Laptop Buying Guide
Updated November 2009 with new guide information and models
Shopping for a laptop is no simple endeavor. There are tons of options out there to consider. You'll have to decide whether you want a tiny ultra-portable PC that you can take everywhere, or if you want a heavy multi-media monster with a 17-inch screen and a Blu-ray drive. How much RAM? What speed processor? AMD or Intel? This guide will help you determine which laptop that is right for your needs and budget.
In this Guide
Types of Laptops
Netbook: These are tiny, low power laptops that have become increasingly popular because of their small size (8 to 10-inch displays), low weight (between two and three pounds) and low price. Netbooks are fine for email and light Web browsing but are not intended for use as a primary PC.
Ultra-Portable: If you're someone who always wants to have your main computer with you and you move around frequently, ultra-portable laptops are for you. They often command a premium over larger notebooks but they're incredibly light (under four pounds) and usually get fantastic battery life (the MacBook Air is one of the notable exceptions at 4-5 hours versus 7-plus hours). Most ultra-portables pack 12.1- or 13.3-inch screens.
Thin and Light: Thin and lights make good choices for those who plan to carry their laptop around with them but don't want to spend the extra cash on an ultra portable. Most pack 13.3- or 14.1-inch screens and weigh under five pounds. Though they are still more expensive than models.
Mainstream: These are your workhorse machines that pack enough power for office software, HD video playback and Web browsing, but won't break your wallet. They usually have 15.4-inch wide screens and weigh between five and six pounds. Many newer mainstream laptops, even those with surprisingly low prices pack advanced multimedia features, like HDMI ports and the ability to playback music and video without booting Windows. These are perfect machines for people who don't want to spend a lot of money and don't plan on carrying their laptop around very often.
Desktop Replacement: These are larger laptops with high-end components and large HD screens. Some newer models come with 16-inch screens, but more common are 17 or 19 inches. These machines have discreet graphics processors, powerful main processors and often high-end media components such as Blu-ray players and sub-woofers. These are great for those who want to watch HD movies, play demanding 3D games or do video editing, but don't want to sacrifice the space needed for a desktop computer. Since desktop replacement systems weigh in well over six pounds (with some coming in at an ungainly nine pounds), you won't be carrying these around very often, but they are mobile enough to move from room to room in a house. Don't expect to leave these unplugged for too long; with all the power under the hood and the large screens, if you survive more than two hours away from an outlet, consider yourself lucky.
Operating System (OS):The operating system, or OS, determines how you interact with your computer. It's the friendly and pretty go-between that connects you to all the intimidating code and circuits that do the actual work. It controls your on-screen programs, handles tasks like creating and saving files and determines what programs you can run.
There are three main players in this market: Windows, OS X and Linux. And unless you're an uber-techie, you'll want to stick with the first two. Most of the computers we review don't come with Linux anyway, so we'll focus on Windows and OS X below.
If you buy a Mac, it'll come loaded with Apple's OS X operating system, which is becoming increasingly popular, thanks to a sleek design. OS X has its perks—it tends to be faster than Windows and is much more secure. On the downside you can only get it on Macs, which tend to be more expensive than Windows-based PCs, and many popular applications (especially games) are not available for OS X, though that gap is closing.
If you buy a PC, you'll be looking at a Windows OS. Windows 7 has just hit the market and addresses many of the complaints consumers (and businesses) had about Windows Vista. Windows 7 is sleeker, faster, and has better hardware and software compatibility. It also has a slew of new features, including a new taskbar, which we're totally enamored with. If you want more detail about the new features in Windows 7, check out our guide to whether you should upgrade.
Be advised that the general rules that apply to picking a version of Vista also apply to Windows 7. Go with 64 bit, most hardware is compatible with it and it will still run most 32-bit applications. You'll also have to decide which version is best for you—Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. Home Premium is sufficient for most home use (e.g., playing videos, Web browsing, and using Microsoft Office). If you absolutely must use applications that don't work with Windows 7 (or Vista for that matter) and use your PC for running a business out of your home, Professional is a worthwhile upgrade that brings XP Mode and enhanced networking and backup features to the table. Ultimate adds some cryptographic and language tools, but unless you're the type who absolutely must have every feature (just to have them), you can probably skip it.
