This article will help you make a choice when buying a laptop. It is not a universal laptop buying guide, because in each case we pursue different objectives so there is no "one size fits all" laptop to choose. However, this guide serves as a starting point, once you read it you will become aware of the details that need to be taken into account.
Before buying a new computer, think about these questions:
- what is the primary purpose of this computer?
- what will you do with your current computer, if you have one?
- how much you are ready to spend on it?
Do you already have a laptop?
You may feel that buying a new computer is a good idea because your current laptop feels slow and old, but that is not necessarily so. Your computer is pretty good, if it doesn't do some things as quickly as it did them before - it is a software problem.
Here is an analogy - when your desk gets cluttered and dusty and things on it are messy, do you buy a new
desk? Or do you clean it up and organize everything? ;-)
If this is the case, consider cleaning the system up, or re-installing the OS.
Note on computers with preinstalled operating systems
Today most computers are sold with Windows pre-installed, usually Vista; and that means that the cost goes up (since Windows is not free).
To cut the price down look for a computer that comes without an operating system. Of course this means that later you will have to install Windows (or another system) on it:
- you will have to buy it separately - but this will probably be more expensive than buying the laptop with Windows preinstalled, verify that;
- you can download it off the Internet and use it for free during the 60-day trial period (afterwards you have to activate it);
- same thing, but install a cracked version;
- use a free operating system like Ubuntu or OpenSUSE.
In either case, you have to be aware of the fact that installing an operating system is easy, but it will be much easier if you have some basic computer skills. Therefore if you decide to do this yourself, read some tutorials first or talk to a friend who can help you out.
Laptop selection criteria
1. do you plan to use it only at home and only move it from one room to another?
If not, then:
- I suggest a screen not larger than 15"
- It should be lightweight, say 2.3 Kg max (for better understanding, compare it with your existing laptop)
- The DVD-drive should be removable (thus you can cut off some more mass from it and make it lighter; keep in mind that if you remove it, a hole in the case remains - usually a laptop comes with a piece of plastic which acts as a "dummy" to cover the hole)
- The AC power adapter should be as small as possible (because you'll have to carry it too; the bigger it is, the bigger is the bag that you need for it, the heavier the load will be)
Otherwise it doesn't matter because you won't have to carry it nor there is a problem of it taking space; in this case choose the one which gets the most points for all the other criteria without getting outside your budget.
2. The screen can be glossy (feels almost like a mirror) or matte
The difference is like in the case of photographs. I prefer matte because I can turn the brightness down (save power + easier to read text this way) and the screen doesn't reflect myself or the surroundings.
Today most screens are glossy (maybe they are cheaper to produce?), but if you search well, you'll find a matte screen.
Glossy screens supposedly look better in sunlight, but this only makes a difference if you are the kind of person that uses the laptop outdoors.
To get a better understanding of what it feels like, compare two different monitors side by side and see the difference.
3.A Keyboards are also important. Pay attention to:
- The shape and the position of the Enter button;
- Fn vs Ctrl in the low-left corner (sometimes they are swapped and that is annoying, unless you get used to it or you grew up with such keyboards);
- The position of the Windows button, as well as that of Home/End/PgUp/PgDown
Choose the one which you like most, usually it is the one that resembles as closely as possible the classic keyboard layout.
3.B Some keyboards come with additional buttons for volume control, turning on/off wi-fi, etc.
If there are many buttons it will probably mean that you will also need a program to control all this button-zoo; and it means that when you start Windows you will have "one more program icon" down there near the clock.
Some people find that annoying, but worry not - all those icons can be removed or hidden, it is a software problem (if a problem at all).
3.C Some keyboards are pretty large and they also have a "numeric keyboard" section on the right.
Perhaps if you work with numbers on a daily basis that is convenient; but I find that thing a waste of space. Such keyboards usually come with 17" screen laptops, they are bigger, heavier, etc.
4. Other input devices:
Touchpads can be different:
- Glossy vs matte;
- They can have a special area dedicated to scrolling the text horizontally or vertically (even if the markings are not there in 9/10 cases it is possible to configure that afterwards using software).
Some laptops have trackpoints, a little dot between the keys G H B which can be pushed in a direction in order to move the mouse pointer.
Some can have a touchpad and a trackpoint, some have only one of them. Choose the one that you prefer; I prefer touchpads and I don't like trackpoints but other people have other preferences and in the context of a holly war they will die defending their trackpoint :-)
Note: if you try to move the mouse but it moves slowly or too fast - it can be adjusted later, don't let yourself fooled into "I don't like this touchpad", ask the salesperson to show you how to change its sensitivity; this is just a software problem.
5. Battery life is important if you plan to go mobile and you expect that at times you will need to use the computer when there are no power sockets nearby.
Regardless of your choice, be aware of the fact that sooner or later the battery will degrade.
The choice factor is "the more the better". If you have to identical computers and one provides more battery power - chose it.
Note that the battery is a heavy piece of equipment, and batteries that last longer are usually heavier.
6. Other features:
- Bluetooth; if you need it, find a laptop that has it. It can be handy when you want to connect the phone to your computer or use a Bluetooth mouse (note that not all wireless mice use Bluetooth!), etc.
- Infrared this one is kind of like a mammoth, it used to be applied to communicate wirelessly with phones and PDAs but Bluetooth is now the dominating technology.
