Tuesday, August 31, 2010

12 Things to Consider When Shopping for a Laptop

Laptops are everyday items for business, home, and study use. If you haven't ventured into purchasing one for yourself yet, do you feel confident enough to work out what type will best suit your needs? After all, they come in many different sizes, colors, and types, making it a challenging choice to find the "right one". This article is aimed at walking you through the key considerations prior to purchasing a laptop, to ensure that you end up with one that will serve your needs well.


  1. Consider whether a laptop has the advantages you're looking for. If you haven't had a laptop before, it can be a good idea to consider the possible benefits of owning one. When compared with a desktop, laptops have the following advantages (and disadvantages):
    • You can take a laptop with you wherever you go, even abroad provided that you take a power adapter as well.
    • Laptops are now more affordable and competitive in their pricing.
    • Many laptops can do what we expect most desktops to do.
    • Laptops save on space and are easy to move out of the way.
    • There are a few negatives: Laptops are easy to steal if you forget to take care when traveling with them. Their battery life isn't extraordinarily long and can be frustrating if you want to work without electricity for a long period of time, such as on a plane or sitting at the shore near your vacation cottage. The average lifetime of laptops is also significantly lower than for desktop computers. If you plan on using your laptop exclusively, you will probably have to upgrade after two years. Due to the proprietary nature of laptop hardware, even something as silly as a broken mouse button or gummed up keyboard can't be fixed without mailing the laptop back to the manufacturer, usually at cost to you. 
  2. Set your budget. It's important to know how much your budget is before you start looking or you might be swayed by long-term interest-free sweeteners to purchase something beyond your means. There is a large range of laptops available and setting a limit will ensure that you enjoy the laptop you can afford, without being prevented from upgrading later on because you're still paying off the old one! Decide what aspects are important to you and fit these within your budget:
    • If you're only after a laptop that can cope with sending emails and browsing the internet, then you will be fine getting a netbook or laptop that doesn't cost a lot. A refurbished laptop with a good warranty is great for this purpose.
    • If you're into playing games online, you'll need to spend more to get a faster graphics card. If online gaming is a hobby, you've probably already factored in this extra expense.
  3. Consider what Operating System(OS) you prefer: Linux, Mac OS or Windows. It is really up to your personal preference, but these are some important considerations:
    • Go with what you know? If you're used to one OS it'll be 'easier' to continue with a familiar interface than give something new/fresh a chance. But don't let your first OS decide every subsequent OS and computer buy.
    • Why stay with an OS that doesn't fit you? Some programs you may need/want are only available for your old OS but can be made to work through an emulator. Others can't. Your Mileage May Vary.
    • If you are inexperienced with computers and will need help, buy the type of computer that helpful family members or friends know and will help you with. Otherwise you'll have to rely on call-center 'tech support'.
    • Try out all three types in the store or friends computers. See what feels most innate and natural to your way of using a computer. Even within the same make, keyboards, track pads, etc., can feel very different under your personal touch.
    • Give Linux a try. Some laptops can be purchased with Linux pre-installed. To try before making the purchase download a free live distro (distributed demo). It allows you to run your computer using a Linux operating system out without making any changes to the computer. Most Linux operating systems are free of charge as are thousands of programs and apps. A program named WINE lets you run many Windows software on Linux systems. You can install and run these applications just like you would in Windows. Wine is still under active development. Not every program works yet. However there are several million people using WINE to run their Windows software on Linux operating systems. Linux has virtually no threats from viruses. Linux is the perfect choice for children because the operating system is free, the programs are free, and there is virtually no threats of viruses. If the the kids mess the operating system up just reinstall the operating system and start over fresh. Linux Mint looks and works the most like Windows. Ubuntu Linux is the most popular.
    • Macs cost more for relatively the same hardware/features. This is a big drawback if you're on a budget. On the plus side, they match well with iPhone, iPods, iPad, etc., they are also considered fairly easy to use for the less technically inclined, and have good support in Apple Stores. Read up the pros and cons of Mac ownership on relevant internet forums. Macs are also generally less prone to viruses, though they are not immune. Another thing about Macs is that if you still have Windows applications that you need, you can buy Windows emulation software and install it on your Mac, which will allow you to run Windows on your Mac. All recent Macs come with software like this, called BootCamp, but using it requires a restart to boot into Windows mode.
    • Windows netbooks/laptops can be quite affordable, and there are many options from a number of manufacturers to fit virtually every need or want. Windows 7 includes the ability to connect to an in-built GPS device and has good power. However a lot depends on the manufacturer, so it's important to look at what each manufacturer offers in terms of price, features and support, and then to read reviews and other sources for information on how reliable the manufacturers products are.
  4. Think about the size of laptop that will suit you best. There are three different size/weight ranges for a laptop: a netbook, a laptop, or desktop replacement. Although all of these fall into the broader concept of a "laptop", their end usability differs and can impact your choice. Here is a brief rundown of each:
    • Netbook (also known as a mini notebook or an ultraportable) - with a portable small screen of 7"-13"/17.79cm-33.3cm. This has a compact size, is light in weight, and is usually suitable for emailing and browsing or light internet usage as their memory is small. Since netbooks tend not to have as much RAM as laptops, their ability to run sophisticated applications is limited. However, changes are occurring all the time, so always ask the retailer's advice.
    • Laptop - with a screen of 13"-15"/33.3cm-38.1cm. This is of medium weight, is still thin and light, and is able to hold a lot of memory. The decisions to make about a laptop's capacity really come down to your own preference as to screen size, and the amount of RAM you think you'll need.