Some PCs can still be ordered with either Vista or XP, but unless you've got a good reason to opt for either of those, pick Windows 7.
Whichever OS you choose to go with, just remember that programs that run on Macs generally won't run on Windows, and vice-versa, at least not without a little bit of trickery. Macs come with a program called Bootcamp, which allows you to install Windows on your Mac (you still have to purchase and install Windows). However, you can't run Windows applications directly from within OS X, you must reboot into Windows. If you need to switch back and forth frequently, there are other options for that, such as Parallels, which will let you run Windows programs from within OS X, but they also require you to purchase a copy of the Microsoft OS. Again, depending on where you fall on the nerd scale, we don't recommend this route unless you've got some serious computing to do.
Processor: The central processing unit, or CPU, is the brains of the system. Intel is the biggest manufacturer of processors, and you'll find their CPUs in most laptops. AMD is another (and often less-expensive) manufacturer, but Intel's laptop processors tend to be faster and eke out better battery life, so opt for them.
Intel makes four different types of laptop processors—Atom, Celeron, Pentium, and Core2. Atom processors are made for netbooks, while Celerons and Pentiums are geared at bargain-basement machines intended for e-mail, Web browsing and light computing tasks. If given the choice, opt for a Pentium over a Celeron processor. Core2 processors are a must if you're planning to run games, edit photos and video or use your PC as a media center.
Processor speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz), and higher is better. If you're getting a Core2 Duo, however, don't sweat the gigahertz too much. Unless you're a hardcore gamer or doing heavy video editing, any Core2 Duo can handle your needs. For the most intensive computing tasks, there are quad-core processors, like the Core2 Quad and the Core i7 (technically meant for desktop PCs, but some manufacturers shoehorn them into high-end laptops), which show up in many gaming and high-end media, desktop-replacement systems. These are only essential if you're editing lots of high-definition video or want to play the latest 3-D games.
Memory (RAM): Random access memory (RAM) is where the operating system does all its "thinking" and 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 3 GB—4 GB if you plan on doing light gaming or photo and video editing. For super-intensive tasks (HD video editing, for example) 6 GB is best. If you're going to max out your RAM, make sure your laptop runs the 64-bit version of Windows 7 or you won't be able to use any RAM beyond about 3 GB.
There are also different speeds of RAM: DDR2 and DDR3. DDR2 is slower, but you wont notice the difference on basic tasks such as Web browsing and e-mailing. In any event, more and more laptops are loaded with DDR3 nowadays, so it's likely not to be much of an issue.
Hard drive: Your hard drive is where you'll store all your documents, photos and programs. The size you need depends on what you'll be using your laptop for. If you primarily work on documents and want to upload few photos and such, 120 GB should be plenty—though, like RAM, which we'll get to shortly, more is almost always better. As a point of reference, a 120GB iPod can hold roughly 30,000 songs, 150 hours of video or 25,000 photos—but remember that your programs like Microsoft Office and your operating system will eat up a significant chunk of your hard-drive space. If you expect to carry around a lot of music and videos and you keep every photo you ever take, definitely opt for a larger drive, 250 GB at least—400 or more is better.
Another thing to consider when looking for a hard drive is the speed at which the disc inside rotates. (The faster it spins, the faster you can access the data on it.) Most laptops come with 5400RPM drives, but if you want top-notch performance out of your laptop, look for one with a 7200RPM hard drive. A faster drive will cost a small premium (say, $50 more), and it won't make much of an impact on basic tasks like email and Web browsing—but for gaming, handling large files and video editing it can make a world of difference.
If you absolutely must stretch the battery life of your laptop and 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. The downside is that SSDs are prohibitively expensive and can’t match the storage capacity of a traditional hard drive. Expect to pay a $300–$400 premium for an upgrade to an SSD over an equivalent-size hard drive.
