by Dustin Sklavos
If you’re a technology enthusiast like I am, custom ordering a laptop online is like some kind of bizarre but highly enjoyable game. It’s a balancing act, but it’s also like getting to go to the toy store and pick out what you want to take home.
However, if you’re reading this you’re not like me. In fact, if you’re reading anything on NotebookReview.com it probably means you’re looking for help while trying to purchase a new laptop. Don’t worry … you’re not alone. When most people go to order a laptop online, the smorgasboard of options turns into a nightmare. Is a faster processor worth the extra $25? What about the one that’s $50 more? Do I need the GeForce graphics card or is the Intel thingy acceptable?
The problem gets compounded by well-meaning but clueless shoppers. It’s okay if you’re one of those people. Companies spend large amounts of money on advertising every year so that when you go to buy a laptop you say things like, “It must have Intel!” “I’m gonna have a lot of programs so I need a big hard drive!” And so on. My job here is to keep you from making expensive mistakes and arm you with the information you require to make an informed decision in how you custom build your new notebook. In fact, some of this advice will even help you if you decide to purchase a pre-configured notebook online or at a local retail store.
I’ll go through each of the major components and try to give you the best advice I can.
The reality is that most programs these days outside of games aren’t going to tax the processor that much. That’s why, for the vast majority of users, even just the brand of processor – AMD or Intel – isn’t going to matter. Still, there are a couple of major recommendations to make here.
First, if extreme battery life is going to be important to you, take AMD’s processors out of the equation. At the the time of this writing, AMD’s mobile processors have lackluster battery life compared to their Intel equivalents. If your laptop is going to spend the vast majority of its life plugged in, then AMD becomes a solid choice for people on a budget who don’t need a lot out of their computer.
Second, with the importance of battery life and thus buying an Intel processor, you’re actually going to want to pursue Intel’s mid-range. These processors are characterized by a “P” prefix on the model number instead of a “T.” Power consumption on these is moderately lower and can help extend battery life.
Third, just buy a dual core processor. Don’t buy a Celeron, don’t buy a Sempron. Intel and AMD both have inexpensive dual core processors on the market.
Now you need to decide how much power you require. If you’re going to be doing serious multimedia work, like video editing, motion graphics, and so on, consider spending more on the processor. You’ll want a Core 2 Duo or even Quad, depending on the price. At this juncture you also need to decide how much you’re willing to spend on the processor and adjust accordingly. Typically there’s a massive difference in price between the most expensive processor and the next one on the list, and I’ll save you some grief: it’s not worth it.
When looking at the more minor differences – say a $50 difference between one processor and another that’s at least 200MHz faster – it’s going to be up to you. Remember, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with choosing a middle-of-the-road processor.
I am, however, going to make an odd recommendation at the end here: if you plan on gaming on your laptop on a seriously low budget, rule out Intel processors. While the processor itself is faster, the less expensive graphics options for Intel processors (the integrated graphics) are vastly inferior to offerings for AMD processors.
This is an easy one. The average PC user will seldom need more than 2GB of memory; media buffs and gamers may want to look at 4GB, though even regular users won’t exactly be hurting if they make this bump. Do not bother with 3GB. And some manufacturers will offer 8GB at an obscenely high price – don’t bother.
The price of upgrading memory direct from the manufacturer can often be absurdly high. Apple in particular tends to charge unreasonably high prices in this category. It’s at this point that you as a consumer should know the following:
- Memory is often much cheaper to order online separately.
- It’s also extraordinarily easy to install and/or upgrade memory.
The overwhelming majority of modern laptops make it easy to upgrade memory yourself without voiding the warranty, and doing so is a five minute job at most. Odds are the user manual will even tell you how.
So unless the manufacturer has some kind of special deal on a free memory upgrade, avoid upgrading through the manufacturer and just buy the memory through an online retailer like NewEgg.com or Amazon.com.
This is another easy one. First of all, until the arrival of Windows 7, you’re stuck with Windows Vista. While I’ve railed against it in the past, honestly, a modern installation of Windows Vista is pretty nice and certainly the most stable operating system I’ve ever used … even more than Windows XP.
Do not buy Windows Vista Home Basic, Business, or Ultimate. Home Basic is too stripped down; Business and Ultimate are going to offer features you’re not likely to need, and Business may even remove features you might have used. This pretty much leaves you with Home Premium.
If you’re running 4GB of memory, choose the 64-bit version of Windows Vista and not the 32-bit. 64-bit Windows Vista is designed to handle large amounts of memory.
This is a matter of preference and it must be dealt with on three fronts: capacity, speed, and SSD vs. hard disk.
First, in terms of capacity, if you’re just storing programs, documents, and pictures, you probably won’t need more than 160GB of space. If you’re going to be storing/editing video, max out the capacity.
Second, in terms of speed you’re looking at either 5400rpm or 7200rpm. While I personally think 5400rpm drives are too slow, most users aren’t going to need the snappier performance of a 7200rpm one, and the premium you pay for a 7200rpm drive may not be worth it. If you’re doing multimedia work, though, just get the 7200rpm. The drive is the biggest performance bottleneck you’re going to run up against, so you might as well make it as fast as possible.
Finally, Solid State Drives (SSDs), are starting to become increasingly popular for laptop users. These are still prohibitively expensive, but they’re the fastest storage you can buy and can survive impacts and vibration that would destroy a standard hard disk drive. The big problems with SSDs are the high price and mediocre capacity at the time of this writing. If you simply must have the fastest computer you can get, you can upgrade to a SSD, but that’s going to be an expensive mistake for the vast majority of users.
