Holiday Laptop Buying Guide: Shopping for the Right Notebook
Are you in the market for a new laptop? Looking to buy a new laptop, or upgrade that four-year-old system that just can't keep up anymore? Maybe you're buying one as a gift this holiday season? Navigating the labyrinth of brands, product names, and specifications can be tough. From tiny netbooks to big and powerful desktop-replacement systems, the differences in pricing, features, and performance are staggering. Follow our comprehensive guide to make sure you get the ideal laptop.
Deciding what to buy is tough not just because of all the makes and models and the dizzying array of specifications and customization options, but also because every user is different. Maybe you're buying for a college student whose aging notebook doesn't have the battery life to last through a day of classes. Maybe your child needs a laptop for doing their high-school homework during the week and playing some games, chatting with friends, and watching videos on the weekend. Or maybe you're shopping for a gaming enthusiast who wants something really powerful but a little easier to carry to a buddy's LAN party than a desktop computer. Even if you know what you want, with so many laptop models available it can be hard to decide.
In Video: How to Buy a Laptop
It's probably best to start by determining which category of laptop you're most interested in. Laptops can be broadly divided into four main categories: netbooks, ultraportables, all-purpose laptops, and desktop replacements.
Once you have decided which category of laptop is right for your gift recipient (or yourself), it's time to consider the specs. For help in wading through all the product names and acronyms, check out "Making Sense of the Specifications." And before you run your credit card, read our handy "Shopping Tips" list. If you're buying laptops for your company, check out our laptop buying guide for small business.
Although netbooks are great for their intended purpose, they aren't satisfactory for much else. They typically aren't powerful enough to do everything you need a PC for. Rather, they're meant to be companions to your main PC. Small and light enough to carry around all day, they're the perfect thing for taking notes in class or surfing the Web from a commuter train. A typical netbook weighs about 3 pounds or less, and has a screen size of 6 to 10 inches. Most cost about $300 to $400, but premium features can drive the price up further.
If you need to buy a new primary PC, look elsewhere. Netbooks' limited screen resolutions (10-inch netbooks typically top out at 1366 by 768), RAM, and processing power make editing photos or spreadsheets a pain. In addition, some Web pages, Flash games, and applications simply don't fit well on a small screen. Still, there's something to be said for a system with a battery life of 6-8 hours or more; in PCWorld Labs tests, that's how long most of the newest netbooks last.
Most netbooks are based on Intel's Atom line of processors. These chips can run the standard Windows operating system you're accustomed to and all your usual applications, but they're not fast compared with more-expensive Intel CPUs found in larger, more expensive laptops. Some netbooks use AMD's Fusion E-series CPUs, which are far more powerful but don't last as long. In either case, the speed of a netbook will pale in comparison to laptops that weigh and cost a little more. A netbook is fine for simple Web browsing or word processing, but it struggles to play games, edit large photos, or run multiple applications simultaneously.
One more drawback: Netbooks almost never have an optical drive, so you can't play DVDs or load software off a disc without buying and using an external, USB-attached DVD drive.
If you need something as light (or lighter) than a netbook, with similar battery life, but with considerably more processing power, check out the new emerging class of extremely thin ultrabooks. They'll cost a lot more than a netbook, but with larger screen sizes, more powerful processors, and solid state drives, they provide a much better computing experience.
Slim and light, ultraportable laptops are a step up from netbooks. Sure, in choosing an ultraportable over a netbook you tack on maybe a pound of weight, but that added heft means a more powerful processor, more RAM, and often a larger screen. These systems are ideal for users who need a fuller PC experience but still want a machine that's easy to carry around. Screen sizes vary, from around 11 inches to 14 inches, but models with larger screens are usually considered "ultraportable" only if they're especially thin and light. You can expect an ultraportable to weigh from 2 to 4 pounds, typically; battery life extends from 5 to 8 hours. Prices generally land in the $600-to-$800 range, but some superthin models with larger screens can cost more than $1000 - sometimes much more.
Compared with netbooks, ultraportables have more processing power. In pricey models, you can even get performance that rivals much bigger, heavier laptops. Ultraportables typically use dual-core CPUs or low-voltage processors from Intel or AMD that aren't as powerful as what you usually find in bigger notebooks (or more expensive ultraportables) but are far more capable than Atom or Fusion netbook processors. Most ultraportables have 4GB of RAM or more, too. As a result, ultraportables perform a lot better than netbooks on everyday applications, and they're far more suited to running multiple applications at once.
