Laptop-Buying Guide

Laptop-Buying Guide

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Provided by Digital Trends

When you have to jiggle the power connector just right to get your seven-year-old ThinkPad to wheeze to life, it’s time to start anew. But where do you begin in today’s notebook market, which has expanded so much that portables now outsell desktops? With a buying guide, of course. Use this comprehensive buying guide to examine some of the key factors and specs when buying a new notebook computer.

Size and Form Factor

Unlike on a desktop, where size and shape are an afterthought, the body on a laptop makes all the difference in usability. Buy something too small, and you’ll type at half the speed and squint to make out your latest e-mails. Buy too big, and you’ll pass out from exhaustion after trying to lug it from one room to the next.

You’ll find all sorts of ways to describe different classes of laptops, but screen size is the common denominator. At 12 inches and below, portable computers are typically branded as netbooks. Above 12 inches, they’re laptops or notebooks, and somewhere around 16 inches, you run into desktop replacements. To add to that confusion, any notebook with a screen that can swivel around and lay flat is typically called a tablet PC, regardless of the size.

If you’re buying a laptop to use all of the time as your primary computer, it’s not advised to go any smaller than 13.3 inches. Laptops in that tiny-size range are easy to tote but not comfortable enough for that eight-hour date with a term paper. Plus, they typically come in light on power as well. A 14- or 15-inch screen makes for a good all-around machine that will make you perfectly happy at home or on the road. Stepping up to anything larger typically diminishes portability quite a bit – especially because the large displays and powerful hardware often drain batteries. But if you plan to use them at home most of the time, you’ll find the computing experience almost like using a desktop.

Processor

The most important bit of hardware in your notebook can also be one of the most difficult to choose. Between Intel® and AMD, model lines including Pentium®, Core™ 2 Duo, Athlon™, Sempron™ and GHz ratings that aren’t comparable between companies, things start to look pretty complicated. Start with the basics.

For most users, two is the magic number for cores. Two cores will offer excellent multitasking capability. Because they’ve become a de facto standard for new PCs, they’re reasonably affordable, too. Three or four cores will obviously offer more performance – especially for processor-intense applications like video editing. However, most users simply won’t take advantage of all the extra horsepower, and you won’t find them until you step up to about 16 inches.

Clock speeds, e.g., 3.2GHz, are still an important indicator of CPU performance but can only really be compared within similar lines. A 2.0GHz Intel® Atom™ processor is faster than a 1.6GHz Intel® Atom™ processor, but it is not necessarily faster than a 1.8GHz Intel® Core™ 2 Duo. Other factors include front-side bus speed, onboard cache, whether it’s a 32- or 64-bit processor and many more.

As with many aspects of PC buying, you generally get what you pay for. Let price be a rough guide to processors when the tangle of naming schemes and specs proves to be a little bit too much. Do research on the individual processor you’re considering buying to get a better idea of how it will perform with what you intend to use it for.

Also keep in mind that the most powerful processors eat up the most battery life. Even if you have the extra cash to throw around, picking up an oinker of a processor might come back to bite you if you plan to spend the majority of your computing time away from an outlet.

Memory

With operating systems and software gobbling up more and more memory as time wears on, this is not an area where you want to skimp. The 32-bit version of Windows® (whether XP, Vista® or Windows® 7) can only make use of up to 4GB of RAM, which is the recommended amount you look for, considering how inexpensive it typically is.

That said, remember that RAM is easy to install yourself, so you can buy less to begin with and add more if you find performance lacking. Just be sure the configuration your PC comes in will allow you to add more. (Ordering 2GB on a motherboard with two DIMM slots might get you two 1GB sticks, meaning you’ll have to toss one of the old sticks to add more.)

Video Card

Laptops aren’t typically the first choice for gamers, but if you plan to do any gaming outside of five-year-old titles and casual titles like “Plants vs. Zombies,” you’re going to need a discrete video card. ATI and NVIDIA are the two major players in this space. Unlike a desktop purchase, where manufacturers might offer you any number of available cards for a computer, laptop manufacturers will typically only offer a couple, if any at all. If you’re looking for a specific model, you might actually have to let your choice of video card guide you to a notebook, rather than vice versa. In general, let price be your guide. At the high end, the most expensive cards can easily stack on hundreds of dollars for a sliver of extra performance. At the bottom end, spending $50 for any graphics card at all can offer a massive boost in performance. Stick to the bottom end for the best value unless you’re sure you’ll take advantage of all the extra horsepower. Consider 512MB the standard for a graphics card and 1GB supreme.

If battery life is a concern, consider a notebook with switchable graphics, like the Lenovo® U550. This will let you run at full bore on a discrete card when you’re out for blood. Then you can switch back to a more efficient, integrated-graphics card when you’re just surfing or piddling around and want to preserve battery life. Notebooks with the new NVIDIA® Optimus™ platform will even switch automatically for you.

