Shopping for a New Laptop
Shopping for a new laptop? Learn how to zero in on the features that really matter to you.
1. How will you use your laptop?
Light use: Surfing the Web, paying bills online, e-mail and social networking, organizing and sharing digital photos.
Average use: Storing and streaming music and movies, tasks like spreadsheet and document creation.
Demanding use: Multitasking with multiple tabs and programs, sophisticated graphics and photo editing, and video production.
More demanding users will want to invest a bit more in a higher resolution screen, a faster processor, more system memory, and a larger hard drive.
2. How important is portability to you?
Screen size, the type and capacity of built-in storage devices, and the presence or lack of a CD/DVD or Blu-ray drive all affect a laptop’s size and weight. Laptops generally fall into three categories of weight:
3 lbs. or less: These streamlined laptops are great for students and travelers who need to perform basic e-mailing and Web surfing tasks on the go.
4–5 lbs.: This midrange selection provides a balance between power and portability, great for users who occasionally work from coffee shops or airports.
6 lbs. or more: These workhorses provide powerful processing and larger screens, ideal for gamers and professionals who rarely use their laptops away from their desks.
3. Does your laptop look and feel right?
You can learn a lot about a laptop by handling it. Hinges and clasps should feel sturdy enough to withstand daily use. Test the lid and body — typically made from plastics or aluminums — to see if they are adequately rigid and lightweight. Make sure that the keyboard’s spacing and depth allow for comfortable typing. The trackpad and mouse buttons should allow you to solidly click, scroll and zoom without skipping. Also, if you rely on 10-key for data entry, be sure the machine you select has a numeric keypad. If you won’t have an opportunity to check it out in person, you can still check product pages and user reviews for recurring comments about look, feel and build quality.
The operating system is the heart of your laptop. It manages all software and hardware, including files, memory and connected devices. Most importantly, it lets you interact with your laptop and your programs in a visual way (otherwise, you’d be typing a bunch of computer code to get anything done).
Installed exclusively on Mac computers, OS X boasts an elegant and easy-to-use interface to complement Macs’ sleek aesthetics and impressive battery life. Macs have historically had fewer issues with viruses and malware. However, MacBooks start at a higher price point than other laptops, and no Mac model to date includes touch-screen functionality.
Windows is designed specifically around an intuitive touch-screen interface (though it can be used with a traditional mouse and keyboard), expanding your navigation options. It also features a new task manager, streamlined file management and a suite of built-in apps. Learn more about Windows 10.
Featured exclusively in the Chromebook line of mobile computers, this OS runs custom apps and cloud-based programs rather than traditional software. It’s great for surfing the Web, keeping up with your e-mail and social networks, and sharing your photos with friends and family, rather than more data-intensive tasks like video editing and hardcore gaming.
Laptop screen sizes range from about 11 to 17 inches. A larger screen is ideal for gaming, watching movies, photo and video editing, and viewing documents side by side. Keep in mind, a big screen can increase the overall size, weight and power consumption of a laptop.
Higher resolution equals better picture quality. Laptop screens come in a range of resolutions (measured in pixels, horizontal x vertical):
HD: 1366 x 768 resolution is standard on mainstream laptops. Good for Web-surfing, e-mail and basic computing tasks.
HD+: 1600 x 900 resolution is great for casual gaming and watching DVD movies.
Full HD: 1920 x 1080 resolution allows you to watch Blu-ray movies and play video games without losing any level of detail.
Retina display: 2304 x 1440, 2560 x 1600 and 2880 x 1800 resolutions are found in Apple’s 12″, 13.3″ and 15.6″ laptop displays, respectively.
QHD (Quad HD) and QHD+: With 2560 x 1440 and 3200 x 1800 resolutions, respectively, the extremely high pixel density creates crisp detail and sharp text, ideal for professional photo and graphics work as well as high-def movies and games.
4K Ultra HD: 3840 x 2160 resolution boasts four times the pixels of Full HD, creating rich colors and images for viewing and editing incredibly lifelike images and graphics.
Different display technologies yield different colors and brightness levels. Many laptops employ LED backlighting, which can display bright colors without draining the battery. If you plan to use your laptop to watch movies and shows with a friend, choose a display with an IPS panel for wider viewing angles. Screens with a glossy finish generally provide richer colors and darker blacks, while matte displays will reduce glare if you frequently work outdoors or near windows.
Touch-screen laptops make navigating on your computer more intuitive. Tap to select, hold and drag to move items, swipe to scroll and pinch to zoom, just as you would on a smartphone or tablet. Currently available on many Windows laptops and select Chromebooks.
Your laptop’s processor is like its brain. Working in combination with system memory, the power of the processor determines the complexity of software you can run, how many programs you can have open at the same time, and how fast those programs will run. Most laptops feature an Intel® or AMD processor.