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. If the estimated battery life is three hours or less, it may be worth springing for an extended battery.
Display: You'd be hard pressed to find a laptop without a widescreen display these days (usually identified as a "16:9 aspect ratio"), and we strongly suggest you go with one. In addition to being better for viewing movies, it enables manufacturers to squeeze larger, easier-to-type-on keyboards in sleeker packages.
The size of the screen is also going to greatly affect its weight. If you plan on carrying your laptop everywhere, opt for a 12 or 13.3 inch screen and a resolution of at least 1200 x 800 pixels. For a larger 15- or 17- inch screen, you'll want a higher resolution, preferably 1440 x 900 pixels or higher.
You'll also want to keep an eye out for laptops with LCDs that have LED back-lighting (all LCDs use a backlight). LED-backlit screens are brighter, while using less power than traditional LCDs. It won't always be an option, but if it is, it's certainly worth springing for.
Wireless Connectivity: There are several wireless options to consider on a laptop. Wi-Fi, which is technically known as 802.11 (and usually identified as such), has various implementations distinguished by the letters a, b, g and n. You'll want to get a laptop capable of 802.11n. While 802.11g is still the most popular form of wireless Internet out there, 802.11n is more than twice as fast and has much greater range. 802.11n laptops will still work with older g networks, as well.
Bluetooth is not essential, but is a very useful option for anyone who syncs their smart phone with their PC or makes calls using voice over IP (VoIP) calls using a service like Skype. Usually it's an option that comes in under $20 and is well worth getting.
Built-in mobile broadband (WWAN) cards use 3G cellular data networks to get you online even when a Wi-Fi connection is not available. You'll have to pay for a monthly cellular data plan (on average $60 per month) to use one. Each WWAN card is carrier-specific, so check whether AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon has the best 3G coverage in your area before springing for one. This is certainly a worthwhile option if you need to be connected while traveling on business or vacation and a Wi-Fi signal is not available or you want to avoid outrageous hotel connection fees.
Optical Drives (CD/DVD/Blu-ray): All but the smallest of laptops should have a built-in DVD drive that records. You'll need this for not only watching DVDs and listening to CDs, but installing software from discs, as well as archiving photos or other important files.
Blu-ray players can handle all the same media as a DVD drive, plus Blu-ray, which is the standard for high-definition movies. You might want this if you plan to use Blu-ray movies from your home collection to watch on your laptop while traveling. As an added bonus, you'll be able to hook your laptop up to an HDTV, if your laptop has an HDMI port (as many newer models do), to watch your Blu-ray discs, saving you from having to shell out a few hundred bucks for a separate Blu-ray player for your home theater.
HDTV Tuner: If you're a TV junkie and want to be able watch and/or record TV on your laptop, you can opt for an integrated HDTV tuner card. This is a great option for those with tiny apartments or dorm rooms who don't have space for a separate TV.
Graphics Card: You'll only need to look for an upgraded graphics card if you plan on playing 3D games, editing videos or watching a lot (and we mean a lot) of HD video, including Blu-ray discs. Generally, cards from NVIDIA and ATI will indicate that the laptop has more powerful graphics capabilities. Look for cards with at least 256MB of video RAM, preferably 512MB or 1GB if you will be playing cutting-edge 3D games or doing your own video editing.
Sound: Virtually all laptops, except a very few high-end gaming or multimedia machines, have an integrated sound card, which is capable of pumping out any audio you throw at it. The key to good sound is checking out the speakers and looking for a model with a built in subwoofer which will give your audio a little extra boost.
Inputs, Outputs, Ports & Slots: Simply put, the more options here the better. You'll want at least two USB ports, but the more the merrier. Laptops from Toshiba come with a feature called “Sleep & Charge” that lets you charge devices, like a cell phone, via USB even if the laptop is sleeping. Also make sure that your laptop comes with a headphone and microphone jack (which almost every one does). If you plan on using your laptop as a media hub and plugging it into an HDTV, definitely look for an HDMI port.