Optical Drive

One of the first options to go when you step down to a compact laptop is typically the optical drive. Although it used to be a staple of information sharing 10 years ago, many modern buyers find that they can get all of the content and software they need from the Internet or from USB flash drives. If you’re used to watching DVDs, burning CDs for friends and loading boxed software off of discs, it may not make sense to omit an optical drive. Remember that you can always purchase an external drive to get the best of both worlds: full capability at home and lightweight on the go.

Blu-ray drives remain a luxury and, typically, an expensive upgrade. Before opting for one, ask yourself whether you can really take advantage of Blu-ray on your notebook. If the display will be anything less than 1080p (most notebooks are), it may be considered a bit excessive, since you won’t even be able to appreciate full Blu-ray quality without hooking it up to a TV with an HDMI® cable. Also, make sure the rest of the hardware will be able to handle decoding Blu-ray (integrated graphics are a no-go) and whether you’ll really want to watch full-length Blu-ray movies seated at a desktop computer. If you plan to burn Blu-ray discs, make sure you’ll actually be able to afford the media, which can still run up to $5 each in small quantities, and don’t get much cheaper than $2 per disc in bulk.

Hard Drive

Hard drives boil down to two simple factors: size and speed.

How much space do you need? Consider your current computing habits. If you install every free program you run across on the Web, use your computer as a repository for home videos and pictures, and download lots of music and movies, it is recommended to get 500GB or more. On the other hand, if you’re mostly content with the software that comes on a computer and rarely tread outside streaming Internet content from the likes of YouTube and Hulu™ (which is the case for many people these days) you can probably get away with much less. You would be hard pressed to find much less than 160GB on a new computer these days.

Speed is another matter. Traditional hard drives typically spin at speeds between 5,400 and 10,000 RPM, with the faster models granting faster access to data. A quick hard drive can improve the time it takes to open a program or boot into Windows®, but only marginally. Even most 5,400RPM drives typically perform fine for most users, but 7,200RPM is recommended if at all possible. Performance users should look into 10,000RPM drives or solid-state drives, which, while expensive, can go even faster. On a laptop, solid-state drives are also lighter and more durable since they have no moving parts.

Wireless Options

These days, pretty much every notebook available comes with built-in Bluetooth® and Wi-Fi, but you should always make sure. Opting for the latest 802.1n Wi-Fi standard will boost your connection speeds if you use your notebook for transferring massive files or streaming HD video. However, standard 802.11g will work just fine for most people.

Batteries

The number of cells in a battery and measurements in milliamp hours (mAh) can help you determine how much juice a battery can actually store. However, neither really gives an insight into what you really want to know, which is how long they’ll actually last in your laptop. Refer to manufacturers’ claimed battery-life figures to get an idea of what a given machine is capable of, but keep in mind these are best-case-scenario numbers you probably won’t achieve in real life. Cut them about in half for an intense-usage scenario (like gaming or watching videos), and shave about a third off for more typical use, like casual surfing.

Up until recently, almost all laptops used swappable lithium-ion battery packs, making it easy to change a stock battery out for a larger model with more capacity or to replace it at the end of its lifetime. More recently, a number of laptops, including the popular Apple® MacBooks, have begun using sealed lithium-polymer batteries. While lighter in weight, they also make it impossible to upgrade capacity or keep spare batteries on hand. If one wears down, you’ll need to send it to a technician for replacement. Many users never touch their batteries anyway and won’t miss the flexibility, but road warriors and those who plan to keep their machines running for years and years should take note.

Display

The size of your notebook will dictate the size of your screen, but that’s only one of many factors that can make or break a quality display.

Choosing whether you want a matte or reflective screen can dramatically impact how useful your notebook will be in the field. While reflective screens often seem to “pop” more brightness and color, they also act as mirrors to some degree. That can make them downright unusable in the sun or under bright lighting. Matte screens, meanwhile, don’t quite catch the eye as much as their reflective cousins, but they perform better in a variety of ambient lighting conditions.

Brightness will also determine whether you’ll be surfing away on a park bench on the first sunny day in spring, or squinting into a dark abyss. Candelas per meter squared (cd/m2) are considered the standard measurement for brightness. Average laptops typically offer around 250 to 300 cd/m2, while those with premium screens can offer up to 400 cd/m2.

Contrast ratio – the difference between the brightest whites and darkest blacks a screen can produce – should also come into play, but companies have found ways to twist these stats significantly, so take numbers with a grain of salt and trust your eyes. Viewing angles – how far you can turn to the side before the screen colors distort or wash out – are often similarly misrepresented. You should read reviewers’ impressions to see whether a particular laptop excels or lags behind in this department.

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