Laptop buying guide

Laptop buying guides help you decide what you want from your new machine. Are you going to use it for simple web browsing or more?

Windows or Mac: It doesn’t matter.

Despite what you might have heard in the latest TV commercials from Microsoft and Apple, the old argument of “Mac vs. PC” is pointless; either choice will provide essentially the same functionality. The biggest difference between a PC running Windows 7 and a Mac running OS X Lion will be the user experience…and even that will be largely similar between the two.

The main reason it doesn’t matter whether you buy a Windows 7 PC or an Apple MacBook is that web browsers and most popular software work very similarly on both. Yes, there are differences in the user interface, but the majority of consumers looking for a new home computer won’t have a drastically different experience…especially if all they do is browse the web or check email.

4GB of RAM is probably enough.

You’ll still find some bargain-priced PCs with less than 4GB of RAM, but even 3GB will likely be more than enough if you just want to browse websites, check email, and occasionally edit photos or movies. “Serious” photo or video editing will be faster if you have more than 4GB of RAM, but extra memory is largely a waste of money for typical laptop users.

In fact, more RAM will not only cost you money, it will cost you battery life. All the RAM in your PC is powered on when your PC is on, even if your applications are only using 2.5GB worth of memory. If you’re running your laptop on battery power, then that battery is going to run down faster on a notebook with 8GB compared to one with 3GB. While this might only result in a difference of a few minutes of real-world battery life, it matters if you’re on the road and need your battery to last as long as possible.

If you happen to be a serious photo/video editor or a gamer who wants lots of fast RAM, make sure you buy a PC with a 64-bit processor and Windows 7 64-bit. Without getting too technical, the 32-bit version of Windows can’t use more than 4GB of system memory (actually less, thanks to graphics). Therefore, you need a 64-bit system if you plan to have more than 4GB of system memory.

It’s not all about the amount of storage…it’s the speed.

Most users want a big hard drive to store all the photos, downloaded songs, movies, and games they plan to accumulate over their machine’s lifespan. However, if you want your new PC to be “really” fast, then you need to invest in fast storage.

The majority of bargain-priced laptops come with slow hard drives rated at 5400 revolutions per minute (rpm). A 5400rpm hard drive is cheap, but it’s also slow and it makes your new PC start up slowly, launch applications slowly, wake up from sleep slowly, shut down slowly…you get the picture. A 7200rpm hard drive is faster and will make your new laptop run faster (usually at a slightly higher cost).

If money is no object and you want the fastest storage available, consider buying a laptop with either a solid-state drive (SSD) or a “hybrid” drive. These drives cost more than a typical 7200rpm hard drive, but an SSD or hybrid drive will allow Windows 7 to start up in a fraction of the time it takes a laptop with a 5400rpm hard drive. SSDs also have better resistance to shock and vibration, so if you’re rough on your laptop, an SSD will probably keep your important data safer than a hard drive.

Pentium processors aren’t that good.

Gone are the days when Intel Pentium processors were the best processors money could buy. Our regular readers and discussion forum members are probably saying, “DUH” right about now, but there is a reason Intel keeps using the Pentium brand: Many consumers don’t know better.

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention to processors since the 1990s, Intel now uses the Pentium brand name to label its low-cost, low-performance chips. A modern Pentium-branded processor is certainly better than the original Pentium chips of the ’90s, but if you want the best consumer processors that Intel offers, then you want a second-generation Intel Core series processor: Core i3, Core i5, or Core i7.

Touchpads and keyboards are important.

Although components like processors, RAM, and hard drives significantly affect laptop performance, two often-overlooked components crucial to a good laptop are the keyboard and touchpad.

These two input devices are the ones you’ll use most on your new laptop. Trust us, two months after you buy your new computer, you won’t care if the processor is a little slow, but you’ll be frustrated if the keyboard makes typing unpleasant or the touchpad doesn’t work well. On that note, here are a few things to consider when finding the right laptop.

The best laptop keyboards have firm support underneath the entire keyboard structure. Some laptops have loose keyboards that flex or “bounce” under the pressure of your fingertips while you type. This flex not only feels uncomfortable but can also lead to typos and even keyboard failure over time. If you plan to use your laptop during flights or in dimly lit rooms, you might want a laptop with a LED-backlit keyboard. These keyboards help you see the keys you’re typing, but laptops with LED-backlit keyboards are usually more expensive than those with standard keyboards. Moreover, some cheap LED keyboards suffer from severe flex.

The best touchpads have excellent sensitivity and minimal lag, allowing the cursor on the screen to move precisely along with your fingertip on the touchpad. Larger touchpads are generally better (especially if you plan to use multi-touch gestures). Touchpad buttons are also important. Most people prefer soft, cushioned buttons that don’t produce a loud “click” with each press. Many modern notebooks feature “buttonless” touchpads with either physical buttons located beneath the bottom edge of the touchpad or “electronic” buttons activated only when you tap the bottom corners of the touchpad. With the exception of the touchpad on the Apple MacBook Pro, most buttonless touchpads don’t work as well as touchpads with traditional buttons.

Glossy screens suck.

The overwhelming majority of modern laptops come with one of two types of displays: annoyingly glossy or VERY annoyingly glossy.

The root cause of the problem dates back to the early days of laptops in the 1990s and early 2000s. The first laptops with color displays usually came with matte screens that made it easy to see what was on the screen under bright indoor lights or even direct sunlight. However, color saturation on these old matte displays was pretty weak, and the contrast was downright horrible; everything looked “washed out” compared to an old CRT or quality desktop LCD monitor.

Laptop manufacturers realized that they could improve color saturation and contrast on cheap LCD panels by using a glossy screen surface instead of a matte screen. This indeed made the screens look nicer…at the cost of usability. Glossy screens reflect light. Room lights located behind you or above you in rooms with low ceilings cause annoying bright spots on the screen that block your view. Taking a laptop with a glossy screen outside during a sunny day makes it very difficult to see anything on the screen. You can even use the screen as a mirror when you turn off a laptop with a glossy screen.

If you search our discussion forums or search Facebook and Twitter, you’ll find many, MANY laptop owners who found out too late that glossy screens make life difficult. If you want to buy a new notebook with a matte screen, you’ll probably have to buy a custom-built laptop online or visit multiple local stores before you find a pre-built laptop with a matte screen.