How to buy the perfect laptop

How to buy the perfect laptop

Summary: It used to be hard to make a decision on which laptop to buy. But with all the new options available, it's even harder.

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  • It wasn't so long ago when the basic decisions you had to make when buying a laptop were how much you were willing to spend, the screen size, weight, chip power, and internal storage. Now it just begins with form factor.

    Check out this gallery of advice based on a post by that will help make your decision a lot easier.

    1. Choose your form factor

    We break notebooks down into five categories by weight, with some overlap: netbooks (usually less than 2.2lbs.), ultraportables (3.3lbs.-4.4lbs), thin and lights (2.2lbs-3.3lbs, mainstream models (4.4lbs-8.8lbs) and desktop replacements (generally 8.8lbs or heavier).

    New netbooks are rare things, but you can still get one if you really try. They were effectively killed off by the price drop of considerably more powerful mainstream laptops, the MacBook Air 11 and ultrabooks bringing portability at a good price.

    These days, you can pick one up for under US$300, but we'd advise you to steer clear; there are simply better options and experiences available now.

    While there are still a few ultraportables around, like Sony's Vaio Z series and Alienware's M11x R3, they have effectively been killed off by thin-and-light laptops, or what Intel calls ultrabooks. Occupying the 11- to 13-inch space, thin-and-light laptops can now genuinely claim extra portability with minimal performance sacrifice. Going for between US$999 and US$2300 depending on build quality, storage capacity, aesthetics and branding, thin and lights are the natural evolution of the category defined by Apple's MacBook Air. Don't expect optical drives here, but battery life in this category is generally excellent.

    Mainstream laptops are like budget desktops; they're good for general tasks, but they won't win any contests for their performance. They're significantly thicker than the newest thin-and-light laptops to hit the shelves, but typically come with more ports and generally have more powerful processors and dedicated graphics cards, usually at the detriment to battery life.

    This category is set for a shake-up in 2012, with many analysts expecting things to get thinner — whether this is at the sacrifice of ports remains to be seen.

    If you want desktop power, you need a desktop replacement. With screen sizes of 16- to 18-inches, weight as heavy as 6 kilograms and average battery life of less than three hours, these behemoths are not for people on the go. They can accommodate a wide range of performance parts, however, and are just right for power users of all kinds.

  • The CPU and you

    When it comes to processors, a general rule of thumb is to buy the fastest that you can afford. Problem is, it's not all just about speed these days. A GHz from one family of CPUs doesn't equal a GHz from another.

    There's also the question of how many cores you should get. Entry level these days is dual core, which will suit most people just fine. There are also triple-core and quad-core processors out there, but keep in mind that not all applications take advantage of this extra power. Some video-encoding applications, 3D applications and games will use them, though, so if you're a content-production maniac or a gamer, it'll likely be worth investing in a quad-core machine. If you mainly just browse the internet, then dual core is perfectly fine.

    You have a lot of options, so below are the basics.

    High performance

    Intel Core i7
    Now in its second generation (and about to enter its third), Intel holds the fastest chips in the mobile space. As the performance part, Core i7 is often paired with a discrete graphics processing unit (GPU).

    Keep an eye out, though — some are dual core, some are quad core and some have low-voltage chips (meaning lower performance, but also much longer battery life). These days, low-voltage chips are generally found in thin-and-light laptops — what Intel calls ultrabooks.

    AMD's strategy in the CPU world seems to be changing; it no longer competes at the high end.

    Mainstream performance

    Core i5
    Available in dual- and quad-core configurations, as well as low-voltage variants, the Core i5 is the workhorse of the industry, filling many a fine mainstream laptop. Just make sure that you pick up a second-generation part, easily identifiable by the model number starting with a two. It'll usually come with Intel HD graphics, although it's often paired with a discrete graphics card from AMD or Nvidia, as well.

    AMD A8
    A quad-core part, the A8's performance falls somewhere between Intel's dual-core Core i3 and Core i5, depending on the clock speed.

    Budget

    Core i3
    Now in its second generation, these dual-core processors are almost exclusively paired with Intel HD Graphics, and are for those who only do the basics: word processing, image viewing, music listening and internet browsing. It's a small step above the processors below, and is usually what we consider as being the minimum for hassle-free computing.

