In 1995, laptops were ugly. Not just ugly, but also heavy and expensive. A couple thousand dollars bought a small 4:3 screen, chunky keyboard and a hard drive measured in megabytes, not gigabytes. Thankfully, modern laptops are entirely different beasts. They're lighter, faster, infinitely more versatile and cheaper than ever. And there are a ton of them: In the first quarter of 2010, about 50 million tablets were sold worldwide [source: CNET].
The vast options in today's laptop market makes finding the right system a bit of a challenge. There are desktop replacement laptops, ultralights, high-end systems for gamers and cheap netbooks for taking notes. You have to know exactly what you're looking for.
Here's how you get started: Read through the next 10 pages to figure out what you should keep an eye out for in a new laptop. If you know why each of the next 10 features is important, you'll be prepared to pick the perfect notebook for your needs.
Analyze Your Usage Scenario
We're not all looking for the same qualities in a laptop, and the kind of programs you want to run determine your demands in the categories that follow. First, consider why you're buying a laptop. Is it to make PowerPoint presentations, take notes and do other simple business tasks? Or do you plan on watching HD movies, playing video games and video chatting with your friends?
Figure out how much you can afford to spend on a laptop and find the best system in that price range with the features you need. Our first example above, for business use, would be a pretty cheap laptop -- you can easily spend less than $1000 on a model that will run Microsoft Office and other productivity software. Another factor to consider: Do you want a Mac or a PC?
While Apple's laptops are pricier than many PCs, there are only a few Apple notebook models to choose from. Apple's extremely light MacBook Air models start at $1000 and are fast, capable machines, but lack disc drives unlike the larger, more powerful MacBook Pros. The least expensive 13-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1200, while the 15-inch jumps up to a pricey $1800.
If you're looking for a PC, there's a whole lot of hardware to be familiar with before you pick out a winning system. First up: battery life.
Laptop computing is all about mobility, and battery life is perhaps the most crucial consideration when picking a laptop that's going to be used regularly on the go. If you're in the market for a desktop replacement system -- meaning you'll mostly just leave it on your desk and don't plan on regularly taking it on trips -- battery life isn't quite as critical. Otherwise, pay close attention to how long a laptop's battery will last.
As laptops get slimmer and designers pay more attention to making them sleek and compact, more and more systems use integrated non-removable batteries. The trade off for that sleeker laptop body is that it's impossible to buy a backup battery and swap the two out to double battery life. Finally, always be skeptical of claimed battery life times. The numbers that laptop makers convey often refer to light usage with a dimmed screen. Assume you'll get 1 to 2 hours less than claimed while browsing the Web and running multiple applications -- and possibly even less if you're playing games or doing something else that taxes the computer.
The size and power of a laptop affects how much room there is in the body for a battery (and how quickly it's drained). Next up: finding that size and weight sweet spot.
Size and Weight
Heavy laptops kill mobility. In 2011, computer processor maker Intel began pushing an ultrabook category that focuses on lightweight systems -- usually weighing about 3 pounds (1.3 kilograms) -- to make use of its ultra low voltage CPUs. Ultrabooks do away with disc drives and focus on portability, long battery life and a starting price range of $800 to $1000. These laptops aren't powerful enough for some users, and do away with a disc drive others find important, but they demonstrate a trend towards lightweight notebooks that are extremely portable.
Pounds add up quickly. Most 15-inch (38-centimeter) laptops often weigh around 5 pounds (2.3 kilograms), which is a manageable weight to carry between home and the office every day. But some laptops creep up into the 7 to 8 pound (3.2 to 3.6 kilogram) range, and laptops that heavy can easily be relegated to at-home machines due to their weight.
There are a couple ways to get around the weight issue. You can always shop for a brand like Sony's Vaio, which makes weight a priority concern. The downside: Vaios are more expensive than other notebooks with similar performance. Second option: Go for a computer with a smaller screen.
