Holiday Laptop Buying Guide 2011

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Holiday Laptop Buying Guide: Making Sense of the Specifications

Display

The size of the display will be determined in part by the type of laptop you buy--by definition, netbooks have smaller displays than desktop replacements. From there, you have several additional factors to consider: screen resolution, LED backlighting, and a glossy or antiglare surface.

Screen resolution is a measure of how many pixels are on the screen, horizontally and vertically. A netbook with a 10-inch screen may offer a resolution of either 1024 by 600 or 1366 by 768, for example; in this case, the screen size is the same, but the latter option will have a lot more pixels crammed into it. That gives the user more space on the desktop and shows more of the Web pages or spreadsheets the user views, for instance. On the other hand, the higher resolution makes all of the icons and text appear smaller, so things can be harder to see. Most users prefer higher resolutions on their displays, but you might want to look at two laptops with the different resolutions you're considering to determine whether you like more desktop space or larger icons and text.

Many laptops have LED-backlit displays. Instead of compact fluorescent tubes, light-emitting diodes sit behind the LCD panel. LED-backlit displays tend to be more energy-efficient, so the battery lasts longer. LED-backlit displays are increasingly common, and now can be found in all laptop segments and on most notebook models, at least as an option.

You'll also notice that some laptops have a very shiny, glossy display, while others have a soft matte finish on their screen. This is a matter of the coating on top of the display. A glossy coating certainly creates a lot more glare, but it also lets light through more easily; as a result, glossy displays tend to look like they have better contrast and brightness. The matte finish on other displays may result in the appearance of a little less contrast, but it also produces a lot less glare. If you plan to use your laptop outdoors or in brightly lit areas, you might want to avoid a glossy display.

Touchscreen displays are starting to appear on some notebooks, from convertible tablet laptops to all-purpose machines and even some netbooks. Finding a laptop with a touchscreen is still relatively rare, but it is becoming increasingly common. Expect to spend $100 to $200 extra for this feature.

Connectivity

Every laptop, from a netbook to a desktop replacement, includes wireless networking. The standard you're most likely to encounter in coffee shops and airports is 802.11g Wi-Fi, and you can't find a laptop these days that doesn't include 802.11b/g support (802.11b is an older, slower networking standard that you don't see much now). That's the good news.

The bad news? Even though the faster, less error-prone 802.11n networking standard is quickly making its way into homes, and most new laptops support the standard, you won't necessarily find 802.11n in coffee shops and airports just yet. It's a good idea to make sure that the laptop you buy has 802.11n networking if you want it to be future-proof, or if your gift recipient wants to take advantage of the 802.11n wireless they may already have in their home. Fortunately, 802.11n-capable laptops can still connect to 802.11g Wi-Fi just fine, and 802.11n hotspots almost universally allow 802.11g devices to connect; the connection will simply be slower than it could be.

If you need to plug your new computer into a wired network, ensure that the laptop you buy has an ethernet jack--most do, but a few netbooks and super-slim ultraportables don't. The standard now is gigabit ethernet, and while some laptops may have slower ethernet jacks (limited to 100 megabits per second), it isn't a major concern. Unless you need gigabit speed to transfer lots of very large files and you're sure you'll be plugging into a gigabit wired network, you don't need to look for that feature specifically.

Many laptops also offer Bluetooth, which is great for making use of Bluetooth mice, keyboards, and headsets, or for syncing contacts and calendar information with a Bluetooth-enabled phone.

If you want to connect on the go but no Wi-Fi hotspot is available nearby, they'll need a mobile broadband radio. You can buy one as an add-on card, but many laptops offer built-in mobile broadband radios as an option. Typically these are tied to a single wireless carrier (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon) and require a mobile data plan to use. If the laptop's new owner will constantly use it on the road, this can be a convenient option.

Optical Drive

Most all-purpose and desktop replacement laptops include an optical drive, while most netbooks do not; with ultraportables, it's hit-or-miss. All optical drives in laptops these days will play and burn DVDs. Some laptops even include (or offer the option to add) a drive that can play Blu-ray media and burn DVDs and CDs, which means you can use these models to watch high-def movies. Blu-ray Disc writers--which burn to those high-def discs as well as to DVDs and CDs--remain less common in laptops, and are a more expensive upgrade than the Blu-ray-reader/DVD-and-CD-burner combo. Don't worry too much about the performance ratings on optical drives (expressed, for example, as 8X) unless you plan to do a lot of disc burning.

If the laptop you have your eye on doesn't offer an optical drive but you have software on CD or DVD, or if you want to watch a movie on disc, you can buy an external DVD drive that plugs into the USB port. You don't have to buy the drive from the manufacturer of the notebook, and in general the drive will cost between $40 and $60, sometimes less. Look for a drive that's "bus-powered"--this means that the drive can get its juice from the laptop's USB bus, and shouldn't need a dedicated power adapter.

Storage

Hard-drive space on a laptop is just as precious as it is on a desktop PC. Netbooks and ultraportables typically don't offer more than 500GB of storage, and lower storage limits are more common. All-purpose and desktop-replacement laptops can have up to a terabyte of storage. You'll see drives listed as 4200 rpm, 5400 rpm, or 7200 rpm, a measure of how fast the platters spin, in revolutions per minute. Generally speaking, the speedier drives have faster data-transfer rates and seek times, which means better file copying, application launching, and boot-up speed. If you plan to store a lot of photos, music, or video (or intend to install a lot of big games), you'll want as much hard-disk storage capacity as you can get. Some desktop-replacement laptops offer dual-hard-drive configurations.

Some laptop models provide an option for using an SSD, or solid-state drive, instead of a standard hard drive. SSDs tend to cost a lot more (adding perhaps hundreds of dollars to the cost of the laptop) and offer far less space than the regular rotating magnetic-media type, but they're far faster and more durable since they have no moving parts. Some SSDs are even more power-efficient than regular hard drives. SSDs can be a good idea for anyone especially concerned with performance or durability, but you'll pay a lot more money for a lot less storage capacity.

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