    • Desktop replacement - screen of 17"-18"/43.8cm-45cm. This is larger and heavier, has full features, and tends to be bound for the desk rather than being lugged around in your backpack! While not as portable as the other two, however, it's still very mobile when needed and the added weight when carrying it isn't really a big issue for many people. If you're not sure about this size, weigh up your desk and portable needs, noting that it is possible that the desktop replacement will eventually do away with desktop computers altogether.[1]
  5. Durability! Decide on whether you'd prefer a metal or plastic exterior. Nowadays the choice of casing is mostly an issue of personal preference, as the weight of each outer-casing is fairly similar, with well-made metallic laptops being no heavier than plastic ones. In terms of durability, metallic casing is probably best for a laptop liable to get knocked around a bit but it's still best to ask your retailer for advice.
    • If you are doing fieldwork or a lot of "rough travel" with a laptop, you might need customized extras to protect it. Ask for a stronger screen, shock mounting of internal components and "ruggedizing" of the whole laptop against water, spills, and drops.[2]
    • Most consumer model laptops in retail showrooms are not built for durability. Look for a corporate model laptop built from metal or composite materials if durability matters.
  6. Look for features to match your needs:
    • Check the CPU or central processing unit. Higher end, faster processing laptops will have a multi-core CPU (AMD or Intel). This won't usually be found in netbooks or lower-end laptops. The difference impacts the speed of your laptop's performance.
    • The size of the Hard Disk Drive (HDD) is virtually unimportant, as long as it can hold your OS and programs, which even the smallest drives today probably can. To store your media (e.g. pictures, music) no amount is enough and since you can't put an extra HDD in a laptop, external/network storage becomes almost a must. What does matter for performance is the speed of the HDD. Ofcourse, more speed = less battery life.
    • Alternatively, Solid State Drives (SSDs) offer much higher performance, no noise and extended battery life, but have much smaller capacities (usually 30GB to 256GB at the time of writing) and cost more. If you are looking for the best possible performance, an SSD is a must, but you'll probably need to purchase an external hard drive for things like music, photo and video libraries.
    • Consider how much RAM you actually will need in your new unit. While it may be tempting to get a whole ton of RAM when you purchase the laptop, often retailers will put massive amounts of RAM in a unit to disguise the fact that the rest of the components are sub-par (slower processor, etc). Since it is quite easy to upgrade RAM (even in a laptop), this should not be a huge consideration for a specific laptop. The amount of RAM memory can be an important spec to consider. Often the amount of memory can limit the applications that you can run. Large applications will require more memory to run. In general, the more memory you have, the faster the laptop will run. The typical memory numbers come in amounts like 1 GB, 2 GB, 3 GB, and 4 GB, where GB means gigabytes. Try to get at least 3 GB. Laptops with 4 GB are ideal but make sure that your operating system is 64 bit for anything 4GB and over, as a 32 bit operating system cannot recognize more than 4GB. Most manufacturers will not sell you a laptop with a 32 bit operating system if you choose 4 or more gigabytes of RAM, though.
    • If you are playing games, check the graphics memory. You must have a graphics card with discrete video memory for 3D games, though this is not necessary for most casual games. A discrete graphics card will consume more battery power as well.
    • How many USB ports are in place for adding your peripherals (memory sticks, iPod, Firewire, etc.).
    • Check the laptop's optical drives. If you want to be able to burn CDs and install software from discs, you will need a DVD drive. If your laptop does not have one, you can always purchase an external DVD drive to plug in when needed. Blu-Ray drives are also options now in many laptops. If you want to be able to play blu-ray movies, make sure you choose a blu-ray drive (sometimes called "bd-rom") instead of a dvd drive.
    • Look for the right screen resolution. While not impossible, it's difficult and expensive to change the screen that comes with your laptop once purchased, so get the right amount of pixels from the start. More pixels increases the cost but if the resolution is important for your activities, it is worth getting this part right.[3] Ask how the laptop screen performs under sunlight; cheaper screens will often be "invisible" in outdoor light, making their "portability" a little less useful for you.
    • Check the wi-fi connectability. Your laptop should be wi-fi enabled.
    • Test the keyboard. It should feel right to your way of typing or tapping. Same for the track pad.
  7. Find a suitable retailer for purchasing a laptop. The main thing is that you find knowledgeable people or adequate information to satisfy your questions about the laptop you'd like to own. There are a number of options for a retailer:
    • Specialized stores that sell only computers and/or computer parts.
    • Brand stores that sell only sell that brand.
    • Generalized electronics stores that sell everything from fridges to computers rarely have staff with specialized computer knowledge
    • Department stores with specialist computer sections.
    • Online electronic or specialist retailer stores - and you can even check out the laptop in a real store and then order it online if preferred - be prepared to pay shipping charges, of course.
    • Online auction sites - be sure you know the reputation and trustworthiness of the vendor by checking their ratings.
    • Refurbished laptop dealers - make sure they have been in business for a while and give a one year warranty. Beware of short warranties. A physical presence means you can go and have a look at the laptops.
  8. Know what to avoid. There are some laptop products you should avoid buying:
    • Know the risks before you buy used, re-certified, or refurbished laptops. It is very important that the laptop comes with a good warranty and from a reputable dealer. Durable, corporate grade laptops can be a bargain when refurbished. The risk is that the laptop has been mistreated and is in poor condition. If the price is right, and especially if their is a one year warranty, then the risk may be negligible.
    • Don't buy discounted floor stock laptops unless they come with a good warranty from a reputable dealer.[4] These can be several generations older than current models on full sale, and it's likely that they have been powered up all day every day, as well as being exposed to store dust, grimy fingers, and endless pressing and banging from bored kids or confused customers.
  9. Once you have your laptop, take good care of it. While it depends on the brand and type of laptop, a laptop that is cared for well should last a good few years before you need to invest in another laptop.



