Laptop models are just getting crowded in the market. Go online or walk into any store’s electronics section to find a laptop, and chances are you will feel paralyzed at the sheer variety of laptops available. Most shoppers have a general idea of what their laptop should look like and what they want in terms of features, but are often intimidated by the sheer number and baffling complexities of the laptops available, which have grown to include terms such as netbooks and Ultrabooks, and small business (as opposed to enterprise) laptops. But don’t lose heart.
This buying guide will point you in the right direction, whether you’re shopping for an ultraportable or something massive to replace your desktop, because your decision to buy what you thought was the perfectly configured laptop can suddenly be affected by unknown forces, such as a price changes. We’re here to help you get back into the right mindset, immediately spot the trends, and finally, bring home that perfect laptop for you.
Plastic is still the most commonly used material in laptop frames, and while inexpensive, manufacturers have managed to turn them into art forms. The most common technique is a process called In-Mold Decoration (IMD)—a process made popular by HP, Toshiba, and Acer—in which decorative patterns are infused between plastic layers. This process has evolved into textures and etched imprints, where the patterns can be felt by running your fingers over them. In the end, though, plastics are often associated with cheap laptops. What you should be on the lookout for are designs that employ metal. The most common of those is aluminum, found in laptops such as the Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (Thunderbolt), Dell XPS 15z, and HP Envy 14 (Sandy
Bridge. They have a more luxurious look and can be fashioned into a thinner chassis than plastic. In fact, a PC manufacturer would find it difficult to compete in this market without using this material in many of its laptops. Magnesium alloy is more commonly found in business laptops that place a strong emphasis on durability (check out our business laptop buying guide). Carbon fiber, which was used on the lid of the Sony VAIO VPC-Z214GX, is yet another attractive material, but is less used than aluminum and magnesium, as it is expensive to make.
Big Screen and Weight
Weight and screen size are directly correlated to one another. The cutoff point between a laptop that should stay permanently on your desk and one that can be a commuting companion is a 14-inch widescreen. There are exceptions, of course. The Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (Thunderbolt) and Samsung RC512-S02 are two of the lightest 15-inch laptops—lighter, in fact, than some of the 14-inch ones in the market. A 13- or 14-inch widescreen means that you can still be productive without sacrificing portability. The Toshiba Portege R835- P50X and Sony VAIO VPC-SA2FGX/BI are prime examples of superb 13-inch laptops. Fourteen-inch models like the Asus U46EBAL5, Samsung QX411-W01, and HP Pavilion dm4-2070us offer a terrific blend of features and components, but they won’t weigh you down. Smaller than that, you’ll be venturing into netbook territory, which is an entirely different category of laptops. Get a screen larger than 14 inches and you’ll have to contend with deeper and wider dimensions, which your laptop bag may not have room for. Screen sizes that range between 16 and 18 inches are usually reserved for media centers, gaming rigs, and desktop replacements, such as the Acer Aspire AS8950G-9839 (18 inches) and Alienware M17X (Sandy Bridge) . These massive systems often have luxuries like high resolutions, hardcore gaming graphics, and a wealth of state of the art features.
Even the cheapest laptops come with many of the features you would find on a $2,000 laptop. Ample USB ports (3 to 4 minimum) are pretty standard nowadays. USB 3.0, which offers faster transfer speeds and greater connectivity bandwidths than USB 2.0, can already be found in laptop of all sizes. The port is usually colored in blue or has the letters “SS” (Super Speed) labeled next to it. Apple, meanwhile, is touting its Thunderbolt technology, which carries transfer data rates that are even faster than USB 3.0. Look for a laptop with one of the USB ports doubling as an eSATA port, so you can expand storage capacity when the internal hard drive isn’t roomy enough. Most of the time, you won’t even use a port like eSATA since most laptops nowadays come with at least 500GB of storage (Netbooks are averaging 250GB-320GB). Upgrading to a 640GB-750GB hard drive won’t cost you an arm and a leg either, but do so only
if you’re a video junkie or an aspiring video content creator. Most people don’t need all that hard-drive space.
Although VGA is still the most common way to present Powerpoint slides on a big screen, technologies like DisplayPort and HDMI are better equipped to stream high quality videos and audio. With the exception of netbooks and sub-$500 laptops, most laptops have an HDMI port or Display- Port. The Dell XPS 15z and Lenovo Thinkpad X1, for example, have both. Aside from 802.11 Wi-Fi, Mobile Broadband (3G), and Bluetooth, wireless technologies have grown to include two new ones. The first one is called WiMAX, a wireless broadband access technology that provides performance through puts similar to 802.11 Wi-Fi, except the coverage area spans an entire city rather than one occupied by a house. These embedded chips can literally replace your current Internet package for less than you’re paying now. You can find these chips in the Samsung RC512-S02, Dell Latitude E6420, and Lenovo ThinkPad X220.
