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Laptop Buying Guide

A comprehensive guide that will give you all the information you need on how to buy a laptop computer.

Getting Started

When technology updates almost daily and there is a seemingly endless sea of options and features, choosing a laptop can be overwhelming and frustrating. However, the choice is simpler than you think. Start by asking yourself what you need/want your laptop to do. Is it for work, home, or play? Do you want to store lots of multimedia or edit photo and video? Do you play a lot of games with HD graphics? By asking yourself these questions you can determine which type of user (listed below) you are.

Types

The very beginning of the research process begins with deciding which platform you want to use. It simply depends on what you are comfortable with. Essentially, both Mac and PC have the same functions and features in different forms. If you are used to one or the other, stick with it, it will make your experience easier and more enjoyable.

Home/Basic User

Using a laptop as a primary computer will work for most people. Current models sport a lot of the same features, functions, and power of their desktop counterparts with the added portability and space saving design of a laptop. If your home use requires some serious power, a desktop may be a better fit. 

Home/basic users should look for the following (minimum) specifications in a computer:

  • Intel i3 or i5, Intel Dual Core, AMD A4 processors
  • 2GB RAM (minimum) however, Current versions of Windows 7 and OSX run better with a minimum of 4GB RAM.
  • Wi-Fi
  • DVD/CR-R/CD-RW/Blu-ray writing capability and playback

Student

A student requires a little more power than your standard user but cost efficiency, portability, and durability are most important. Students should look for:

  • Intel i3 and i5 models, AMD A4 and A8 models
  • 4GB RAM (depending on usage, more may be necessary)
  • Wi-Fi
  • DVD/CR-R/CD-RW/Blu-ray writing capability and playback
  • Considerable amount of battery life (5-7 hours) for wireless class and library use

Frequent Traveler

For the on-the-go user portability and battery life take priority. You may have to sacrifice some features for size, but with the new ultrabook options, the sacrifice in performance is minimal. Try to meet the minimum requirements below but remember to supplement accessory solutions of fill the voids left by the size restrictions, like port replicators and external drives.

  • Intel i3/i5/i7 models, AMD A6/A8 models
  • 4GB RAM (minimum)
  • Wi-Fi
  • Extended/extra battery

Multimedia/AV and Gaming

Power, speed, and performance are the main staples of a multimedia/av/gaming users needs. Large hard drives, lots of RAM, and a fast processor will allow for multitasking and seamless rendering while a dedicated graphics card will allow for HD video and gaming graphics to play without any issue.

  • Intel i7 or AMD A8 models (the faster the better)
  • 6GB RAM (gamers may want 8GB-12GB)
  • Dedicated Graphics Card*
  • Significantly large hard drive
  • HDMI In/Out
  • Bluetooth capability
  • USB 3.0 Ports (10x faster than USB 2.0) for data transfer

*Check with the game's specifications for minimum requirements of memory on the graphics card. Graphics cards have different memory capacity and some are more powerful than others. For example, DDR3 is 30% more powerful than the DDR2

Choosing the right laptop for your needs may seem like a daunting task. With our informative guides and charts, you will be able to determine which laptop best suits your needs.

Laptops come in a variety of sizes. They can range from a thickness of 0.5"-2" and can be anywhere from 2-10 lbs. They also have a wide range of features from barebones to a replacement for a desktop computer.

Unfortunately, there is no perfect laptop, which means getting some features may require you to sacrifice others. For instance, if you want a super-portable computer, an ultra-portable may be the best option for you. While you are getting a light-weight computer, you will pay a premium price for a computer with fewer features than a midsize. On the other hand, if you are looking for a desktop replacement you can get a lot of features, but your computer will not be as portable.

TYPES OF LAPTOPS

Netbooks

Netbooks are a great computer option for some people, but not so much for others. Netbooks are extremely portable-due to their small size and weighing three pounds or less. They don't require a lot of power and are far less expensive than larger laptops. Netbooks are usually $500 or less. Netbooks are really great for surfing the internet, email correspondence, creating and editing small office documents, and possibly to play a CD or DVD with an external drive. Features like a fast processor will not be found in a netbook.

3 lbs. or less

Less than 1” thick

8.9”, 10”,11”, or 12” display

Single or Dual Core processors (Atom CPU or Ultra-low voltage processor (ULV)), or i7

Linux or Windows 7 (160GB-250GB hard drive or smaller solid state drive

LAN, modem, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth (optional), WWAN (optional)

$299-$599

Small Keyboard and Touch Pad

*possible optical drive

Ultra light and Portable

Think of an ultraportable computer as a more powerful, slightly larger net book. The net book has more features and is larger for easier use. The netbook also comes with a higher price. Unlike a net book, the ultraportable laptop can function as an everyday computer. They will be small and light enough to bring them most places-especially convenient for business travelers. Not as powerful as a desktop replacement, the ultraportable will make up for what it lacks in portability.

