The holiday season is right around the corner, and many people will be shopping for new laptop computers with Black Friday and Christmas sales just a few weeks away. Our editors are here to help you sort out the holiday hoopla and find the best notebook for you or your loved ones. We compiled a list of the 10 best things to remember when you go shopping for a new laptop.
Whether you’re looking for a new computer from an online retailer or standing in line at a brick and mortar electronics store the day after Thanksgiving, these 10 tips are exactly what you’ll need to know while sorting through the dozens (or hundreds) of available laptop PCs.
Despite what you might have heard in the latest TV commercials from Microsoft and Apple, the old argument of “Mac vs. PC” is about as pointless as “Honda vs. Toyota”; either choice will provide essentially the same functionality. The biggest difference between a PC running Windows 7 and a Mac running OS X Lion will be the user experience … and even that will be largely similar between the two.
The main reason that it doesn’t matter whether you buy a Windows 7 PC or an Apple MacBook is that the web browsers and most popular software work very similarly on both. Yes, there are differences to the user interface, but the majority of consumers looking for a new home computer won’t have a drastically different experience … particularly if all they do is browse the web or check email.
There is no denying that Apple makes some beautiful, well-built products with elegant designs, but you can find some impressive Windows PCs on store shelves as well. The only “Mac vs. PC” argument that might hold water today is that Macs are still less vulnerable to viruses or other malware (unless you go searching for free Mac software on shady websites). That said, free antivirus programs like Microsoft Security Essentials does a great job protecting your Windows PC as long as you aren’t visiting strange websites and clicking on things you shouldn’t.
2. 4GB of RAM is probably enough.
Luckily for all you Christmas shoppers, for the most part, you don’t have to worry about the amount of RAM in a laptop. Thanks to the horrible experience that was Windows Vista, PC manufacturers figured out that 4GB of RAM is a pretty good foundation for a Windows PC.
Yes, you’ll still find some bargain-priced PCs with less than 4GB of RAM, but even 3GB will likely be more than enough if you just want to browse websites, check email and edit the occasional photo or movie. “Serious” photo or video editing will be faster if you have more than 4GB of RAM, but extra memory is largely a waste of money for typical laptop users.
In fact, more RAM will not only cost you money, it will cost you battery life. All the RAM in your PC is powered on when your PC is on. Even if your applications are only using 2.5GB worth of memory, every single bit of RAM is sucking down wattage. If you’re running your laptop of battery power, then that battery is going to run down faster on a notebook with 8GB compared to a notebook with 3GB. Sure, we’re probably only talking about a difference of a few minutes of real world battery life, but if you’re on the road then chances are you want your battery to last as long as possible.
If you happen to be a serious photo/video editor or a gamer who wants lots of fast RAM then make sure you buy a PC with a 64-bit processor and Windows 7 64-bit. Without getting too technical, the 32-bit version of Windows can’t use more than 4GB of system memory (actually less, thanks to graphics) so you need a 64-bit system if you plan to buy more than 4GB of system memory.
3. It’s not just the amount of storage … it’s the speed.
Most consumers want a big hard drive to store all the family photos, downloaded songs, movies and games they plan to buy over the life of their PC. However, if you want your new PC to be “really” fast, then you need to buy fast storage.
The majority of bargain-priced laptops come with slow hard drives rated at 5400 revolutions per minute (rpm). A 5400rpm hard drive is cheap, but it’ also slow and it makes your new PC startup slow, launch applications slow, wakeup from sleep slow, shutdown slow … you get the picture. A 7200rpm hard drive is faster and will make your new laptop run faster (usually at a slightly higher cost).
If money is no object and you want the fastest storage available then consider buying a laptop with either a solid state drive (SSD) or a “hybrid” drive such as the Seagate Momentus XT. These drives cost more than a typical 7200rpm hard drive, but a SSD or hybrid drive will allow Windows 7 to startup in a fraction of the time it takes a laptop with a 5400rpm hard drive. SSDs also have better resistance to shock and vibration, so if you’re rough on your laptop then a SSD will probably keep your important data safer than a hard drive.
4. Pentium processors aren’t that good.
Gone are the days when the Intel Pentium processors were the best processors that money can buy. Our regular readers and discussion forum members are probably saying, “DUH” right about now, but there is a reason that Intel keeps using the Pentium brand: Many consumers don’t know better.
For those of you who haven’t been paying attention to processors since the 1990s, Intel now uses the Pentium brand name to label its low-cost, low-performance chips. A modern Pentium-branded processor is certainly better than the original Pentium chips of the 90s, but if you want the best consumer processors that Intel has to offer then you want a second generation Intel Core series processor: Core i3, Core i5, or Core i7.
Another reason we’re mentioning this is that I was watching an electronics showcase on a nationally broadcast home shopping channel and was amazed to hear the show announcer say, “You know you’re getting the best because this is an Intel Pentium processor.” Despite the gross distortion of the truth on television, many of the cheapest Intel-equipped laptops ($350 or less) available at major electronics retailers are using Pentium-branded processors.
These processors are fine for basic tasks like web browsing, email and getting work done in Microsoft Office, but the performance isn’t great and Pentium processors aren’t nearly as battery-friendly as the latest Intel Core series processors.
5. AMD “might” be better than Intel … depending on what you buy.
The second largest processor manufacturer for PCs, AMD, has developed some pretty impressive processors in 2011. AMD’s secret is FUSION; a term used to describe the combination of a traditional central processing unit (CPU) and a discrete graphics processing unit (GPU) onto a single chip. AMD calls these new processors the “Accelerated Processing Unit” (APU) but the only thing you have to remember is that this new type of processor provides significantly better graphics performance (compared to traditional processors in the same price range) for streaming videos online, watching Blu-ray movies or playing the latest games. Not only that, but APUs provide better battery life since there are fewer components on the motherboard to consume power and this also helps make laptops smaller and lighter.
This sounds GREAT … but there’s a catch. Most of the laptop manufacturers building AMD-based laptops use AMD processors only in budget notebooks. This means that “most” of the AMD-equipped laptops you’ll find in brick and mortar stores use the cheapest APUs that offer the weakest performance.
There are basically three types of AMD processors to look for: C-series, E-series and A-series. Laptops with C-series and E-series processors are generally the least expensive but offer the least performance. These processors are fine for casual use but if you’re buying an AMD laptop because you want impressive graphics then you need to look for a notebook with an A-series processor. The “A4” processors are dual-core FUSION processors with decent graphics. The “A6” and “A8” processors are quad-core chips that provide much better performance both in terms of general use and gaming.
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