Buying a laptop is a major investment for many, because laptops remain relatively costly. Such major investment has to be justified by the performance you get from the laptop and how well it serves you far into the future. Upgrading and reconfiguring a laptop is more tricky than a desktop computer upgrade, which makes it compelling to try and get it right from the outset.
Unfortunately, not many prospective buyers of laptop computers are familiar with the important technical features that determine the performance and service value of a laptop. To compound matters, there is a whole lot of choice out there, with various brands and models of laptops to choose from. Many computer or laptop vendors, unfortunately, may be more interested in your money than the satisfaction you get.
Well, if you’re caught in that challenge, here is a laptop buying guide to straighten things out for you.
The Key Factors in Choosing Your Laptop PC
You are concerned about the processing power, load capacity, functionality, convenience and durability you’ll get from your laptop. Below are the factors that determine these laptop performance metrics.
The Laptop Processor
The processor is the central processing unit (CPU) of the laptop and is really the ‘engine’ of your laptop. A faster processor in your laptop means more power and processing speed. The faster your processor can ‘think’ and work, the faster the processes in your laptop can work. Higher processor clock rate would also translate to higher cost, which is why you only need just enough to meet your work requirement. Intel processors are the leading name, with AMD processors also well rated. Intel’s lineup includes the Pentium range, Celeron and Core Duo, Core 2 Duo and Core processsors. AMD, on its part, offers Athlon, Sempron and Turion processors. Reviews generally give Intel processors a performance edge over their AMD equivalents, but AMD processors come at better pricing. To start with, your laptop should be coming with a good Intel or AMD processor, with your budget playing a role in your final choice.
Processor speeds are ever hitting higher levels as manufacturers push for more performance. Today, however, a clock rate of 3 GHz is top speed. Most users will do with far less. Speeds of 1.6 GHz - 2 GHz would deliver excellent performance, while speeds of up to 2.8 - 3.4 GHz are awful. Besides, the introduction of multi-core processors has resulted in better processor performance even at lower clockrates. If your workload isn’t much, the extra cost of a high-end processor would seem unjustified.
As you can see, processor speed is measured in Hertz. Intel remains the top dog - see this shortlist by Optimitza, showing the clockrates of various top-end Intel and AMD processors:
Intel Core 2 Extreme X9100 (3.1 GHz), X9000 (2.8GHz), Intel Core 2 Duo T9600 (2.8 GHz), T9500 (2.6GHz), T9400 (2.6GHz), T9300 (2.5GHz), P9500 (2.5GHz), P8600 (2.4GHz), P7350 (2.0Ghz), T8300 (2.4GHz), T8100 (2.1GHz), T7700 (2.4GHz), T7500 (2.2GHz), T7250 (2.0GHz), T5550 (1.8GHz), T5470 (1.6GHz), U7700 (1.3Ghz), Intel Pentium Dual Core T2390 (1.9GHz) T2330 (1.6GHz), Intel Atom N270 (), AMD Turion X2 Ultra ZM-84 (2.3GHz), AMD Turion X2 RM-70 (2.0GHz), AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-64 (2.2GHz) and TL-56 (1.8GHz)
System Memory (RAM)
RAM is for random access memory. The RAM is another important metric for laptop performance. The installed memory is critical when you run various system applications in your notebook. Without enough RAM, the capacity of your notebook to perform efficiently will be limited.
So, how much RAM do you need? It depends. Once, 512MB was enough system memory, but all the applications and other resources running simultaneously in laptops these days mean more RAM requirement. A minimum of 1GB, perhaps. For higher-end computing, go for more. Most users, today, ask for laptops of up to 2GHz processor speed, but you can still get joy with less.
The Laptop Hard Drive
Though less critical than the first two with regard to laptop performance, the system hard drive is still important. Your laptop today takes a lot of downloads of online resources and keeps massive volumes of stored music, graphics and other digital resources. You need the storage capacity, though external hard drives can help, too. The hard drive is the main drive of your laptop, the permanent storage device within your system.
The drive size you'll require is a function of the work you intend to store on your hard drive. Graphics will take more space, meaning that if they are a major part of your data, you need extra capacity for that. Similarly, a large MP3 music library or plenty of digital video on your laptop, will make a huge demand on your hard drive. You should aim for up to 80 gigabyte, in today’s usage circumstances. For sure, many users are asking for capacities in the range of 250 - 320 GB or even more. Note that while more hard drive capacity means more storage room which is nice, it also translates to more cost. Your budget will help you decide.
