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Laptop Buying Guide

This updated guide covers what you need to know about the different laptop options currently available and how to pick the right one for you.

What types of Laptop are available? 

There are several types of laptops available for different uses. There are notebooks for general use, desktop replacements which are intended to be your only machine with limited portability, Ultra Low Voltage models with huge battery life suitable for use on the road and Netbooks which are suitable for use browsing the internet with long battery life.

How to choose which laptop is right for me?

The pace of laptop development is ever changing, with new models being released almost daily it is easy to become confused with which model is the best for you. Before you start looking for a laptop it is worth considering what it is you will be primarily using the laptop for:

- Replacing your desktop machine
- Second Computer for occasional use
- Long battery life machine for working away from home/office
- Just browsing the internet
- Gaming
- Multimedia playback with photo and video editing

Depending on the use you have for your laptop the budget you will require will vary greatly. If you wish to use the laptop for serious mobile gaming or video editing then you will be looking at a high performance model that can cost several times that of a basic Netbook intended to browse the internet only. It is worth matching the specification to what you intend to use the laptop for.

What parts of the specification are important?

The specification of the laptop is what ultimately decides its performance, battery life and general suitability for you. Getting the correct model laptop specification for your intended use is crucial to you being happy with your expensive purchase.

Screen Size: You need to take into consideration both physical screen size and resolution (how many pixels are on the screen, the higher the resolution the more screen ‘space’ you will have for programs). Screen sizes can range from 7 to 22 inches on the very large desktop replacements. The screen size determines the overall size of the laptop computer. Resolution rises from 1024x600 to above 1920x1200 which is above 1080p HD resolution!

Processor: The processor determines the overall multi-tasking performance of the machine and its ability to perform complex tasks. With a dual core processor or even a quad core you’ll be able to use several applications at the same time and accelerate processing time in applications such as games, video editors and photography programs. Ultra Low Voltage processors are available such as the Intel Atom that offer limited performance but make them ideal for use in Netbooks. Intel CULV chips while expensive offer a brilliant combination of performance and power usage making them the default choice for people looking for exceptionally long battery life and good performance. These chips are normally found in Thin and Light laptops or Ultrabooks.

Graphics Chipset: The graphics chipset is responsible for rendering the picture you see on the screen. The main benefits of having a high powered graphics chip in the laptop is it enables the latest games to be played and improved performance in many photo and video editing applications. Although not crucial in an office or home laptop it is always a nice addition. It is worth considering that even basic Intel integrated graphics can now playback HD video and play browser based flash games easily.

Memory (RAM): This is what determines how many programs can be open and running at the same time, if you run out of RAM the PC will slow down dramatically and feel sluggish. For a basic machine to browse the internet 1-2GB of memory is ample and is what most Netbooks come equipped with. Running Windows 7 a basic home office machine with 2GB of memory will be more than sufficient for running office, messenger, internet explorer and music all at the same time. For a high performance laptop intended for gaming or video/photo editing 4GB is now accepted as being the minimum amount you should look for with 8GB being preferable.

Hard Drive: This is how much space the laptop features to enable you to store your folders and files such as pictures, movies, documents and music. The higher the capacity the more data you can store, it is that simple! It is recommended that even on basic machines that you look for a capacity of 250GB or more for a basic home machine while gamers and video editors should consider a fast 7200RPM drive of larger capacity to get the most performance from their machine. Solid State options are now becoming common place on higher end laptops. They offer faster load times, reduced power consumption and a better user experience than traditional hard drives but cost more for the same amount of storage space. Look out for buzz words such as Solid State Drive, SSD or Hybrid SSD for the best performance currently available.

Optical Drive: Netbooks, Ultrabooks, Thin and Light laptops and ultra portable models with large battery life will often omit an optical drive, mainly due to space constraints of their smaller chassis. Most laptops of 15.6” and above now feature a DVD-RW drive allowing you to burn your own CD and DVD disks. Some models are also equipped with Blu-Ray players for watching HD films. These are gradually becoming more and more common on multimedia oriented machines however it is worth checking that the screen is a high resolution to get the most out of the HD Blu-Ray format.

Connections and Outputs: Check that there are enough USB ports for your peripherals and devices, 2x USB ports are considered standard on most Netbooks, Ultra Portables and Notebooks while desktop replacement Notebooks may feature 4x/5x ports. Mini jacks are indispensible for outputting to speakers or headphones for most people so are worth looking out for. Other connections you are likely to find include Ethernet Sockets for connecting to a network, e-SATA for high-speed connections to external hard drives, FireWire for connection to cameras and devices and Express Card for upgrades. The graphics ports on a laptop can also be crucial, if you want to connect the machine to a television to show films and pictures HDMI is essential. If you are looking to connect your laptop to a PC monitor when working at a desk for dual monitor support then you need to ensure there is a spare VGA port or on newer laptops DisplayPort.

Memory Card Reader: Almost all laptops now include one. The choice comes in terms of compatibility with the different formats and transfer speed. The minimum is support for SD and SDHC as this is the standard that most devices now use.

Battery: The battery life can vary greatly from just over 1 hour to over 10 hours on some ultra portable low voltage models and select netbooks. The battery life of a laptop varies depending on how hard you are making the laptop work, the size of its battery, brightness of the screen and if the WiFi is in operation. Look for a quoted battery life that exceeds your needs.

Weight: 13” models are normally as large as you want to go for a portable laptop as they usually keep their weight below 2KG. Over 2KG and you will find the laptop noticeable in your bag and could regret taking it along on your trip. If you primarily use your laptop at home then the weight is far less of a concern. Light laptops usually have a price premium.

What is an Ultrabook?

An Ultrabook is a higher-end type of laptop designed by Intel. Ultrabooks feature reduced weight and dimensions without compromising performance or battery life when compared to traditional laptops. They use the latest low power Intel Core processors, Solid State Hard Drives and uni-body chassis designs to keep weight down, performance up and deliver the highest battery life possible. Due to their limited size it is rare to find Ultrabooks with optical drives or wired network Ethernet ports. With their thin, attractive chassis and higher end specifications Ultrabooks are amongst the most desirable laptops currently available.

Is a Netbook suitable for me?

Netbooks are designed primarily for browsing the internet and information consumption. They are ultra-mobile and are a complement to your main machine. With super low weight and impressive battery life of over 5 hours on most models they are brilliant for use on the daily commute or while watching television. They trade this for much lower performance and compromised keyboard and track pad size. They are entry level machines intended for reading and light editing of office documents and browsing the internet, it is worth remembering that many of the early models are not capable of running youtube videos and playing games. There are exceptions but they require extensive research to ensure they will meet your requirements.

Would a tablet be an option?

Tablet PCs are great content consumption devices. With their long battery life, compact size and quick start-up times they make the ideal companion for checking emails, reading the news and web surfing. However if you wish to do a lot of typing, run more advanced programs such as Microsoft Office or the Adobe suites nothing beats a Laptop or a PC currently for functionality and performance. A tablet however is a great companion to a desktop or Laptop that handle the more intensive requirements; it is easy to see why they are becoming so popular!