  • Go to someplace like Consumer Reports to find out how the computer compares in different categories.
  • Do a websearch for sites where you can get reliable consumer opinions. Learn from someone else's mistakes and lessons.
  • Great deals are mostly online, but can appear in stores that sell large quantities of laptops.
  • Most of the more well known brands of laptop come with multiple software applications preinstalled, known as bloatware. This software is often general purpose software. Much of it is far less than state-of-the-art. The laptop manufacturer put it there to make money. They license it from the copyright holder in order to add it to their machines, which will add a level of competition. HP, Sony, Lenovo, Acer, and others pay Microsoft their royalties and license fees when they add Microsoft Office trial software or MS Works to their pre-loaded package. Too much bloatware can greatly affect your system's performance, so each installed program should be examined to see if it is essential. If not it should be removed at the earliest opportunity.
    1. Purchasing all the software that you want preloaded would be a good idea, even if it means getting a lot that you don't want, because buying in a bundle may be less expensive. It is advisable to purchase all your add-ons at the time of purchasing the laptop, as these can either run out of supply, or even stop being manufactured as time moves on. You can copy your chosen software to another drive, format your hard drive, then load what you want. It will keep your system from slowing down from too much clutter.


  • Most of the time the better deals are online.
  • If you do buy online, you may have to pay shipping charges.
  • If you are buying used from an online auction site like eBay, read everything. See what is wrong with it. Review the person's feedback. If it isn't brand new, only buy it for a very good price, and make sure you do a clean install. You do not know what the previous owner may have on there and you are taking a risk buying a used laptop sight unseen.
  • Factory refurbished laptops direct from the manufacturers' websites are also generally inexpensive and come with warranties, but again your mileage may vary.
  • Make sure you are comfortable with a laptop before you buy it. In most shops, if you bought a laptop and already used it, you WON'T GET A REFUND OR AN EXCHANGE!

Things You'll Need

  • Internet or retailer catalogs for comparison
  • Computer retailer visits for demonstrations and to ask questions
  • Computer retailer visits for demonstrations and to ask questions 

1 comment:

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