Here’s another easy one. First, the drive should be able to write DVDs, period. DVDs are still one of the best ways to back up your stuff, so that ability is fairly essential.
Second, are you planning on watching Blu-ray movies? You are? Then get the Blu-ray drive. If you’re not, don’t bother.
And finally, LabelFlash and LightScribe are cute accessories that let you use the drive to actually write an image to the top of the disc if you use special discs. They’re usually only about a $10 premium, so I tend to fork it over, but if money’s tight don’t bother. I can’t remember the last time I’ve used LightScribe, and I’ve never had a LabelFlash drive, so there you go.
This is one of the trickier ones. Honestly, choosing a display should be easy, but it’s not.
First, if it’s possible to get an LED-backlit screen, consider doing so. The expense is usually about $100 extra, but the picture will be much brighter and LED-backlighting notably reduces the power consumption of the screen, which is typically the most power-hungry component in the laptop.
Second, resolution. This basically defines the number of pixels wide by tall the screen has; the higher the resolution, the smaller the text will be, but the more you can fit on your desktop. Now my eyesight is pretty bad, so I typically go for the lowest resolution screen available for the laptop I buy, but if you’ve got pretty great eyesight you may be happier with a higher resolution one. So let’s look at the “pros” and “cons” here.
Reasons to go for lower resolution: If you have poor eyesight, if you’re not going to be doing anything too complicated with the laptop, or if you’re going to be gaming on it. This last one is going to generate some complaints and comments, I know it, but games look better at the native resolution of the laptop screen, and mobile graphics often don’t have the horsepower to drive games at higher resolutions. This results in having to play the games at a lower resolution than native, which gives you a less attractive, scaled-up image.
Reasons to go for high resolution: if you have excellent eyesight, if you’re going to be doing media work or any other work that may require a wealth of desktop space.
First of all, if you’re going to do any gaming on your laptop, rule out Intel graphics as an option. Performance of Intel’s graphics is dismal. You should be looking at either a Nvidia GeForce or an ATI Radeon. And remember, what you order, you’re stuck with. You can’t just try and save bread on buying Intel graphics now and upgrade later; you can’t upgrade. Let me repeat this, because this is probably the most irritating thing to continuously pop up on the forums here: You cannot upgrade your laptop graphics. The only laptops that can be upgraded are the laptops purchased by people who don’t need to read this article. You cannot upgrade your laptop graphics.
So, if you’re gaming, or think you might game in the future, choose an ATI Radeon or Nvidia GeForce graphics card. If the manufacturer doesn’t offer either of these as an option for your laptop, find a different laptop to order.
Now what if the manufacturer has multiple options, multiple Radeons and/or GeForces? Spend as much as you’re comfortable with. This is usually a good place to stretch that budget if you’re a gamer. You usually can’t go wrong with more graphics power.
You remember back in the processor section when I mentioned gamers on a budget should go AMD? The integrated graphics typically available with AMD processors tend to have enough horsepower to run most modern games at low settings, so if you’re on a seriously tight budget, this is something to consider. The Radeon HD 3100/3200/3300 – and the GeForces – are good choices for the frugal gamer.
There are three things to look at here: wireless networking, Bluetooth, and actual wireless internet access (3G, etc.)
For wireless networking, you’ll want to spend up for an Intel adaptor on Intel-based laptops. From there, you might as well go for wireless-n as it typically isn’t a major expense. On AMD laptops, just spend up for wireless-n for the sake of futureproofing.
As far as Bluetooth is concerned, I typically add the upgrade since it’s only about $10 and it means you can purchase a Bluetooth mouse that doesn’t require a receiver and just syncs with the laptop itself. And finally, Bluetooth can be used to communicate with your Bluetooth-enabled phone. Typically your phone’s manufacturer will offer software that lets you manage the files on your Bluetooth phone, so that’s something to consider.
And finally, wireless internet access via Verizon or 3G. That’s going to be your call, since these upgrades also require subscriptions.
Keep in mind that all of these can be upgraded later with a USB dongle, so if your budget is tight you can always go for the cheapest one and just buy a USB adapter later and use that.
This is the tricky part. I don’t spring for extended warranties as a general rule, but you may want to consider one. This is entirely a matter of personal preference and how much you want to spend for peace of mind. Most manufacturers maintain a one year limited parts and labor warranty standard, and you pay to upgrade it to add more years or better tech support.
So you have to decide if you want what amounts to an insurance policy on your laptop. No one will fault you if you decide to live without, but if you think you may need it or just want the peace of mind, there’s no shame in springing for it either.
So here we are, at the end of it. Of course, this isn’t all there is to ordering a laptop online; manufacturers will try to convince you to buy all kinds of extras, like printers, carrying bags, mice, monitors, and so on, but that’s all stuff you can get elsewhere and likely get for less money.
I hope I’ve managed to simplify the buying process for you. It’s one of those unfortunate situations where in the process of trying to make things more consumer-friendly, it can get needlessly complicated and even daunting. Most consumers don’t know the difference between a Pentium Dual-Core and a Core 2 Duo and most don’t need to; it’s one of those bizarre things that’s been the status quo but is of utterly no use to most computer users. All of the major manufacturers are guilty of putting a wide range of parts on the market that honestly are so incrementally different that it’s often not even worth the trouble trying to figure them out.
There’s one last piece of advice I have for you: If you need a laptop now then buy a laptop now. Don’t wait. The next big change in technology is always going to be around the corner. If you wait for the next thing you’re going to wait forever. There’s always going to be something that will come out and make you wish you waited, and that’s just the nature of modern technology. If you need it, just buy it.