3 of 11Image
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.