How to buy the best laptop in the age of Windows 8

Laptops used to be simple. Almost all of them had a clamshell design, with a display that folded onto the keyboard. You picked the laptop you needed based on factors like price, weight, and performance. But it's different today: New form factors, different operating systems, and disparate user needs conspire to make choosing a laptop a complex chore.

Do core processor specs matter, or has system performance reached the point where users won't even notice a 300MHz frequency bump? Should you buy a laptop at all, or would a tablet better suit your needs? I'll answer all these questions and more as I explore the challenges of buying a laptop (or something like a laptop) in the age of Windows 8.

Define your needs and budget

Before you pull out your credit card, consider how you'll be using your new machine. Perhaps you do a lot of business traveling, and carrying something lighter than your current 6-pound behemoth would improve your life on the road tremendously. Or maybe you're looking for a shared family machine, or a laptop that you can hand off to a student to do schoolwork on. Or you might want a high-performance system that can deliver high frame rates in 3D games.

Let's look at the main buying factors for each scenario.

Business laptop: If you're a frequent business traveler, mobility and ruggedness are important laptop features for you. Consumer-grade laptops may look sleek and attractive, but many business-oriented units are built to absorb the shocks of constant travel. Hardcore performance is less important in this scenario than portability, sturdiness, and battery life.

Shared family PC: Many families used to share a small PC in the living room or family room. Desktop replacement laptops—gargantuan systems with 17-inch or larger screens—often fulfill that same role today. For many families, roomy screens and large hard drives outweigh such factors as top-of-the-line performance and battery life.

Student laptop: High school students may need laptops that support basic mobility, but not much else—and this helps keep the cost of the laptop low. Many college students need all-purpose machine that are more robust. Performance is a bigger consideration, too, but physical desk space is likely to be limited, so a smaller machine may make the most sense.

Gaming machine: PC gamers may be willing to accept more weight and less portability if the payoff is better performance. Such performance-oriented features as quad-core processors and high-end mobile GPUs require more-elaborate cooling technologies and bulkier cases, which in turn mean increased weight. The result can be a special-purpose laptop like the Razer Blade.

The recently released Razer Blade is a great gaming machine with a 17-inh display, but it won't suffice for many general-purpose needs.

Regardless of your specific needs, make sure that you understand a laptop's target user prior to buying it. Once you settle on the features you want, from most to least important, lock down a budget. Setting a budget will help you narrow down your choices. But make sure that your budget takes essential accessories into account. For example, students may need an external, portable hard drive for quick backups, and business users may want to spring for extended warranties with overnight replacements.

Finally consider whether you even need a laptop. Tablet sales have skyrocketed in the past couple of years, and for good reason: Tablets typically cost less than a full-fledged laptop, they're much more portable, and they boot faster than most PCs. If you're looking primarily for a mobile device for browsing the Web, watching video, and playing some light games, a tablet might fit the bill nicely.

Evolving form factors

Windows 8 has spurred a remarkable amount of innovation in laptop design. Some new laptops, such as the HP Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4, integrate a touchscreen into an otherwise standard clamshell design. Other, hybrid designs—like Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga and Dell's XPS 12—use nifty conversion mechanisms to give users a touchscreen tablet and a laptop in a single physical package. Remember to keep a cautious eye on your budget, however. Windows 8 makes touch-capable displays extremely attractive, but adding touch technology to a machine increases its cost.

Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga could be an ideal business machine for conference room presentations.

When considering one of the new hybrid designs, don't lose sight of your needs assessment. If you're a business traveler who makes frequent presentations to clients, a hybrid equipped with a touchscreen makes sense. Using a tablet and touch control to run a presentation is far easier than huddling around a clamshell and using its small trackpad.

But even if a hybrid PC looks great, make sure that it has the basics you need. For example, the Sony Duo 11 offers a good tablet experience, but its keyboard may not satisfy touch typists who have to do a lot of writing on their laptop.

Under the hood

Once you've clarified your needs and established a budget, you're ready to dive into the world of internal components. Understanding what makes a laptop tick can help you choose your system wisely.