- Wi-Fi is a must. If you have choice, choose one that uses an Intel wireless card (they have better driver support if one day you intend to switch to Linux or another non-Windows operating system). Wi-Fi cards can be different, the most common choice today is 54 Mbit/s, also known as 802.11g. Some computers come with 802.11n cards, they are faster but 802.11n is not yet a well-defined standard, therefore there is a chance that the laptop won't be able to connect to wireless networks if they use "another flavour" of 802.11n.
- Flash card readers are a good thing to have today, they will enable you to copy the pics from the digital camera without using a cable. There are different types of flash cards:
- SD, MMC (Secure Digital, MultiMedia Card)
- CF (Compact Flash)
- MemoryStick, MemoryStick Pro (usually in Sony devices)
xD (used in Olympus cameras)
Don't choose a laptop that has a card reader, choose one that has a card reader that can read cards used by your other gadgets(!).
This must also be a lesson to stay away from Olympus and Sony equipment, they tend to force you use card formats which no one else uses - this is inconvenient for us, consumers.
SD cards are the most common ones.
- Webcameras find their place in many modern laptops. If you intend to use it, then it is worth choosing the webcam-enabled laptop from a set of "otherwise identical" ones. If you plan to use Linux, make sure that your web-cam is supported. A safe bet is to choose one that supports UVC, it should work out of the box; otherwise consult a webcam compatibility list.
- Microphones are not always built-in. If you intend to use Skype, then you will probably want to have a built-in mic so that you won't have to carry it separately, no wires, etc.
- Fingerprint scanners are becoming increasingly popular. It doesn't make the system more secure, a trained enemy will bypass it (given enough time). If you really need this, go ahead and choose a laptop with it.
- Smart card readers - not to be confused with flash card readers; this is a security feature; you will need this only if you need to use smart cards. If you don't know what smart cards are then you probably won't need this feature :-) [a smart card looks like a SIM card, and in fact a SIM card is a smart card]
- Multimedia bells and whistles can be of two kinds:
- Fancy audio, ex: "5.1 dolby digital with surround". Do you need that? Yes, if you have such speakers and you don't have other equipment to connect it to. Otherwise this is just a waste of money, because a laptop will never be the equivalent of "going to the cinema";
- Fancy video, ex: "Full HD", "HD Ready", HDMI, HDVI, etc. Same as above. If you have one such boombastic TV, you probably know that it must get its input signal from a device that supports all those bells and whistles. Again, a laptop is a laptop, not your family's "one multimedia center to rule them all".
7. Other details, important ones:
After many close/open cycles the computer's screen will not be held in a steady position. Worst case scenario it will keep falling down because the hinges that were supposed to hold in steady got worn out.
I would not choose LG because I've seen 2 such laptops, both of them aren't perfect.
From what I've seen, HP and IBM don't have such problems; but the thing is that on the Internet you can find reports about problematic hinges for any laptop brand.
Conclusion: if it is new - be gentle with it; if it is second hand - check the screen and verify whether it stands still when you leave it open at different angles. If in some positions it is "shaky", with time it will become shaky in all of them; avoid such computers.
Consider verifying the availability of replacement hinges for your model; for some brands they are very rare, for others they are cheap and easy to find.
8. Other non-critical details:
Stickers such as "Designed for Windows", "Intel inside", "Vista ready", "Comes with a free version of OneNote 2003", "Powered by ATI"....
You need to realize that most of those stickers are there to stay, as you won't be able to remove them without leaving an ugly mark. Are you ready to live with them?
9. The actual hardware specs depend on one's needs, therefore it is rather difficult to make any statements here. Perhaps the best way to express it is "choose as high-tech as you can within your budget".
Here are some general tips that will probably not generate controversy.
It can be just a reader, or also a writer; it can write slower or faster; it can write to DVD+R or it can write to DVD-R. Most modern devices are universal. Given two "otherwise identical" laptops choose the one which supports more formats.
- I would choose an "Intel Pentium M" or something else (not Celeron) that has power-saving features (which results in longer batter life)
- The speed should be at least 1.86 GHz
- Now there are many more advanced offers, "Core Duo", "Core 2 Duo", etc. Go as far as you can within your budget
Videocard, you have two options here:
- integrated into the motherboard
- consumes little power, is OK for everyday tasks, is cheap
doesn't have its own memory, and instead if uses a part of your RAM
For example, if you have 1 GB RAM and the card uses 128 MB, then in reality you have (1 GB-128 MB) RAM.
Unless you're a hardcore gamer and you need to have your uber-games run flawlessly, you can choose such cards.
- may consume more power, more expensive; besides everyday tasks also deals well with fancy-graphics games
they come with their own video memory so your RAM remains untouched
In this category we have several choices:
- ATI (now they are called AMD)
- Intel (I would choose Intel for the same reason I would choose the Intel wi-fi card)
NVidia and ATI are usually more performing but they also are a bit more pricey and power-hungry. A hardcore gamer would choose one of them.
Screen resolution? Most come with 1280x800, but there are 14-inchers with 1440x900 and 15-inchers with 1650x1080 or even 1920x1200 (which *might* be too tiny to read). Too bad they don’t make 4:3 ones anymore…
Number of USB ports? If you have a usb mouse, keyboard, and external hard drive, you want more than 3 USBs.
Heat? The really good ones have vents on the sides and back, instead of on the bottom. Those you can actually leave on your bed (or any soft surface) and they won’t burn a hole thorugh.
Re: scrolling areas on the touchpad: this is definitely a software feature. My old laptop never had them drawn on the touchpad, but Linux configured them automatically. There must be a Windows tool to do that too. I’m not sure about multi-finger support (Mac-like scrolling) – that might need hardware support.
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