Notebook Buying Guide: How To Buy The Right Laptop

by Reads (197,421)

Article originally published by Dustin Sklavos and recently updated by NBR Assistant Site Editor Michael Wall, with direction and additions by NBR Editor and Managing Editor Jerry Jackson.

While I’m not an Apple user myself, I understand the products’ appeal: Apple computers are simple to use without too much customization or a lot of confusing hardware specs. 

Personally, I love shopping for desktop parts and comparing specs of Windows-based notebooks. For me, the research is actually more fun than the purchase itself. But it’s well known that shopping for a notebook, whether online or in a retail store, can be daunting since there are  so many options and a lot of different processors. While it’s ideal to find a few laptops in the store, write down their model numbers, and research them at home by browsing reviews, sifting through all the available options on your own can be tough.

With that in mind, before we show you how to choose a notebook, here are some important points to consider.

What Do You Need?

Your search for a notebook should be guided by purpose first, price second. Shopping for the cheapest machine you can get and thinking about what you’ll use it for later is a great way to get exactly what you don’t want. You’ll get frustrated when suddenly — gasp! — it doesn’t fulfill your needs. I’ve seen it happen before, and our forums are rife with examples of disappointment, especially people who want to play games and didn’t research first. For 99% of users, all you can really upgrade are the hard drive and RAM. If a notebook has an ExpressCard slot, you can use it to add FireWire or eSATA ports with add-on cards (assuming the notebook doesn’t already include them) for digital video and faster transfers from external hard drives. But everything else is going to be set in stone, so taking a “what you see is what you get” approach is going to pay off in spades. Besides, it’s likely you’ll find a notebook that suits your purposes under many reasonable budgets.

The first, and most important, question is, “Are you going to use this computer as your primary machine?” However you answer it is going to greatly affect your search. If it’s your primary computer, size is going to be a major factor. You should also ask yourself, how often do you plan on being mobile with it? How often will it run on the battery? How big does it need to be in order to be comfortable for you? These are going to be personal questions to think about, but you can check out individual machines in retail and at least get a feel for what you want. Personally, I’d go for the mainstream 15.6-inch laptop in this instance, up to a 16-inch or 17-inch if the notebook is barely going to be mobile and will almost never be used on the battery.

Now, for the purposes of this article, there are three essential use classes: internet and word processing, multimedia production and editing, and gaming. Internet and word processing is the least taxing group of tasks you can use your computer for, and even a netbook can generally handle them, so in this instance, you’re probably fine just choosing based on your budget.

Multimedia production and editing — editing photos and especially videos — benefit from a fast hard drive and processor, and a large high-resolution screen. If this is going to be your primary machine, I encourage you to pick up a larger external monitor, since the more real estate to work with, the better. Though I caution people interested in video editing to avoid using a notebook as their primary machine and to pony up for a faster desktop. The gulf between notebook and desktop performance is very wide these days, and you can get far more machine for your money from a desktop.

Finally, if you’re a serious gamer, I discourage you from spending a lot of money on a high-end gaming notebook. Hardware advances far too quickly for your machine to have a substantial lifespan at the top of the food chain, and you will pay out the nose for performance. For example, consumers will have to pay exponentially more for notebook graphics cards than you would otherwise spend on a similar desktop unit. That being said, if you are gaming on the go, you’ll want a machine with dedicated GPU from NVidia or ATI, a mid-range processor, and low-resolution screen that won’t tax the graphics too hard. Gaming on a notebook is an exercise in compromise, but it can be done.

Form Factors And Battery Life

There are five major classes of laptops these days: netbooks, thin-and-light, ultrabooks, convertible laptops, and notebooks proper.

Netbooks are tiny and generally underpowered; useful only for moderate Web surfing and some word processing. A major benefit is that netbooks tend to have outstanding battery life thanks to the ubiquitous Intel Atom processor that powers them, and they’re very portable. While they’re only useful for basic tasks and are thus undesirable as primary machines, they are excellent companions for taking notes in class or just keeping up while on the road. It is important to note though that netbooks according to many manufacturers are nearing the end of their life cycle. For example, Asus the pioneers of the netbook have already stopped producing them. With manufactures halting production on netbooks it could become difficult to receive support for these devices after purchase. Regardless if you are looking for an extremely portable and cost friendly device to use for simple processes, it’s difficult to beat the netbook.

Convertible Laptops offer the portable ease of a tablet, with the standard keyboard and comfort of a laptop. The key feature of convertible laptops is the ability to detach the screen and use it as a self-functioning tablet. However, that also means that all of the major components within the device must be present within the display itself.  This results in major concessions to the important features such as storage, processing power, and RAM. That being said, the convertible laptop is much like the netbook, in that it will suffice for basic internet and word processing needs. Additionally most convertible laptops carry an additional battery reserve within their keyboard dock, providing them with long lasting battery life that further augments the device’s use as a portable notebook.

Thin-and-light notebooks use low voltage and ultra low voltage processors from Intel and AMD, and are designed to strike a balance between a netbook’s high battery life and mobility and a notebook’s broad range of uses. Like mainstream notebooks, their processors are fully-featured but clocked low to reduce heat and power consumption. As a result, they tend to have thinner chassis, are more portable, and often produce very reasonable battery life. In some cases, they even game halfway decently, depending on their specs (see our review of the Samsung Series 5 notebook). Often this class of laptops use AMD Accelerated Processing Units (APUs) or low-voltage Intel Core processors.

Ultrabook notebooks are similar to thin-and-light notebooks in that they offer portable machines, with long battery life, without sacrificing too much processing power. However, the Ultrabook is a concept developed by Intel, meaning that all Ultrabook devices adhere to set of standards set by Intel and use Intel components. Ultrabooks are generally best for users who are looking to perform to basic word processing functions, though more Ultrabooks are becoming specialized to meet particular needs, particularly within the work place. For example, manufactures are producing Ultrabooks with “vPro” enabled processors (see our review of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon) offering a greater level of control to employers and IT managers.

At the top of the food chain are mainstream notebooks proper. They employ a broad range of processors and configurations, and hit an array of different price points, sizes and uses. Next to netbooks, they’re also often the least expensive notebooks on the market, for better or worse. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be writing largely about shopping for them, since as you go the further down the food chain, there are less available configuration options, and more personal preference is involved. If need a high performance processor, this is the class that you’re most likely going to be interested in.

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