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How to Choose a Laptop: A Guide to Buying Your Next Computer

Aug 30, 2012 04:28PM ● By Erin Frisch

How to Choose a Laptop: A Guide to Buying Your Next Computer


Laptops have become ubiquitous accessories in our everyday lives. The process of choosing the right model for your needs can take some serious time and research. It seems that no common computer product has as many variations, with as wide a performance range, as the modern laptop. From powerful desktop-replacement systems to tiny netbooks, the differences in features, prices, and performance are astonishing.

With so many options available, choosing a laptop can be tough, plus there’s no shortage of reasons for purchasing one. Maybe your current laptop is ready for an upgrade, or you’re about to head off to college and you need a way to take notes in class. Perhaps you’re happy with your desktop computer, but you want a companion device for surfing the Internet from somewhere other than your desk. Or maybe you travel for business. Even if you know what you want to do, with so many choices, it can be hard to decide among so many devices.

It’s best to start by deciding which category of laptop you’re most interested in—netbooks, ultraportables, all-purpose laptops, or desktop replacements. The laptop category that’s right for you depends on the kind of user you are. Netbooks are good for students looking for low prices and high portability. Ultraportables, slightly more powerful than netbooks, can also be good choices for students and travelers. All-purpose laptops work well for business folk who need high computing power. Desktop replacements are great for at-home users who are looking to watch videos in bed, for instance; they’re also a good choice for heavy gamers and photographers/videographers who need larger screens, powerful processors, and massive hard drives. Once you’ve decided on a category of laptop, it’s time to start considering the specs.


For their intended purpose (simple web browsing or word processing), a netbook is a great choice. It’s not powerful enough to do everything you need a PC to do; it struggles with streaming video, editing photos, or running multiple applications simultaneously. Small and light enough to carry around all day, netbooks are the perfect device for taking notes in class or surfing the Internet on a commuter train. Weighing in at 3 pounds or less with a screen size of 6 to 10 inches, most cost around $300 to $400. Battery life tends to be around 6 hours, sometimes more. Most are equipped with Intel’s Atom line of processors that can run the Windows operating system you’re accustomed to, but they’re much slower than the processors in all-purpose or desktop replacement laptops. In addition, most have only 1GB of RAM (random-access memory), which makes for slower performance. Netbooks almost never have an optical drive, so to play DVDs or load software off a disc, you’ll need to buy an external USB-attached CD/DVD drive.

Check out these netbooks: Asus Eee PC 1016P, Asus Eee PC 1215N, Acer Aspire One AO722-0022, HP mini 5103


Slim and light, ultraportable laptops are a step up from netbooks. You tack on about a pound of weight, but that means a more powerful processor, more RAM, and often a larger screen (11 to 14 inches). These are ideal for users who need a fuller PC experience but still want a laptop that’s easy to carry around. Ultraportables usually weigh in between 3 to 4.5 pounds, with a battery life that lasts from 4 to 6 hours; they’re priced in the $600 to $800 range, with some super-thin models that boast larger screens hitting $1000. Ultraportables use either dual-core processors or low-voltage processors from Intel or AMD that are far more capable than Atom netbook processors. Most have 2GB to 4GB of RAM, and as a result, perform a lot better than netbooks on everyday applications and are more suited to running multiple applications at once. Graphics chips can still be lacking, but some models offer more robust options than others. Optical drives can be present or not, depending on the model, so make your choice based on your preferences (will you be watching DVDs?), but note that models that include them may be pricier.

Check out these ultraportables: Apple MacBook Air, Lenovo ThinkPad X230, Sony Vaio E Series SVE11113FXW

All-Purpose Laptops

Models in the all-purpose category are large and powerful enough to serve as your everyday computer but portable enough to accompany you when you’re on the go. This category has the most options available, ranging from durable, rugged laptops like the Panasonic Toughbook for business travel, convertible laptops like the Fujitsu Lifebook (with a reversible screen that turns it into a tablet), to gaming laptops, cheap notebooks, expensive and stylish laptops, and more.

In general, screen size ranges from 14 to 16 inches, and these laptops usually weigh between 5 and 8 pounds. Most use full-power dual-core and quad-core laptop processors, and you can expect them to have about 4GB of RAM, often with options for up to 8GB. This all makes for faster processing speed. The price range is wide, with models as cheap as $400, but piling on extra options and/or a better processor and graphics configuration can up the price to $1500 or more. Optical drives remain standard (DVD) with the option to upgrade to Blu-ray on some models, as well as an option for HDMI output so that you can hook the device up to your TV. You can bump up the hard-drive space to 1 terabyte, get a touch screen, and much, much more. The number of customizable features is incredible. Larger screens and more powerful processors do, however, mean shorter battery life (generally 2 to 5 hours).

Check out these all-purpose laptops: Dell XPS 14z, Lenovo ThinkPad T420, Apple MacBook Pro, MSI X460DX-006US

Desktop-Replacement Laptops

Desktop-replacement laptops are also known as power laptops. They are larger models aimed at those who need the large display size and performance of a desktop computer but want it to be somewhat portable. Screen sizes vary from 16 inches to 18.4 inches and offer higher resolutions, optimal for photo or video editing.  At 8 to 12 pounds, they are tough to carry around for a whole day. The processors are typically top of the line, either dual-core or quad-core, and performance rivals that of the processors found in most desktop computers. Discrete graphics chips from ATI or nVidia are standard on most desktop replacements so these can be the right pick for gamers.  For RAM, 4GB of is the bare minimum and hard drives range from 500GB to as much as 1 terabyte. However, the sheer power of these machines will drive down battery life to about 2 hours or less with heavy use, so keep your power cable handy and don’t stray too far from an outlet. As far as pricing goes, inexpensive models may cost $1000 or less, but a nicely loaded desktop replacement can easily push $2000 or more.

Check out these desktop-replacements: Samsung Series 7 Gamer, Origin EON17-S, Dell Precision M6600, AVADirect X7200

Are there any other computers you would recomend that we missed? Let us know.

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