How to choose the right laptop

It’s that time of year again and despite the popularity of smartphones and tablets many people will be looking for an opportunity to replace an aging laptop. While tablets are great for checking e-mail, watching movies and surfing the Web, laptops remain the workhorse devices for the vast majority of homes and offices.

However, choosing a new laptop can be a complicated business. They range from small starter netbooks costing less than $300, all the way up to MacBook Pros that can cost as much as $2,800. In between, there is a dizzying array of options that can confuse even the most knowledgeable buyer.

The first step is to ask yourself what you are going to be doing with the laptop. If you just want to stay on top of e-mail, organize your music, and surf the net, then something like a Chromebook could be the perfect answer. If you are an avid gamer or your work involves a lot of graphics, then you will need something more powerful model.

Similarly, if the laptop is going to replace an aging desktop machine, then a sturdier model with a good-sized screen might be the answer. But if you are always dragging your laptop through airport security, then a lightweight solution is a must.

The trick is not to overpay for features that you will never use, but also to make sure that you’re happy with what you buy and your laptop lasts you at least 3 or 4 years. Once you decide what you are going to be doing with your laptop, here are some things to look out for:

Processor

The processor is the most important part of your laptop, as it determines overall performance – how fast it responds, how many applications can be run simultaneously, etc. Smaller notebooks often disappoint because their processors are underpowered. Intel 3rd generation processors and dual-core or quad-core processors from AMD are all excellent choices. (Dual-core or quad-core processors are basically multiple processors instead of just one; twice the number of processors equals twice the performance.)

Memory

Every computer comes with a certain amount of random access memory or RAM. The more memory, the better the laptop will perform. As a general rule, you’ll want at least 4GB of memory if you are running Windows 8, Microsoft’s new operating system that will be pre-installed on most new PCs. If you’re planning to hang on to your laptop for a long time, check if you can upgrade the memory at a later date.

Hard Drive

This is the storage area of the computer and, again, how much you need will very much depend on the number and size of the files that you will store. If you intend to handle lots of video and other multimedia files, then you will need at least 500GB. However, don’t overestimate your needs, because it will cost you in both dollars and weight.

(Many people are still confused over the difference between memory and storage. Imagine your computer is an office. Storage is the amount of room in the filing cabinets lining the walls. Memory is the amount of room on your desk. You take files out of the filing cabinets and bring them to your desk to work on; when you are finished, they go back into the cabinets. Computers work the same way. Memory is the space you need to open and store the files you are currently working on.)

DVD and CD Drives

A built-in DVD/CD drive is nice-to-have but not essential. If you expect to play a lot of DVDs or burn CDs, then include it on your list. Otherwise, you can always go for a lighter, more compact machine and pick up a cheap external drive when you need it.

Monitor

Make sure you are comfortable with the screen size. They can range from 7″ all the way up to 22″ (measured diagonally, like TVs). If you are going to spend all day in front of the screen, then something between 13″ and 17″ will generally be OK. Gamers will want to go bigger, but remember, with laptops bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. A lot of other factors, such as brightness, color and sharpness, come into play. If you get a chance, check the screen in daylight or in as bright a light as you can find.

Keyboard

Similarly, you need to be comfortable with the keyboard. The smaller the machine, the more cramped the keyboard is likely to be. Even if you intend to buy online, check out the keyboard at a store or try to find a similar-sized model before you commit.

Battery

If you travel a lot or regularly use your computer on-the-go, the battery life is critically important. Most mid-sized laptops now boast a battery life of around 5 or 6 hours, so don’t settle for anything less. Again, what you do with your laptop will determine how quickly you drain the battery. If you like to watch movies, go with a longer-lasting option. Second batteries or battery packs are not cheap but they can be worth the money.

Networking

All laptops now include an Ethernet connection for high-speed Internet access and built-in wireless networking cards, so you can wirelessly access public hot spots as well as your home network. You might also want to consider including Bluetooth capability, which will let you connect your laptop to other Bluetooth-enabled devices, such as printers, music speakers, etc.

Other Connections

Other connections to look for include a VGA port for an external monitor, headphone and microphone jacks and at least two USB ports for connecting other devices, such as digital cameras, MP3 players, memory sticks, etc. For home use, you may also want HDMI or other A/V connections to hook your laptop directly to your TV.

Despite the complexity of the available options, the good news is that today’s laptops are fast, powerful, and affordable. Armed with a little knowledge, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t find the laptop that’s just right for you!

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