Lower down on list of important expansion options are ExpressCard slots, which allow you to add hardware like WWAN cards, TV tuners, and card readers. These come in handy if you want to add a feature to your laptop that you didn't get built-in when you purchased the PC. Look for a 54mm ExpressCard slot. ExpressCards also come in 34mm, but they’ll fit in the 54mm slot with an adapter.
Some laptops also come with card readers. These are useful but far from essential. If you find yourself importing a lot of photos from different cameras or moving files from your PC to your cell phone using microSD cards you may want one in your laptop. But 16-in-1 card readers that plug into a USB port are cheap and readily available.
Older video cameras have Firewire, so if you’re plan on editing video with an older model, make sure you look for a laptop with Firewire (sometimes referred to as IEEE 1394).
Netbooks: Under $500
These are tiny, low power laptops that have become increasingly popular because of their small size (8- to 10-inch displays), low weight (between two and three pounds) and low price. Netbooks are fine for email and light Web browsing but are not intended for use as a primary PC.
Acer Aspire One ($330) There are cheaper configurations of the Aspire One, one of the best-reviewed netbooks on the market, but the $379 model packs a faster processor, more robust wireless, a 250GB hard drive, and an astounding (estimated) battery life of nine hours. Weighs 2.8 pounds.
Buy Now at Amazon.com
Dell Vostro A90n ($219) Quite possibly the cheapest modern netbook on the market, the 8.9-inch Vostro A90 is as disposable as a computer gets. Unlike other netbooks we reviewed, the Vostro A90n runs Linux, meaning you won’t be able to use Windows-based software such as Office. But it's much less likely to be affected by viruses and spyware. If you just want to browse the Web and perform light e-mail duty, then this netbook should suffice. Weighs 2.36 pounds.
Buy Now at Dell.com
HP Mini 110 ($440) The HP Mini is a fairly standard netbook in terms of features, though it's still running the older Intel Atom N270 and 950 graphics chip. The well-received series has gotten high praise for its professional looks and quality keyboard. Now for $30 over the base model you can get the Mini 110 with Windows 7 Starter. HP provides such upgrades as built-in 3G access and an upgraded HD (720p) screen. Weighs 2.33 pounds.
Buy Now at HP.com
Entry level: Under $700
Unless you're the incredibly demanding type, you can get everything you need for under $700: decent battery life, plenty of memory and processor power for all but the most demanding tasks, a DVD burner and a hard drive large enough to hold all of your music collection. Primarily what you sacrifice over the pricier models is style, weight and some advanced options like 3G cellular data. You'll find some notebooks with 4GB of memory in this price range, but many will offer it only as an upgrade. If you plan on primarily doing e-mail and office tasks and don't expect to carry around your laptop very often, you should be able to find a machine that suits your needs in this price range.
HP G60t ($590) You can buy HP's G60t for a lower price than we list here, but the sweet spot is the “quick-ship” model, which packs a dual-core Pentium processor, 3 GB of RAM, and a 320GB hard drive. The 15.6-inch HD screen makes it a tad on the heavy side, but if you don't plan on carrying it far, the value is undeniable. Weighs 6.27 pounds.
Buy Now at HP.com
Gateway EC1437u ($550) True portability and real computing power is now within reach. This Gateway unit packs a Pentium SU4100 processor, 3 GB of memory, a 320GB hard drive, and a multi-touch trackpad with gesture support. Thanks to a new low-power processor and an 11.6 inch LED-lit widescreen, the EC1437u weighs in at just over three pounds and gets an impressive seven hours of battery life. Weighs 3.08 pounds.
Buy Now at Amazon.com
Acer Aspire Timeline ($640, 14-inch model) This 14-inch thin-and-light gets over eight hours of battery life, according to Acer. The 4 GB of RAM, dual-core Pentium, and 320GB hard drive ensure you're not just lugging a glorified Web browser around. Weighs 4.4 pounds.
Buy Now at Amazon.com
When you decide to pony-up a little more dough for a portable computer you'll not only get slightly better components inside, but lighter and more stylish machines. These PCs will weigh less than their cheaper brethren and will usually have significantly better battery life, generally in the four to five hour range.
