I’m often asked, “I need a laptop. What should I buy?” Although the technical specifications of laptops change constantly, the basics have remained the same for years. Below are some things to consider when shopping for a laptop (AKA notebook computer).
A note about netbooks: these portable computers are smaller than laptops (usually with 9 to 13-inch screens). They’re cheaper than standard laptops, because they have lower-end components. This enables them to run longer on battery power, but results in a lot less computing horsepower. They function OK for the most basic web browsing, but they struggle to handle multimedia and heavy programs. I consider them smartphones on steroids, not laptops. If you don’t know if a netbook is right for you, it’s not.
Laptop buying tips
- Brand: I previously blogged about the most reliable laptop brands: Asus, Toshiba, Sony, and Dell are the top Windows laptops. Sony products usually carry a price premium, so I recommend the other 3. Acer and Gateway rank relatively low, so I’d avoid them. My experience with HP/Compaq has been hit-or-miss, but statistically those are the most problematic.
- Size: If you’re buying a laptop, you’re probably planning on carrying it around (otherwise, buy a comparable desktop computer and save a chunk of change). I recommend the smallest, lightest laptop you can find; just be sure that the screen is big enough for you to see without squinting, and the keyboard is comfortably sized. A 14-inch widescreen works well for me. Remember, you can always connect a larger external monitor or keyboard when you have the laptop at your desk.
- Processor (CPU): Cheap laptops usually have AMD Sempron or Intel Celeron processors. I don’t recommend either. They’ll do the job for really basic tasks, but within a year you’ll be craving for more. Avoid these sluggish processors and go for an Intel Core processor. AMD higher-end offerings like the Turion are slightly cheaper than Intel’s, but Intel’s chips seem to offer better performance and battery life.
- Operating System (OS): New laptops will come with Windows 7, usually Home Premium. Business owners who need to connect to a domain will want Professional. Learn more about the differences between the editions. The Feature Comparison tab on that page is even more detailed.
- Store: One of the best ways to see what you want in a laptop is to check them out at a store. Once you have a list of needs and wants, review prices in local ads and online stores. College students should see what academic purchasing programs are available through their schools. The sales and rebates available at stores make them cheaper options than buying directly from the manufacturer, but refurbished/recertified laptops from the manufacturer can be a great deal. These are laptops that were returned for some reason, but are thoroughly tested then resold at a discount. These are my favorite places for buying laptops:
- Warranty: I rarely buy warranties on electronics, and laptops are no exception. The manufacturer usually provides 1 year of standard coverage, and your credit card may extend that. Depending on how much you plan to carry it around, however, you might consider a 2 – 4 year warranty. They can be quite expensive, but so can repairs. It all depends what breaks; a hard drive can be replaced for under $100 (less than a warranty), but a screen costs over $500 (more than a warranty).
- Price: With laptops, you generally get what you pay for. Anything under $500 is likely to disappoint; if not in the first year, probably by the second. Don’t spend over $1000 unless you know you’re getting something extra, like a gaming laptop.
Your new laptop will need security and productivity software. A couple pointers:
- Security software: Save your money; I’ve found the free products good enough. I previously blogged about Microsoft Security Essentials.
- Microsoft Office: The popular suite that includes Word, Excel, and PowerPoint isn’t included with laptops, so be prepared to buy it separately if you don’t already own Office. Students can buy Office Professional Academic for $80. Alternatives to Microsoft Office include the free OpenOffice.org and web-based software like Google Docs, which I use daily.
Laptop Magazine has a good Laptop Buying Guide with more advice and technical specs. If you have a favorite laptop buying guide, let me know!