Holiday Laptop Buying Guide 2011

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Holiday Laptop Buying Guide: Shopping Tips

By now, we hope, you've read our other two "Holiday Laptop Buying Guide" installments and gained an understanding of which category of laptop is right for your gift recipient and what laptop specs they want.

You're all set to buy a laptop, and you may have narrowed it down to a few choices by looking at our reviews. It's time to go shopping! Before you break out your credit card, consider the following shopping tips.

Try Before You Buy

Many people choose to buy a laptop online, where shoppers can find a wider selection and typically lower prices. That's fine, but you really shouldn't buy a new computer sight unseen if you can avoid it. Write down the names of some of the models you're interested in, along with a few notes about why they caught your eye, and head to your local big-box electronics store or specialty computer shop. See if the store has display units of any of the systems you're considering, or at least very similar models by the same manufacturer. Try the keyboard--can you type easily on it? Is the touchpad a pain to use? Does the screen look good? If the laptop you want to buy has a glossy screen, look at other models with glossy screens and determine whether you might prefer that look over a matte, antiglare finish.

Pick up the laptop you want to buy, and evaluate its heft. Close the lid and see if the size is something you can fit into your chosen bag (don't actually put it in a bag, of course, unless you want security all over you). Bear in mind that many display notebooks in stores have the battery removed, which makes them seem considerably lighter.

Once you have a feel for your desired laptop (or a very similar one), you can go back home and buy online with confidence. If you're buying in a brick-and-mortar store, you might want to ask if the retailer has any sales coming up, or at least call around to different stores to see which one has the best price. Or use your smartphone to check the latest prices online, and see how competitive the in-store price is. The store you prefer might even match the price of a local competitor.

It's worth keeping an eye out for special Holiday shopping deals. Starting in November, many online retailers and brick-and-mortar stores will run special deals, with heavily discounted prices on laptops. Sometimes these are close-out sales on the previous generation models, sometimes they're just great deals on the latest and greatest. There is no one magic bullet to looking for a deal. You have to do your research, shop around, and know what you're buying. We'll run features here on PCWorld.com about the great holiday laptop sales we find.

Need More RAM? Do It Yourself

Let's say that the laptop you want to buy comes with 2GB of RAM but is expandable to 4GB or more. You might be able to save some money if you upgrade the laptop's RAM yourself instead of buying the 4GB option from the manufacturer. See how much more it costs to buy the machine with 4GB, and compare that with buying the RAM separately and installing it (the task typically requires removing only a couple of screws and about 5 minutes of your time--it's easy to do on most laptops today).

Naturally, you'll have to do a little homework first. Make sure that the laptop has an empty RAM socket (ask a sales rep if you're not sure), and find out what type and speed of RAM you'll need. If all of this seems intimidating, it's okay--just buy the system with the RAM upgrade. Your time and frustration are worth only so much.

Know Which Accessories to Get

If you'll need a spare battery, select one that is specifically made to work with your particular model of laptop. It's not a bad idea to buy the battery right when you purchase the PC--especially if you're buying online, where an extra battery may be offered as an option. Use caution if you buy an aftermarket battery from a manufacturer other than the one that made the laptop: Some of these batteries are priced really well but store less energy. Read user reviews and comments about third-party batteries carefully to make sure you're not sacrificing battery life to save a few bucks.

As for external optical drives, don't feel obligated to buy one from the manufacturer of the laptop. External optical drives that connect via USB are generally universal, so look around for a good price.

Among other laptop accessories, consider buying a small, wireless travel mouse. Even the best touchpad can be a nuisance at times, and you can find tons of compact, battery-operated wireless mice that are specifically designed to travel with a laptop. If you want to use a laptop mouse on an airplane, however, be aware that wireless versions are forbidden by the FAA--you'll need a wired model for use in-flight.

You can probably avoid spending cash on a specialized laptop bag or carrying case, which retail stores often mark up quite a lot. Unless you encounter a great bargain, or you find a special case made just for the unusually large or small laptop you're buying, bide your time. Buying a really great bag is a whole other process in itself--don't get something you'll end up hating just because it's expedient and convenient.

If the salesperson tries to push other folderol on you, like screen wipes, blank discs, and extra cables, just say "no thanks." These items almost always carry a high markup in stores, and you're usually better off buying them online if you don't think you need them right away.

When In Doubt, Go Faster

If, after going hands-on with a few laptops, you're just not sure whether you need a faster processor, dedicated graphics, or more RAM, take the leap. Nobody ever complained that their laptop was too fast, but spending the next couple of years working on an annoyingly sluggish laptop will get old in a hurry. Expect software to become ever more resource-hungry over time, too; the applications that you will use next year will likely be a little more demanding than what you use today. And if you have an HDTV or are considering buying one in the future, an HDMI output on the laptop may come in handy.

Consider Whether an Extended Warranty Is Necessary

Most consumer-advocacy groups will tell you not to get an extended warranty; such an arrangement is usually a great profit-maker for the manufacturers and retailers that offer it, and most buyers don't end up using it. Because they're such good profit generators, salespeople will often give you the hard sell about how you need some sort of laptop protection program or extended warranty.

Be wary. Before you even think about signing up, ask a lot of questions. Ask to see the specifics about what is covered and what isn't in writing--don't simply depend on the word of the salesperson. Read the fine print.

Laptops are a little different than most consumer electronics and desktop computers in that they're, well, highly portable. People tend to throw them into bags, toss them around, accidentally knock them off tables, leave them to be poked and prodded by kids, and put them on the kitchen table, begging to be victimized by a horrific spill. You know yourself and the environment where you'll use your laptop. If you think you have a high probability of destroying your laptop within a couple of years, you might want to consider the extended warranty. (When we last surveyed readers on their satisfaction with extended warranties, we found that consumers who purchased them were very satisfied.) Also, laptop theft protection plans may be a good idea for college students, who have their laptops lost or stolen with alarming regularity.

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