Updated November 17, 2013, for you holiday shoppers …
I recently googled “best laptops for writers” and found that the the top results dispense advice that is either dated or just plain wrong. Here’s a brief summary of the suggestions from other blogs: writers need a laptop with a nice keyboard, some memory, and, oh, it should have a screen—you know, for viewing things. The general assumption is that almost any laptop can be used for writing. While that’s true, some laptops ease our literary lives more than others. If you write for a living, then your laptop is an invaluable companion, and the right model will significantly increase your overall productivity.
When buying a laptop, consider these ten essential elements:
- build quality
- random-access memory (RAM)
- storage via hard disk drive/solid state drive
- pointing device
- video card
- wireless connectivity
Three components are responsible for how “fast” your laptop feels: the processor, memory, and storage drive. Because these three elements must work in harmony, one weak component adversely affects the performance of the other two.
Modern processors are far more powerful than most consumers need. Unless you plan on regularly using your laptop for processor-intensive work, such as high-resolution photo or video editing, don’t worry about processor speed as upgrading provides no noticeable performance improvement.
If you’re buying a new laptop in 2013, try to get one with 8GB of memory (RAM). Need to save a few bucks? 4GB will suffice for the short-term, just make sure the laptop you buy supports additional memory.
Important: Purchase a laptop with a solid state drive (SSD). Most laptops sold today have a hard disk drive (HDD) that consists of layered disks spinning at 5,400 rpm. Hard disk drives have annoyingly slow data transfer rates, and because hard disk drives have so many moving parts, they are prone to failure. Goodbye, manuscript.
The first laptop with a solid state drive (SSD) was released in 2009. Unlike HDD drives, solid state drives have no moving parts, and thus offer substantial benefits: increased reliability, less heat, lower battery consumption, and faster data transfer. The reliability and performance benefits of an SSD make it well worth the extra expense.
Laptops for Writers: Essential Elements and Recommendations
While a variety of laptops meet my processor, memory, and storage guidelines, if you want a laptop that is that is truly above the fray and excels at simplifying your life as a writer, these are your two best options: an Apple MacBook (Air or Pro) or a Lenovo T-Series.
Apple MacBook Air/Pro
(1) MacBook build quality
Apple has a reputation for creating laptops with superior build quality, but at a premium price. While well-constructed, Apple does advertise some of its negatives as positives. For instance, when you see an Apple MacBook with “128GB flash storage,” that flash storage is essentially a 128GB SSD fused onto the motherboard to reduce costs. Thus, if the motherboard goes bad, you lose all your data because the flash storage is permanently attached to the motherboard, and that sucks. Still, buying the flash storage version of the MacBook is better than buying one with the moving parts of a hard disk drive.
(2) MacBook processor
Save your money. Don’t upgrade the processor.
(3) MacBook random-access memory (RAM)
By default, some MacBook models are sold with 4GB of memory. Upgrading to 8GB ensures long-term performance.
(4) MacBook hard disk drive/solid state drive/storage capacity
As stated above, I strongly recommend purchasing a laptop with solid state (aka flash) storage. Regarding capacity, most of the solid state drives start at 128GB, and upgrading is costly. Text documents (MS Word files), even ones that are thousands of pages, take up minimal drive space, but print-quality Photoshop files can be 100MB or larger, and high-definition videos can be several gigabytes. If you primarily use your laptop for writing, a 128GB SDD will provide sufficient storage. If think you’ll need more storage space, upgrade at time of purchase or plan on buying an external SSD, such as the LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt SSD.
(5) MacBook screen
The screen resolution of the non-Retina MacBook Pro display is somewhat low for its size. While the 13-inch MacBook Air has an acceptable screen resolution of 1440×900, the 13-inch MacBook Pro’s screen resolution is a lackluster 1280×800. Why? Because a 1280×800 screen is mega-cheap to produce, and Apple probably makes more money off uneducated consumers who purchase this option than those who purchase slightly higher-priced models.
While pricey, the MacBook Pro’s optional Retina display is gorgeous. The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro boasts a native resolution of 2560×1600, twice that of the non-Retina version. Your cat will be astounded by its realism.
(6) MacBook keyboard
Users tend to like MacBook keyboards, and Apple started a trend of adding gaps between the keys, which Lenovo has since copied and added to their latest generation of ThinkPads (renowned for their keyboard quality).
(7) MacBook pointing device
The MacBook Pro and MacBook Air both use a multi-touch trackpad.
(8) MacBook video card
Integrated versus non-integrated. A non-integrated video card plugs into the motherboard while an integrated video card is soldered onto the motherboard. Non-integrated video cards are better for gaming and video editing as they contain additional processing power and memory dedicated solely to motion graphics. To get a non-integrated video card on an Apple laptop, you’ll need to buy a top-of-the-line MacBook Pro ($2,200 and up). An integrated video card is fine for writers, unless you’re a gamer.
(9) MacBook wireless connectivity
Apple does not allow buyers to customize their wireless cards, and MacBooks are not yet available with cellular internet connectivity. Most users are happy with Wi-Fi only.