Processors

Intel processors that have the word "Core" in their name employ the company's state-of-the-art CPU architecture.  

Ultrabooks and similar ultraportable laptop PCs use ultra-low-voltage (ULV) CPUs. They're the most power-efficient CPUs, meaning that they run cooler and can fit into systems with very thin cases. Intel ULV processors are often labeled with a "u"—for example, the Core i5 3317u. You do forfeit some raw CPU performance, as the clock speeds of ULV processors aren't especially high, and the ones sold today have only two processor cores.

Intel
Intel's Ivy Bridge processors power most current-generation laptops and Ultrabooks.

Mainstream laptop CPUs of the type found in most all-purpose laptops offer better performance, but they also require more-effective cooling systems, which makes these systems heavier. High-end systems may carry quad-core CPUs, whose four CPU cores improve the performance of applications that can take advantage of them.

Another class of processor is the accelerated processing unit (APU). Built by AMD, these CPUs have more-powerful integrated graphics engines than equivalent Intel processors do. As a result, graphics-intensive tasks may run better on them, though their standard CPU performance is often lower. Systems configured with Intel CPUs may also have a separate GPU from Nvidia or AMD to boost graphics performance, albeit at the cost of increased weight and somewhat reduced battery life.

Memory

Most laptops today ship with at least 4GB of RAM. Windows 8 is more memory-efficient than earlier Windows versions, so in many instances 4GB is enough for normal office or productivity use. If you create massive spreadsheets or edit large digital photos, however, you may want more than 4GB. If so, make sure that the system you're considering is available with (or can accommodate) larger amounts of memory. Most Ultrabooks are limited to a fixed 4GB of RAM, with no option for the user to buy more or to upgrade the system.

Display

You can't change your laptop display, so choose the LCD panel carefully. Two factors are relevant: the underlying panel technology and the resolution.

LCD panel technologies have remained fairly stable for the past few years. Though capacitive touchscreens are becoming more common, the underlying LCD panels continue to use one of three basic technologies: twisted nematic (TN), in-plane switching (IPS, S-IPS, and related variants), or vertical alignment (MVA or PVA).

TN panels are still the most common, mainly because these panels are the least expensive. Most budget laptops ship with TN technology. These LCDs have fast response times and good power efficiency, but their color depth is lower (usually 6 bits per pixel), so color accuracy for photo editing and video editing is subpar. TN panels also have a relatively narrow range of acceptable viewing angles, with severe contrast and color shifts visible in off-axis viewing.

IPS panels tend to offer more color depth and better color accuracy if properly implemented. The range of acceptable viewing angles is wider, too. Until recently, IPS panel response times were slow, which sometimes resulted in visible "smearing" of video or game content; but newer IPS panel variants have improved on their predecessors' response times. IPS panels are increasingly common in high-end laptop models.

MVA or PVA panels, though less common, are available on some laptops. They offer a good balance of color accuracy and response time, but don't stand out in any one category.

The other key factor to consider when choosing a panel is resolution. With Windows-based laptops, a greater number of pixels isn't always better. Very high pixel densities—as, for example, in a 1920-by-1080 display on an 11-inch LCD—often results in tiny, hard-to-read text. Sure, you can increase text size, but then you have to enlarge your open windows, which means that you can't fit as many windows on-screen, negating the benefits of the higher resolution.

On the other hand, a 17-inch LCD that offers a resolution of only 1366 by 768 creates a visible "screen door" effect in which you can easily see individual pixels. This can be particularly annoying when you're watching video content.

Storage

Storage is one of the hottest topics related to mobile PCs today, as solid-state drives become more popular. SSDs substantially decrease boot time and improve system responsiveness because they load applications and data faster. If a manufacturer offers an SSD as an upgrade option, you may be better off skipping a processor speed increase and getting the SSD instead. Often, SSDs are tied to premium models, however.

If you decide that you want an SSD, note that the minimum useful size for most users is 128GB. If you can afford it, 256GB is better, since Windows itself consumes between 20 and 30GB of drive space.