4 lbs. or less

Less than 1” thick

14” screen or less

Low-voltage mobile processor (some include Dual Core and Core 2 Duo processors)

60-500GB hard drive

LAN, Wi-Fi,
Bluetooth (optional),
WWAN (optional),
GPS (optional), or i7

$999.00-$2000
(fully loaded)

Small Keyboard

*possible optical drive

Midsize (conventional)

The midsize or conventional laptop is designed to give the user anything they need for basic computing. Word processing, storing music and digital photos, watching DVDs, and on-line communication are easy on a midsize laptop. They are larger than an ultra light and therefore don't travel as easily.

6-8 lbs.

1” thick or larger

14-16.4” screen

Dual Core or Core 2 Duo Processor, or i7

Up to a 1TB hard drive
(2x500 GB)

DVD burner, memory card reader, mid-range software package

$500-$900 and up

Desktop Replacement

These are the largest and heaviest laptops. They will have the most power and options-similar to a desktop computer. Due to their larger size, desktop replacements are too big for routine movement, other than throughout the home or office. Desktop replacements have the most power, have the fastest processors, and most features of all the types of laptops-out of the box. These laptops can be used for gaming and multimedia, audio, visual work.

7.5 lbs. or more

1” thick or more

17”-20” screen

Dual, Quad Core processor, or i7

80-500GB hard drive

LAN, modem, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth (optional), WWAN (optional)

Large keyboard and touch pad with separate number pad

Batteries are not designed for extensive mobile use

$1000-$1500 and up

Tablet

Tablets are similar in size to having just the screen of a laptop computer. Since it does not have a keyboard, it uses a touch-sensitive screen that can be controlled with your fingertips. Navigate through the screen controls, menu navigation, web page navigation and application operation with just a few taps. Some tablets can be flipped 90 degrees so the bottom half of the screen is a touch-keyboard that can be used for writing documents or responding to e-mails. The advanced mobile processors and large internal memory let users do virtually everything they would do on their desktop or laptop in a much more portable way. The internet can be access via built in Wi-Fi or connectivity to 3G or 4G cellular data.

Usually between 1-2lbs.

1” thick or less

Touch-Sensitive Screen 5 - 9.7 inches varying on manufacturers

Advanced mobile processorss

16GB - 64GB internal memory

Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 3G or 4G

Handwriting recognition software, Windows operating system, multiple accessible applications from various markets. video and still camera on front and rear on some models

$350 - $850 and up


Features

Processors
A processor, also known as a Central Processing Unit (CPU), is the brain, or engine, of the machine. The CPU also determines the power-management of the battery. Simply put, the CPU is made up of "cores" the more cores, the faster the CPU. 

How much memory do I need?
Random Access Memory (RAM) is the main memory of the machine and serves as the fuel that runs all the computing processes.RAM is key in multitasking, as you run more and more process, the CPU dedicates more RAM to each process. So naturally, the more you have available: the more you can dedicate to each process.

How big should my screen be?
This is completely up to you. Find what you're comfortable with and go with it. Be sure to consider overall size and portability.


Drives

What do I need to know about drives?

Drives are essential components of any computer. Some serve as storage space for your files and some are for multimedia playback like CDs and Blu-rays. There are internal/fixed, external and upgradable drives available. Take stock of your personal needs to determine which drives you need and which you can live without.

Users should always consider their personal needs when determining which hard drive size is right for them, however, adding a few external drives to your collection will add some functionality and security at the same time. Portable drives like external hard drives and flash drives can be used to transport files across the world or as backups for your current hard drive. All users should create backups of all their files.

Hard Drive

The hard drive is the attic or garage space of your computer. It's the place where you store your files like your music, photos and videos, as well as critical files like program information and personal documents. The most common hard drive employs a spinning magnetic disk that stores your files. The faster the disc spins (RPM) the faster your computer can retrieve the files, and the more battery is consumed.

Another style of hard drive is the Solid State Drive (SSD) style. The faster speed and compact size are the reasons SSD hard drives are becoming more popular. However, this increase in performance is not without an increase in cost.

It's important to consider hard drive size when shopping for a computer. The more files you have (or will have) the larger hard drive you will require. However, with accessories like flash drives and external hard drives, as well as writable media like CD-R and RW discs, your file storage options are rather flexible.

CD, DVD, and Blu-ray Drvies

Media, media, media! Most laptops come standard with CD/DVD writing and playing drive, or multi-drives. Some higher end models come with Blu-ray reading/writing capabilities allowing for greater storage and higher quality playback. Just like hard drives, users have an external option that connects via USB port.