    Intel Pentium and Celeron; AMD A6, A4
    These are low-performance machines that tend to be used in sub-AU$700, 14-inch to 15.6-inch laptops, primarily to keep the cost down. If you're on a strict budget and have modest needs, then these may do the job for you.

    Low power, low performance

    Intel Atom, AMD C series, AMD E series
    These tend to be used in the 8.9- to 11.6-inch space, in laptops often incorrectly termed "netbooks" — a phrase that is actually reserved for laptops featuring Intel's Atom CPU.

    These are generally low-power, very low-performance chips best suited to basic internet browsing and office tasks.

    While Atom really hasn't progressed much in the performance stakes in the past year, AMD's competing E series does provide a much better computing experience at the budget end, as evidenced by HP's Pavilion dm1.

    The (not-so) great outdoors

    Sunlight is not ideal for computing — specifically, for seeing the screen. If you want to work outdoors, you'll need to hunt for a matte screen. While some consumer laptops have matte screens, most come with glossy screens, maximising reflections and making it hard to see anything when outside.

    As a general rule of thumb, most business laptops still come with matte screens, and some laptops, like the MacBook Pro 15, have matte options if you're willing to pay a little more.

Topics: Hardware, Laptops, Mobility

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8 comments
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  • Celeron? They still make those?

    LOL... I remember back in 1998 when they claimed they wouldn't be manufacturing Celerons greater than 400mhz! 15 years later...
    jmwells21
  • Where is text about RAM ?

    It looks that slide dedicated to RAM has the same text as CPU slide.
    Tomas M.
  • *sigh*

    Every time I see someone playing a game with a touchpad, I die a little more inside. I had a friend who always "forgot" his mouse as he played Crysis running on his laptop with like dual desktop level GPUs. We never did figure out why he kept buying so much hardware.
    Aerowind
  • Good article, but misses key points and is a little biased.

    OK well you forgot to mention the most important thing besides the CPU- RAM! RAM (and good frequency dual or especially triple channel memory) is [i]very[/i] important for keeping a healthy system. 4GB is the amount I recommend for good computers, and the standard for high end nowadays is 8GB.

    Also, there are more operating systems besides the M$ Windows monopoly or exorbitant Macs. Ever heard if Ubuntu? Fedora? Any Linux-based OS?!!
    beau parisi
  • Misses the key points

    I couldn't agree more. CPU speed, ram and Blue ray. I am also surprised that many shops when selling the laptops. notebooks, and others don't sell Cooling pads as many of these need. They should explain the benefits at least. The amount of times I have had laptops in for repair is due to cooked CPU's because people use them on beds, carpets without thought as to why there machine is overheating or getting hot. Logitech bring out a great cooling pad for just over $50 NZ$ well worth it.
    signpost1p
  • My perfect laptop runs Ubuntu

    I love my laptop - its nearly always been a Dell - Latitude series. I have 3. 2 x E6510 and a E6520. I immeadiately replace Windows what-ever with the latest Ubuntu 64 desktop and install Virtualbox and run Windows 7 Windows XP and Server 2008 - as I have them on a ESATA 500GB external drive via virtual box. Always get the max memory and 7200 ESATA hard drives.

    The E series are excellent as the Hard drives is easy to snap in and out from the left side of the PC. SO I can have multiple harddrive with different OS's loaded if I need ful performance. Also great for testing new versions of Ubuntu.

    I also have a MacBook Pro 15 that dual boots MACOSX 10.6.xx and Ubuntu.
    kyleamadio
  • "Mainstream" a good option for many

    "Mainstream laptops are like budget desktops; they're good for general tasks, but they won't win any contests for their performance."
    I don't agree - for people like me, their performance is quite ok. I have a 7/64 system with 4 GB ram. According to Revo Uninstaller, I have 98 programs installed, and it runs all of them fine, often 10 at a time. It weighs 5 lbs and cost $600 (in UK). Maybe if you're a graphics or gaming whiz, you need more performance, but for probably 80% of us, a standard 15'' laptop is entirely adequate.
    jonc2011
  • Page #3 text duplicate of page #2

    Page #2 looks like a CPU, text is about CPUs. Page #3 looks like RAM, text is a duplicate of page #2.
    mbrian@...