HP dv6t Quad Edition ($1,000) You won't find more power in this price range. This 15.6-inch widescreen laptop packs Intel's latest processor the quad-core Core i7 that can power through anything you throw at it. Add in a free upgrade to 4GB of memory, a 250GB hard drive spinning at 7,200 RPM, and a high-powered Nvidia G230 graphics processor with 1GB of memory and you've got more computing power than you'll know what to do with. Weighs 6.34 pounds.
Buy Now at HP.com
Sony VAIO CW ($920) Quite possibly the cheapest laptop to include a Blu-ray drive is Sony's new CW series. Grab the $920 ready-to-ship model, which includes 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive, a Core 2 Duo processor, high-powered discreet graphics from Nvidia with 512MB of RAM, and a Blu-ray drive. The 14-inch LED-backed display helps this one eke out four hours of battery life. Weighs 5.3 pounds.
Buy Now at SonyStyle.com
Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch ($1,199) This is just your typical Core 2 Duo with 2 GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, integrated NVIDIA graphics, a theoretical seven-hour battery life . . . oh, and undeniable style. Typically, we recommend at least 3 GB of RAM for Windows PCs—but this is less of an issue on OS X, which tends to have a lighter memory footprint. That being said, you'll still notice improvements by upgrading to more memory. Weighs 4.5 pounds.
Buy Now at Apple.com
High end: $1,300 plus
Laptops in this price range usually fall into one of two categories -- sleek, ultra portable marvels of engineering or high-powered, multimedia and gaming monsters. On the multimedia end of the spectrum, expect 17-inch or larger HD screens, discreet graphics cards, TV tuners, and Blu-ray players. On the ultra-portable side you'll find 12.1-inch or 13.3-inch screens, weights under four pounds, WWAN 3G cellular modems and solid state drives. If you're a gamer, a video editor or someone who never wants to leave their laptop behind, expect to land in this price range.
Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch ($1,699) If you edit a lot of photos or movies, this is the laptop for you. The standard 4GB of RAM and 250GB hard drive is more than enough for the casual media dabbler. Drop an extra $300 and get a larger hard drive and much more powerful graphics in the form of an NVIDIA 9600M graphics card, which can be turned off to save battery life when top tier graphics performance isn't needed. Weighs 5.5 pounds.
Buy Now at Apple.com
Sony VAIO Z ($2,000) If you absolutely must have every possible feature crammed into the tiniest package you can manage, check out the Vaio Z series. The $2,000 pre-configured model packs in 3G wireless from Verizon, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD, a powerful Core 2 Duo processor, GPS, a fingerprint scanner, a 13.3-inch, LED-backed HD screen and switchable graphics (Intel when you want more battery life, Nvidia when you want more pixel pushing muscle). Weighs 3.3 pounds.
Buy Now at SonyStyle.com
Dell Studio XPS 16 ($1,649) This model has a range of options and pricing, but the updated top-tier model brings Intel's quad-core Core i7 and 6GB of RAM to the party. Paired with the same 500GB, 7200-RPM hard drive, and a discreet graphics card from ATI with its own 1 GB of memory and you've got a powerful multi-media machine. Perfect for pushing high-quality content to the gorgeous 16-inch 1080p screen. Weighs 6.4 pounds.
Buy Now at Dell.com
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You'll want something with basic features, and if you've got little kids -- a low price and durable design. Mainstream notebooks, with 15.4-inch widescreens, should provide more than enough power for most tasks like putting together home movies and managing your family photos.
Apple MacBook ($999) The 13.3-inch MacBook is light enough to carry around and doesn’t disappoint in the performance category. With 2 GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, and NVIDIA graphics, it's more than capable of handling e-mail and light photo editing. And the theoretical seven-hour battery life means it should survive most of the day away from an outlet. Weighs 4.7 pounds.
Buy Now at Apple.com
Dell Vostro A90n ($220) At this price, the Vostro is the perfect Web-browsing machine for those who have careless, sticky-handed children. What's more, since it's loaded with Ubuntu Linux, it's all but impervious to viruses and spyware. Weighs 2.36 pounds.
