With the best laptop computer and a wireless Internet card, you’re ready to take on the world. You’ll enjoy gaming, music and movies on the go. You can study anywhere. You’ll love being able to work on the beach. Your boss will love sending work home with you.
Laptop computers are no longer the poor cousins of desktop tower PCs. The best laptops can compete with desktops in processing power and storage, making them robust enough to replace desktops in most homes.
Laptop Computer Requirements
For a laptop to last, you need to shop for tomorrow, not today. Software and multimedia place ever-escalating demands on processors and storage space, so it’s best to avoid thinking about the minimum you can live with.
A new laptop should have either a dual-processor AMD chip or a dual-core Intel chip. This new technology splits processor functions between two integrated chips, providing a more speed and processing power. Processor speeds are measured in gigahertz (GHz). Bigger numbers mean faster speeds. Look for laptops with processors that run at 2GHz or higher.
A new laptop should have 1GB of RAM and a 100GB hard drive at a minimum, and it’s worth paying extra for more memory. The newest Mac and Windows operating systems consume large amounts of RAM, so an underpowered laptop will struggle to run software. Larger laptop hard drives are needed if you’re carrying a lot of music or multimedia files with you, or if you download files from the Internet.
Mac laptops are very popular at the moment, particularly the MacBook Air, which is the lightest and thinnest laptop available. If you’re considering an Air Mac, you should know that it doesn’t have a built-in optical drive, so you’ll need a wireless network connection to another computer to install software from CDs. If you’re budget-minded, you’ll usually get more memory and features from a Windows laptop.
You’ll come to rely on your laptop computer’s screen, even if you have a monitor at home. Screens contribute to the overall cost of a laptop, with larger screens costing more. Screen size also determines the overall size of the computer, which affects the weight, keyboard size and battery life.
Laptop screens range in size from 13 to 19 inches. You’ll be very close to the screen while you use your laptop, so a smaller screen is fine unless you have poor vision or need a larger keyboard.
One thing to watch out for in cheap laptops is a poor LCD screen. You won’t notice an underperforming screen while you read e-mail or create documents, but you will see the problems if you watch movies or play games. Multimedia users and gamers should check the screen resolution. The 1200 x 800 WXGA resolution is a minimum for widescreen viewing, but higher horizontal resolution (the number after the x) will give you better-looking games and movies. Alienware notebook computers are renowned for their superior resolution, and checking the specs on their models will give you a good idea of what’s out there.
Laptop computers are sometimes rated for battery life, which is the amount of time you can run it before the battery needs to be recharged. While these ratings can help you choose between laptop models, they are general guides and shouldn’t be taken literally. Playing games and watching movies will empty the battery much faster than sending e-mails or building a spreadsheet.
Don’t charge laptop batteries too often. This can cause parts of the battery to become inactive, sometimes known as a “memory,” and reduces the usable space in the battery. It’s best to run a laptop until the battery is almost used up before recharging.
Look for a laptop with a combination optical drive that can, at a minimum, read DVDs and write CDs. Laptops with DVD burners are increasingly common at lower price points, and these drives can write CDs as well as DVDs.
A laptop should have a built-in wireless modem for accessing the Internet, along with an expansion slot that allows you to add your own modem for faster broadband wireless. Look for laptops with multiple connectivity options. Two USB ports are a minimum requirement so you can connect the laptop to printers and external drives. An Ethernet port is essential for connecting to wired broadband Internet service.
Almost every laptop has a VGA port to connect to a standalone monitor. Newer models include DVI and HDMI ports that let you use the laptop as part of your home entertainment system. This is useful if you download movies or other content that you want to send to your TV, and it should be considered an essential if you’re replacing a desktop system with a laptop.
If you don’t like touchpads, look for a laptop with an alternate control system, such as a touchscreen or small joystick. You can also purchase a separate USB mouse to use with the laptop.
Finding Cheap Laptops
Because of all the things a laptop computer does, as well as the need to miniaturize circuits and chipsets, laptops tend to cost more than an equivalent desktop computer. You also get more, since a laptop includes a monitor, a battery and a recharger.
If budget is a concern, there are some ways to find laptop bargains.
- Reduce your requirements. If you’re not into gaming or multimedia, you’ll be happy with a single-core processor and less RAM. These laptops can still handle music.
- Look for refurbished laptops. You’ll find these at smaller computer dealers. The computer will be a couple of years old, so you’ll want to talk to the dealer about what it can and cannot do.
- Buy used. You’ll find tons of laptops for sale in online classifieds and auctions, particularly around the end of the school year. It’s a good idea to get a new battery for a used laptop and to thoroughly scan it for viruses before you start using it.
- Buy it without the box. The major electronics retailers sell their floor models when new merchandise arrives. You’ll sometimes find significant savings on these, but your choices will be limited and you may need to haunt the stores for a while, waiting for a model that you want.