How to Buy a Laptop
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
04:00 PM PST
The most highly evolved species of computer, the laptop (aka notebook) computer allows you to work without being tethered to an office. Portability and good performance make notebook PCs an essential part of the daily lives of millions of people, from college students to business travelers. Even the least-expensive of today's laptops are better equipped than they have ever been, and may be all you need for everyday work.
The Big Picture
There are more laptop choices than ever. We'll identify and discuss the available options--including screen size, weight, battery life, and communications ports. more
The Specs Explained
Do you need a superfast CPU? Or a huge hard drive? We'll guide you through the choices and tell you which features are most critical. more
Notebook Shopping Tips
Looking for a powerful, versatile notebook at a reasonable price? Our advice will help you find the right laptop.
The Big Picture
If you've ever shopped for a notebook, you know that the factors to consider go far beyond performance and connections. Notebook buyers have to mull such additional variables as size, weight, screen dimensions, battery life, and keyboard quality--plus options such as built-in wireless.
Processor: Intel's Core Duo and Core 2 Duo processors have helped notebooks gain ground in the power department. In our tests, notebooks using these dual-core processors performed considerably faster than notebooks using single-core processors, particularly when multitasking.
Some notebooks use AMD's Athlon Turion 64 X2 dual-core processor, which also supports for improved performance. The Turion 64 X2 and the Core 2 Duo both provide 64-bit support, which will become increasingly useful as more 64-bit applications reach the market.
Low-end notebooks offer Intel's Celeron M processor, which is generally not as speedy as the Core Duo processors.
System memory: Unless you're buying on the cheap, a new notebook generally includes 512MB of system memory. Many notebooks today are available with 1GB of RAM. Equipping your laptop with 1GB of RAM at the time you buy it will help extend its useful lifetime.
Graphics memory: You'll want 128MB of dedicated video RAM. Make sure that the memory is dedicated for graphics use, rather than being pulled from main memory (the latter arrangement is usually referred to as shared memory or as dynamic video memory technology). Gamers should look for advanced 3D graphics chips, such as nVidia's GeForce Go 7900 GTX, along with 256MB to 512MB of dedicated graphics memory.
Some notebooks now are available with Scalable Link Interface (SLI), which provides a means to use multiple graphics chips in one machine. Laptops that use this technology tend to be more expensive.
Screen: Notebook screens continue to get bigger--and most have gone wide, enabling you to view spreadsheets or movies with ease. Even budget shoppers can afford the luxury of high-resolution color: Portables with 14.1-inch and 15.4-inch wide screens now cost as little as $1000. Most notebook manufacturers offer laptops with 17-inch wide screens, too. Frequent business fliers can choose from among the many laptops with screen sizes of 12.1 or 13.3 inches--some of which are wide-screen models, as well.
Notebooks with standard-aspect 14.1- or 15-inch screens remain available, but they're not as plentiful as wide-screen models.
Battery: Notebook battery life has continued to improve. In our tests, notebooks using a Core Duo or Core 2 Duo processor have averaged roughly 3.5 hours of life on one battery. Some notebooks can run for up to 7 hours. Many vendors offer supplemental batteries to boost battery life.
Keyboard and pointing device: Though you can get accustomed to almost any notebook keyboard, it's best to try before you buy. Thin-and-light notebooks usually have smaller-than-average keys spaced more closely than the keys on a desktop replacement model, and their layouts may differ from a standard keyboard's. You probably won't be invited to choose between eraserhead and trackpad pointing devices; if you have a preference, look for manufacturers that use the pointing device you prefer on most of their products.
Optical and other drives: Most manufacturers offer notebooks with rewritable DVD drives. It's still possible to get a notebook with a combination DVD-ROM and CD-RW drive, but few machines feature just a DVD-ROM or a CD-RW drive. If you really need a floppy drive, you can buy a USB add-on drive for less than $100.
Hard drive: You may not need the space, but notebook hard drives will continue to grow. Cheaper notebooks with 40GB hard drives are getting scarce, but you can still save money by opting for a 60GB model. A top-of-the-line (100GB, 7200RPM or 120GB, 5400RPM) SATA hard drive will set you back a few hundred dollars if you purchase it when you order your laptop. You can easily remove most laptop hard drives if you decide to upgrade or just want to keep your data safe.
Weight and bay design: Notebooks range from 17-pound desktop replacements, to 8- or 10-pound all-in-one models with the optical drive built in, to 3-pound ultraportables that rely on external drives. One-bay notebooks have become more prevalent because of their appealing balance of features and weight.
Many laptops offer the optical drive as a modular device, so you can swap it out for a second hard drive or a second battery.
When making a purchase, you should consider the weight not only of the notebook, but of the AC adapter, any external modules, and their cables. Ultraportable notebooks have lightweight adapters but they can weigh almost as much as a full-size notebook if you have to carry an external optical drive, too.
When you return to your desk, you can snap most notebooks onto an extra-cost docking station or port replicator (prices range from $100 to $500). Doing so saves you from repeatedly having to plug in and unplug an external monitor, keyboard, mouse, and other desktop peripherals.
