Notebook Buying Guide: How To Buy The Right Laptop

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Storage and Optical drives

It used to be true that Solid State Drives (SSDs) were too expensive to be worth the marginal benefits that they add to the consumer. However, as costs continue to drop and storage capacity continues to rise, SSDs are becoming a viable option for consumers. Today, many more notebooks offer SSDs options to buyers. With faster load times, better performance, and lower battery consumption SSDs are certainly worth consideration. Thus, if you are looking for that extra performance boost and don’t mind the additional price increase, SSDs are an ideal choice.

The smaller mSATA SSDs are also becoming a viable option for consumers. While they are still rather pricy, mSATA drives (check out our review of MyDigitalSSD BP3 256GB mSATA SSD) offer comparable speed and performance of SATA SSDs in a much smaller package, making them the standard choice for most Ultrabooks and other thin compact notebooks. Additionally, mSATA SSDs also make for great windows boot drives or second storage drives helping to further increase performance and storage capacity. While this is undoubtly a more expensive option its one I’d highly recommend for power users (such as gamers and video editors).

However, if you’re looking to get the most out of your money, standard hard drives are still your best option as they offer far more space for lower costs with speeds that are more than acceptable for the average user.

When deciding which HDD to buy there are two functions: speed and capacity. Notebook drives typically come in 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM flavors; 7200 RPM drives are faster and generally offer the same battery life as their slower counterparts since they typically require less time to load data, which can balance the power savings of the lower speed. Multimedia enthusiasts and gamers will want to opt for a faster drive, though less demanding users may enjoy the snappier performance of a 7200 RPM drive. Remember: programs, videos and music load off of the hard drive and into memory, and the hard drive is often the slowest part of the computer (next to the optical drive). I don’t use any slower than 7200 RPM, and if a notebook comes with a 5400 RPM drive, I’ll factor the cost of upgrading into my decision.

Capacity is a little foggier. Photos, music, documents and applications consume very little space, while games and video can eat up storage.. Most notebooks come with 250 GB to 320 GB of storage minimum, which should be fine for a secondary notebook. If it’s your primary machine, you may want to look into a 500GB drive, though you can also buy external hard drives later or even upgrade the internal drive, one of a few easy upgrades for most users.

As for an optical drive, it’s easy. If you want to watch Blu-ray discs, pony up for a machine with a dedicated Blu-ray drive. Otherwise, a basic DVD writer should be fine. Some drives also offer LabelFlash or LightScribe, technologies that directly write to the label of special discs designed for them, which are pricey. I wouldn’t go out of my way to look for either of them, but if a computer comes with one or the upgrade (assuming you’re ordering online) is about $10, I’d go for it as an added bonus.

Blu-ray writers are, with limited exception, not worth the expense. The writable discs themselves are expensive and most users are better off buying an external hard drive if they need to back up large quantities of data. If you’re making your own Blu-ray discs to distribute, then that’s a corner case that can be justified. Otherwise, the writers aren’t worth it.

Screen/ Display

Screen resolution is going to be a major factor as is how much information it can display at a given time. In retail, this decision is largely out of your hands, but when custom ordering a machine, many manufacturers allow you to choose.

Lower resolution: The screens are usually cheaper, and are better for gaming situations where running games at higher resolutions may tax a notebook’s graphics hardware. Likewise, if you have poor eyesight (like yours truly), the lowest resolution may be ideal. It’s true that Windows 7 has excellent text scaling options to make text more readable at high resolutions, but I have yet to see an implementation that doesn’t result in odd window behavior or other corner cases.

Higher resolution: If your eyesight is excellent or if you’re doing serious multimedia work, a higher resolution screen pays off in a major way.. A high-resolution screen provides much greater workspace and finer detail within the same physical dimensions as a screen with a lower resolution. If you have extremely powerful graphics hardware under the hood that can handle the added strain, games can also look better.

 

Graphics

As with most sections in this guide, the biggest difference between a laptop and a desktop is upgrades: and the most important thing to remember about laptops graphics is that you cannot upgrade laptop graphics. There are a few rare exceptions to this rule, but the general fact of the matter is that you’re stuck with whatever graphics card comes with your notebook at the time of purchase. If graphics are important to you then you should purchase the best graphics card available for your laptop that fits within your budget at the time of purchase.

Keep in mind that high-performance graphics aren’t just for playing the latest visually intense first-person shooter game. In fact, most video playback, video editing, and image editing applications now make use of “GPU acceleration” meaning that the software uses both the processor (CPU) and the graphics card (GPU) to process video and images as quickly as possible.

