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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.
As notebooks shrink in size, so do their keyboards. If possible, try some simple typing exercises before you buy it. The smaller the keyboard, the more creative the vendor may have been with key size and placement. Pay particular attention to the space bar, Shift, Ctrl and Backspace/Delete keys. Be sure that all are in good locations for your hand size and typing style.
Vying for video RAM
With the introduction of Intel HD Graphics on Core i3 processors and above, the bar has now been raised enough for integrated graphics to suit most peoples' needs. If you want to play games, though, you'll need a dedicated GPU — try to grab something with 512MB to 1GB of video RAM. Ignore the salesperson who insists that video memory is an indication of performance; while larger video memory does tend to be paired with higher performing cards, it's not the thing that's primarily responsible for the performance increase.
Keep an eye out for backlit keyboards, as well — these help immensely when typing in dim light.
Make sure that you have enough ports on your laptop — at a minimum, look for two USB ports (although three to four is better). If you'd like to use a digital camcorder with your notebook, you may need a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port. Connecting a monitor will require a VGA port at minimum (if you'll be giving presentations, a VGA port is also where you'll connect a projector), but for extra image quality look for a DVI, HDMI or DisplayPort connector in addition to this. A lot of PC laptops these days also have a combined USB and eSATA port — eSATA allows faster connections to external hard drives, provided that your external hard drive supports it.
These days, there are two newer ports doing the rounds — USB 3.0 (often indicated by a blue USB port or an "SS" symbol above the port) and Thunderbolt. USB 3.0 can offer significantly better speeds than USB 2.0 (up to 254MBps in our tests so far), providing that what you're plugging in is capable of those speeds.
Thunderbolt is really only found on Apple computers at this stage, and is the fastest connection on the block; it's expected to hit Windows-based laptops in Q2 2012. It can also double as a DisplayPort connection, meaning that it can be plugged in to some modern monitors.
Thunderbolt's accessories are extremely few at this point in time, limited to some displays and high-speed storage applications. Cables are also expensive, at AU$55 a pop. For most users, it won't be important right now, but this may change over time.
Like a PCI-Express slot in a desktop, an ExpressCard slot provides expansion opportunities. Additional USB, FireWire, SATA and Ethernet ports, sound cards, wireless cards and TV tuners are all available in ExpressCard format. It comes in two sizes — 54 and 34, representing how many millimetres wide they are. Both sizes end in a 34mm connection, with the 54mm end of the bigger card used to store extra circuitry. As such, an ExpressCard 34 will fit into a 54 slot, but not vice versa.
These barely exist on consumer laptops any more, and are generally only found on business machines. These very same business machines may still have the older PC Card (or PCMCIA) included, as well. PC Cards and slots come in three sizes: Type I, II and III. Type I cards are normally used for memory, Type II for input/output devices and Type III for mass storage and firewalls.
Integrated wireless networking (Wi-Fi) has become an indispensable feature. Most notebooks ship with a variant of 802.11n these days, although some (such as netbooks) still use 802.11g. Public hotspots typically use 802.11g; fortunately, 802.11n is backwards compatible, along with 802.11b.
Most mainstream laptops come with 2.4GHz 802.11n, whereas the premium ones come with both 2.4GHz and 5GHz. The difference: 2.4GHz has greater range, but lesser throughput. It also has more chance of interference, either from your neighbour's Wi-Fi or from other implements that use the 2.4GHz spectrum, like microwaves and cordless phones.
5GHz has less chance of interference and higher throughput, but has smaller range. Your wireless router will also need to support it for you to take advantage of it.