Communications: Few notebooks come with a full set of legacy ports anymore. Serial ports are rare, as are PS/2 ports (for a mouse or keyboard) and infrared ports. Most notebooks still have a parallel port and one PC Card slot, though many now offer an ExpressCard slot as well. Quite a few full-size models now come with a DVI port for connecting to an external digital display.
NOTE: NOT ALL NEW NOTEBOOKS comes with a parallel printer port. They now use USB ports for printing. If you have an older printer that has a parallel port, if there is no USB port on it then you may have to get a new printer or a specialized adapter. Ask and make sure that your notebook has a parallel printer port if you need to have one for your older printer
Most notebooks have at least two USB 2.0 ports; many offer four, and some up to six. A majority of notebooks include a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port for connecting an external drive, an MP3 player, or a digital-video camcorder. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE ENOUGH USB PORTS!
Built-in ethernet now comes standard on all portables, with many models carrying gigabit ethernet. Many notebooks also have built-in Bluetooth. Notebooks using the Intel Core Duo or Core 2 Duo processors--or AMD's Turion 64 X2 processor--include Intel's wireless 802.11a/b/g chip set.
Some notebooks come with built-in wireless broadband wide-area networking, enabling them to access Verizon Wireless's EV-DO BroadbandAccess service, for example.
Most also include one or more card slots for removable media such as CompactFlash, Secure Digital, MultiMediaCard, Memory Stick, or SmartMedia.
The Specs Explained
Before shopping for a notebook, consider how you'll be using it. If your primary goal is to get some word processing or spreadsheet work done while staying on top of e-mail, a $1000 Core Duo model with a 14.1-inch screen and a 40GB hard drive will be plenty fast and will save you hundreds of dollars. Sexy lightweight notebooks and models with top-notch processing power and big screens cost much more.
Keep in mind, however, that most vendors let you custom-build and -price your own notebook by picking from a mind-boggling array of features, which gives you a lot of control over the final product. You may be able to afford a faster notebook by accepting a smaller, less-expensive hard drive or DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive, instead of a Double Layer DVD+/-RW SuperMulti driver.
Unlike those on desktop PCs, only some of the components (such as memory and the hard drive) are upgradable; others (such as the graphics board) are permanent once they're installed at the factory. That's slowly changing, as some manufacturers begin to incorporate upgradable graphics. But take your time and pick only what you need. Below is a rough breakout of some configuration options.
Important consideration: Installed memory. The more installed memory your notebook has, the more applications you can run at once, and the better your notebook will perform. Ease of access aside, upgrading memory in a notebook is a bit trickier than with a desktop, so buy as much memory preinstalled as you can afford. Notebooks with 512MB or 1GB of RAM are optimal.
Important consideration: Processor. The CPU determines how quickly a notebook runs applications and performs on-screen tasks. Core Duo and Core 2 Duo processors are good choices for speedy processing. (Check latest prices for recommended notebooks.)
Important consideration: Screen size. The specified size of a notebook's LCD screen represents a diagonal measurement. The larger the screen, the higher the maximum resolution and the more information you can view at once. At this point, most notebooks are wide-screen models; if you want a notebook with a standard-aspect screen you'll have to search a bit, but they are still available. (Compare notebooks with recommended screen sizes.)
Somewhat important: Hard-drive size. The larger the hard drive, the more data you can keep on your notebook. Most people don't need more than 80GB. If you plan to work with databases, spreadsheets, or digital photo or video files, opt for a large drive.
Somewhat important: Expansion bays. The more expansion bays, the more options you have for switching in new optical drives or other storage drives; but switching drives takes time. Though high-end ultraportables typically have no extra bays, you can purchase external drives for them.
Somewhat important: Optical drives. Most manufacturers offer laptops with rewritable DVD drives, which give you the most flexibility. Alternatively, you can purchase a notebook with a DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive, to save money.
Notebook Shopping Tips
Are you ready to buy a notebook? Here are our recommendations for specifications that will fit the needs of the average user.
A 1.73-GHz Core Duo processor. For everyday work--word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail--you don't need the latest, greatest (read: "most expensive") processor, but thankfully, with the Core Duo, you get strong performance and great battery life.
512MB or more of memory. Anything less will slow your work.
Supplemental battery. If you want more time away from an outlet, buy a higher-capacity supplementary battery when you purchase the notebook, or buy a notebook that has a modular bay capable of holding a supplementary power pack. Secondary batteries usually cost between $99 and $200.
A 14.1-inch wide screen. A screen larger than 12.1 inches eases eyestrain. Unless you're really pinching pennies, bigger is better.
A 80GB hard drive. Unless you generate multimegabyte music or database files, or install more than one office suite, 80GB is plenty big.
Touchpad pointing device. Pointing devices are a matter of taste. Most people, however, find a touchpad easier to use than a pointing stick. For people who can't decide between a touchpad and an eraserhead pointing device, some notebooks include both. If you buy one of these, make sure that it provides two sets of mouse buttons--one for the touchpad and the other for the eraserhead--so you don't have to stretch to reach.
Multiple USB ports. Many notebooks now come with two or more USB 2.0 ports, useful for connecting more of the latest peripherals.
All-in-one design. Unless you need a lightweight notebook, opt for one with an internal bay for the optical drive. This design enables you to swap in other devices, such as an extra hard drive or a second battery.