Holiday Laptop Buying Guide: Shopping for the Right Notebook
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.