The other up-and-coming wireless technology is called Intel’s Wireless Display 2.0, or WiDi 2.0, for short, which is already in its second generation (the latest version supports 1080p video streams, protected content, and 5.1 surround sound). It’s very similar to a wireless version of HDMI, except there’s no dongle or piece hanging off of the USB port—the technology is built into the laptop. With WiDi 2.0, you can wirelessly connect your laptop to an HDTV, without the use of clunky VGA or HDMI cables. You do, however, need to purchase the Netgear Push2TV HD (PTV2000) receiver that has to be tethered to your HDTV. WiDi 2.0 is available in laptops like the Asus U56EBB L5, Toshiba R835-P50X, and Toshiba Satellite E305-S1990X. Unless you’re talking netbooks, a DVD burner is the de facto standard for internal optical drives. Blu-ray drives are coming down in prices, and you can find one in the Dell XPS 15, Samsung RC512-S02, and HP Pavilion dv7-6163us, for a reasonable price. Of course, the lack of an optical drive isn’t a deal breaker anymore, especially if you’re intent on minimizing weight. The Apple MacBook Air 13 inch (Thunderbolt) and Samsung Series 9, for instance, give you everything but the internal optical drive. A Webcam and a media card reader are already integral parts of any laptop or netbook, as video conferencing and digital photography are as common as surfing the Web. Once you check off all of these standard features, you can go on to look for ones that are specific to your individual needs.
As the competition grows more fierce in the netbook category, these little laptops, which were once considered mere Web -surfing and word-processing devices, are now being pegged as primary laptops for everyday tasks. Had you bought a netbook a year ago, you would have been dealt a 10-inch widescreen, a small keyboard, and a basic set of features. For less than $500 today, the HP Pavilion dm1z, Asus EeePC 1215N, and Lenovo ThinkPad X120e have screens that range between 11 and 12 inches, a full-size keyboard, and an HDMI port. Though smaller, the Toshiba mini NB 305- N600 and HP Mini 5103 have the best typing and navigating experience on a 10-inch platform.
You’ll also find the Intel Atom platform, made up of the Atom processor, integrated graphics, and memory (usually 1GB) in many netbooks. The Intel Atom may not be the fastest processor, but it’s the most energy efficient chip you can get on a netbook platform. The dual-core Atom, dubbed the Intel Atom N550 (1.5GHz), can be found in a handful of netbooks, including the Asus EeePC 1015PEM , HP Mini 5103, and Acer Aspire One D260-1270. The fastest netbook processors, though not necessarily the most energy efficient, belong to AMD. The company has already made a strong impression in the netbook market, with its chips performing as well if not better than their Intel counterparts. Many of these netbooks will run fine on 1GB of memory, and many of them, especially the AMD-equipped ones, ship with 2GB to 4GB of memory. As for operating systems, netbooks are almost exclusively Windows 7, either Starter Edition or Home Premium (AMD netbooks ship with Home Premium). Netbook batteries start with 3-cell (30Wh) units, but many netbooks are now standardizing on 6-cell batteries. Our battery tests have shown that the smaller batteries will get you anywhere from 3-4 hours of battery life on a single charge, while the bigger ones range between 7-9 hours. If your activities include trips abroad and all day classes, consider looking for netbooks
that ship with 6-cell options.
As for the rest of the laptop market, the most dominant processor chips come from Intel. For instance, you can choose one that maximizes performance or one that favors battery life. Or you can choose one that plays to both strengths: The Second Generation (codenamed Sandy Bridge) Intel Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7s are currently the most popular processor brands and have the benefits of both power and battery efficiency. If you desire all-day battery life, it’s best to go with a low-voltage or an Atom processor, such as those found in the HP Pavilion dm3t and netbooks, respectively. Intel also has quad-core Core i7s for laptops, which are ideal for performance enthusiasts and avid gamers. AMD has its own multi-core processors as well (tripleor quad-core), called the Phenoms. Most of these processors can be found in desktop replacement, media centers, and gaming laptops.
Unless you’re a part-time gamer or a CAD user, most students will find that integrated graphics is more than enough for graphics related tasks, even more so now with Intel’s Sandy Bridge technology (4 times graphics
improvement over previous version). Highend graphics cards are terrific for 3D games, transcoding a 1080p video, or watching a Blu-ray movie, but like a fast processor, they also feast on the battery. Nvidia (Optimus) and Apple (Automatic Graphics Switching) have technologies that leverage two graphics chips—an integrated and a discrete version— and the switch is done seamlessly, depending on what application the laptop is running. You can find switchable graphics technologies in laptops like the Dell XPS 15z and Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (Thunderbolt). AMD has its own switching graphics technology, too, although the switch is done manually, in software.
A big battery can be your biggest ally on a travel-hectic day. Many laptops, including netbooks, are sold with multiple battery options. Apple laptops, on the other hand, have non-removable batteries, but they’re bigger than the average ones. In this case, figure out where battery life ranks in the grand scheme of things. For instance, mainstream laptops come with a 6-cell battery option, which lasts between 5 to 7 hours on a single charge, while ultraportables and business laptops tend to have multiple battery options that, when used in tandem, can easily surpass the 10-hour mark. It’s always a good idea to look into additional batteries, especially if you spend more time on the road than you do in the office or at home. You should also look at the battery’s capacity, which is usually measured in Watt-hours. Two batteries claiming to be 6-cells can have different capacities. A big battery is accompanied by some heft, but the weight gain is worth it if it means you can leave the system unplugged from dawn ’til dusk.