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Laptop Buying Guide

posted by K.T. Bradford on December 11, 2012 in Computers and Software, Computers & Accessories, Guides & Reviews :: 2 comments

Shopping for a laptop isn't always easy. When faced with dozens of choices in a store or hundreds of choices online, how do you find the right one? In our laptop buying guide we'll help you sort through all the different types -- ultrabook, netbook, Chromebook and more -- the strengths and weaknesses of each, and which kind of laptop fits your needs.

The first step is to answer these basic questions: What is this laptop for? How and where will I use it? How much am I willing to spend?

Once you know these things, it's much easier to zero in on the perfect laptop.

The graphic below will help you find a good place to start.

laptop scale

Be sure to invest in Internet security software. And if you're buying a computer for a child, read up on how to set up parental controls.

Need a quick refresher on processors, RAM and video cards? Check out the section on Important Features.

Mainstream

This category encompasses laptops that don't fit into a specialized type. They're everyday, all-purpose machines that aren't the most portable or most powerful, yet will serve the needs of most consumers. They're the "average" most other laptops are measured against.

The most popular display size is 15 inches, with 13 and 14 close behind. All-purpose laptops often come with Intel Core i3 or i5 or AMD A series processors for performance good enough for a little bit of everything -- working with documents, surfing the web, multitasking, multimedia, even some content creation. Mainstream laptops are good for people who don't have specialized needs but who want a solid product that will last.

What To Look For: at least 5 hours of battery life, minimum 4GB of RAM, minimum 500GB of internal storage, comfortable keyboards, large touchpads, at least one USB 3.0 port, HDMI, removable batteries.

What To Avoid: old or underpowered processors (no Intel Celeron or Pentium), too few ports, overly glossy displays with poor viewing angles, finicky touchpads, odd keyboard layouts, touchscreens that don't add much except weight and power drain.

Mainstream Picks:

Sony VAIO E Series 15.5-InchBudget: Sony VAIO E Series 15.5-Inch
The VAIO E Series is home to many great mainstream PCs, but we particularly like the 15-inch model for the low price and solid performance. Sony pre-loads media creation software on board for budding artists and brings good audio quality to the table.
15.5 inches, 1366 x 768 resolution, Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB - 8GB RAM, integrated graphics or AMD Radeon HD 7650M GPU, 320GB - 1TB internal storage, VGA, HDMI, DVD or Blu-ray drive, Ethernet, 5.4 pounds, Windows 8.
Price: $465 and up on sony.com, $580 on bestbuy.com
 
Dell Inspiron 14zBalanced: Dell Inspiron 14z
A slim and attractive design houses some powerful specs, including discrete graphics for better multimedia performance and a great webcam for video chats. The keyboard and touchpad are top-notch and overall the 14z feels upscale without being too pricey.
14 inches, 1366 x 768 resolution, Intel Core i3, i5, i7 processors, 6GB or 8GB RAM, integrated graphics or AMD Radeon HD7570M GPU, 500GB internal storage, DVD drive, Ethernet, HDMI, 4.2 pounds, Windows 8.
Price: $699 and up on dell.com
 
Apple MacBook Pro with Retina DisplayPremium: Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display
The MacBook line hasn't changed much since it debuted, just gotten more powerful. The first major change in years is the addition of the Retina display, a feature that you may not appreciate until you experience it. The level of detail and crispness is amazing. Coupled with deep contrast and excellent color saturation and you have one of the best displays on any laptop. Couple that with blazing performance and robust graphics and the MacBook Pro proves it's the laptop to beat. While expensive, it's worth the extra money for its high-quality materials and design.
MacBook Pro 13: 13.3 inches, 2560 x 1600 resolution, Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, 8GB -16GB RAM, integrated graphics, 128GB - 768GB SSD internal storage, Thunderbolt port, HDMI, 3.6 pounds, Mac OS X.
MacBook Pro 15: 15.4 inches, 2880 x 1800 resolution, Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, 8GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M, 256GB - 768GB SSD internal storage, Thunderbolt port, HDMI, 4.5 pounds, Mac OS X.
Price: $1699 (13-inch) and up, $2199 (15-inch) and up on apple.com; $1615 (13-inch) on amazon.com, $2079 (15-inch) on amazon.com 

