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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  • 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.

  • When good notebooks go bad

    Every notebook is susceptible to accidents and system failures. Keep an eye open for longer than usual warranties, and check to see if the manufacturer offers an international warranty rather than local — particularly useful for travellers.

    We recommend, if available, paying for a good three-year warranty with express service. Try getting it direct from the manufacturer rather than dealing with in-store warranty extensions.

    What's it made of?

    Most laptop cases are still made from moulded plastic, but you can find some encased in metal, which dissipates heat better. Look for models made from light, strong metal alloys. If you're in the market for a desktop replacement, check that the case has adequate ventilation for the powerful (and hot-running) components inside.

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@...