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.
Configuring Your New Notebook
Intel's third generation of i3/i5/i7 core processors Ivy Bridge are almost universally seen in most laptops sold today. However, if you do find yourself faced with the choice between a Sandy Bridge processor and an Ivy Bridge, it is best to opt for latter. While Ivy Bridge only boasts a small performance boost over its predecessor, its models offer a significant die shrink, which helps reduce the power needed to operate the processor. Reducing power consumption equates to longer effective battery life, which is great for any mobile notebook device.
AMD Trinity Accelerated Processing Unit is another viable choice for consumers. The Trinity processor combines the central processor and graphics processor onto a single chip, while simultaneously offering low power consumption. The AMD series similar Intel offers three different classes the A6, A8, and A10. The AMD line of processors is not as powerful as Intel's, albeit they are more affordable than Intel chips and also offer a great deal of utility. The standout feature of the AMD Trinity APU is its integrated graphics cards, as they offer a high level of quality. One of the interesting additions to the AMD Trinity chip is its high quality integrate graphics cards. Normally for gaming buying and dedicated graphics card is a must; however higher end Trinity models such as the A10-4600M offer performance comparable to last generations dedicated GPUs. This kind of performance is adequate for gamers who want a gaming notebook on a budget, though if you want a machine that can run at visuals at a higher quality investing in a dedicated GPU is still a prerequisite.
So after you decide which make you want, you need to figure out just how much processing power you require. Most people are going to be served just fine with a Core i3 (A6) or i5 (A8), while video editors, for example, are going to be better served with the faster processors. Gamers can probably get away with the slower chips, but I'd highly recommend a faster processor.
Quad core chips have become more accessible, but are still relatively expensive and are adrain on battery life; they are identified by a "Q" next to the model number. If your notebook will be mostly stationary, used as your primary machine, and used for heavy gaming or video editing, you can make a case for a quad.
Now, if you're custom ordering a notebook from the manufacturer, it gets trickier. Avoid the most expensive chips; I try to go for the second or third least expensive chip they offer, as the increments in price are usually in line with the increments in performance. With limited exceptions, don't spend more than $150 upgrading the processor for most tasks, and major jumps in price are rarely worth it. If you're just doing word processing and Web surfing, even the slowest dual core processor they offer should fit your needs.
Most manufacturers offer 4GB of memory standard even on their lowest-end machines, and that's really what you need. A quick look to NewEgg.com shows notebooks with 4GB of memory starting at just $480.
In the past, manufacturers tended to gouge consumers on memory upgrades when custom ordering, but in recent years, this trend has changed, with only Apple really keeping up the habit. If an upgrade to 4GB of memory is less than $90, which is the cost of getting that much separately, go for it.
Upgrading past 4GB can still be expensive. Only video editors are going to need more, and even then, it's still questionable whether it's worth the added expense. On a desktop where it's an extra $100, it's not a big deal, but on a laptop where you're looking at closer to $300 to hit 8GB, it's not worth it unless the notebook is your primary editing station.
Additionally when it comes to purchasing extremely thin notebooks such as Ultrabooks, you should make sure that the machine you are purchasing offers enough RAM. Upgrading the RAM in Ultrabooks is extremely difficult if not impossible, that's why it is important that you make sure you have enough upon purchase. Though as we already stated, most machines come equipped with 4GB of RAM, which is more than enough for the average user.
If you are buying a new machine then that likely means it will be equipped with one of two Operating Systems, Windows 8 (Windows 8 RT for netbooks and convertible laptops) or OS X Mountain Lion. While Windows 8 has not yet officially hit shelves, the 90-day trial version has been released giving us a pretty solid idea of what the new OS will be like.
While the metro inspired tactile aesthetic of Windows 8 is a clear break away from the normal OS layout and may be making some consumers weary (possibly even reminding them of the travesty that was Windows Vista), consumers need not worry Windows 8 appears more than functional, though it is different.
Once consumers are able to learn the basics, they will find that the Windows 8 adds a great deal of utility to the consumer. Windows 8 is designed with touch-screen capability in mind, though the OS works perfectly fine with keyboard and mouse as well. The screen edges are active, allowing users to control in app navigation, search for programs, documents, and even share content. The start menu is gone in Windows 8 with the start screen in its place. Instead of navigating through menus users will be able to arrange a layout of live tiles which will update with content for the users right on the start screen. To launch an app or program all users will need to do is click on the corresponding tile. For those of you who want things to return the way that they were, a desktop mode is available, though users will still have to start in the standard Windows 8 startup screen to access the desktop mode. As far as the actual performance of Windows 8 is concerned it is actually comparable to Windows 7 in most areas while offering slightly faster boot up times.
