Laptop buying guide 2013: How to find the right notebook for you

Anyone in the market for a new laptop this year has a lot to consider before parting with some cold hard cash. You still have to weigh the usual choices—display type, CPU, memory, graphics, hard disk, battery life and weight/footprint. But entirely new form factors give you even more to choose from. New mobile CPUs from Intel and AMD have upped the ante, too—not only in terms of processor speed, but with graphics performance and battery life as well.

Most of the innovation this year appears in the thin-and-light notebook market, and one of the most exciting trends is the blurring of the lines between tablet and notebook. Some new laptops offer touchscreen displays that swivel, pivot, or detach from their keyboards to transform into tablets. Dell’s XPS 12 Ultrabook Convertible, Lenovo’s Yoga 11S, and Sony’s VAIO Tap 11 are three of the most interesting examples of this new form factor.

PHOTO: ROBERT CARDIN
Dell’s XPS 12 Ultrabook Convertible features a touchscreen that pivots inside of an aluminum frame to convert from a notebook into a tablet.

If you think you can live outside the Windows ecosystem, you’ll find some interesting Chromebook choices. These notebooks run Google’s Chrome OS as well as browser-based apps. The most interesting examples include the high-end Chromebook Pixel, the inexpensive HP Chromebook 14, and the dirt-cheap Acer C720 Chromebook (which is priced at just $199).

Read our picks for the top all-purpose laptops

Mainstream notebook prices, meanwhile, always seem to start at about $400 and rise to $1500-plus as they become thinner and lighter, or as their displays get bigger. And the sky’s the limit with mobile workstations and high-end gaming PCs. Still, for your 2013 budget, you can walk away with a computer that’s lighter, thinner, and more powerful than anything you could have bought last year. In the 2013 edition of our laptop buying guide, we’ll look at form factors first, and then do a deeper dive into specs.

Types of notebooks

Mini notebooks: If your computational needs aren’t too demanding, you’ll find convertible notebooks with smallish screens like the Asus Transformer T100 for as little as $400. This model’s 10.1-inch display detaches from its keyboard, just like the more expensive Sony Tap 11, but the Asus is powered by an Intel Atom processor that’s much less powerful than the Core i5 CPU in the Sony. Don’t mistake this class of PC for the pitifully weak netbooks of yesteryear, though: These are real computers.

All-purpose notebooks: If you’re on a tight budget, but need a notebook with a larger display and keyboard, consider a mainstream notebook like the $580 Acer Aspire E1-572-6870. Machines in the all-purpose class have 14- to 16-inch displays with a typical resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels, 4GB of memory, mechanical hard drives, and mid-range CPUs. These portables don’t make great gaming machines, because they don’t have discrete GPUs, but they’re very good all-around laptops and they’re great for students. Expect to pay more for models with touchscreens.

PHOTO: ROBERT CARDIN
Acer’s Aspire E1 sports a Haswell-class processor in a competitively priced all-purpose notebook.

Thin-and-lights: Frequent travelers who keep notebooks in their carry-on luggage seek out thin-and-light notebooks, weighing in at five pounds or less and with screens no larger than 14 inches. Thin-and-lights might not perform better than budget and all-purpose notebooks, but they usually cost more because vendors build them using more expensive parts—lightweight metals such as aluminum and magnesium versus bulky plastics. Sony’s $1400 VAIO Pro 13 represents this category well.

Discrete graphics are rare in thin-and-lights, but many of these laptops feature solid-state drives, which are extremely fast. These hard-drive alternatives are also expensive and comparatively small. (256GB is a typical capacity.) Ultrabooks, an Intel trademark, are a popular subset of thin-and-light notebooks based on Intel’s low-voltage mobile CPUs.

Desktop replacements: Designed to replace a desktop machine, these laptops are big, heavy, and have nearly every feature you’d find on a tower PC. Desktop replacements boast a fast mobile CPU, a discrete graphics processor, lots of memory, oodles of storage, an optical drive, a large keyboard with an embedded numeric keypad, and lots and lots of I/O ports. The downside to all this power is the high price and the heavy weight. Toshiba’s Qosmio X75 A7298, for instance, costs $1900 and weighs 7.3 pounds.

PHOTO: ROBERT CARDIN
It may boast some high-end components, but Toshiba’s Qosmio X75 weighs in at a reasonable-for-its-class 7.3 pounds.

Gaming notebooks: These machines have much in common with desktop replacements, but they’re designed specifically for playing games. They’re typically outfitted with the fastest available CPUs and discrete graphics processors, very large displays, and optical drives. This is the only class of notebook that pays almost no attention to power consumption. Prices can range from high to stratospheric: The $2250 Asus G750JH is considered moderately priced for its class.

PHOTO: ROBERT CARDIN
It may be a heavyweight, but the Asus G750JH turns in a performance that will appeal to gamers.

What to look for

Now that we’ve looked at the various notebook classes, let’s examine the key components and features you should consider when shopping for a notebook.

