I’m often asked what kind of laptop should I buy for data? But just as often as I am asked that question, I am also not asked that question and see customers purchase the wrong laptop!  Below is a list of specs for which I’ve written plenty for you to read. Likely too much for you to read, but if you want my honest opinion on what’s important and what’s not then be ready for plenty of reading.

If you don’t want to dive into the details and are just looking for a quick recommendations then look at some of the laptops below. But it is difficult to make recommendations when new laptops come out every month so it’s always a changing ball game.

Got an unlimited budget?  For $3,000 you should choose the Panasonic Toughbook CF-54 with the 1000 nits screen brightness. A truly sunlight readable screen! Sure you can get the dim low resolution screen and save $1000 but trust me its not worth it. Get the bright screen. The CF-54 comes standard with 3 USB ports, ethernet port and most important a carrying handle. Other options include a built in serial port, 2nd ethernet port, and windows 7 if you need it. The most configurable laptop that’s also the most durable laptop. Standard 3 year warranty.  Trust me this is the laptop to have for use at the race track. On the cheaper side, consider searching around for a used Panasonic CF-53. The older model is bulkier and heavier but still very rugged. There’s plenty of places online that sell new and used toughbooks.

 

The new Microsoft Surface Book 2 is an excellent option with dual USB ports, USB-C, standard SD card reader and a wonderful bright 450 nit screen that’s got an awesome 3:2 aspect ratio – meaning you get more vertical space than other laptops. It is a bit pricey at $2500 for the 15″ screen, but the 13.5″ screen is only $1500. Aftermarket covers and silicon protectors should be available. The only downside is you will have to use a USB to Ethernet adapter. Note, I would not recommend the Surface Pro tablet or the Surface Laptop on the sole disappointing fact they only have 1 USB port.

 

Both HP and Lenovo both make some great 14-15″ laptops with ethernet ports and 14-15″ screens with 1080p resolution. The number of laptops available is just too many to review, but they range from $600-$1200. If you’re interested in a specific model, do a search for reviews of that model before buying and make sure you read the recommendations below.

 

What Brand
To me it doesn’t matter what brand you buy. What’s more important are the features you should get. With that in mind I do prefer HP, Lenovo or Panasonic Toughbook, as they tend to have a good selection of laptops and make a good range of “business laptops” with lots of ports. The “business laptops” normally have ethernet ports built in, and they sometimes carry a full 3 year warranty unlike the more common 1 year or less.

 

 

What kind of Processor

Short answer is an Intel i5 or i7 processor. Too often I see people buying the fastest laptop they can find, only to suffer from short battery life, heat problems and loud fans. I’ve also seen people buy the cheapest laptops only to suffer from really slow performance. My recommendation is to buy something with an Intel i3, i5 or i7 processor. The i3 is the slowest processor I can recommend. Say no to the Intel Atom, Celeron or Core2 or any other slow processor because your computer will just crawl and never run. The i7 processor is the fastest you will find, but they tend to create more heat and you will end up with less battery life. The ideal processor is the i5 because it has the best balance of speed and battery life. There is one exception for when you might choose an i7 over an i5…. when you want a larger SSD (solid state drive) and the factory only puts those in laptops with an i7 processor.

AMD just released a new processor that is worth considering called the Ryzen 5 & 7 processors. These chips should be less expensive than Intel and include much better onboard graphics than any Intel chip. Be careful not to purchase an older generation A8, A10 or A12 processor.

 

How much RAM
Short answer is 8GB. There is very little reason to need more than 8GB and you will run out of space with only 4GB.

 

 

Hard Drive
Short answer is to get the biggest SSD you can afford. You want a SSD, also known as a solid state hard drive, because they are so much faster than the older disk type hard drives. A minimum size of 250GB and if your budget allows get a 500GB. Sometimes the 500GB size is only offered with an i7 processor, and sometimes manufacturers want too much for it. You will often find it cheaper to buy the SSD separately, after you purchase the laptop with an older disk hard drive, even though you will need to install it yourself.

 

 

Note: Video can take up to 50GB of space each weekend for a 2 car team. So most teams will use a separate 1TB or 2TB external USB drive for storing video files.

Screen Size
My recommendation is a 14 or 15 inch. The 17″ screens are nice and big, but the laptop will weight too much when you get that large and it will be difficult to carry and manage when plugging into cars. Anything smaller than 14″ might be too small and difficult to see.

 

 

Screen Brightness
Super important and often overlooked. You’ll be using your laptop outdoors and the sun will be shining right into the screen. There’s just no way around that. A minimum of 300 nits is what you need. While the Panasonic ToughtBook can be purchased with a 1000 nit screen, most other laptop manufacturers will offer 300 nit screens if you search for them. The 2 in 1 or tablet convertable laptops are nice because they often have 400 nit screens. I also recommend getting a “matte” screen whenever possible instead of the “glossy” screens often found on tables and convertibles. The sunlight reflections can make a glossy screen impossible to see outside no matter how bright the screen is. You can purchase separate matte protectors to install over the screen and cut down on glare.

 

 

Laptop Weight
Short answer is keep it under 4 pounds. A heavy laptop is hard to carry and hold when you’re plugging into a car. The weight and screen size often go together, so you won’t find a 17″ laptop less than 5 lbs. If the laptop is made of metal it might weigh more such as the Apple Macbook. And a heavy laptop is more susceptible to damage when it gets dropped. Notice I didn’t say “if” but “when” it gets dropped.

 

 

Can I Buy a Tablet
Not all that useful when it comes to a data computer. Often the smaller screen size is a downfall and the larger screen sizes weight too much. Tablet’s also don’t sit very well on top of the roof of a race car, so setting it down in or on the car can be difficult.

 

 

There are some attractive 2 in 1 or convertibles out now which give you the best of both worlds. Stick with a convertible instead of a tablet only.

I/O Ports
Very important to have as many ports as possible. USB, Ethernet, HDMI, more USB, maybe even a serial port….. Here is where most manufacturers fail us…. they want to make laptops thinner, smaller, lighter and most of all cheaper. So most of the newer laptops will have only 1 or 2 USB ports. For a data computer, you want as many ports as possible. So much of the older racing electronics require things like serial ports you will need to use a USB to serial adapter. Most race cars now require ethernet ports, so if your laptop doesn’t have one of those you need a USB to Ethernet adapter. The less adapters you have to carry around the better. Adapters don’t always work perfectly and only native ports will guarantee successful communications. The laptops with the most ports tend to be “business” laptops or Toughbooks.

 

 

OS - operating systems
Unfortunately you don’t have much choice here. Almost all laptops come with Windows 10. As often the case for older racing electronics, some of the software you might need to use won’t work on Windows 10 so you might consider the older Windows 7 operating system. It’s much harder to find on a laptop, but there are some “business laptops” that still offer it through HP, Lenovo and of course the Panasonic Toughbooks.

 

 

Mac ?
No, and yes.  Very little motorsport software will run on a Mac, in fact almost nothing will. But you can use the Apple Mac hardware and run windows on it. Either through Bootcamp or a VM (virtual machine) software like Parallels or VMware. The only snags you might encounter will be getting the correct “drivers” installed for your adapters like a USB to Ethernet or Thunderbolt to Ethernet. Therefore make sure you have your drivers installed and tested before getting to the track !  There’s nothing worse than showing up at the racetrack with a laptop that won’t communicate to the car!