Ultrabook

Ultrabooks are very light, thin, speedy laptops with long battery life that are powerful enough to be a primary computer and usually cost around $1,000.
Laptops in this category are under an inch thick and often weigh 3 pounds or less. Display sizes range from 11 inches up to 14 and 15 inches; the most common screen size is 13 inches. Due to their thin designs, ultrabooks don't often have many ports and rarely come with optical drives. These laptops runs on ultra low voltage (ULV) processors, a type of CPU that balances performance and power to keep heat to a minimum and provide long battery life without impacting speed. Many models also have solid state drives (SSD) for even faster performance. This makes ultrabooks ideal for people who need both portability and power in an affordable package.

What To Look For: Long battery life (6 hours at least), high resolution displays, full-size ports, minimum 4GB of RAM, minimum 128GB (SSD) or 500GB (hard drive) internal storage, Core i5 or Core i7 processors. Choose an ultrabook with the specs you need since many don't allow owners to upgrade components.

What To Avoid: Finicky or difficult to use touchpads, displays with narrow viewing angles, ports that require dongles (unless you will rarely use that port), touchscreens that don't add much except weight and power drain.

Ultrabook Picks:

Toshiba Portege Z935Budget: Toshiba Portege Z935
An ultrabook that's as light on the wallet as it is on the scale. Though very thin, the Portege still manages to have plenty of full-sized ports. You'll get good performance and long battery life.
13.3 inches, 1366 x 768 resolution, Core i5 processor, 6GB RAM, 128GB SSD, Ethernet, HDMI, VGA, Windows 8, 2.5 pounds.
Price: $1,000 on toshiba.com, $930 on amazon.com
 

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 CarbonBalanced: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
ThinkPads are business laptops, but don't overlook them just because you're not running a small business. The Carbon is one tough ultrabook, built to survive the rigors of travel while still offering powerful performance, long battery life, and a ThinkPad's excellent keyboard. Choose the best configuration on Lenovo.com and get a discount.
14 inches, 1600 x 900 resolution, Core i3, i5, or i7 processor, 4GB - 8GB RAM, 128GB - 256GB SSD, mini DisplayPort, Windows 7 or 8, 3 pounds.
Price: Starts at $1,124 on lenovo.com
 
Asus Zenbook Prime UX32VDPremium: Asus Zenbook Prime UX32VD
This Zenbook sports a full HD 1080p display and the graphics chops to back it up. Most ultrabooks come with integrated graphics only good enough for watching video and playing casual games, but this one comes with discrete graphics, meaning it can handle heavy duty multimedia tasks and games. It doesn't offer the longest battery life, a tradeoff for the bump in performance.
13.3 inches, Core i7 processor, 4GB of RAM, 500GB hard drive, dual band 2.4GHz/5GHz Wi-Fi, Ethernet (dongle), Windows 8, 3.2 pounds.
Price: $1,277 on bestbuy.com

 

Laptop/Tablet Hybrid

Hybrid PCs are laptops designed to take best advantage of Windows 8 by converting into tablets, either with displays that separate from the keyboard base or turn/twist around to lie flat against the keys, screen up.

Hybrids are usually light and slim, resembling Ultrabooks when in laptop mode. Smaller displays are common; most hybrids are 11 inches, but they run the gamut from 10 to 14 inches. Like ultrabooks, these PCs often have few ports due to size or limitations of the design. Hybrids running Windows 8 have either Intel or AMD processors inside, those running Windows RT have ARM processors. ARM-based chips are similar to what you'll find in Android tablets and the iPad and designed for long battery life and low heat in thin designs. Hybrids are good for people who want the convenience of a tablet and also want a real keyboard and mouse for productivity.

When choosing a hybrid, be sure to check whether it runs Windows 8 or Windows RT. Both operating systems look and feel the same. The difference? Windows 8 can run any program designed for Windows, even older versions. Windows RT can only run programs designed for RT and found in Microsoft's app store. Smaller hybrids often have RT instead of regular Windows 8.

What To Look For: Long battery life (6 hours at least), keyboard bases that add extra battery life, displays with wide viewing angles, at least two USB ports, minimum 4GB of RAM for Windows 8 and 2GB for RT, minimum 128GB internal storage, light weights. Choose a hybrid with the specs you need since many don't allow owners to upgrade components.