On the other hand if you are purchasing an Apple product you will be receiving Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion. The most notable change with Mountain Lion is its increased integration with iCloud, such as documents in the cloud that shows you all of your corresponding documents upon launching an app. In all Mountain Lion adds over 200 new features. Many of these are of course small, but the culmination of them is an operating system which offers a great deal of ease to the consumers.
Regardless of whether you find yourself equipped with Mountain Lion or Windows 8/RT, both are quality Operating Systems and users will not have to worry about installing an old OS to have to avoid a dud.
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 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.
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.
Networking and Expandability
As far as network connectivity goes, pay attention to wireless networking, Bluetooth and actual wireless Internet access.
For wireless networking, I have a hard time recommending anything with less than 802.11n support. While it's true most networks are still stuck on 802.11g, n offers better and faster connectivity for home networks and the price has come down substantially. This shouldn't be a make-or-break decision, but I wouldn't go for less than n.
Bluetooth is a matter of taste. The chief uses are for wireless headsets, syncing with phones and wireless mice. It's your call whether you'll use it or not, but it's something to keep in mind.
Finally, there are wireless internet services from companies like Sprint and Verizon that require a monthly fee. Some notebooks have hardware built in to access the services, but you still need an account to join the network itself. Free-to-access wireless networks are fairly common, but if you're a road warrior that needs Internet access wherever your cell phone could get it, one of these services might be up your alley.
I'd also like to point out that all of these can be later upgraded through USB dongles, but the question is whether you want them integrated from the get go or if you want to buy the add-on later.
As for the remaining connectivity, it's going to be a matter of need, so I'll highlight some major ports and how you'll use them.
HDMI: Used to connect to external monitors and especially to HDTVs. If you plan to use your notebook as a media center to watch movies, an HDMI port is very useful.
56K Modem: If you need dial-up Internet access or a means to fax, there's definitely a case for having a modem in your computer. They are starting to disappear, but you can also buy external USB modems if the model of notebook you like doesn't offer it.
eSATA: This is ideal for backing up large amounts of data to an external hard drive, as eSATA is much faster than regular USB. Many notebooks come with a combination port that works as both eSATA and USB.
FireWire: At this juncture, the port is used almost entirely for digital video. If your video camera (or potential future video camera) uses FireWire to connect to the computer, you'll need it.
ExpressCard: This slot (which isn't found on most notebooks anymore) is a means of expanding the number or types of ports available on your laptop through add-in cards. If you need more USB ports, a FireWire port or an eSATA port, this is your best bet ... but today the ExpressCard slot is usually limited to mobile workstation business laptops and high-priced custom gaming notebooks.
Most manufacturers offer at least a 90-day warranty if not a full one-year. Most ASUS notebooks, when ordered online, offer a two-year warranty along with a one-year accidental damage warranty standard.
Upgrading your warranty is going to be a personal decision, but it's worth mentioning that retail outfits tend to make a lot amount of money from selling extended warranties, and I haven't seen one yet that merits it. At the end of the day, you're buying an insurance policy and peace of mind, whether you extend the warranty from the manufacturer or from a retailer. There's conventional wisdom that suggests that if a notebook doesn't fail during its warranty period, it's not liable to fail anytime soon, but I've seen a lot from some manufacturers that have bit the dust within weeks of the warranty expiring.
Take a look at our latest warranty guide for more information about warranties.
Ultimately when you purchase a new machine, it's about choosing what suits your needs first, and what fits your budget second. In some cases, a higher price means a better peace of mind. You don't want to outright sell the machine and buy a new one later on or worse, try to get by with a computer that isn't as productive as possible.
Making that purchase can be very tough, too. Manufacturers don't make it easy, and I'm not a big fan of a lot of what's on the market right now, at least aesthetically. Interface is important, too; the keyboard, touchpad and screen are how you interact with the computer, so whenever possible -- even if you're ordering online -- go to a local store and get a feel for the machine or at least something fairly comparable. I can't stress enough how important the user experience can be.
Finally, I'd like to reiterate advice I've offered in the past: don't wait for "the next big thing." It's always going to be around the corner. Buy when you need it. If you can afford to wait, the only reason I'd suggest waiting for the next sea change is because old technology gets marked down on the eve of the new stuff. But technology is constantly changing and it?s not worth trying to keep up with it. Get what you need when you need it.