Laptop computers were once reserved for businesspeople and students, but the days of expensive, underpowered laptops are over. The advent of wireless Internet and a desire to save desk space has lured many consumers to abandon desktop PCs in favor of the slim, go-anywhere power that a laptop provides. While some tasks, such as graphics and video editing, are still best left to powerful desktop machines, you might find that a laptop is the best choice for a new computer (see also Desktop PC Buying Guide).
At similar price points, Windows laptops typically offer more features and memory than Apple models. Want the best of both worlds? Apple now incorporates Intel processors that let Mac users run Windows with the purchase of Apple’s BootCamp software, but you’ll need a powerful machine to run both systems. If budget is your concern, choose a Windows laptop.
Look for a laptop with a dual-processor AMD or dual-core Intel chip, 1GB of RAM and 120GB of hard drive. Think about how you’ll use the laptop in the future, and try to get more storage and memory than you currently need.
You’ll be sitting less than two feet from a laptop’s screen, so it doesn’t need to be huge. The size of the screen will affect the laptop’s price, size, weight, and battery life.
Battery life ratings are not guaranteed. Watching movies and playing games on a laptop will consume more power than writing or browsing the Web. Try to run batteries down before recharging them to increase their usable life span.
A laptop with a DVD burner and multiple connection ports, including HDMI and DVI, will give you more flexibility for connecting to peripherals and home theater. Make sure the laptop’s keyboard is big enough for your hands.
A processor that uses two integrated chips on a single board to increase the speed and power of software applications. AMD’s Dual Core and Intel’s Core Duo chipsets are dual-core processors.
Digital Video Interface is a connection port that allows a laptop to be connected to a television or home theater component. This connection is being phased out in favor of HDMI.
The amount of storage space built in to a laptop, measured in gigabytes (GB). Larger numbers equal more space.
High Definition Multimedia Input is the new standard for connecting home theater components. Its single, bundled cord can transmit more data than other connection methods.
Liquid Crystal Display, a pixel-based screen system found on all laptops. The performance of an LCD screen is measured in its contrast ratio (the difference between the darkest and brightest pixels) and refresh rate (the speed at which a pixel can change colors). Higher contrast ratios and lower refresh rates mean better performance.
A media reader that uses a laser to decode digital information stored on a CD or DVD. Most laptops now include optical drives that can write to DVDs as well as read from them.
The “brains” of a laptop where computing functions are performed. Processors come in single-chip and dual-core versions, and dual-core processors are preferred. Processor speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz), with higher numbers equaling faster processing speed.
Random Access Memory is the space that a processor has to perform functions. RAM is measured in gigabytes (GB), with higher numbers allowing for more software to be run simultaneously.
Universal Serial Bus is a standard connection for laptops and peripherals, including printers, mice, and external storage devices. USB connections pass power and data to attached devices, but this format is not as fast as Ethernet or HDMI connections.
Video Graphics Adaptor is a port that allows a laptop to be connected to a standalone monitor or compatible television.
Whenever you’re buying any kind of computer, think of tomorrow and try to get more than you need. Software, games, and multimedia have become more demanding of laptops in the broadband age.
With that in mind, look for a laptop with either a dual-processor AMD chip or a dual-core Intel chip. This new technology splits processor functions between two integrated chips, providing a laptop with more speed and power. You’ll see the speed of a laptop’s processor measured in gigahertz (GHz). Bigger numbers mean faster speeds. Look for laptops with processors that run at 2GHz or higher.
A new laptop should have 1GB of RAM and a 100GB hard drive at a minimum, and it’s worth paying extra for more memory. The newest Mac and Windows operating systems consume large amounts of RAM, so an underpowered laptop will struggle to run software. Larger laptop hard drives are needed if you’re carrying a lot of music or multimedia files with you, or if you download files from the Internet.
All laptops have LCD screens, and the screen still adds considerable cost to a laptop, although prices have dropped significantly over the last three years. Because a laptop’s screen is integrated, the size of the screen determines the size, weight, and battery life of a laptop.
Laptop screen sizes range from 13 to 19 inches. You’ll be two feet away from the screen while you’re using the laptop, so a smaller screen will do unless you have poor vision or need the extra screen space to run applications.
Beware of budget laptops that have screens with low refresh rates. While these screens are good for writing or browsing the Web, they can’t handle fast-moving images, making them a poor choice for gamers or movie buffs.
Apple’s switch to Intel processors has enabled their laptops to run Windows with the purchase of Apple’s BootCamp software. You’ll need a powerful laptop to run both operating systems, so budget-minded consumers may prefer the flexibility and compatibility of a Windows-based laptop. At similar price points, Windows laptops typically offer more features and memory than Apple models.
You’ve probably seen or heard about the videos of laptops bursting into flames. This is very, very, uncommon, and the problem stemmed from faulty batteries, not the laptops themselves.
Laptops and batteries are as safe to use as any other household appliance. All batteries generate heat while they’re recharging and should not be left unattended.
A laptop may be rated for battery life, which is the amount of time you can run it before it needs to be recharged. While these ratings can help you choose between laptop models, they are general guides and shouldn’t be taken literally. Playing games and watching movies will empty the battery much faster than sending e-mails or building a spreadsheet.
Don’t charge laptop batteries too often. This can cause parts of the battery to become inactive, sometimes known as a “memory,” and reduces the usable space in the battery. It’s best to run a laptop until the battery is almost used up before recharging.
Look for a laptop with a combination optical drive that can, at a minimum, read DVDs and write CDs. Laptops with DVD burners are increasingly common at lower price points, and these drives can write CDs as well as DVDs.
A laptop should have a built-in wireless modem for accessing the Internet, along with an expansion slot that allows you to add your own modem for faster broadband wireless. Look for laptops with multiple connectivity options. Two USB ports are a minimum requirement so you can connect the laptop to printers and external drives. An Ethernet port is essential for connecting to wired broadband Internet service.
Almost every laptop has a VGA port to connect to a standalone monitor. Newer models include DVI and HDMI ports that let you use the laptop as part of your home entertainment system. This is useful if you download movies or other content that you want to send to your TV, and it should be considered an essential if you’re replacing a desktop system with a laptop.
If you don’t like touchpads, look for a laptop with an alternate control system, such as a touchscreen or small joystick. You can also purchase a separate USB mouse to use with the laptop.
Finally, consider the size of the laptop’s keyboard. Smaller laptops may have keys set too close together for users with big hands.