Laptop Buying Guide by Epinions reviewer William Ford


Buying a new laptop can be fun and rewarding, but it can also be difficult to decide on the right one. The first thing you need to do is ask yourself, "What do I want to do with a laptop?" Portable productivity, mobile gaming, and media away from home are some reasons you may be in the market for a new laptop. What do you want to be able to do with your new laptop? What hardware do you need in your laptop? What software? How much do you plan to spend? These are the basic questions most people consider when shopping for a laptop. You should carefully consider the follow features of laptops before you decide to buy.

To learn more about different types of laptops on the market, see the Shopping for Different Types of Laptops Guide.


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Processor Speed

The most popular consumer processor options today are primarily available from two brands: Intel and AMD. Even Apple's Macintosh (Mac) computers are using Intel processors now. There are several grades of processors made by both manufacturers. Depending on the processing power you need you may consider dual core and even quad core options.

Dual core processors have two individual processing cores inside a single processor, effectively making it as powerful as two single core processors working together. Quad core processors have four processing cores.

In addition to a processor's clock speed, you should also find out whether a machine uses multi-core processors. For example; a quad core processor running at 1.8GHz is much more powerful than a single core processor running at 2.4GHz


Memory

Memory is key to speed and multitasking. More memory allows your computer to process information from several programs at once and also run more demanding programs. With the demands of modern operating systems and software, it's a good idea to have at least 1GB of memory.

With Windows Vista, 2GB or more of memory is a good amount depending on the software you need to run with it. If you have a 32-bit operating system (like Windows XP, Windows Vista and MAC OS X) you are limited to using 3.5GB of memory, regardless of how much memory is installed because the operating system will not utilize memory over that amount. With a 64-bit operating system you can use up to 8GB or even more depending on the limit of the computer's motherboard.



Screen Size and Resolution

Screen size and resolution are important factors when you're deciding on a laptop. The size of the screen is a matter of personal taste, but keep in mind that high resolution screens also have smaller fonts which may be hard to see without adjustments. The screen is one of the most expensive parts of a laptop so the larger the screen the more expensive the laptop.

Resolution is literally the number of pixels per square inch on the screen. Larger screens usually have higher resolution. Laptop screens have a ´┐ŻNative Resolution", which is a default resolution optimized for the screen. Other resolutions may be supported but the display looks best at its native resolution.



Storage

The hard drive is where programs and information like your personal data, photos, music and videos are stored on your laptop. Hard drives have gotten bigger in laptops just as they have in desktop computers. It is better to opt for as much hard drive capacity as you can afford because it's not easy to add a primary hard drive to a laptop.

It's also important to know the speed of the hard drive in laptops. Business laptops generally use 4200RPM hard drives, which should be sufficient for business needs. However, if you plan to play games, record and edit video or audio, or any other hard drive intensive activities you want to make sure the hard drive you have is a 5400 or 7200RPM drive. Just keep in mind that faster hard drives will usually impact battery life.

You can also choose a laptop with a relatively small hard drive but an included eSATA data port to connect an external hard dive. This would allow you to connect an external hard drive so you wouldn't have to worry about the size of the primary drive. You can even set the laptop to boot to the external drive and even have two different operating systems (like Linux and Windows) to choose from.



Connectivity and Networking

Laptops have many ways of connecting us to the world around us. Most now come with built-in wireless networking, which allows you to connect to the internet through a local network when a local network is within range. Most laptops also have an Ethernet port (RJ45) to connect to a local network via CAT5 cable.

Wireless networking is also something to check. Some laptops have the older 802.11b or 802.11g network cards built in but the latest standard is now 802.11n which is faster and can connect farther away from the transmitting router than the older standards. So make sure to check which wireless protocol is used on the laptop before buying.

Bluetooth connectivity allows wireless peripherals to be connected to the laptop such as wireless mouse, keyboard, game controllers, pointers, headsets and microphones. Bluetooth works up to about 30 feet.

FireWire or IEEE1394 is used for connecting external drives and peripherals via FireWire cable. The transfer speed of FireWire is 400Mbps compared to USB 2.0 at 480Mbps; however there is a new standard for FireWire that allows up to 800Mbps. FireWire is also used to transfer video from many types of digital camcorders to the computer.

Make sure you have the connectivity options to connect your laptop to other electronic devices that you own.



Peripherals

Also consider that when you purchase a laptop you are also going to need other things too. You will need a carrying case so you can take your laptop along and keep it protected. If you are a gamer, you most likely will want a good mouse and maybe a game controller or a joystick. You may need a mobile printer so you can print on the road.

You may want to invest in a flash memory card for easy backup for important files or even an external hard drive. The point is, you should consider these things into the cost of the laptop so you are prepared and understand what you will need to do what you want to do with your new laptop.



PC vs. Mac

People have been arguing for years about whether the PC or Mac platform is better. It really depends on personal preference. Macs have a very friendly operating system that is very easy to use, and PC laptops have better compatibility with third party software and hardware (although Macs have come a long way in that regard). Some of the best brand names on the PC side are Acer, ASUS, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Lenovo, Sony, and Toshiba.

If you are a serious gamer, you may tend to lean towards the PC format since there are more popular games available for PCs. If you are a serious video editor you may want to go with Macs for their excellent video capabilities and easy to use software.

Macs include a lot of useful software with their operating system, whereas with PC laptops you will most likely need to purchase extra software. If you are looking for a good business class laptop, you may want to check out the MacBook Air which is hailed as the thinnest laptop ever made. This would make for an easy to carry lightweight laptop.



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