Buy Now at Dell.com
Gateway EC1437u ($550) The 3.08-pound EC1437u is small and light enough for anyone to carry around without struggling. The seven-hour battery life means it will go almost anywhere you do without needing an AC adapter. The dual-core Pentium Ultra Low Voltage processor, 3GB of memory, and 320GB hard drive will provide enough power for e-mail duty and light photo editing. And the HD 11.6-inch screen is perfect for showing movies on long car rides.
Buy Now at Amazon.com
If you're a fashionista you've got tons of options that will provide all the computing power you'll need while looking beautiful and reflecting your personality. The MacBook Air is as much of a status symbol as it is a computer, but you don't have to go with a Mac to get a fashionable machine. New machines from Dell such as the Adamo and Studio have style to spare, and the Studio line even comes in a variety of colors or you can pick a cover designed by a renowned artist (See "Add Some Personality to Your Laptop - Go Blue!")
Apple MacBook Air ($1,499)
The 13.3-inch MacBook Air is one of the sleekest looking machines around. It’s under a quarter-inch thick at its thinnest point, and weighs only three pounds. Add to that Apple’s iconic brushed aluminum design and respectable specs (2 GB RAM, NVIDIA graphics, 120GB hard drive) and you’ve got a compelling laptop that'll get you noticed in even the most discriminating cafe. Weighs 3 pounds.
Buy Now at Apple.com
Dell Adamo XPS
The 13.4-inch Adamo is quite possibly the only laptop on the market better looking than the MacBook Air and VAIO X. The sleek aluminum 9.99mm-thin body and edge-to-edge high-gloss glass screen are sure to turn heads. The 4GB of RAM, 128GB solid-state drive, and Core 2 Duo ULV processor will provide plenty of power for basic computing. Weighs 3.2 pounds.
Available Holiday 2009 at Dell.com
Sony VAIO X Series ($1,300)
The 11.1-inch X series from Sony doesn’t come cheap, considering it's glorified netbook internals (Intel Atom processor, 64GB solid state drive, and 2 GB of RAM) but its style is undeniable. This super-svelte laptop weighs 1.6 pounds, has integrated WWAN, runs Windows 7 Home Premium, and comes in a variety of colors (we're partial to the emerald green).
Buy Now at SonyStyle.com
If you're always working, and most likely always on the go, you'll want a small but powerful laptop that broadcasts professionalism. You'll want Windows 7 Ultimate (64bit of course), as many wireless options as possible - 802.11n, Bluetooth, and WWAN -- and a weight under five pounds. If you're a world traveler, make sure when you pick out a WWAN card you opt for one based on HSDPA technology from AT&T so that it will work overseas.
Lenovo Thinkpad X200 ($1,129) The X200 may not be as good a value as some other laptops, but Thinkpads are known for their longevity and resilience. The 12.1-inch “Elite” model gets you 2 GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, and a Core 2 Duo—enough power for basic tasks. Upgrade to the 64-bit Windows, and think about grabbing the extended battery. Weighs 2.95 pounds.
Buy Now at Lenovo.com
HP EliteBook 6930p ($1,499) It’s neither the lightest nor the prettiest—the 14.4-inch EliteBook 6930p is a no-nonsense business machine. Skip the base model and go with the $1,500 package that includes a speedy 2.8-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4 GB of RAM, a six-hour battery, graphics from ATI, and a 7,200-RPM 320GB hard drive. Weighs 4.7 pounds.
Buy Now at HP.com
Dell Vostro 1320 ($700) Go with the “ultimate performance” package to get 4 GB of RAM, a Core 2 Duo processor, a 320GB hard drive spinning at 7,200 RPM, and an extended nine-cell battery for hours of productivity. Just make sure to upgrade to the 64-bit version of Windows—for some inexplicable reason, this 13-inch business machine comes with the 32-bit version by default. Weighs 4.1 pounds.
Buy Now at Dell.com