If you're in the market for a laptop, here are some good rules of thumb before you hit your local big-box store.
Determine the configuration you need: You can either purchase a preconfigured notebook, or customize a computer with the specifications you want. A preconfigured laptop frequently allows for greater discounts; a specially configured unit lets you decide which features and performance parts are worth your money.
Shop savvy: You don't want to be uncomfortable using your new laptop, so take the time to go to a brick-and-mortar store and check out laptops in person. Once you've found a design you like, you can switch to online shopping. On the web, you can personalize your notebook's configurations and you'll often find special online prices or rebates.
Mac or PC? Good news for everybody: Microsoft and Apple's new-ish operating systems offer plenty of perks. Both sped up their capabilities, so now you can boot up your computer faster and load web pages quicker. Windows 7 is much less prone to crashing than its predecessors, and it packs in features seamlessly — for example, you can stream music and videos from your home PC remotely. One major selling point for Macs: In general, they are more immune to viruses. However, keep in mind that Macs are not compatible with all Windows programs.
Features to consider:
If you're eco-conscious, you may want to look at notebooks with space-saving profiles, more powerful and efficient chips, and environmentally friendly designs. (Note: Saving power also means conserving battery power, and should translate into longer battery life while you're on the go.)
Concerned about security? You may want to opt for a laptop that has fingerprint or face recognition scans, so that only certain users are granted access to important documents.
Another useful feature is an optical drive (DVD or Blu-ray). Today, many smaller notebooks don't come with a CD/DVD drive automatically; with so many options for downloading media, optical drives aren't as necessary as they used to be. If you do opt for a notebook with a Blu-ray player, make sure that you can maximize playback with 1080p resolution.
When it comes to computers, there are some technical terms that you may not be familiar with. These three are important to learn, though, so that you can make smart purchases.
A processor is like the brain of your computer — it’s responsible for the execution of your commands. Good to know: Intel has recently launched the second generation of its mid- to high-end processors. A multicore processor has two or more processors on the same socket, so that you can keep power consumption down without sacrificing performance. If this will be your primary laptop, try to stick with a laptop that has at least two cores for the best performance. (Pretty much all of the laptops that we tested came with at least two cores.)
Another spec that you should consider is the amount of memory you want. Unless you are running multiple applications simultaneously, you should be fine with the 4GB that is standard on most new laptops. However, you’ll need to determine whether you want HDD (hard disk drive) or SSD (solid-state drive). HDDs have moving parts, but are available in higher capacities at more affordable prices. Conversely, SSDs don’t have moving parts, and are therefore less likely to be damaged by movement. They also generate very little heat.
On laptops, as on TVs, screen size is measured diagonally. Smaller screens generally mean lower prices, better portability, and power efficiency, but they’re fairly limited – you end up trading visual comfort for that more streamlined size. Of course, if you opt for a smaller one, you can always increase the size of the page on your screen if your eyes are strained. But if you’re looking for a laptop for productivity or multimedia, you’ll want a larger screen (maybe even high-definition) to accommodate your needs.
Not sure what screen size is right for you? Here’s some tips:
<12 inches: If you only plan on browsing the Internet and creating and editing the occasional document, a netbook is an affordable and lightweight option. The performance and keyboard size won’t be as great in these models, and most lack optical drives (so you can’t load in CDs).
12-14 inches: If you’ll be carrying around your laptop a lot, opt for a 12-14” laptop. (Take note: 13” models are frequently referred to as “thin and light.”) These are often less expensive than their larger counterparts, though they still have similar features. On the downside, several of these smaller models don’t have an optical drive and may not run as quickly.
14-16 inches: This screen size usually equates to the optimal mix of performance and portability. For the most part, this is the sweet spot for affordability and functionality.
17-18 inches: For a gamer, or someone who will be watching lots of movies, this screen size will offer you great performance — although usually at a hefty price.