Whether you’re looking for a new computer from an online retailer or standing in line at a brick and mortar electronics store the day after Thanksgiving, these 10 tips are exactly what you’ll need to know while sorting through the dozens (or hundreds) of available laptop PCs.
- Windows or Mac: It doesn’t matter.
Despite what you might have heard in the latest TV commercials from Microsoft and Apple, the old argument of “Mac vs. PC” is about as pointless as “Honda vs. Toyota”; either choice will provide essentially the same functionality. The biggest difference between a PC running Windows 7 and a Mac running OS X Lion will be the user experience … and even that will be largely similar between the two.
The main reason that it doesn’t matter whether you buy a Windows 7 PC or an Apple MacBook is that the web browsers and most popular software work very similarly on both. Yes, there are differences to the user interface, but the majority of consumers looking for a new home computer won’t have a drastically different experience … particularly if all they do is browse the web or check email.
There is no denying that Apple makes some beautiful, well-built products with elegant designs, but you can find some impressive Windows PCs on store shelves as well. The only “Mac vs. PC” argument that might hold water today is that Macs are still less vulnerable to viruses or other malware (unless you go searching for free Mac software on shady websites). That said, free antivirus programs like Microsoft Security Essentials does a great job protecting your Windows PC as long as you aren’t visiting strange websites and clicking on things you shouldn’t.
- 4GB of RAM is probably enough.
Luckily for all you Christmas shoppers, for the most part, you don’t have to worry about the amount of RAM in a laptop. Thanks to the horrible experience that was Windows Vista, PC manufacturers figured out that 4GB of RAM is a pretty good foundation for a Windows PC.
Yes, you’ll still find some bargain-priced PCs with less than 4GB of RAM, but even 3GB will likely be more than enough if you just want to browse websites, check email and edit the occasional photo or movie. “Serious” photo or video editing will be faster if you have more than 4GB of RAM, but extra memory is largely a waste of money for typical laptop users.
In fact, more RAM will not only cost you money, it will cost you battery life. All the RAM in your PC is powered on when your PC is on. Even if your applications are only using 2.5GB worth of memory, every single bit of RAM is sucking down wattage. If you’re running your laptop of battery power, then that battery is going to run down faster on a notebook with 8GB compared to a notebook with 3GB. Sure, we’re probably only talking about a difference of a few minutes of real world battery life, but if you’re on the road then chances are you want your battery to last as long as possible.
If you happen to be a serious photo/video editor or a gamer who wants lots of fast RAM then make sure you buy a PC with a 64-bit processor and Windows 7 64-bit. Without getting too technical, the 32-bit version of Windows can’t use more than 4GB of system memory (actually less, thanks to graphics) so you need a 64-bit system if you plan to buy more than 4GB of system memory.
- It’s not just the amount of storage … it’s the speed.
Most consumers want a big hard drive to store all the family photos, downloaded songs, movies and games they plan to buy over the life of their PC. However, if you want your new PC to be “really” fast, then you need to buy fast storage.
The majority of bargain-priced laptops come with slow hard drives rated at 5400 revolutions per minute (rpm). A 5400rpm hard drive is cheap, but it’ also slow and it makes your new PC startup slow, launch applications slow, wakeup from sleep slow, shutdown slow … you get the picture. A 7200rpm hard drive is faster and will make your new laptop run faster (usually at a slightly higher cost).
If money is no object and you want the fastest storage available then consider buying a laptop with either a solid state drive (SSD) or a “hybrid” drive such as the Seagate Momentus XT. These drives cost more than a typical 7200rpm hard drive, but a SSD or hybrid drive will allow Windows 7 to startup in a fraction of the time it takes a laptop with a 5400rpm hard drive. SSDs also have better resistance to shock and vibration, so if you’re rough on your laptop then a SSD will probably keep your important data safer than a hard drive.
- Pentium processors aren’t that good.
Gone are the days when the Intel Pentium processors were the best processors that money can buy. Our regular readers and discussion forum members are probably saying, “DUH” right about now, but there is a reason that Intel keeps using the Pentium brand: Many consumers don’t know better.
For those of you who haven’t been paying attention to processors since the 1990s, Intel now uses the Pentium brand name to label its low-cost, low-performance chips. A modern Pentium-branded processor is certainly better than the original Pentium chips of the 90s, but if you want the best consumer processors that Intel has to offer then you want a second generation Intel Core series processor: Core i3, Core i5, or Core i7.
