Although things like processors, RAM and hard drives make a big difference in the performance of a laptop, two of the commonly overlooked components that are essential to a good laptop are the keyboard and the touchpad.
These two input devices are the two things you’re going to be using most on your new laptop. Trust us, two months after you buy your new computer you won’t care if the processor is a little slow but you’ll be driven insane if the keyboard makes typing unpleasant or the touchpad doesn’t work the way it should. On that note, here are a few things to watch out for when trying to find the right laptop.
The best laptop keyboards are the ones with firm support underneath the entire keyboard structure. Some laptops have loose keyboards that flex or “bounce” under the pressure of your fingertips while you type. This flex not only feels unpleasant but it often causes typos and severe keyboard flex can even result in failure of the keyboard over time. If you’re planning to use your laptop during your next flight or if you want to type in a dimly lit room then you might also want to get a laptop with a LED-backlit keyboard. These help you see what keys you’re typing but laptops with LED-backlit keyboards are usually more expensive than a laptops with standard keyboards … and some cheap LED keyboards suffer from severe flex.
The best touchpads have excellent sensitivity and minimal lag so the cursor on the screen moves precisely along with your fingertip on the touchpad. Larger touchpads are generally a good thing (particularly if you plan on using multi-touch gestures on the touchpad surface). Touchpad buttons are just as important. Most people want soft, cushioned buttons that don’t make a loud “click” every time you press the buttons. Many modern notebooks have “buttonless” touchpads with either physical buttons located beneath the bottom edge of the touchpad or the buttons are “electronic” and activated only when you tap the bottom corners of the touchpad. With the exception of the touchpad on the Apple MacBook Pro, most buttonless touchpads don’t work as well as touchpads with traditional buttons.
Speaking of new things that don’t work as well as traditional solutions, let’s talk about glossy screens. The overwhelming majority of modern laptops come with one of two types of displays: annoyingly glossy or VERY annoyingly glossy.
The root cause of the problem dates back to the early days of laptops in the 1990s and early 2000s. The first laptops with color displays usually came with matte screens that made it easy to see what was on the screen under bright indoor lights or even direct sunlight, but color saturation on these old matte displays was pretty weak and the contrast was downright horrible; everything looked “washed out” compared to an old CRT or quality desktop LCD monitor.
Laptop manufacturers realized that they could improve color saturation and contrast on cheap LCD panels if they used a glossy screen surface instead of a matte screen. This indeed made the screens look nicer … at the cost of usability. Glossy screens reflect light. Room lights located behind you or above you in rooms with low ceilings cause annoying bright spots on the screen that block your view. Take a laptop with a glossy screen outside during a day when the sun isn’t hiding behind clouds and you’ll find it very difficult to see anything on the screen. If you turn off a laptop with a glossy screen you can even use the screen as a mirror (I know, I shaved with one on a YouTube video a few years ago).
Unfortunately, despite the well-known problems with glossy screens, the “big box” brick and mortar retailers have largely forced manufacturers to keep producing them. The reason is simple: laptops with glossy screens look good in big box stores with high ceilings because the lights are out of the way and the reflections don’t look as bad. Shoppers see the shiny screens with the bright colors and the rich contrast and they usually buy those laptops instead of the ones that have matte screens.
If you search our discussion forums or search Facebook and Twitter, you’ll find many, MANY laptop owners who found out too late that glossy screens make life difficult. If you want to buy a new notebook with a matte screen then you’ll probably have to buy a custom-built laptop online or visit multiple local stores before you find a pre-built laptop with a matte screen.
8. PC gaming isn’t what it used to be.
The world of PC gaming is always changing, but the world of PC gaming on laptops has really changed in the last year or two. Years ago the only way to play modern games on a laptop PC was to buy a massive, expensive laptop with a powerful dedicated/discrete graphics card. Within the last two years we’ve seen ultraportable notebooks equipped with “good enough” discrete graphics that can handle playing “most” modern games at native screen resolution (1366×768) with good detail settings and fast frame rates.
In 2011, Intel’s second-generation Core series processors (Sandy Bridge) hit the market with new integrated graphics that are 17x faster than the previous generation. The latest Intel graphics still aren’t particularly good at delivering a great gaming experience, and there are some titles that won’t play at all on Intel graphics, but you can play more games on a new Intel laptop today than ever before.
If that isn’t good enough, cloud gaming might just make high performance gaming notebooks completely unnecessary. Services like OnLive make it possible to play some of the latest games (ones that typically require PCs with expensive, powerful specs) on almost any PC with a decent internet connection. The editors at NotebookReview played DiRT3, Mafia II, and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood with great detail settings and frame rates on a budget-oriented $450 laptop with an Intel Core i3 processor and integrated graphics. That would be impossible without cloud gaming. Microsoft might even be getting into the game next year with Windows 8 and Xbox Live integration … we’ll just have to wait and see.
Bottom line, it’s “possible” to have a good gaming experience with a cheap laptop this Christmas.
9. If you want the best, be ready to pay for it.
On the other hand, if the handful of games available via OnLive aren’t enough and a budget laptop doesn’t have the horsepower for your daily work, then you may indeed want a well-equipped notebook with a powerful multi-core processor, tons of fast RAM, high-capacity SSDs, dedicated graphics, Blu-ray drive, 1080p 3D display, extended-life battery and even an all-metal chassis.
These kinds of premium notebooks exist … but you better be ready to spend some serious coin. A premium multimedia and gaming notebook like the 17-inch Toshiba Qosmio X775-3DV80 with the best specs, built-in 3D display with 3D glasses, a 500GB hybrid drive and 750GB 7200rpm hard drive (1.25TB of high-speed storage) and all the optional extras has the “premium” price tag of around $1,899.99 at the time of this writing.
Alternatively, you could buy the 15-inch Toshiba Satellite C655D-S5300 with basic AMD E-series processor and a 320GB 5400rpm hard drive at Best Buy for $382.99 … but there’s a mighty big difference in the build quality and performance of these two notebooks.
10. If you don’t “need” a new laptop, consider upgrading what you’ve got.
One last thing to keep in mind before you go looking for that new notebook computer is, “Do you really need a new computer?” Everyone knows that times are tough financially all over the globe. If you already have a perfectly functional computer then you might not “need” to buy a new one.
Sometimes upgrading the old hard drive in your current laptop to a faster hard drive or SSD along with a clean install of Windows 7 is all you need to transform a sluggish notebook into a PC that you can live with for another year or more. Windows 8 won’t be here soon, but it’s “probably” going to be here by next Christmas along with a number of new laptops and tablets designed specifically to take advantage of the new features in Windows 8. It might make more sense to buy a new hard drive and a copy of Windows 7 than to buy a new laptop for Christmas.
Then again, sometimes you just need to get a new computer and the holiday sales are as good a time as any. Just remember these 10 tips while you’re browsing the latest laptops. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy the holidays.
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