What To Avoid: Cheap construction, especially in models that twist or bend to convert, gimmicky designs that are nice to look at but not practical.

Hybrid PC Picks:

Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700TPremium: Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T
A fine example of a tablet-first design, the Smart PC Pro has a detachable full HD 11.6-inch display that runs full Windows 8. It attaches easily and securely with the included keyboard dock and closes just like a laptop. While there's no extra battery in the dock, it does add a couple of ports. You may not need the keyboard to get things done, though, especially with Samsung's S-Pen on board.
11.6 inches, 1920 x 1080 resolution,Core i5 processor, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD, Ethernet (dongle), Bluetooth, micro HDMI, front and rear cameras, 1.9 pounds (minus dock), Windows 8.
Price: $1,199 on amazon.com and microsoftstore.com
 
Dell XPS 12Balanced: Dell XPS 12
The XPS 12 ultrabook is a laptop-first hybrid, but you'll have so much fun flipping the screen around you may invent excuses to use it in tablet mode. Everything good about the XPS line is on display here, including sleek design and great build quality. Plus, it's both speedy and can boast long battery life.
12.5 inches, 1920 x 1080 resolution, Core i5 or i7 processor, 4GB or 8GB RAM, 128GB or 256GB SSD, Bluetooth, front camera, 3.4 pounds, Windows 8.
Price: $1199 and up on dell.com
 
Lenovo IdeaPad YogaBalanced: Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga
With a name like Yoga, you'd expect this convertible ultrabook to do downward dog and sun salute... and it does. Thanks to an innovative hinge, the display on the Yoga rotates 360 degrees, so you can position it in any way you like, including completely flat, stood up like a tent, or as a tablet. The 13-inch version runs Windows 8 and the 11-inch version runs Windows RT.
Yoga 13: 13.3 inches, 1600 x 900 resolution, Core i3, i5, and i7 processors, 4GB or 8GB RAM,  128GB or 256GB SSD, HDMI, Bluetooth, front camera, 3.4 pounds, Windows 8.
Yoga 11: 11.6 inches, 1366 x 768 resolution, Nvidia Tegra 3 processor (ARM), 2GB RAM, 32GB or 64GB internal storage, HDMI, Bluetooth, front camera, 2.8 pounds, Windows RT.
Price: Yoga 13 $999 on lenovo.com and bestbuy.com; Yoga 11 $665 and up on lenovo.com

 

Netbook

Netbooks are small laptops with long battery life that run on low-power processors and usually cost between $200 and $500.

There aren't as many netbooks on the market as there were a few years ago. Those that are available have 11 or 10-inch displays. Most run on Intel Atom processors with a few others sporting AMD's Fusion chip or ARM-based CPUs. They're powerful enough for basic tasks such as web surfing, working on documents, and watching video, but nothing heavy duty. They don't have many ports, but sometimes offer more than an ultrabook. Netbooks are good secondary laptops and travel companions. Though bulkier and heavier than the iPad or Android tablets, they're better for productivity if you want a keyboard or need to run Office programs.

What To Look For: Long battery life (6 hours at least), full-size ports, minimum 1GB RAM, light weight, access to insides to upgrade RAM and hard drive.

What To Avoid: Cramped keyboards, tiny touchpads, cheap construction.

Netbook Picks:

HP Pavilion dm1Balanced: HP Pavilion dm1
This was one of the first netbooks to launch with AMD’s Fusion chip and offers better graphic performance than many other netbooks. You still can’t do heavy duty tasks with the dm1, but it handles everything from video playback to a multitude of tabs in Firefox without slowing to a crawl. The slick design, comfortable keyboard, and large touchpad bring it all together, making for one of the best-looking netbooks available.
11.6 inches, 1366 x 768 resolution, AMD dual-core E1-1200 or E2-1800 processors, 4GB - 8GB RAM, 320GB - 750GB internal storage, HDMI, VGA, 3.5 pounds, Windows 8.
Price: $429 on and up hp.com, $499 on bestbuy.com (E2-1800 processor, 500GB drive)