(10) MacBook ports
We’re in a transition phase between USB 2.0 and USB 3.0. All MacBooks currently available on Apple’s website have USB 3.0 ports, but if you buy from a third party (eBay, some dude on the corner, your neighbor, MacConnection.com, etc.), find out whether the laptop comes with USB 3.0 ports. USB 3.0 is ten times faster than USB 2.0. Apple also offers a proprietary connection called Thunderbolt, which is twice as fast as USB 3.0. With an Apple Thunderbolt external SSD, a 10GB backup can be completed in less than 30 seconds, which is stunningly quick.
My 2013 Apple MacBook Recommendations for Writers
13-inch screen, 1440×900 resolution, 1.3Ghz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory (RAM), 128GB flash storage, Intel HD Graphics 5000, USB 3.0 & Thunderbolt
Upgrades: 4GB of memory (RAM) to 8GB of memory; also consider upgrading your Air’s processor to the 1.7Ghz dual-core (not an essential upgrade, but this $150 option may add a year of usability to your MacBook Air)
Price including 8GB memory upgrade as of November 17, 2013: $1,199.00
MacBook Pro, 13-inch Retina display
13-inch screen, 2560×1600 resolution, 2.4Ghz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory (RAM), 128GB flash storage, Intel Iris Graphics, USB 3.0 & Thunderbolt
Upgrades: 4GB ram upgraded to 8GB. Optional, consider doubling storage to the 256 GB flash drive for $1,499.00, although the extra storage will not be essential to most writers. (Remember, text files are small; video files are big; images and music file sizes can vary)
Price including 8GB memory upgrade as of November 17, 2013: $1,399.00
MacBook Pro, 15-inch Retina display
15-inch screen, 2880×1800 resolution, 2.0GHz quad-core Intel Core-i7 processor, 8GB of memory (RAM), 256GB flash storage, Intel Iris Pro Graphics, USB 3.0 & Thunderbolt
Price as of November 17, 2013: $1,999.00
Why are these MacBooks great for writers?
They have Apple’s superior build quality, plus great keyboards, amazing screens (especially the Retina displays), high-speed peripheral connectivity, class-leading portability, fast yet stable data storage, and Apple’s easy-to-use operating system. The above MacBook models offer the most usability for the least cost.
Lenovo ThinkPad T-Series
(1) ThinkPad T-Series build quality
Lenovo’s ThinkPad T-Series has been the workhorse of the business world for decades (formerly under IBM). The ThinkPad T-Series has a reputation for outstanding build quality. Unlike a MacBook with flash memory, if your motherboard goes bad in a ThinkPad T-Series, your SSD will simply be transferred over to the replacement motherboard and your data will be exactly as you left it. ThinkPads sport a black Darth Vader-approved design that is all-business and very durable. Accordingly, ThinkPads have been on every NASA Shuttle space flight since 1995, and more than 60 ThinkPads reside at the International Space Station. Pretty cool.
(2) ThinkPad T-Series processor
Save your money. Don’t upgrade the processor.
(3) ThinkPad T-Series random-access memory (RAM)
By default, most ThinkPads are configured with 4GB of memory. Upgrading to 8GB ensures long-term performance.
(4) ThinkPad T-Series hard disk drive/solid state drive/storage capacity
Again, I strongly recommend purchasing a laptop with solid state storage. Upgrading to a solid state drive (SSD) is an option available on all T-Series laptops.
(5) ThinkPad T-Series screen
If purchasing a 14-inch T-Series, upgrade to a screen resolution of 1600×900. If purchasing a 15-inch T-Series, upgrade to a resolution of 1600×900 or 1920×1080 (this option might make Windows’ default text too small for some users).
Of note, ThinkPad displays have a matte finish because they are business-class notebooks. Typically, glossy screens (like those on MacBooks) reflect glare from fluorescent lights. The matte screens used in ThinkPads are meant to reduce glare, and while the T-Series’ displays are better-than-average, they lack the deep color contrast and image realism of Apple’s glossy MacBooks.
(6) ThinkPad T-Series keyboard
ThinkPad T-Series laptops are known for having the best keyboards. Although Lenovo has expanded the ThinkPad name to some lesser models, the ThinkPad T-Series remains its business-class flagship, and continues the tradition of unparalleled keyboard quality.
(7) ThinkPad T-Series pointing device
ThinkPads have a touchpad and an UltraNav TrackPoint (the classic eraser-head built into the keyboard). Surprisingly, the TrackPoint is more addicting than Downton Abbey, and everyone who uses it never goes back to a TrackPad. Because the ThinkPad T-Series has a set of right- and left-click buttons just below the spacebar, using the TrackPoint allows the user’s hands to remain on the keyboard, allowing for fast, efficient navigation.
(8) ThinkPad T-Series video card
Integrated versus non-integrated. Lenovo sometimes offers an inexpensive upgrade to a non-integrated video card, and if the option is available for $50.00 or less, it’s a value-added upgrade that you’ll likely recover when you eventually sell your ThinkPad (they hold their value much better than most laptops).