Intel’s processors are at the heart of every modern MacBook and the majority of Windows laptops. Most prevalent are Intel’s Core ™ series of multicore processors:
Core i7: Intel’s top-of-the-line consumer processor. The choice of “power users” like hardcore gamers, graphic designers, photographers and videographers. It excels at serious multitasking and high-demand multimedia creation for projects in 3D or high definition.
Core i5: Mid-grade Core processor and one of the most common Intel processors currently in use. Powerful enough for most computing tasks, and multitasks well so you can stream the big football game while looking up stats and sending e-mails.
Core i3: The entry-level Core processor, more than adequate for everyday e-mail, Internet and productivity tasks. It’s also fine for common activities like listening to music.
Core M: A processor designed for ultraslim devices, providing plenty of power for day-to-day surfing and e-mailing without being a major drain on battery life.
In value-priced laptops, you’ll also see Intel’s Pentium® and Celeron® processors. These are adequate for basic e-mail, Internet and productivity tasks, but their speed and multitasking capabilities are limited relative to those of the Core family.
AMD has two categories of processors that are most common:
FX and A-Series: Like Intel’s Core chips, these processors include a graphics processor built into the same chip. In order from top-of-the-line to entry level, they include:
FX: Best Buy-exclusive powerhouse for serious gaming and heavy multitasking
A10: AMD’s flagship chip, with blazing quad-core speed and exceptional graphics performance
A8: Improved graphics performance enables immersive 3D gaming in HD
A6: Smoother video streaming and enhanced photo quality
A4: Responsive performance for music, photos and video
E-Series: Similar to Intel’s Celeron and Pentium processors, these are value-oriented chips with limited speed and multitasking capabilities. They’re appropriate for basic computing tasks like e-mail, Web surfing and word processing.
Variances exist within processor classes. Laptops designed for exceptional battery life often incorporate an ultra-low-voltage version of the listed processor, which usually sacrifices processing speed.
For heavy graphics work or gaming, choose a laptop with a dedicated graphics card and video memory. Having separate resources for your graphics allows for faster, smoother processing while you’re watching movies, playing games or multitasking.
Random-access memory, or RAM, is important because it helps your processor tackle multiple tasks at once. A minimum of 2GB is required for basic computing, but 6GB or more is recommended if you’re into graphics and advanced photo or video editing. Most laptops have 4GB–8GB pre-installed, and some have up to 32GB. If you think you might need more memory later, choose a model that lets you expand the RAM.
Traditional hard disk drives offer larger storage capacities, but add to a laptop’s weight and thickness while generating heat and noise. Alternatively, solid state drives (also known as SSDs or flash storage) are much lighter, faster, cooler and quieter than hard drives — but they’re also much more expensive per GB, so typically provide less storage space. Some laptops feature a hybrid drive, which combines a hard drive with a solid state drive for the benefits of both.
Hard Disk Drives
Traditional, mechanical hard disk drives are the most common type of storage because they’re relatively inexpensive and offer huge capacities. However, they also add significantly to a laptop’s weight and thickness, and generate both heat and noise. They come in two standard speeds: A 5400 rpm drive is sufficient for day-to-day Web surfing, e-mailing and document creation, but a 7200 rpm drive transfers data more quickly and may be worth considering if you regularly work with large files.
Solid-state drives, also known as SSDs (or, in Apple’s case, “flash storage”), are many times faster than hard disk drives, but typically offer far less capacity. SSDs also offer tremendous advantages in physical size, weight and power efficiency, along with negligible heat production and noiseless operation, making them an ideal choice for ultraslim, ultralightweight laptops. And unlike hard disks, SSDs have no moving parts to wear out.
Some laptops employ an SSD for all storage. Others dedicate a smaller SSD to house the operating system and applications (enabling faster start-up) and add a traditional hard drive for general data storage.
Manufacturers’ battery-life claims range from just a few hours up to 12 hours or more.
Laptop enhancements — such as increased processing power, larger and higher resolution screens, faster hard drives, or the addition of an optical drive — will drain your battery more quickly.
Ports and Connectivity
Laptops typically provide several options for staying connected to the Internet as well as to other devices. Most laptops provide the latest wireless standards plus Bluetooth capabilities so you can easily sync your smartphone, speakers and other portable devices.
If you are a frequent traveler, consider a laptop that connects to the 4G LTE network so you can access the Web even when you’re not near a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Keep an eye out for the following ports that are commonly used for connecting to TVs, cameras and other devices:
USB 2.0: Connects external drives, gaming controllers, smartphones, MP3 players and other accessories.
USB 3.0: Transfers data faster than USB 2.0, but only when used with USB 3.0 devices.
USB Type-C: Provides blazing speeds and versatile power, featuring connectors with identical ends that plug in upside down or right-side up. Adapters allow for video as well as backward compatibility.
Thunderbolt: Ultra-high bandwidth for fast data transfer between devices featuring a Thunderbolt or MiniDisplayPort connection.
HDMI: Connect a projector or display HD media on your flat-screen TV.
Media-card slots: Transfer photos from your digital camera or camcorder.