Since my fellow LWers have been making posts about shaving, dental hygiene and bedroom decorating, I thought I might as well make a post pointing out low hanging fruit in computer hardware. In this post however, I will not make value calculations. Instead, I am going to provide low-cost sampling methods and let you experiment and decide for yourself whether the gains are worthwhile. It bears pointing out we nowadays use our computers more often than we like to admit, so any small improvements in our computing experience can have tremendous value.
When comparison-shopping for notebooks, most consumers overlook two important aspects, namely the screen quality and the hard drive performance. In return, most manufacturers try to save costs by fitting their notebooks with the cheapest screens and hard drives they can find.
Low-cost sampling method: Compare the screen quality of your notebook with that of your smartphone.
Most notebook monitors are abysmal. You cannot tilt the screen a little without it shifting in colours, and the contrast ratios are so low the colours become very washed out and the blacks start looking like greys, and don't get me started on the colour accuracy. Watching a beautiful painting or high definition video on such horrible screens is like watching natural scenery through a dirty window.
There aren't many notebooks in the market with good screens. This is not necessarily bad because it is a good idea to artificially limit your choices while shopping. Some well-known notebooks with good screens at the time of writing: all Apple Macbooks, some ASUS notebooks, upgraded Dell XPS 15 and upgraded Lenovo X220. For further reading, check out Digital Versus' Notebooks: The Best 10'' to 14'' Screens and Notebooks: The Best 15’’ to 17’’ Screens. Also read the latest reviews from Anandtech and notebookreview.com
Notebook hard Drives:
A slow hard drive will not necessarily slow down CPU intensive tasks like gaming or encoding, but few consumers do these tasks on their notebooks. What most consumers actually do is log in their chat client, browse the Internet and maybe listen to music or watch a movie. Their only gauge while performing these tasks is how quickly the OS and applications load, and how quickly they load is almost entirely dependent on the speed of the hard drive.
The unit you measure the snappiness of a hard drive with is called the access time. The access time of an average desktop hard drive is around 12ms. For notebook hard drives, it may reach 20ms or even more. An SSD has access times of around 0.1ms; very fast indeed and definitely worth upgrading to. SSDs are expensive for the storage they offer, but you are not buying them for their space. You are buying them for their performance.
Low-cost sampling method: Buy the Koss KSC-75 for $14. You should find them vastly superior to your average cheap headphones. If not, then you are unlikely to notice a difference when you buy higher end headphones.
A good starting point when researching headphones would be the comprehensive Shootout: 102 Portable Headphones Reviewed written by ljokerl in the forums head-fi.org.
The headphones he gave a value rating of 9.5 or more at the time of writing are:
$14 - Koss KSC-75
$30 - Panasonic RP-HTF600
$50 - Superlux HD668B
$159 - Audio-Technica ATH-M50*
* lukeprog has endorsed the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 in his post Share Your Checklists.
Mechanical keyboards are the way to go, or so I hear. If you type a lot, they may be worth looking at.
Low-cost sampling method: None! I have not used mechanical keyboards before.