CPU: Intel’s Core processor line, now in its fourth generation, has dominated the mobile chip landscape for several years now. Atom processors—Intel calls the current generation Bay Trail—are the least powerful, but they also consume the least amount of power and can be found in many of the latest Windows tablets. Intel’s Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 processors are next in line. Fourth-generation Core processors, formerly codenamed Haswell, are the most desirable chips to buy. They’re identified by a 4000-series part number (the Intel Core i5-4200U, for example, with the U identifying this particular part as one of Intel’s ultra-low-power CPUs). Most of Intel’s processors are dual- and quad-cores.

AMD hasn’t given up on the mobile market. AMD Elite A-Series Accelerated Processing Units (APUs) promise superior graphics performance thanks to integrated Radeon graphics technology. Chips in this family range from the high-end A10 down to the A4; there’s also an E-series for smaller, lower-end portables.

Memory: While nominally only 2GB of RAM is required to run Windows 8, 4GB is a more realistic minimum. Consider upgrading to extra memory when you buy, since adding memory later can be difficult (or even impossible, since many laptop makers are electing to produce sealed designs as chasses get smaller). DDR3/1600 memory is the most common spec.

Display: Expect resolution of at least 1366 by 768 pixels on budget laptops, and at least 1920 by 1080 resolution on higher-end models. A few high-end notebooks, such as the Toshiba Kirabook, deliver better resolution (the Kirabook’s display is 2560 by 1440), but you’ll pay dearly for the feature. Touchscreens are relatively common on 2013 models, and this trend is expected to continue as Windows 8 gains traction.

Keyboard: The only way to tell whether you’ll like a notebook keyboard is to use it. Size, shape, texture, key travel, and tactile feedback all play into the experience, and individual tastes in these attributes can vary widely. Larger notebooks usually have enough room to include a dedicated numeric keypad.

Trackpads: Look for multitouch support for Windows 8 gestures. Most trackpads have integrated right and left mouse buttons, but a few also offer separate buttons. Pointer sticks (think of the ThinkPad TrackPoint) are also going away, but some vendors—including Toshiba and Lenovo—continue to offer them on business-oriented models.

Storage: Serial ATA hard disks remain the mainstream standard. These mechanical drives typically run at 5400 or 7200 rpm (faster is better), and you should expect capacity of least 500GB. High-performance notebooks come with solid-state drives (SSD), which deliver significantly higher performance. The downside is that they’re more expensive than mechanical drives, so you usually get less capacity: 128GB to 256GB is typical. There is a third option: a mechanical drive with a small SSD cache that stores frequently used executables for faster performance.

Optical drives: Once a standard feature, these drives are rapidly disappearing because it’s easier to download application software and stream movies and music from the cloud. You’ll still find them on desktop replacements and dedicated gaming notebooks, though.

PHOTO: ROBERT CARDIN
When considering laptop specs, look for USB 3.0 ports—at least two of them.

USB ports: Look for at least two USB 3.0 ports out of three or (preferably) four USB ports total. USB 3.0 peripherals have become commonplace, and you’ll want to take advantage of their superior speed. Many vendors now also include at least one USB port that can charge a smartphone or other small device even when the notebook is powered down.

HDMI: This is the easiest way to connect your notebook to a consumer display or a big-screen TV (although an DisplayPort-to-HDMI will do the same thing).

DisplayPort: Many business laptops provide DisplayPort in place of or in addition to HDMI. DisplayPort 1.2 supports higher resolutions than HDMI, and it allows you to daisy-chain several monitors together.

Memory card reader: If you have a digital camera, you’ll appreciate having a memory card reader on your notebook. SD card slots are the most common.

Wired ethernet: With the prevalence of wireless networking, some vendors are cutting back from gigabit ethernet to 10/100 ethernet. Some are leaving the adapter out altogether, expecting you to buy a USB-to-ethernet adapter (which typically limits to you to speeds of 100 mbps). Don’t underestimate how annoying this can be.

PHOTO: ROBERT CARDIN
It’s easy to overlook, but you’ll want to confirm whether the laptop you’re thinking of buying offers gigabit ethernet or 10/100 ethernet.

Wireless ethernet: Integrated 802.11n Wi-Fi adapters are common these days, but dig deeper to find out if the adapter supports both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. The 2.4GHz spectrum is exceedingly crowded, especially in urban areas and is very susceptible to interference from other wireless devices. You’ll get much better performance, albeit with less range, with 5GHz networks. Support for the 802.11ac standard has been slow in coming, and that’s a shame because this newer standard is absolutely great.

Webcam: The popularity of Skype and other video chat applications has turned webcams into a checklist item, but quality can vary widely. A good HD webcam will compensate for poor ambient lighting and offer face tracking. Look for resolution of at least 720p.

Audio: Very few notebooks have speakers that are worth listening to, but most people use headphones these days anyway. If audio is a feature you care about, see if the laptop maker has partnered with a company with audio expertise: Dolby, DTS, Harman/Kardon, and Beats are good examples.

Additional features: Some business models offer fingerprint scanners, a security feature that appeals to some users, though it can be tricky to use. Docking ports are available on many business-oriented models, which is a handy feature for commuters who want to plug their notebooks into big-screen monitors. But universal port replicators from third-party vendors such as Targus can do pretty much anything a manufacturer-specific device can do.

This is an updated version of a previous article that includes the most up-to-date information as of Nov. 18, 2013.

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