Another reason we’re mentioning this is that I was watching an electronics showcase on a nationally broadcast home shopping channel and was amazed to hear the show announcer say, “You know you’re getting the best because this is an Intel Pentium processor.” Despite the gross distortion of the truth on television, many of the cheapest Intel-equipped laptops ($350 or less) available at major electronics retailers are using Pentium-branded processors.
These processors are fine for basic tasks like web browsing, email and getting work done in Microsoft Office, but the performance isn’t great and Pentium processors aren’t nearly as battery-friendly as the latest Intel Core series processors.
- AMD “might” be better than Intel … depending on what you buy.
The second largest processor manufacturer for PCs, AMD, has developed some pretty impressive processors in 2011. AMD’s secret is FUSION; a term used to describe the combination of a traditional central processing unit (CPU) and a discrete graphics processing unit (GPU) onto a single chip. AMD calls these new processors the “Accelerated Processing unit” (APU) but the only thing you have to remember is that this new type of processor provides significantly better graphics performance (compared to traditional processors in the same price range) for streaming videos online, watching Blu-ray movies or playing the latest games. Not only that, but APUs provide better battery life since there are fewer components on the motherboard to consume power and this also helps make laptops smaller and lighter
This sounds GREAT … but there’s a catch. Most of the laptop manufacturers building AMD-based laptops use AMD processors only in budget notebooks. This means that “most” of the AMD-equipped laptops you’ll find in brick and mortar stores use the cheapest APUs that offer the weakest performance.
There are basically three types of AMD processors to look for: C-series, E-series and A-series. Laptops with C-series and E-series processors are generally the least expensive but offer the least performance. These processors are fine for casual use but if you’re buying an AMD laptop because you want impressive graphics then you need to look for a notebook with an A-series processor. The “A4” processors are dual-core FUSION processors with decent graphics. The “A6” and “A8” processors are quad-core chips that provide much better performance both in terms of general use and gaming
- Keyboards and touchpads are important.
Although things like processors, RAM and hard drives make a big difference in the performance of a laptop, two of the commonly overlooked components that are essential to a good laptop are the keyboard and the touchpad.
These two input devices are the two things you’re going to be using most on your new laptop. Trust us, two months after you buy your new computer you won’t care if the processor is a little slow but you’ll be driven insane if the keyboard makes typing unpleasant or the touchpad doesn’t work the way it should. On that note, here are a few things to watch out for when trying to find the right laptop.
The best laptop keyboards are the ones with firm support underneath the entire keyboard structure. Some laptops have loose keyboards that flex or “bounce” under the pressure of your fingertips while you type. This flex not only feels unpleasant but it often causes typos and severe keyboard flex can even result in failure of the keyboard over time. If you’re planning to use your laptop during your next flight or if you want to type in a dimly lit room then you might also want to get a laptop with a LED-backlit keyboard. These help you see what keys you’re typing but laptops with LED-backlit keyboards are usually more expensive than a laptops with standard keyboards … and some cheap LED keyboards suffer from severe flex.
The best touchpads have excellent sensitivity and minimal lag so the cursor on the screen moves precisely along with your fingertip on the touchpad. Larger touchpads are generally a good thing (particularly if you plan on using multi-touch gestures on the touchpad surface). Touchpad buttons are just as important. Most people want soft, cushioned buttons that don’t make a loud “click” every time you press the buttons. Many modern notebooks have “buttonless” touchpads with either physical buttons located beneath the bottom edge of the touchpad or the buttons are “electronic” and activated only when you tap the bottom corners of the touchpad. With the exception of the touchpad on the Apple MacBook Pro, most buttonless touchpads don’t work as well as touchpads with traditional buttons
- Glossy screens suck.
Speaking of new things that don’t work as well as traditional solutions, let’s talk about glossy screens. The overwhelming majority of modern laptops come with one of two types of displays: annoyingly glossy or VERY annoyingly glossy.
The root cause of the problem dates back to the early days of laptops in the 1990s and early 2000s. The first laptops with color displays usually came with matte screens that made it easy to see what was on the screen under bright indoor lights or even direct sunlight, but color saturation on these old matte displays was pretty weak and the contrast was downright horrible; everything looked “washed out” compared to an old CRT or quality desktop LCD monitor.