Samsung Chromebook Series 3Budget: Samsung Chromebook Series 3
Chromebooks are a category unto themselves since they run on a non-traditional operating system: Chrome OS. Google’s browser-as-OS has limitations (mainly not being able to do much when not connected to the Internet) and doesn’t make for a great primary machine. As a secondary laptop for web-only tasks, the Chromebook is a good product for the price. Just don’t expect it to work like a Windows or Mac.
11.6 inches, 1366 x 768 resolution, Samsung Exynos 5200 (ARM) processor, 2GB RAM, 16GB SSD internal storage, HDMI, 2.4 pounds, Google Chrome OS.
Price: $249 on bestbuy.com and samsung.com

 

Ultraportables

Before ultrabooks came along, any light, thin laptop that wasn’t a netbook fit into this category. These days, the ultraportable label encompasses a wide swath of laptops, from small, inexpensive models with robust performance to high-end notebooks that with no compromises in design, power, and portability (with a high price to match).

Most ultraportable displays are between 11 and 14-inches, though there are a few 15-inch models that fit the description. Port selection varies depending on size; laptops on the high end tend to cram more in. Don't expect to find too many optical drives. Processor selection ranges from ultra-low voltage on up to fully powered CPUs from both Intel and AMD. Ultraportables are designed for portability and uncompromised performance and appeal to frequent travelers, students, and people who need full power while on the move.

What To Look For: In premium ultraportables go for laptops made with metal alloys that allow for sturdy build and light weight. If you go budget, don’t skimp on performance. Get a Core i3 or AMD A6 processor, at least. Long battery life (5 hours minimum for larger laptops, 6+ for smaller models), high resolution displays, minimum 4GB of RAM, minimum 128GB SSD for premium or 500GB hard drive, at least one USB 3.0 port.

What To Avoid: Ports that require dongles (unless you won’t use it), finicky or difficult to use touchpads, shallow keyboards, displays with narrow viewing angles.

Ultraportable Picks

Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5Balanced: Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5
Looking for powerful performance in a portable package but don’t have thousands to spend on a premium laptop? Acer comes through with a great laptop at a great price. The Ultra M5 has discrete graphics, which means it’s capable of gaming and moderately heavy tasks (photo and video editing, for instance). Yet the battery life is impressive for something this size. You have a choice of 14 or 15-inch displays and you can get integrated or discrete graphics on either. Our advice is to go with the 14-inch discrete graphics version (SKU: M5-481TG-6814)
14 inches, 1366 x 768 resolution, Intel Core i3 or i5 processors, 4GB or 6GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M GPU, 500GB internal storage, HDMI, Ethernet, DVD drive, 4.3 pounds, Windows 7.
Price: $749 on newegg.com
 
Samsung Series 9Premium: Samsung Series 9
Samsung created the first Windows laptop to provide any real competition to the MacBook Air, then they went back to the drawing board and made it even better. The second generation Series 9 is an elegant and attractive ultraportable that’s just as powerful as it is stylish. The 13-inch version is lighter than most netbooks and has the footprint of a laptop with a smaller screen yet delivers long battery life. The 15-inch version is almost the same size and weight as most other 13-inch ultraportables. All in a minimal design that rivals the MacBook Air.
13-inch: 1600 x 900 resolution, Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, 4GB RAM, integrated graphics, 128GB or 256GB SSD internal storage, micro HDMI, Ethernet (dongle), 2.5 pounds, Windows 7 or Windows 8.
15-inch: 1600 x 900 resolution, Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, 8GB RAM, integrated graphics, 128GB or 256GB SSD internal storage, mini VGA, micro HDMI, Ethernet (dongle), 3.6 pounds, Windows 7 or Windows 8.
Price: 13-inch - $1249 on amazon.com, $1299 on samsung.com; 15-inch - $1349 on amazon.com, $1399 on samsung.com
 
Acer Aspire V5-171Acer Aspire V5-171
This little laptop may remind you of a netbook from the outside, but take a look at the specs and you’ll see that it’s far bigger on the inside. It has the same processor as larger ultrabooks plus a lot of RAM, yet costs less than $600. Battery life isn’t as stunning as the performance, so you’ll want to keep the charging cord handy. Good thing the V5 is small and light.
11.6 inches, 1366 x 768 resolution, Intel Core i5 processor, 6GB RAM, integrated graphics, 500GB internal storage, VGA, HDMI, Ethernet, 3 pounds, Windows 8.
Price: $499 on amazon.com, $599 on acer.com
 