Other Features

After you have determined how much power and storage space you need, it's time to wade through the sea of features to decide which are critical to your experience, and which you could live without. 

All features described below aren't necessarily included on ALL models.

HDMI
The HDMI connection allows you to connect your laptop to any HDMI ready television through an HDMI cable. Since the cable transfers audio and video, your laptop's entire experience is translated onto the LCD/LED television you are plugged into. Play games, watch movies, or just browse the web with full HD picture.

A common set up involves plugging the laptop into the TV via HDMI cable while connecting a wireless keyboard and mouse. With this set up users can wirelessly control their laptop from the comfortable convenience of their couch using their HD television as the display.

Web Cam/Microphone
The majority of laptops will come standard with a web cam and internal microphone located on the top of the display bezel for use with recording and video chat software.

USB 2.0/3.0
Used for data transfer, a USB connection allows users to connect virtually any peripheral (with USB Cable) to their machine. Connect cameras, mp3 players, hard drives and much more with a USB cable. 3.0 has 10x the data transfer speed of 2.0

Wi-Di (Wireless Display)
Wi-Di has essentially the same function as the HDMI connection without the cables. Laptops with Wi-Di can translate the experience to Wi-Di capable televisions for a full HD experience.

Multi Card Readers
A multi card reader will allow for users to insert and retrieve data from storage disks on cameras, cell phones, and much more. Common accepted types are Compact Flash I & II, SmartMedia Card (SM), Memory Stick (Duo), SD, XD, and Mirco SD cards.

eSATA Ports
eSATA ports are used to connect external eSATA hard drives, similar to USB.

Bluetooth
Bluetooth capability lets users with Bluetooth devices, like keyboards and mice, incorporate them into their set up wirelessly. Bluetooth can also be used to data transfer.

Computer Locks
Most laptops have a feature that allows users to connect computer locks to secure their machines.

Accessories
Accessories are vital for laptops. They accentuate the experience while adding functionality and utility. Just like the laptop itself, the accessories are dependent on your usage and determined need.

Laptop Bag
Whether you're a traveler, commuter, student, just a home user, a carrying case and/or bag is a primary accessory to consider. Styles, colors, and features range but all bags add security and provide a place to keep all your gear. Things to consider when shopping for a laptop bag are size, padding, reinforced corners, and extra storage space. You may need to carry a mouse, keyboard, extra battery, or cables so make sure there is enough room for all your accessories.

Docking Station
Docking stations create a portable work station complete with extra ports and charging functions. Docking stations allow you to connect to a network and leave your cables in place when you take your laptop with you. They can also service as a way to connect your laptop to larger monitors and peripheral keyboards.

Port Replicators
Port replicators are similar to docking stations in terms of their functionality. The main difference between the two is size. They range from as small as a couple inches to slightly smaller than a docking station. The main difference is that port replicators have a significantly more portability than docking stations while still giving users access to additional ports and connections.

Drives
External drives have a variety of uses. For storage and back up, an external drive is critical. Most connect via USB and can also serve as ways to transport data throughout devices. Thumb drives, or flash drives, are smaller external drives with smaller storage capacity, however, their size makes them extremely portable.

Networking and Modems
Since most laptops have built in Wi-Fi capability, a wireless router or modem will give your home or office a wireless network for connection. Modems range in speed and range and your need is dependent on your usage and the area the network is being set up. Features like "gigabit" functionality gives users the ability to plug an external drive or thumb drive into the router and broadcast the stored files across the network.

It is also to consider the dual-band router option. Certain devices use lower frequencies than others and without a dual-band set up, the network will function on the lowest common denominator. With a dual-band network, frequencies remain mutually exclusive and each device will function at its highest level.

Mice and Keyboards
Wireless, Bluetooth, and gaming keyboards and mice are available to meet your specific need. Consider a size and style that fits your intended usage.


WIFI

Owning a laptop gives you more freedom than a conventional desktop but, you may need a few extras to be connected to the internet, digital camera, hard drive, camcorder, mp3 player, or your printer.

Laptops come with a Wi-Fi connection built-in, but not everywhere you go will there be a wireless signal for you to connect to the internet. If you are a frequent traveler or need to access the internet but are not near a Wi-Fi signal, you will need to get cables or a mobile wireless card.

The cables you will need in order to connect to the internet are either a CAT-5 cable plugged into an Ethernet port or a phone cord plugged into a modem. The two other ways to connect to the internet are with a mobile broadband card from your wireless provider or you can buy a laptop with the mobile wireless card built-in.

Most of the peripherals you will want to use in conjunction with your laptop will come with their own connections or cables. Printers are the possible exception. Printers need a USB cable that will connect your laptop to your printer. One exception, some printers are Bluetooth enabled. When working in conjunction with a Bluetooth enabled laptop, you will not need any cables at all.

 

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