Laptop manufacturers realized that they could improve color saturation and contrast on cheap LCD panels if they used a glossy screen surface instead of a matte screen. This indeed made the screens look nicer … at the cost of usability. Glossy screens reflect light. Room lights located behind you or above you in rooms with low ceilings cause annoying bright spots on the screen that block your view. Take a laptop with a glossy screen outside during a day when the sun isn’t hiding behind clouds and you’ll find it very difficult to see anything on the screen. If you turn off a laptop with a glossy screen you can even use the screen as a mirror (I know, I shaved with one on a YouTube video a few years ago).
Unfortunately, despite the well-known problems with glossy screens, the “big box” brick and mortar retailers have largely forced manufacturers to keep producing them. The reason is simple: laptops with glossy screens look good in big box stores with high ceilings because the lights are out of the way and the reflections don’t look as bad. Shoppers see the shiny screens with the bright colors and the rich contrast and they usually buy those laptops instead of the ones that have matte screens.
If you search our discussion forums or search Facebook and Twitter, you’ll find many, MANY laptop owners who found out too late that glossy screens make life difficult. If you want to buy a new notebook with a matte screen then you’ll probably have to buy a custom-built laptop online or visit multiple local stores before you find a pre-built laptop with a matte screen
- PC gaming isn’t what it used to be.
The world of PC gaming is always changing, but the world of PC gaming on laptops has really changed in the last year or two. Years ago the only way to play modern games on a laptop PC was to buy a massive, expensive laptop with a powerful dedicated/discrete graphics card. Within the last two years we’ve seen ultraportable notebooks equipped with “good enough” discrete graphics that can handle playing “most” modern games at native screen resolution (1366×768) with good detail settings and fast frame rates.
In 2011, Intel’s second-generation Core series processors (Sandy Bridge) hit the market with new integrated graphics that are 17x faster than the previous generation. The latest Intel graphics still aren’t particularly good at delivering a great gaming experience, and there are some titles that won’t play at all on Intel graphics, but you can play more games on a new Intel laptop today than ever before.
If that isn’t good enough, cloud gaming might just make high performance gaming notebooks completely unnecessary. Services like OnLive make it possible to play some of the latest games (ones that typically require PCs with expensive, powerful specs) on almost any PC with a decent internet connection. The editors at NotebookReview played DiRT3, Mafia II, and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood with great detail settings and frame rates on a budget-oriented $450 laptop with an Intel Core i3 processor and integrated graphics. That would be impossible without cloud gaming. Microsoft might even be getting into the game next year with Windows 8 and Xbox Live integration … we’ll just have to wait and see.
Bottom line, it’s “possible” to have a good gaming experience with a cheap laptop this Christmas.
- If you want the best, be ready to pay for it.
On the other hand, if the handful of games available via OnLive aren’t enough and a budget laptop doesn’t have the horsepower for your daily work, then you may indeed want a well-equipped notebook with a powerful multi-core processor, tons of fast RAM, high-capacity SSDs, dedicated graphics, Blu-ray drive, 1080p 3D display, extended-life battery and even an all-metal chassis
These kinds of premium notebooks exist … but you better be ready to spend some serious coin. A premium multimedia and gaming notebook like the 17-inch Toshiba Qosmio X775-3DV80 with the best specs, built-in 3D display with 3D glasses, a 500GB hybrid drive and 750GB 7200rpm hard drive (1.25TB of high-speed storage) and all the optional extras has the “premium” price tag of around $1,899.99 at the time of this writingAlternatively, you could buy the 15-inch Toshiba Satellite C655D-S5300 with basic AMD E-series processor and a 320GB 5400rpm hard drive at Best Buy for $382.99 … but there’s a mighty big difference in the build quality and performance of these two notebooks.
- If you don’t “need” a new laptop, consider upgrading what you’ve got.
One last thing to keep in mind before you go looking for that new notebook computer is, “Do you really need a new computer?” Everyone knows that times are tough financially all over the globe. If you already have a perfectly functional computer then you might not “need” to buy a new one.
Sometimes upgrading the old hard drive in your current laptop to a faster hard drive or SSD along with a clean install of Windows 10 is all you need to transform a sluggish notebook into a PC that you can live with for another year or more. Windows 11 won’t be here soon, but it’s “probably” going to be here by next Christmas along with a number of new laptops and tablets designed specifically to take advantage of the new features in Windows 11.
Source: notebook review