Laptop Buying Guide 2013: 8 Essential Tips
While tablets get all the attention these days, there’s a reason why laptops continue to be the computing device of choice for most people. Laptops offer real keyboards for faster typing, they’re better at multitasking, and they offer a lot more power for everything from editing video and creating PowerPoints to playing the latest games. So what type of laptop should you get?
There’s a wide variety of sizes, features and prices, which makes choosing the right laptop a challenge. That’s why you need to figure out what your needs are. To make the right call, just follow these eight tips.
1. Mac or Windows?
This is not an easy question to answer, especially if you’ve never considered making the switch from Windows to Mac. But this quick overview of each platform’s strengths and weaknesses should help.
Windows notebooks are generally more affordable (starting under $400) and offer a much wider range of design choices from more than a dozen major vendors. Unlike Apple, Microsoft and its partners allow users to buy notebooks with touch screens, as well as convertible designs that let you easily transform from notebook to tablet mode.
If you’re used to the Windows interface, but haven’t tried Windows 8, you may be in for a jarring surprise. The new OS has replaced the Start menu with a tile-based start screen and a raft of new full-screen, touch-friendly apps. However, Windows 8 still has a desktop mode for running all your existing apps. Many vendors offer Windows 7 as an option if you custom configure your notebook online.
In general, Windows notebooks provide more business-friendly features such as biometric and smartcard verification and Intel vPro systems management.
MORE: Top 10 Ultrabooks
Apple OS X Mountain Lion
Apple’s MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros offer an easy-to-use operating system in OS X Mountain Lion. In fact, some say Mountain Lion is easier to navigate than the newer and bolder Windows 8. MacBooks offer iOS-like features such as Launch Pad for your apps, superior multitouch gestures, and Auto Save and Resume so you can pick up on your work right where you left off.
MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros also tend to outclass most Windows machines when it comes to industrial design, the touchpad and display quality. While Windows PCs offer more software choices, Apple makes it easier to find and install programs with the Mac App Store. However, Apple’s notebooks start at $999.
2. Choose the Right Size
Before you decide anything else, you need to figure out just how portable you need your laptop to be. Laptops are usually categorized by their display sizes:
11 to 12 inches: The thinnest and lightest systems around have 11- to 12-inch screens and typically weigh 3 to 3.5 pounds. However, at this size, the screen and keyboard will be a bit too cramped for some users.
11-inch Laptop Reviews and 12-inch Laptop Reviews
13 to 14 inches: Provides the best balance of portability and usability. Laptops with 13- or 14-inch screens usually weigh between 3.5 and 4.5 pounds and fit easily on your lap while still providing generously sized keyboards and screens. Shoot for a system with a total weight under 4 pounds, if possible.
13-inch Laptop Reviews
15 inches: The most popular size, 15-inch laptops are usually quite bulky and heavy at 5 to 6.5 pounds, but also cost the least. If you’re not planning to carry your notebook around often or use it on your lap, a 15-inch system could be a good deal for you. Some 15-inch models have DVD drives, but you’ll save weight if you skip it.
15-inch Laptop Reviews
17 to 18 inches: If your laptop stays on your desk all day every day, a 17- or 18-inch system could provide you with the kind of processing power you need to play high-end games or do workstation-level productivity. Because of their girth, laptops this size can pack in high-voltage quad-core CPUs, power-hungry graphics chips and multiple storage drives. Just don’t think about carrying these 7 pound-plus systems anywhere.
17-inch Laptop Reviews
3. Check That Keyboard and Touchpad
The most impressive specs in the world don’t mean diddly if the laptop you’re shopping for doesn’t have good ergonomics. Does the keyboard have solid tactile feedback and enough space between the keys? Is the touchpad smooth to operate or jumpy? Do the mouse buttons have a satisfying click, or do they feel mushy? How well do multitouch gestures work? You should be able to zoom in and out with ease, as well as select text with the touchpad without the cursor skipping around.
If you’re shopping for a Windows 8 notebook, test the touchpad to make sure that gestures don’t activate accidentally as you get close to the edges.
In general, Apple and Lenovo offer the best keyboards and touchpads. Dell and HP are generally pretty reliable in this category, too.
4. Know Your Specs
Notebook specs such as CPU, hard drive, RAM and graphics chip can confuse even notebook aficionados, so don’t feel bad if spec sheets look like alphabet soup to you. What you need really depends on what you plan to do with your laptop. More intensive tasks such as 3D gaming and HD video-editing require more expensive components.
Here are the main components to keep an eye on.
- CPU: The least expensive laptops on the market have AMD E Series or Intel Pentium CPUs, which will struggle to handle serious productivity or media tasks but can handle Web surfing. Don’t settle for less than an Intel Core i3 CPU or AMD A Series. If you’re spending more than $500, demand at least an Intel Core i5 CPU, which is capable of increasing its clock speed dynamically when you need more performance. Power users and gamers should settle for no less than Core i7 system, preferably a quad-core chip.
- RAM: When it comes to memory, or RAM, even the cheapest notebooks have 4GB these days so don’t settle for less. If you can get a system with 6 or 8GB, you’ll be better prepared for high-end applications and lots of multitasking.
- Hard Drive: For most users, a fast drive is more important than a large one. If you have a choice, go for a 7,200-rpm hard drive over a 5,400-rpm unit. Even if you have several movies and games on your hard drive, a 320GB should provide more than enough space, but 500GB or 750GB drives usually don’t cost much more.
