How to Buy a Laptop

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Laptop Shopping Tips

Are you ready to buy a notebook? Here are our recommendations for specifications that will fit the needs of the average user.

A 2.0-GHz Core 2 Duo processor. For everyday work--word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail--you don't need the latest, greatest (read: "most expensive") processor, but thankfully, with the Core Duo, you get strong performance and great battery life. (Check latest prices.)

2GB or more of memory. Anything less will slow your work. The only new machines that still carry less than 2GB of RAM are netbooks. Upgrade to a 64-bit OS if you want to carry more than 3GB on your laptop.

Supplemental battery. If you want more time away from an outlet, buy a higher-capacity supplementary battery when you purchase the laptop, or buy a notebook that has a modular bay capable of holding a supplementary power pack. Secondary batteries usually cost between $99 and $200.

A 13.3-inch wide screen. A screen larger than 12.1 inches permits higher resolutions. Unless you're pinching pennies--or you crave a tiny laptop--bigger is usually better, especially on your eyes. (Compare prices for laptops with screens that are at least 14.1 inches in size.)

A 160GB hard drive. Even some netbooks that cost under $500 are bundling a 160GB hard drive (granted, they spin slowly at 4200 rpm). So if you can get a large hard drive in your unit, do so. And as tempting as a solid-state drive may sound, it's an expensive choice for relatively little storage capacity.

A touchpad pointing device. Pointing devices are a matter of taste. Most people, however, find a touchpad easier to use than a pointing stick. For people who can't decide between a touchpad and an eraserhead pointing device, some notebooks include both. If you buy one of these, make sure that it provides two sets of mouse buttons--one for the touchpad and the other for the eraserhead--so you don't have to stretch to reach.

Multiple USB ports. Many laptops now come with two or more USB 2.0 ports, useful for connecting more of the latest peripherals.

All-in-one design. Unless you need a lightweight notebook, opt for one with an internal bay for the optical drive. This design enables you to swap in other devices, such as an extra hard drive or a second battery.

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