There are so many choices available when buying a laptop that it can be a little overwhelming at first, but there are really only a few considerations that are important for most home or office users. In this article, I will focus on the needs of the average home or business laptop buyer. Gamers and those using graphics intensive software such as 3D modeling programs may have requirements above those mentioned here, and will probably need higher end graphics cards and processors. If you follow my recommendations, you should be able to buy a laptop that meets all your home or office needs for less than $1000.
The important considerations when buying a laptop are the CPU or central processing unit, RAM or Random Access Memory, hard drive storage capacity, and LCD monitor. Secondary considerations are the network interface card, optical disk drive, and graphics card. If you travel frequently with your laptop, battery life and weight are important considerations also.
Most laptops these days come equipped with a single or dual core processor. Some budget laptops come with a single core processor which is adequate for basic computing, but I recommend getting a dual core processor such as the AMD Turion 64 or the Intel Core 2 Duo. Although somewhat more expensive than a single core processor, a dual core processor will ensure that you will have a laptop that should meet your computing requirements for the next few years. You will see processor rated by speed in GHz, such as 1.3GHz, 2.26 GHz, etc. Don’t concern yourself too much with speed, as GHz speed is not the best indicator of a processor’s performance, especially when comparing CPUs from different manufacturers, or even different models from the same manufacturer. As long as you choose a dual core processor, the speed should be more than sufficient for most purposes.
Memory in this case refers to RAM, or Random Access Memory. RAM is rated by storage capacity in bytes, and has evolved rapidly in recent years, with modern computers having RAM that is measured in Gigabytes (GB), which is 1, 000, 000, 000 bytes! Operating systems and many common software packages are memory intensive, making memory requirements just as important as the choice of processor, perhaps even more so. You will see memory most often described as DDR2 or DDR3, with DDR3 the best. Personally, I haven’t noticed much difference between DDR2 and DDR3 in terms of performance. Just make sure you get enough memory when you buy a laptop. Look for at least 2GB of memory at a minimum.
The hard drive is the storage medium of your computer, whether desktop or laptop, and is measured these days in Gigabytes as well. Get 160GB at a minimum. Hard drive storage capacity is one of the cheaper features to upgrade, so if you can get more do so, up to 500GB, which is more storage than you will probably use. Bear in mind if you get a laptop with lower hard drive storage capacity, you can always upgrade it later, or get an external hard drive. Hard drives are also rated by rpm, which indicates the speed of the disk, with 5400 rpm and 7200 rpm being the most common. 5400 rpm is fine for most uses.
Laptop screens are Liquid Crystal Display or LCDs for short. Computer monitors are measured by size diagonally. Laptop LCDs with a size of around 14 to15 inches are the most common. 15 inches or so is a good trade off of size versus display quality and is suitable for most uses. Displays of 16 inches, 17 inches and greater are available, but at a higher cost. A larger size monitor will give probably you a better picture, but will of course also mean a bigger laptop, which will increase weight and decrease portability. Smaller monitors are available as well, again there is a tradeoff between size and screen quality. The picture quality is measured in pixels as displayer horizontally and vertically, for example 800 x 600, 1024 x 768 and so on, with the higher the number indicating a better resolution. Look for a resolution of 1024 x 768 or more.
If you plan on connecting to the internet with a wireless interface, either at home or in public, you will need a network interface card, also known as a NIC for short. Until recently, many network interface cards were externally attached, but most laptops these days come with an internal NIC. When looking at the laptop specifications, just check that the NIC meets 802.11g standards. It shouldn’t be a problem with any recently manufactured laptop.
Optical drives used to be common on all laptops, and they still are on many, although some of the smaller models omit the optical drive to save size. The theory being you can play music or videos directly from the internet, or from a flash drive, thus making the optical drive unnecessary. Still, if you want to burn or play CDs or DVDs, or load or run software from a CD, you will need an optical drive. There are a number of different specifications for optical drives. For example, you might see specifications like this: 8X DVD R/RW with Double Layer Support. 8X refers to the speed of the drive, which will vary depending on the model and on whether the DVD is read only or read and write. The higher the number the better, so look for 8X or greater. R means the drive can read DVDs and CDs, RW means the drive can read and write to CDs and DVDs. If you plan to burn CDs and DVDs, you will need to have a drive with an RW specification. Double Layer Support means the drive can read double-sided DVDs. All of the features I just mentioned should be common on any new model brand name laptop you buy that includes an optical drive, so don’t stress too much about it. Don’t opt for the extra cost of Blu-ray technology as an upgrade unless you have a really high-end LCD monitor. For your basic LCD monitor, you probably won’t notice a significant improvement.
Your laptop will come with a graphics card that comes built into the motherboard. The graphics card included with brand name laptops, that meet the other requirements I have mentioned above, should suffice for most everyday uses. Frankly, you won’t have a lot of choices in the matter anyway, this is one area where laptops lag behind desktops. If you run graphics intensive programs such as games or 3D modeling programs, you will need a top of the line graphics card with dedicated memory, such as the the ATI Radeon 1000 series or the NVIDIA GeForce 8000. A high quality graphics card will increase the price of your laptop considerably, so if you plan to use your computer primarily for gaming and portability isn’t a necessity, you might want to consider getting a desktop instead. Desktops tend to be cheaper overall, and you will be able to allocate more of your budget to the graphics card.
Batteries are rated by hour of battery life, making battery comparisons one of the easier issues in buying a laptop. While not as important for those who plan to use their laptops primarily in one location, this becomes a big concern with those of us on the go, especially business travelers. Battery life varies widely between models and manufacturers, so if you travel with laptop extensively, pay close attention to battery life. Most batteries will last between 2 to 6 hours, although longer lasting batteries are available. A longer life battery will likely be larger, and will be therefore be heavier. Be aware that the battery life listed by the manufacturer is under optimum conditions, you actual results may vary, depending on use. Playing a DVD will use more power than using creating a spreadsheet, for example.
And that’s my laptop buying guide. One last bit of advice, get the best RAM and processor you can afford. Skimp on the other features if you must. The RAM and processor are the two biggest factors that determine the performance of your laptop. Standards are always improving in the computer industry, and you want to get the best computer you can afford at the time of your purchase, so that your laptop computer doesn’t become obsolete too soon.