- Flash Cache: Any Ultrabook and some other notebooks come with 8, 16 or 32GB flash caches you can use to increase performance. While not as fast as an SSD, a flash cache will help boost load and boot times while allowing you to store all your data on a large hard drive.
- Solid State Drives (SSDs): These drives cost quite a bit more than traditional hard drives and come with less capacity (usually 128 to 256GB), but they dramatically improve performance. You’ll enjoy faster boot times, faster resume times, and faster application open times. Plus, because SSDs don’t have moving parts such as mechanical drives, failure is much less of an issue.
- Display: The more pixels you have, the more content you can fit on-screen, and the sharper it will look. Most budget and mainstream notebooks come with 1366 x 768-pixel resolutions. However, if you have the option, choose a laptop with a higher pixel count 1600 x 900 or 1920 x 1080 —always go for the highest res you can get. You’ll see more of your favorite Web pages, multitask better and have a better movie-watching experience. Full HD panels (1920 x 1080) cost about $150 more than your typical display, but are worth the splurge, especially on larger screens.
- Touch Screen: Windows 8 is simply more fun and immersive with a touch screen, but if your laptop is not a hybrid with a bendable or rotatable screen, you can probably live without it. Though you can get a touch-screen system for under $500 these days, the difference in price between similarly configured systems with and without touch is $100 to $150.
- Graphics Chip: For the most part, an integrated graphics chip (one that shares system memory) will be fine for basic tasks, including surfing the Web, watching video and even playing some mainstream games. But a discrete graphics processor from AMD or Nvidia (which has dedicated video memory) will provide better performance when it comes to the most-demanding games. Plus, a good GPU can accelerate video playback on sites such as Hulu, as well as speed up video editing.
As with CPUs there are both high- and low-end graphics chips. Nvidia maintains a list of its graphics chips from low to high end as does AMD. In general, workstations and gaming notebooks will have the best GPUs, including dual graphics on the most expensive systems.
- DVD/Blu-ray Drives. Fewer and fewer laptops these days come with optical drives. That’s because you can download most software and download or stream video from the Web. Unless you burn discs or want to watch Blu-ray movies, you don’t need one of these drives and can save as much as half a pound of weight by avoiding them. At this point, DVD drives are a safety blanket.
5. Hybrid or Traditional Notebook?
Since the launch of Windows 8, we’ve seen a number of hybrid laptop designs that double as tablets. These include the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, which has a screen that bends back 360 degrees to turn into a slate, tablets that pop off of their keyboards like the HP Envy x2 and notebooks with slide-out keyboards like the Sony VAIO Duo 11.
In most cases, these devices don’t provide as good of a slate experience as dedicated tablets or as strong of a notebook experience as clamshell-only devices. If you like the idea of occasionally using your laptop in slate mode, a convertible like the Yoga is a versatile choice. But if you want the flexibility of using your device as standalone tablet, a detachable design is best.
6. Don’t Skimp on Battery Life
Even if you only plan to move your laptop from the desk to the couch and the bed or from your cubicle to the conference room, battery life matters. Nobody wants to be chained to a power outlet, even if there’s a socket within reach. If you’re buying a 15-inch notebook, look for at least 4 hours of endurance. Those who plan to be fairly mobile should shop for notebooks that offer more than 5 hours of battery life, with 6-plus hours being ideal.
If given the choice, pay extra for an extended battery; you won’t regret it. Keep in mind that some notebooks (such as the MacBook Air) feature sealed batteries that you can’t easily upgrade yourself.
To determine a notebook’s expected battery life, read third-party results from objective sources — LAPTOP notebook reviews, for example — rather than taking the manufacturer’s word for it. Your actual battery life will vary depending on your screen brightness and what tasks you perform (video eats more juice than Web surfing).
7. How Much Can You Get for Your Money?
These days, you can buy a usable laptop for under $500, but if you can budget more, you’ll get a system with better build quality, longer battery life, a sharper screen and stronger performance. Here’s what you can get for each price point.
- $400 to $600: For well under $600, you can get a notebook with an Intel Core i5 or AMD A8 CPU, 4 to 8GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive, all respectable specs. However, at this price point, most notebooks have cheap plastic chassis, low-res screens and weak battery life. However, at this price point, most notebooks have cheap plastic chassis, low-res screens and weak battery life, but you can occasionally find a touch screen.
- $600 to $800: As you get above $600, you’ll start to see more premium designs, such as metal finishes. Manufacturers also start to add in other features as you climb the price ladder, including better audio and backlit keyboards. You may also be able to get a screen with a resolution that’s 1600 x 900 or higher and a flash cache.
- Above $800: At this price range, expect notebooks that are more portable, more powerful or both. Expect higher resolution screens, faster processors and possibly discrete graphics. The lightest, longest-lasting ultraportables like the MacBook Air and Lenovo ThinkPad X1 carbon tend to cost more than $1,000. High-end gaming systems and mobile workstations usually cost upward of $1,500 or even as much as $2,500 or $3,000.
8. The Brand Matters
Your laptop is only as good as the company that stands behind it. Accurate and timely technical support is paramount, which is why LAPTOP evaluates every major brand in our annual Tech Support Showdown. This past year Sony came in first place, followed by Apple and Samsung.
Support is only part of what makes a notebook brand worth your money. You also have to consider how the manufacturer stacks up to the competition in terms of design, value and selection, review performance, and other criteria. In our 2013 Best and Worst Laptop Brands report, Apple placed first, followed by Lenovo and ASUS.
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