(9) ThinkPad T-Series wireless connectivity
Lenovo allows buyers to upgrade their ThinkPad’s wireless card from integrated to non-integrated. The costs are minimal, so I recommend upgrading to a non-integrated Intel wireless card because the non-integrated card will be easier for the service department to replace should it ever go bad, and the separate card frees up a bit of system resources for other tasks. The T-Series ThinkPad also allows you to add a cellar antenna for broadband service through your mobile carrier (AT&T or Verizon), a $250 option (of course, you would need to set this up with your wireless carrier and pay the applicable monthly data subscription fee).
(10) ThinkPad T-Series ports
Besides the usual assortment of ports, one of the best features of the Thinkpad T-Series is its optional docking station, which allows you to plop your ThinkPad down on your desk and instantly interact with all of your peripherals. My ThinkPad’s docking station connects me to my wireless mouse, secondary monitor, laser printer, iPhone/iPod cable, power supply, and external backup drive. Lenovo’s docking station saves me the time of repeatedly connecting and disconnecting six different cables and works so well that it eliminates the need for a home desktop computer. If you own a ThinkPad T-Series, the matching docking station is a must-have option.
Windows 7 versus Windows 8 (added July 7, 2013)
The tiled start menu in Windows 8 is more annoying than convenient, prompting laptop manufacturers to continue offering Windows 7. The good news for Windows 8 users is that Microsoft has finally released Windows 8.1, which adds back some Windows 7 familiarity. My suggestion: purchase a laptop with Windows 7 Pro 64-bit. If Windows 8 becomes a necessity, you can always upgrade (currently $90 on Amazon).
My 2013 Lenovo ThinkPad T-Series Recommendations for Writers
14-inch screen, 1600×900 resolution, 3.2 Ghz processor, 8GB of memory (RAM), 128GB solid state drive, Intel HD Graphics 4000 , Bluetooth 4.0, Intel 6205 AGN wireless card, USB 3.0, Windows 7 Pro 64-bit
Upgrades: processor to Core i5 3.2Ghz, OS to Win 7 Pro 64-bit, Display to 14.0 HD+ (1600×900), memory to 8GB, storage to 128GB SSD, Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi to Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6205 AGN
Price including upgrades as of November 17, 2013: $1,063.92 (price fluctuates weekly)
Recommended accessory: MiniDock Plus Series 3 with USB 3.0, $249.99
Note: Do not purchase a T430u (it’s a non-standard T-Series; no docking stations available). Update for fall 2013: Lenovo is releasing the T440 (14-inch) and T540 (15-inch) ThinkPads. Spec at least an Intel Core i5 processor, HD+ screen, 8GB memory, a 128GB SSD, and stick with Windows 7 Professional (Windows 8 is a market failure, much like XP); or save significantly by purchasing a T430 or T530.
15-inch screen, exact same specs as the above T430
Price including upgrades as of November 17, 2013: $1,063.92 (currently same price as T430; price fluctuates weekly)
Recommended accessory: MiniDock Plus Series 3 with USB 3.0, $249.99
Note: Update for fall 2013: Lenovo is releasing the T440 (14-inch) and T540 (15-inch) ThinkPads. Spec at least an Intel Core i5 processor, HD+ screen, 8GB memory, a 128GB SSD, and stick with Windows 7 Professional (Windows 8 is a market failure, much like XP). ThinkPads don’t change much on the outside, so consider saving significantly by purchasing a T430 or T530.
Why are these ThinkPads great for writers?
They have ThinkPad T-Series build quality, above-average screens, reliable yet fast data storage, convenient docking stations, the best keyboards, functional UltraNav TrackPoints, no bloatware, a plethora of customization options, superb online support and drivers, and outstanding durability. The above T430 and T530 ThinkPad configurations give you the most bang for your buck.
Other laptops can certainly work for writers, but Apple’s MacBooks and Lenovo’s ThinkPad T-Series are “the best laptops for writers.”
More Tips on Purchasing Laptops for Writers
- If you purchase a Windows-based laptop, keep it business-class
- Always buy the professional version of Windows (it’s designed for stability)
- Don’t buy laptops from big-box stores like Best Buy or Staples
- The best laptop deals occur every year around graduation (late April, early May) and during back-to-school sales (late August, early September)
- Check to see if your state has a tax-free weekend
- MacBooks rarely go on sale (maybe Black Friday or Cyber Monday)
- Apple tends to update MacBook product lines every spring and fall
- Don’t waste money on McAfee or Norton or any other antivirus software
- OS X: antivirus software generally does more harm than good
- Windows: download Microsoft’s free antivirus software, Microsoft Security Essentials
- Purchase Microsoft Office, or at least Word and Outlook (2010 or 2013)
Remember, a quality laptop is an invaluable companion to your literary career, so make sure you protect your investment. I am a former IT professional turner writer. I have zero financial interest in the success of Apple or Lenovo. These opinions are my own, exclusively. Laptop warranties are comforting, but most manufacturing defects become known during the first year. I prefer to constantly guard my ThinkPad whilst brandishing weapons from the Game of Thrones.