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX51VzPremium: ASUS Zenbook Prime UX51Vz
ASUS officially classes this as an ultrabook, but the near $2,000 price is almost twice as much as the average. The Zenbook is worth every penny, if you can afford it, due to a sturdy, beautiful design, gorgeous full HD display, great performance, and long battery life. It has the chops to be a primary computer, even for people doing more than basic tasks, and won’t weigh you down despite the 15-inch display.
15.6 inches, 1920 x 1080 resolution, Intel Core i7 processor, 4GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M GPU (2GB DRAM), 256GB SSD internal storage, Ethernet, mini DisplayPort, mini VGA, 4.6 pounds, Windows 8.
Price: $1879 on bestbuy.com
 
Apple MacBook Air 13 2012Balanced: MacBook Air
Apple’s super thin and light marvel is still the ultimate ultraportable and the Master Mold for the ultrabook category. Both the 13-inch and 11-inch models strike a good balance between power, battery life, and carry anywhere convenience. Both models could use a few more ports, but this is a small compromise in a laptop that has very few. You’ll get the same excellent keyboard and clickpad found on the MacBook Pro plus an HD display.
Air 11: 11.6 inches, 1366 x 768 resolution, Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, 4GB - 8GB RAM, integrated graphics, 64GB - 512GB SSD internal storage, Thunderbolt port, 2.4 pounds, Mac OS X.
Air 13: 13.3 inches, 1440 x 900 resolution, Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, 4GB - 8GB RAM, integrated graphics, 128GB - 512GB SSD internal storage, Thunderbolt port, 3 pounds, Mac OS X.
Price: Air 11 - $999 and up on apple.com, $949 on amazon.com; Air 13 - $1199 and up on apple.com, $1139 on amazon.com

 

Desktop Replacement

Desktop replacements are large laptops that prioritize power and speed over thin designs and portability. Prices start around $1,000, but expect to pay $1,500 or more for a good system that will last.

As the category name suggests, this type of laptop offers performance close to that of desktops and makes a suitable substitute in cases where a tower isn’t desirable. Display sizes start at 15 inches and go up to 18, with 17 being the most common. These laptops have plenty of full-size ports and often come with optical drives. Top-of-the-line processors are common since most designs don’t need to minimize heat or fan noise. Desktop replacements are ideal for consumers and professionals who use their computer for serious work yet want the option to easily move it from place to place, be it within the house or out of the office. Larger screens are easier on the eyes, a trait older users appreciate.

What To Look For: screen resolutions of 1600 x 900 at least, full 1920 x 1080 is best, minimum 6GB of RAM, minimum 750GB (hard drive) or 256GB (SSD) internal storage, at least three USB 3.0 ports.

What To Avoid: low-power processors such as Intel Celeron or Core i3 or AMD A6, displays with 1366 x 768 resolution or poor viewing angles, 3D displays.

Desktop Replacement Picks:

Dell Inspiron 17R Special EditionBalanced: Dell Inspiron 17R Special Edition
You don't have to spend a ton to get a good desktop replacement, as this Dell proves. At this price, you won't get a sleek body or high-end materials, but the 17R more than makes up for it in performance. Owners can add a little flair by buying designer interchangable lids. Available in four different configurations, we suggest the model with the Core i7 processor.
17.3 inches, 1920 x 1080 resolution, Intel Core i5 and i7 processors, 8GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce GT 650M GPU, 1TB internal storage, DVD or Blu-ray drive, VGA, HDMI, Ethernet, 7.2 pounds, Windows 8.
Price: $899 and up on dell.com
 
Samsung Series 7 Chronos 17-inchPremium: Samsung Series 7 Chronos 17-inch
Just because you want a big screen and robust performance doesn't mean you should settle for a bulky behemoth of a laptop. The Chronos is pretty slim for a laptop in this category but doesn't skimp on the specs or the ports. It's also light on the wallet. Combine that with a bright, anti-glare display and good speakers and you have a well-rounded machine that can handle almost any task.
17.3 inches, 1920 x 1080 resolution, Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce GT 650M GPU, 1TB internal storage, DVD drive, VGA, DisplayPort, HDMI, Ethernet, 6.3 pounds, Windows 7 or Windows 8.
Price: $1,349 on amazon.com, $1499 on samsung.com
 
