How to Buy a Laptop: What to Look For

This is Part II in our series on how to select a laptop computer.

In Part I, we recommended that you visit a computer store, compare the machines for style and features, and make some basic decisions. Now that you’ve done that, you’re ready to select the components you want in your computer.

  • CPU: the CPU (Computer Processing Unit) is the computer’s engine.  The more powerful it is, the better performance you’ll get.  And because it generally can’t be upgraded or changed, you probably want to select the most powerful computer you can afford. Intel is not the only maker of processors, but it’s certainly one of the most highly regarded.  Choose a computer with an Intel “Duo Core” processor (like “Core 2 Duo”).  Intel also makes “Atom” processors, a less powerful, single core component that you’ll often find in netbook computers.  But, if this will be your main computer for business use, we don’t recommend choosing a netbook computer with an Atom processor.
  • Memory: Also known as RAM (random access memory).  Memory is what lets you run applications on your computer and switch back and forth between them.  The more memory you have, the faster you can work and the more productive you can be.  Many desktop computers allow you purchase and install additional memory chips, making it possible for you to save money on your initial purchase and upgrade later.  But with laptops, installing additional memory may be tricky and is often impossible.  So here again, you probably should purchase as much memory as you can afford.  Choose a computer that offers 2-4 gigabytes (GB) of RAM.
  • Screen Size: Decide what size screen works for you.  As we mentioned in our earlier post, larger screens have higher resolutions, but they make the computer heavier.  If you’re going to be carrying your computer around, you’ll need to balance the size of the display with the weight of the machine.  Look for a screen size of 13”-14” if you need to keep the weight manageable. (The size of the screen, by the way, is measured on the diagonal.)  You can opt for a larger display if the computer won’t be carried around much.
  • Hard Drive: Pictures and music can take up a great deal of space on your hard drive, so give yourself plenty of storage capacity—160 GB or more. Also, the speed of your hard drive is important. Look for drives that rotate at 5400 rpm or higher.  If you need to cut corners on price, you can consider a smaller hard drive.  You can always purchase an external hard drive later for long-term storage of pictures or documents.  Such hard drives typically stay at home, and can be connected to your laptop manually when you need to store and retrieve files.
  • Optical Drive: This is the drive that reads media such as CDs and DVDs.  Some laptop computers come without optical drives.  This makes the computer lighter but places limitations on how you can use it.  It may also require you to borrow or buy an external optical drive when you need to install something that’s only available on disc. We recommend selecting a computer that has, at the very least, an internal DVD drive.  Depending on how you plan to use your computer, you may want a combined CD/DVD drive and a drive that can write discs as well as read them.  Newer computers may have Blu-Ray drives for watching content in high definition, and storing more data on each disc.  If you want to get ahead of the game, consider a combination BD/DVD/CD drive–that is, one that offers Blu-ray in addition to CD and DVD.
  • Networking:  Your computer should have an Ethernet port for connecting to the Internet with a cable, and built-in wireless connectivity.  If you expect to frequently use your computer in your car, in public places, or in clients’ homes, consider getting a computer with a mobile broadband antenna.  That will allow you to use the Internet anywhere you have mobile phone service.  (If you get this, you’ll also need to purchase a data plan from a mobile phone company.)
  • Weight:  Finally, for the greatest portability, select a computer that’s under 5 pounds.   Four pounds or less is even better.

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