If you’re not playing games, editing hundreds of images in Photoshop, or editing HD video on your laptop, then integrated graphics are going to be fine. In fact, if you aren’t doing the three things mentioned above you’ll probably never notice the difference between integrated and dedicated graphics. For those of you who don’t already know, integrated graphics is anything  labeled as “Intel” graphics. This class of graphics shares the system RAM and uses it to drive the images on the screen. AMD Radeon graphics can sometimes be integrated as well, but in most cases and notebook with AMD Radeon graphics or NVIDIA GeForce graphics usually contains a dedicated or “discrete” graphics card with its own dedicated RAM which isn’t shared with the system RAM used by the CPU.

The two main benefits of integrated graphics are low cost and low power consumption. The simple reality is that notebooks with integrated graphics are cheaper because the manufacturer isn’t buying a separate GPU and putting it inside the laptop. Likewise, if you use integrated graphics the notebook’s battery doesn’t have to supply power to a separate GPU and separate graphics memory … meaning the battery lasts longer.

Of course, the main reason to buy a notebook with dedicated graphics is the substantial increase in graphics performance. A discrete Radeon or GeForce graphics card might consumer more battery power but you get a visually superior experience when gaming and you get faster rendering of video and still images when editing high definition content.

When it comes to serious gaming, there is a long-standing rivalry between NVIDIA and AMD (formerly ATI). In reality, most people (even serious gamers) won’t notice a huge difference between the performance of a new gaming notebook with AMD Radeon graphics or one with NVIDIA GeForce graphics. Both companies usually play a game of “leap frog” at various times every few months; AMD will release a new line of mobile graphics cards that surpasses NVIDIA and a little while later NVIDIA releases GPUs that are better than AMD … at least until the cycle starts all over again.

The biggest “real world” difference for most laptop buyers comes down to driver (software) updates and whether or not the manufacturer of your notebook complies with the driver update rules provided by AMD and NVIDIA. For example, NVIDIA might release a new driver that doubles the frame rate in a new game and delivers an overall better gaming experience. If AMD doesn’t have that driver update then NVIDIA will provide the superior gaming experience (or vice versa if AMD has a driver update that NVIDIA doesn’t).  However, even if AMD and NVIDIA make new drivers available for download  it’s possible that your laptop manufacturer has “locked down” the graphics driver and only allows approved drivers to be installed. In short, don’t worry so much about “AMD or NVIDIA” and focus on the overall price/performance of the graphics card in question.

The latest NVIDIA graphics cards for consumers are the GeForce 600M series graphics. The NVIDIA GPUs include the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 675M, GeForce GTX 670M, and GeForce GTX 660M in the “enthusiast” segment (hardcore gamers); GeForce GT 650M, GeForce GT 640M, and GeForce GT 640M LE in the “performance” segment (multimedia and basic gaming) and GeForce GT 620M and GT 630M in the “mainstream” segment (people who want something just a little better than integrated graphics).

All of the current generation 600M series support NVIDIA’s Optimus technology. Optimus automatically shuts down the dedicated graphics and switches to the integrated graphics built into every mobile Core i3, i5 or Core i7, thus giving you the best battery life when you aren’t doing something that is visually intense and the best graphics performance when you are. Optimus requires Windows 7 or Windows 8 and the notebook to support it, but it’s a great way to get dedicated graphics performance with integrated graphics battery life.

AMD approaches the consumer graphics market a bit differently. AMD produces both traditional discrete graphics cards like the GeForce 600M series mentioned above, but AMD also produces a line of mobile processors called Accelerated Processing Units (APUs) that combine both a low-wattage multi-core CPU and a discrete-class GPU on a single chip. In the case of AMD’s A-series APUs, this means you can buy a mainstream laptop and get integrated graphics that performs as well as the mainstream class dedicated graphics found in the NVIDIA GeForce 620M or 630M cards. Translation, some AMD notebooks (like the Samsung Series 5 with A10 processor) delivers exceptional gaming performance for less than $700.

On the other hand, if you want to stick with an Intel processor you can still find plenty of notebooks using higher-end AMD Radeon dedicated graphics cards like the top-of-the-line Radeon HD 7970M GPU or a lower-priced multimedia laptop from Toshiba, Sony, Samsung, or others with Radeon HD 7550M, Radeon HD 7670M, or Radeon HD 7730M dedicated graphics in the $700 to $800 price range.

Finally, you can largely ignore the advertised video memory. Manufacturers will advertise absurd amounts of video memory exceeding 1GB but the reality is that most graphics cards won’t use even a full 1GB of video memory so 2GB or more is essentially a waste of your money. Our advice: if you care about graphics you need to look at what chip is being used, not how much video memory it has.

 



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