By now you've read our other two Laptop Buying Guide installments, "Selecting the Right Laptop for You" and "Making Sense of the Specifications," so you have an understanding of which category of laptop is appropriate for you and what specs you prefer.
You're all set to buy a laptop, and you may have narrowed your choices down to a few models after consulting our laptop reviews. It's time to go shopping! But before you break out your credit card, consider the following tips.
Try Before You Buy
Many people choose to buy a laptop online, where shoppers can find a wider selection and typically lower prices. That's fine, but you really shouldn't buy a new computer sight unseen if you can avoid it. Write down the names of some of the models you're interested in, along with a few notes about why they caught your eye, and head to your local big-box electronics store. See if the store has display units of any of the systems you're considering, or at least very similar models by the same manufacturer. Try the keyboard--can you type easily on it? Is the touchpad a pain to use? Does the screen look good? If the laptop you want to buy has a glossy screen, look at other models with glossy screens and determine whether you truly prefer that look over a matte, antiglare finish.
Pick up the laptop you want to buy and evaluate its heft. Close the lid and see if the size is something that you can fit into your chosen bag (don't actually put it in there, of course, unless you want security all over you). Bear in mind that many display notebooks in stores have the battery removed, which makes them considerably lighter than they usually are.
Once you have a feel for the notebook you want (or a very similar one), you can go back home and buy online with confidence. If you're buying in a brick-and-mortar store, you might want to ask if the retailer has any sales coming up, or at least call around to different stores to see which one has the best price. Or use your mobile phone to check the latest prices online, and see how competitive the in-store price is. The store you prefer might even match the price of a local competitor.
Need More RAM? Install It Yourself
Let's say that the laptop you want to buy comes with 2GB of RAM but is expandable to 4GB. You might be able to save some money if you upgrade the laptop's RAM yourself. See how much more it costs to buy the machine with 4GB, and compare that with buying the RAM separately and installing it (the task typically requires removing only a couple of screws and about 5 minutes of your time--it's easy to do on most laptops today).
Naturally, you'll have to do a little homework first. Make sure that the laptop has an empty RAM socket (ask a sales rep if you're not sure), and find out what type and speed of RAM you'll need. If all of this seems intimidating, it's okay--just buy the system with the RAM upgrade. Your time and frustration are worth only so much.