How to Buy a Laptop Computer

by Carlos Portocarrero on 24 June 2011 4 comments

Laptops are in the midst of a revolution. They’ve become smaller, more powerful, and cheaper. As more and more people decide to buy laptops as their main computer, the market has fractured into different categories. There are laptops, ultra portables, netbooks, and even desktop replacements that can pretty much do it all but are expensive and pretty heavy. (See also: Why You Should Buy a Desktop Computer)

Laptop Features That Matter

Let’s take a look at the different features we should pay attention to.

Processor 

This is the most important part of any computer. Try to get as much processor as you can afford if you want to make your machine last. This is one thing you can’t just upgrade when your machine starts to feel slow...at least not on most laptops.

Memory

Like the processor, if you don't want your laptop to get bogged down if you're doing several things at once, getting as much memory as you can afford will keep you happy and productive.

Battery 

If you’re getting a laptop, you’ll want to take it with you on the road at some point — otherwise buy yourself a desktop (it’ll be cheaper). You’ll want to use it without being tied to a power source, and that means you want a battery that will last. Scrambling for a power source in the middle of a project is a nightmare. Make sure you read a review or two that tests battery power to see how long you’ll be able to go without relying on an outlet.

Weight 

If you’re going to be lugging this bad boy everywhere, you want to make sure you don’t have a chunker in your bag. Trust me — it will catch up to you in a hurry if you have to carry a 10 pounder around everywhere. I carry my netbook with me to work every day and every ounce makes a difference.

Optical Drive

Netbooks and other ultra portable laptops don't come with a DVD drive. Decide ahead of time whether that'll be something you'll want to have. It narrows down your options. Most full size laptops will come with DVD-RW drives.

Screen Size

A small, lightweight laptop is great for carrying around, but will you be able to work with a 10" screen? If you work with a lot of spreadsheets, that may not be your best choice. 

Laptop Features That are Just Hype

There are some features that aren't cost effective to have.

3G/4G Connectivity 

If Google’s new Chromebooks are the wave of the future (and they very well might be), then all laptops will have some kind of cellular connectivity and most of our work will be done in the cloud. Which is great, but it’s still too soon. You can’t count on reliable connectivity everywhere you go yet, and when you’re stuck without an Internet connection your machine becomes pretty useless. Besides, this will add another monthly bill to your budget — not worth it just yet.

Hard Drive Capacity

Hard drive space on laptops are much more expensive than for desktops. If you need a ton of storage space, you might want to consider using a desktop instead (or get an external hard drive). 

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Special Features to Consider

Blu-ray 

If you don’t have a Blu-ray player, you may want to consider getting a machine with a Blu-ray drive. Combine it with an HDMI port and you can save yourself the purchase of a dedicated DVD player. If you travel a lot, you’ll appreciate being able to watch movies in all their Blu-ray glory.

Ultra Portability 

Netbooks are small and that’s great, but there is a new category of laptops emerging that are smaller and lighter and claim to be just as powerful. The MacBook Air is a marvel of engineering and Samsung’s Series 9 is starting to catch up. If you’re looking for ultra portable machines that are sexy as hell (read: expensive), you may want to look into these.

Best Tme to Buy

If you’re interested in buying a Mac, definitely keep an eye on MacRumor’s Buying Guide, which keeps track of the Mac laptop life cycle. The guide makes it real easy to understand when a new model might be coming and when to buy.

Otherwise, keep an eye out in April. With new models coming out, retailers need to clear out inventory to make space. You can also take advantage of back-to-school sales in August and September for great deals on laptops and other electronics.

See our shopping calendar for more tips on the best time to buy anything and our other buying guides.

Best Value Laptop

HP’s DM1Z. This machine combines the portability of a netbook with the performance of a premium machine. It has the features you want from a portable system (compact, relatively light, great battery life) with a powerful Fusion chip that’ll pretty much run anything you want. This is the machine I upgraded to recently and I’m ecstatic with it. It also has a great keyboard, which is crucial since writing is my thing. The DM1Z was an easy decision, especially since it clocks in around $449 (keep an eye out for coupons!).

Best Special Features Laptop

MacBook Pro 13 inches. Macs are inherently more expensive than their PC counterparts, but if you’re looking for a machine that can pretty much do it all and look great doing it, this is it. It’s got the battery life, a blazing processor, and it looks sexy as hell. You’ll shell out at least $1,199 for the 13-inch version, but you’ll get your money’s worth. If I had the money, I probably would’ve switched to Mac and bought this machine.

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Ria

Great article, thanks so much. Never really thought about the processor or some of the other things you mentioned.

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

You're very welcome!

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Jerry

Keep an eye on sale prices at your local office and computer stores. I got this Compaq notebook for about half the original MSRP as a closeout. 2 GHz AMD dual core 64-bit processor, 3 G memory, 250 G hard drive, Windows 7 64-bit Home Premium, Lightscribe DVD R/W, built in wifi, 15.6" screen. $350 after all discounts and rebates. Downside? Only 3 USB ports, no webcam. Both are cheap add-ons if I ever feel the need. I don't need no steenking desktop!

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

@Jerry: Great point. I always have an eye out for great deals. If you aren't picky about what you want, you can save a whole bunch of money.