7.

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 (12.1-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)

Core i5 (any)

Memory (RAM)

8 GB or 16 GB

8 GB or 16 GB

Mass Storage

128 GB solid state drive

128 GB solid state drive

Miscellaneous

Bluetooth
integrated webcam

Bluetooth
integrated webcam

Network Connection

802.11ac (Wi-Fi)

802.11ac (Wi-Fi)

Recommended Operating System

Windows 10 May 2019 Update and above

macOS Catalina (10.15.x)

Support Period

24 to 30 months

24 to 30 months

Estimated Price

$650 to $700

$900 to $1,100

Examples of these notebooks are the Apple MacBook Air (in its lower priced versions), the Dell Latitude 3300, and the Lenovo ThinkPad L13.

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 May 2019 Update 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 Catalina (10.15) 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 who need to use Windows 10 occasionally. 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.