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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.
Power without the plug
While you might have a two- or three-year warranty on your laptop, your battery is generally only covered for one year.
Two specs to look for in laptop batteries are capacity (measured in milliamp hours, or mAh) and the number of cells. Typical batteries have an mAh rating of between 2000mAh and 6000mAh; higher is better. Cells are the actual compartments where power is produced, and can range from four to 12; the more the better. Keep in mind, though, that this may cause the battery pack to stick out from your laptop in potentially awkward positions.
Some laptops don't have easily swappable batteries, in an attempt to cut down on physical size and to lengthen battery life. Be aware of this — and when your battery dies, you may need to take your laptop in for a service rather than simply swapping the battery out yourself.
On the other hand, some can take a second battery, either by replacing the optical drive or by placing a shim on the bottom. Check your accessories before you buy.
Tiny, tinny sound
Laptops are notorious for having terrible speakers. While a lot of laptops these days are including some version of Dolby, THX, Beats or other sort of "branded" sound, this is done in software, and often paired with such tiny speakers that it doesn't make that much of a difference.
Our recommendation: get a good set of headphones, or a stereo or 2.1 speaker set. You can even get speakers powered by USB if you want something portable that doesn't require a power point.
Is it pretty?
Just because the laptop on the shop shelf may look a little dour, doesn't mean that there aren't any options. Many models these days sell in different colours, and Dell, for instance, even has a huge range of swappable back covers available for sale for certain laptops.
Going for the perfect drive
Notebook hard drives tend to start at the 64GB point, and work their way up to 1TB in size. If you have a choice, select a drive with a rotational speed of 7200rpm instead of 5400rpm. The faster it spins, the faster you'll get your files.
Solid state drives (SSDs) are also an option, bringing significantly faster sequential and random read and write speeds, and a much higher cost as a result. Disappointingly, most manufacturers won't tell you what brand SSD that they put in their laptops, and not all are created equal — in many cases, you're better off buying aftermarket so that you can ensure you'll receive an Intel, Samsung 830 or SandForce-based drive.
While they are diminishing in importance these days, optical drives of all kinds are available for laptops — from basic CD ROM units to Blu-ray/DVD±RW combos. We like DVD±RW drives for notebooks; they burn and play both DVDs and CDs. Blu-ray is a good choice if you're a movie buff, but make sure that your notebook can display a Full HD resolution (at least 1920x1080, usually only seen on desktop replacements), or can at least output the video to a screen that can — otherwise, you'll lose the benefits of all of that clarity.