In the name of saving weight, lowering cost, and improving battery life, many ultraportable laptops stick with integrated graphics chips that lack the oomph to handle modern games or other strenuous 3D rendering. Still, it's not too hard to find ultraportable PCs with dedicated GPUs from Nvidia or AMD; typically these laptops are powerful enough to run modest 3D games, and they do a good job accelerating video playback.
If you want to play DVDs or load software from a disc, make sure to look for an ultraportable with an optical drive. In slimming down, many ultraportables these days have omitted the optical drive, but you can find some models (typically the pricier ones) that incorporate them.
Models in the all-purpose laptops category are, well, all-purpose: They're large and powerful enough to serve as your everyday computer, but portable enough to accompany you when you're on the go. This category has more options than almost any other. You can find durable ruggedized laptops for business travel, convertible laptops with reversible screens that turn them into tablets, gaming laptops, cheap notebooks, expensive and stylish portables, and more.
Generally an all-purpose laptop is defined as a system with a screen from 14 to 16 inches, and weighing more than 4 pounds. Most of these models use full-power dual-core and quad-core laptop CPUs (as opposed to ultra-low-voltage processors, Intel's Atom CPUs, or AMD's Fusion E-series), and you can expect even entry-level systems in this category to have at least 4GB of RAM, often with options for 8GB or more. The weight can vary widely depending on the model and configuration, but 5 to 8 pounds is common.
You'll find a wide range of prices as you shop for a general all-purpose laptop. Low-cost models can be as cheap as $400, but piling on extra options or choosing a sleeker, more powerful model can drive the price to $1500 or more. A good rule of thumb is to expect to spend $700 to $1200 for a well-equipped all-purpose laptop. Optical drives remain standard on most models, and Blu-ray Disc drives are optional on many all-purpose laptops.
You can get an all-purpose laptop with almost anything you desire, if you're willing to pay for it. Some have integrated graphics, others have drastically more powerful discrete mobile GPUs that will let you play the latest 3D games. Want a Blu-ray drive and an HDMI output so that you can watch high-def movies on your HDTV? Some models have those features. Looking for 1TB of hard-drive space? You can get that, too. A touchscreen? Check. The array of features and options is overwhelming. Manufacturers sometimes combine certain sets of features into specific laptop models. Companies such as Dell, Fujitsu, HP, and Lenovo give you some level of customization of your laptop, so you can buy a configuration that best matches your needs.
Larger screens and more powerful processors mean shorter battery life, though. Most all-purpose laptops last from 3 to 6 hours on a charge, depending on the model and how you use it; playing games and using Wi-Fi drains the battery faster than light Web surfing does, and cranking up the display's brightness shortens battery life considerably.
Desktop Replacement Laptops
A desktop-replacement laptop is just what it sounds like: a larger notebook aimed at people who need the performance and large display size of a desktop computer but want to be able to move the machine from room to room easily. Screen sizes start at 16 inches and go up to 18.4 inches; models with higher screen resolutions are ideal for photo or video editing. Don't expect to carry one of these notebooks around with you all day, though--typically they're too large to fit in a regular backpack, and at 8 to 12 pounds, carrying one around for even a short while can be tough on the shoulders. Consider these laptops as being more "luggable" than "portable."
The processors in these beefy laptops are typically top-of-the-line, either dual-core or quad-core chips whose performance rivals that of the CPUs found in all but the most powerful desktop computers. Discrete graphics chips from AMD or Nvidia are standard on most desktop replacements, too. If you pick the right model, you can play even the most demanding modern games. As for the amount of RAM, 4GB is the bare minimum. A hard drive of 500GB or more is common, while some laptops have up to 1TB of storage. Some offer superfast solid-state drives, which offer less storage space and are quite expensive, but can dramatically improve performance.
Of course, all of that power comes at a price. The battery won't last long (typically 2 hours or less with heavy use), so you shouldn't stray too far from an outlet. The high-power CPUs and GPUs run hot, too, making it uncomfortable to rest a desktop replacement notebook on your lap. And then there's the literal price: Cheap models may cost $1000 or less, but a nicely loaded desktop replacement will easily push $2000 or more.
This category is really for two types of people: gamers who need tremendous CPU and GPU power to play the latest titles, and professionals (such as video editors, photographers, or engineers) who require large displays and lots of horsepower to do their work.