How to Buy a Laptop

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The Specs Explained

Before shopping for a laptop, consider how you'll be using it. If your primary goal is to get some word processing or spreadsheet work done while staying on top of e-mail, a netbook (priced at less than $500) will meet your needs. But a netbook does entail some sacrifices: a smaller processor, about 1GB of RAM, not much in the way of hard drive space, no optical drive, and (at biggest) a 10.2-inch screen. On the surface not much separates the netbooks from sexy lightweight notebooks, but the specs under the hood (and a big screen inside it) can inflate an ultraportable's price to as much as $2000 more than a typical netbook.

Remember that most vendors let you custom-build and -price your own laptop by picking from a mind-boggling array of features, which gives you a lot of control over the final product. You may be able to afford a faster notebook by accepting a smaller, less-expensive hard drive or DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive, instead of a BD-ROM.

Unlike those on desktop PCs, only some of the components (such as memory and the hard drive) are upgradable; others (such as the graphics board) are permanent once they're installed at the factory. That's slowly changing, as some manufacturers begin to incorporate upgradable graphics. But take your time and pick only what you need. Following is a rough breakout of some configuration options.

Important consideration: Installed memory. The more installed memory your laptop has, the more applications you can run at once, and the better your machine will perform. Ease of access aside, upgrading memory in a notebook is a bit trickier than with a desktop, so buy as much memory preinstalled as you can afford. Laptops with 2GB of RAM are optimal. If you're running Windows Vista on a laptop, consider upgrading to 3GB of RAM (or more if your notebook uses a 64-bit version of the OS).

Important consideration: Processor. The CPU determines how quickly a notebook runs applications and performs on-screen tasks. Core Duo and Core 2 Duo processors are good choices for speedy processing. Atom processors appear only in budget-friendly netbooks, so plan according to your needs. (Check the latest prices for recommended notebooks.)

Important consideration: Screen size. The specified size of a laptop's LCD screen represents a diagonal measurement. The larger the screen, the higher the maximum resolution and the more information you can view at once. At this point, most notebooks are wide-screen models; if you want a laptop with a standard-aspect screen you'll have to search a bit, but they are still available. The aspect ratio seen on some newer 16-inch laptop screens offers the ideal resolution for viewing high-definition movies on the go. (Compare laptops with recommended screen sizes.)

Important consideration: Screen coating. A laptop's LCD panel is only as good as it looks when you look into it. Can you see text and images clearly when you're viewing them in broad daylight? Many notebooks that look sharp on store shelves (thanks to their extra-glossy coatings) may be tough to work with outdoors or in a coffee shop. So keep in mind not only how you plan to use your notebook, but where you want to use it.

Somewhat important: Hard drive. The larger the hard drive, the more data you can keep on your laptop. Most cheap netbooks offer 80GB drives at this point, so why not give yourself a little room to grow? If you plan to work with databases, spreadsheets, or digital photo or video files, opt for a large drive. Be sure to find out the hard drive's speed, too. Older, slower drives run at 4200 rpm, and most current drives clock in at 5400 rpm; but a 7200-rpm model will offer better speed in data-read-intensive tasks.

Somewhat important: Expansion bays. The more expansion baysyour laptop has, the more options you'll have for switching in new optical drives or other storage drives. But switching drives takes time, and modular components aren't as common as they used to be. As laptops gravitate toward flush form factors and unibody designs, may find that your only practical option is to lug around external drives that plug in through USB ports.

Somewhat important: Optical drives. Most manufacturers offer laptops with rewritable DVD drives, which give you the most flexibility. Alternatively, you could purchase a notebook with a DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive, to save money.

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