Screen Size and Resolution
There are three common screen sizes in the notebook industry: 13 inches (33 centimeters), 15 inches (38 centimeters) and 17 inches (43 centimeters). The smallest in this group of laptops obviously prioritize portability, and often forgo DVD drives to make their bodies thinner and lighter. The mid-size category has a bit more range: Some heavier systems operate as desktop replacements, while others are light enough to still be easily portable while offering large screens. The largest category of laptops are, well, pretty huge. They always offer high resolution displays and powerful hardware, but can easily weigh up to 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms).
Generally, 15-inch (38-centimeter) and especially 17-inch (43-centimeter) laptops are large enough to be decent TV/computer monitor substitutes for watching video, especially on the go. Smaller notebooks, measuring 11 to 14 inches (27.9 to 35.6 centimeters) may be a bit small for watching movies, depending on your personal taste. More importantly, their displays are often lower resolution. The resolution is the total number of pixels contained in the display -- more pixels allow for more content to be displayed on screen at once.
Resolutions typically range from 1366 by 768 -- just a bit larger than 720p -- to 1920 by 1080, aka 1080p. Laptop makers will often use lower resolution displays to cut costs. On the next page, we'll get into the processor and graphics card, two other critical components. But if you're comparing two computers, go for the higher resolution screen when possible, or choose an HD upgrade option if it's available.
Processor and Graphics
A computer's processor determines how efficiently it can run programs, multi-task and basically do everything we expect of modern computers. Processors get faster and more efficient every year. Most Windows-based computers run on Intel's processors; smaller ultraportables, such as Apple's thin MacBook Air, run on ultra low voltage processors that draw less power than some of Apple's other chips. Quad-core chips deliver more powerful performance, but even dual-core processors are up to the task of playing 1080p video and running system-intensive programs like Photoshop.
The graphics processor, or GPU, is important when it comes to playing HD video and running games. Many laptops use integrated graphics rather than dedicated graphics chips. These are less powerful (and also less battery intensive), but powerful enough to decode 1080p video. Dedicated graphics chips are important for playing video games, but for the average computer user, the two components on the next page -- hard drive storage memory -- are more important.
Storage and Memory
For years, all laptops stored data on spinning physical discs called hard drives. Most of them still do, but faster solid state drives that use silicon-based memory are becoming more affordable and more prevalent in mobile computers. Because solid state drives don't rely on moving parts, they're more reliable in computers that tend to get bumped and jostled around. The downside: They're expensive and don't offer nearly as much data storage.
Storage space may not be a big concern for you -- if you store most of your data in the cloud and don't plan to load a computer up with gigabytes of music and video, a SSD or small HDD will suit you just fine. Random access memory (RAM) is a different story. Every piece of software running on a computer and the operating system itself (usually meaning Windows) stores data in RAM to function. The more RAM you have, the better -- it's smart to upgrade this component when possible. To run Windows 7, 4 gigabytes is a comfortable minimum.
Apple's MacBook Air and similar computers in the Ultrabook category of PCs are beginning to offer SSDs at reasonable prices. If you need more than 128GB of storage, best stick to a traditional hard drive, or be prepared to pay a pretty penny for an upgrade. Speedy SSD storage is fantastic, but in many cases going with a thin-and-light computer means giving up a disc drive and embracing the Internet cloud.
Do you need an optical drive?
Optical storage mediums have been key computer components since the first CD drives arrived on the scene, but cheap flash storage in the form of USB drives and cloud storage on the Internet have nearly eradicated their necessity. When was the last time you used a CD burner? Do you watch DVDs on your computer, or do you stream movies from Netflix? If you do either of those things regularly, or need to be able to burn DVDs or CDs for work, that's okay -- there are still plenty of laptops outfitted with CD/DVD combo drives. Blu-ray drives are even optional in a small selection of laptops, most commonly the media-focused 15-inch (38-centimeter) and 17-inch (43-centimeter) models.
If you're on the fence about needing a disc drive, educate yourself on cloud storage. Dropbox makes it easy to transfer files between multiple computers. Netflix makes it easy to stream movies and TV shows from the cloud. Spotify, Rdio, iTunes Match and a host of other music services allow you to stream music to your computer as long as you have an Internet connection. And there's always the option of using an external hard drive or flash drive to transfer files from a computer that does have a disc drive.