Dell XPS 15Premium: Dell XPS 15
Elegant design, premium audio, full HD display, and powerful performance all in one package. It's hefty enough that most will leave it on the desk. If you do, it will serve you well when working as well as when you want to kick back and watch video.
15.6 inches, 1920 x 1080 resolution Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, 6GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce GT 640M GPU, 750GB internal storage, Blu-ray, Mini DisplayPort, HDMI, Ethernet, 6 pounds, Windows 7 or Windows 8.
Price: $1299 and up on dell.com, $1129 on amazon.com

 

Gaming

Laptops built for gaming are generally expensive and emphasize raw power, graphics performance, and design eye candy over portability.

In the past, laptop gaming was so far behind the power available on a desktop that most serious gamers didn't even consider a portable system. Now that both processors and graphics chips are catching up, it's possible to get great performance in this form factor. Most gaming rigs have large displays ranging from 15 to 18 inches. In the past few years a small cadre of 11-inch gaming laptops brought a bit more portability to the scene. Like desktop replacements, gaming laptops have plenty of full-size ports and often come with optical drives. Performance on these machines is top notch, and you'll usually find the best CPUs and GPUs, a large amount of RAM, and huge hard drives or SSDs. These rigs aren't just good for gamers—anyone who pushes their computer hard, particularly professionals and mega-multitaskers, will appreciate the speedy performance and high-ends displays.

What To Look For: bright, high resolution displays, 3D if it doesn't add too much money, lots of ports, particularly for connecting external HD monitors (HDMI, DisplayPort), minimum 6GB of RAM, solid state drives for faster performance, 7,200 hard drives if your budget is smaller, quad-core processors and discrete Nvidia graphics, access to the inside for upgrading.

What To Avoid: glare-filled displays, underpowered graphics processors, not enough video RAM, finicky touchpads, mushy keyboards. Get the most for your money, don't assume that more expensive means a better machine.

Gaming Picks:

Samsung Series 7 GamerBalanced: Samsung Series 7 Gamer
Samsung manages to offer everything you'd want in a gaming laptop -- blazing performance, beautiful display, tons of ports, and fun eye-candy -- for almost half of what you'd pay for Alienware. It also doesn't skimp on keyboard or touchpad quality.
17.3 inches, 1920 x 1080 resolution, Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 675M GPU, 1.5TB internal storage, Blu-ray drive, VGA, HDMI, Ethernet, 8.4 pounds, Windows 8.
Price: $1799 on amazon.com, $1899 on samsung.com
 
Alienware M18xPremium: Alienware M18x
The pinnacle of gaming laptopness, Alienware has been the top dog in this category for years, and rigs like the M18x are why. Inside you get a quad-core processor, two (yes, two!) graphics cards, two speedy SSDs, and a whopping 16GB of RAM meaning that the only reason you'll ever lose a game is your sad skills and not your slow laptop. To top it off there's an industry-best full HD display and some of the best audio to come out of a laptop. The multicolored lights in the front and under the keys is just icing. If the price tag gives you a heart attack, don't worry. You can configure the M18x to your liking (and closer to your budget) on Alienware's website.
18.4 inches, 1920 x 1080 resolution, Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB - 32GB RAM, two Nvidia GeForce GTX 680M SLI Enabled GPUs, 1.5TB drive, Blu-ray drive, VGA, HDMI-in and out, mini DisplayPort, S/PDIF, Ethernet, 12.6 pounds, Windows 8.
Price: $3,779 on dell.com
 
Maingear Pulse 11Budget: Maingear Pulse 11
Though the display is only 11.6-inches, don't mistake this smaller rig for a netbook or even an ultraportable. The diminutive size makes it better for carting around than most gaming laptops, but the specs out it as a true gamers' paradise. You'll get great performance here and great audio. The battery life isn't very long, so don't count on being outlet free for an entire day.
11.6 inches, 1366x768 resolution, Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, 4GB - 16GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M GPU, 250GB - 1TB (hard drive) or 120GB - 600GB (SSD) internal storage, VGA, HDMI, DVD or Blu-ray drive, Ethernet, 3.8 pounds, Windows 7 or Windows 8.
Price: $999 and up on maingear.com

 

Important Features

Want a little help navigating the technical jargon to find the perfect computer for your loved one? Here is a quick guide to the most important technical features.