SSDs offer extremely fast, responsive storage, but their capacity is limited.

Some laptop users need a lot of storage. If you're a videographer or a photographer who shoots in RAW format, the data files you capture can quickly chew up a lot of drive space. In that case, you might prefer a traditional rotating-media hard drive. Modern Intel-based laptops often have an option for improving hard-drive performance by adding a small SSD—typically 16GB to 32GB—to cache hard-drive data. This arrangement is well worth its modest extra cost, as the caching SSD improves boot times and application load times. It won't help overall application performance much, however, on systems that must frequently read from or write to the hard drive. If an SSD appeals to you, consider getting a USB 3.0, bus-powered portable hard drive as an accessory for your system.

Connectivity and ports

USB ports allow you to connect a keyboard, external storage, a docking station, and even some LCD displays to your system. Unfortunately, laptops commonly ship with too few USB ports. Most Ultrabooks, for example, have only two USB ports. If you're lugging around external storage, you'll want at least one USB 3.0 (SuperSpeed) port to improve throughput (assuming that the portable hard drive supports USB 3.0).

Laptops can mitigate the bad effects of offering too few USB ports by including a flash memory card slot. Such card slots usually support Secure Digital (SD), Sony Memory Stick, and variants, and they can come in handy if you ever need to move data quickly from a digital camera. Some users use a high-capacity SD Card for secondary storage or as a backup drive.

Of course, you can always add a USB hub; but if you do, it's one more thing to lug around. If you're a business traveler who often makes presentations in conference-room settings, you may want an old-school VGA connector, since a surprising number of business and school projectors still use VGA to connect laptops. A digital output connector is important if you connect to an external display. Also make sure that you have the proper adapters, since many Ultrabooks include variants of standard ports, such as micro HDMI instead of standard HDMI.

Expansion options

Ultrabooks and similar thin-and-light laptops have few expansion options. Extremely thin systems may not be user-upgradable at all. Memory is soldered onto the motherboard, SSDs lie beneath a difficult-to-remove keyboard, and batteries are fixed in place. So if you want 8GB of memory instead of 4GB, make sure that the maker offers that option, and buy it when you make the initial purchase.

General-purpose laptops are easier to upgrade. Often, memory and storage cost much less if you shop around for them and are comfortable with a screwdriver. If you need extended battery life, a standard laptop may offer high-capacity battery options.

Usability and input

A handful of tablet PCs offered touch interfaces prior to Windows 8, but touch capability is rapidly becoming more mainstream. Most Windows 8 touchscreens use capacitive touch, and Microsoft specifies that touchscreens certified for Windows 8 must support ten-point multitouch. In other words: The screens will respond to touch input from all ten fingers.

You don't need a touchscreen to run Windows 8, however. Touchpads with edge detection work well with the new OS, allowing users to swipe in from the edge to activate parts of the Windows 8 user interface.

Look for trackpads that have edge detection.

Users who write a lot on their laptops need a good keyboard, and the best way to evaluate any keyboard is to type on it yourself. Consider both the keyboard layout and the overall typing feel it provides before making your choice. If you frequently type while on airplanes or in meeting halls, consider getting a backlit keyboard as well.

Don't neglect other usability factors. Where are the USB ports located? Are they easy to reach? Are they so close together that plugging in multiple devices would be difficult? How heavy is the power supply? Having a very light laptop is great, unless the power brick is bulky and heavy. Another often-overlooked factor is weight balance. If you often carry your laptop from meeting to meeting within your organization, you're more likely to drop an out-of-balance laptop.

Bottom line

Choosing a laptop or an Ultrabook doesn't have to be impossibly difficult. If you define your needs properly and set a firm, realistic budget, you'll narrow your options considerably. Once you've identified some promising models, spend some hands-on time with them to make sure that typing or pointing on them is comfortable and productive. And before you seal the deal, check the relevant reviews on PCWorld. Our experienced staff of reviewers and our strenuous lab testing often reveal strengths and weaknesses that you might not have considered.

Then it will finally be time to open your wallet and make the purchase.

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