The Screen Size
Wider screen size means more comfort for your eyes, but it also implies more bulk which will impair portability. You need to resolve that seeming conflict, depending on how you want to mostly use your laptop. Largely mobile users will prefer smaller, more portable laptops. Wider laptop screens also would mean more battery power consumption and you should consider that as well.
The screen sizes you see are the diagonal width of the laptop screen. It could be as low as 10.4' for light netbooks. Widescreen laptop as wide as 17.1' are also available. Ultra light, ultra portable machines for high mobility come with the smaller screens (10.1', 12.1'). For virtually desktop use, a large screen-size (15' - 17.1') will not hurt. 14.1' is a mid-range and will serve well even if you're often on the move.
The Laptop Key Board
How easily you work with your laptop can be affected by the layout of the key board. An ultra-compact laptop’s keyboard may be too crammed for a good work-rate. Cumulatively, this could be a substantial cost in productive time. Before you buy, be sure that the layout of the laptop’s keyboard is comfortable for use or that you will eventually get comfortable with it.
You’ll need extended battery life, especially when you're largely mobile. You won’t always have a power socket nearby to plug into. Some processors support better battery performance and you need one that achieves longer battery life of over 3 hours. Lithium ion rechargeable batteries give excellent performance and may be your best choice. Depending on your primary mode of use of your laptop, this may be an important selection factor.
The Laptop’s Operating System
Microsoft's Windows and Apple's Mac are the real options. Windows systems are more common here and the choice comes down now to Windows XP or Windows Vista. There are also versions of the XP or Vista to consider: Windows XP Professional Edition, Windows XP Home Edition, Windows Vista Starter, Windows Vista Home Basic, Windows Vista Home Premium, Windows Vista Business, Windows Vista Enterprise and Windows Vista Ultimate. Most users will be fine with the basic versions, but if you need more features, then choose one that matches the need. Most laptops come loaded with the OS, and you shoud be sure what you are getting with the notebook you buy. If that's not what you want to use, go for one with the OS you want.
Laptops come with built-in replacements for the mouse, with two main options as the touchpad and pointing stick. The touchpad is rectangular and provides a surface (usually below the keys) that you can run your finger on to move the pointer. The pointing stick, usually in the middle of the type-keys will also move the curser through finger nudging. Both require a little practice and may be available in the same notebook, meaning that you don't have to choose at purchase. If you're more comfortable with a mouse, then pick a USB mouse as an accessory though it's not in every mobile-use position that a mouse can fit in.
The Laptop’s Optical Drive
Consider what multimedia drive you require. User requirements may range from just playing CDs to as far as burning DVDs. What are your needs? Choices include low-end CD and CD-RW drives, mid-range combo DVD and CD-RW drive, and high-end rewritable DVD+RW, DVD-RW and DVD±RW drives. Related is the audio capability. Your system should be multimedia for good sound quality.
Many laptops today offer wireless connectivity, enabling mobile internet access. If you need a laptop with wireless connection to provide the flexibility you may need, be sure to check this out before you buy. Ask the vendor to confirm this capability.
Laptop Computer Ports
You will need to plug things at some point and you need the ports. If you have gadgets that require special connections (digital video camcorder with FireWire connection) you need a notebook that provides that. Beyond special needs, you at least need enough (four?) USB ports on your equipment. A PC Card slot will also be found handy. The mobile broad band services offered by Starcomms and Netcom require card slots.
More Laptop Extras
What else is important to you? Some want in-built webcams so they can be seen while chatting online. Some are interested in Bluetooth facility. Or some other bells and whistles of the product. You decide what’s important to you and look for a laptop that offers them.
Decide Before You Buy
You don’t want any regrets after spending a lot of money, so make your decisions before hand. Now you have a chart to guide you. There are many brands of laptops in the market and different manufacturers have earned a name. HP, Dell, HP Compaq, Sony, Toshiba, Acer, etc, are all of long-standing in the laptops market. You may have your brand preferences. What you have here helps you decide what the laptop you need should parade. Happy computing