Processor: The central processing unit, or CPU, is the brains of the system. Intel, the largest manufacturer, makes a dizzying array of laptop processors—Celeron, Pentium, and the Core series, which comes in i3, i5 and i7 flavors. Celerons and Pentiums are geared at bargain-basement machines intended for e-mail, Web browsing and light computing tasks. Core processors are a must if you're planning to run games, edit photos and video or use your PC as a media center. For the most intensive computing tasks, the Core i7 is the way to go.

For AMD processors, the A-series should be your starting point (with the A4, A6, A8 and A10 providing relative improvements in performance). For ultimate performance, go with an AMD FX processor.

Processor speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz), and higher is better, but don’t sweat the gigahertz too much. Unless you're a hardcore gamer or doing heavy video editing, any Intel Core or higher-end AMD A-Series can handle your needs.

Graphics Card: You'll only need to look for a dedicated graphics card if you plan on playing graphic-intensive games or editing a lot of HD videos. Usually only an option on the most expensive laptops and all-in-ones, look for cards with at least 1 GB of video RAM, preferably 2 GB or more if you will be playing cutting-edge games or doing your own video editing.

Memory (RAM): Random access memory (RAM) is where the operating system temporarily stores programs that are actively running and the files currently in use. So the more RAM your computer has, the more it can do at a time and the faster it'll run. The good news is that RAM is relatively inexpensive—and it's the most cost-effective way of improving your PC's performance.

When deciding how much RAM to get, you'll want at least 4 GB. For super-intensive tasks (HD video editing, for example) 8 GB or more is best.

Hard drive: Your hard drive is where you'll store all your documents, photos and programs. If you primarily work on documents and want to upload a few photos and such, 320 GB should be enough—though, like RAM, more is almost always better. If you expect to store a lot of music and videos and keep every photo, definitely opt for a larger drive. Between 500 and 750 GB should take care of all but the biggest digital pack rats.

If you want the fastest hard-drive performance available—and don't mind paying a substantial premium—consider going for a solid-state drive, or SSD. Unlike a regular hard disk, an SSD has no moving parts and uses flash memory (just like your USB thumb drive). Because of this, SSDs are less prone to failure than a standard hard drive, can open files and launch applications faster and give you slightly better battery life on laptops.

Battery: Battery capacity is often measured in cells, however a cell doesn’t deliver a set amount of power. In fact a six-cell battery in one laptop may actually provide less run time than a four cell in another.

Also, laptops use varying amounts of power depending on processor speed and screen size, among other factors, so you'll have to rely on the manufacturer for an estimate of battery life. A good rule of thumb is to expect about an hour less than the manufacturer claims in actual use.

Display: For laptops the size of the screen is going to greatly affect its weight, so you need to determine what the right balance is for you. If you plan on carrying your laptop everywhere, opt for a 11” to 13.3” screen.

With all-in-ones, go for the biggest display that will work in your space. You’ll appreciate all that screen real estate for browsing the web, watching movies and playing games.

Optical Drives (CD/DVD/Blu-ray): To make laptops lighter and thinner, many no longer come with an optical drive. Unless you have a lot of old software to install, you won’t miss it. Most software now can be downloaded from the web and, if you really need it, you can buy an external DVD drive for under $40.

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Discussion loading

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What laptop would I buy?

From Susan Kaplan on December 11, 2012 :: 1:12 pm

I would buy the best and biggest Mac laptop money can buy. However, since I cannot afford that right now, I remain extremely happy with the 13” MacBook Pro that I bought last year. I will never buy a computer that uses Windows again.

Reply

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So Helpful!!

From Juli Kline on July 22, 2013 :: 9:26 pm

Thank you for this.  I have been be frustratedly sifting through awful laptop forums.  This is exactly what I needed to read.

Reply

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