That brings us to another important consideration: making sure your laptop has all the ports you need.
Ports and Expandability
Every computer user is familiar with the USB port, but not everyone is aware that a much faster update to the standard, USB 3.0, is slowly spreading through the computer industry. USB 3.0 can be 10 times faster than its predecessor in real-world usage, delivering transfer speeds of up to 400 megabytes per second [source: EverythingUSB]. Even if you don't own any USB 3.0 hardware right now, consider future proofing when buying a new laptop. You might be really thankful you have that USB 3.0 port down the road.
There are other ports to consider as well. Do you want HDMI to output video to a TV? Do you need an SD card slot for downloading digital camera photos to your laptop? Will you need an Ethernet port for Internet or will a laptop's built-in WiFi connection be enough?
If you plan on keeping a laptop for several years, learn how customizable or expandable it is. For example, Apple's laptops are known for their build quality -- and for being locked down and difficult to perform maintenance on. The batteries are integrated, rather than removable. Many PCs have removable batteries that can easily be swapped out or replaced.
Google your laptop to see if owners have found it easy to add additional RAM or swap out the hard drive. Either of those upgrades could give your laptop an extended lease on life sometime down the road, but some casings are much easier to open up than others. On a similar note, some laptops are especially designed to keep your data more secure. That's our next topic.
We keep mountains of personal information on our computers. There's always a risk when storing information digitally and on the Internet, but laptops elevate that risk by being much easier to steal than desktop machines. Some laptops, specifically those aimed at business and enterprise users, are built with these concerns in mind. For example, fingerprint scanners are found on plenty of business PCs and require users to pass a scan before logging into the operating system.
Many laptops also include Kensington security slots. Security cables are attached to these slots to bolt a laptop to a table or kiosk. Ever look at laptops at a store like Best Buy? Then you've probably seen one of these in action. Durability is another factor when it comes to security: To ensure no data loss happens due to a butterfingers moment, Panasonic sells ToughBook laptops designed to survive a nasty drop onto unforgiving concrete.
Laptop security features can help protect you, but never assume they'll keep your data safe from determined crooks. Being careful with your laptop is the best way to protect it. And that brings us to our final tip: choosing a warranty and judging laptop release cycles to know when to buy.
Warranty and Release Cycles
Buying consumer electronics is always a battle against irrelevancy. It's tough to buy something that will be outdated in just a few months, but there's always new gear just beyond the horizon -- you can't put off a purchase forever. To maximize the value of a laptop purchase, buy shortly after a product refresh. New systems usually come out shortly after Intel launches new processors. Look up review for laptops. See a model that was highly rated but came out nine months ago? A newer version will probably be along within a few months. Don't buy a laptop months into its release cycle unless you're shopping on a budget and spy a killer deal.
Picking a warranty isn't an easy decision, either. If you're clumsy and accident prone (or paranoid), opting for a long warranty will put your mind at ease. But it will also cost you an extra hundred dollars or more, depending on the kind of coverage you choose. Total coverage packages for accidents are expensive, but you'll be glad you have it if you accidentally step on your screen and break the LCD. And there's nothing wrong with going for the cheapest limited warranty you can -- just don't drop your new laptop!
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- EverythingUSB.com. "USB 3.0 Speed." June 5, 2011. (Nov. 12, 2011) http://www.everythingusb.com/speed.html#3
- Kensington.com. "Kensington Security Slot." (Nov. 14, 2011) http://www.kensington.com/kensington/us/us/s/1704/kensington-security-slot.aspx
- Ogg, Erica. "First quarter of 2010 showed largest laptop sales since 2002." May 26, 2010. (Nov. 11, 2011) http://asia.cnet.com/crave/first-quarter-of-2010-showed-largest-laptop-sales-since-2002-62111280.htm
- VintagePaperAds.com. "1995 Toshiba Satellite Pro T2155CDS Laptop Computer Ad!" (Nov. 12, 2011) http://store.vintagepaperads.com/servlet/-strse-12233/1995-Toshiba-Satellite-Pro/Detail