Find the Perfect... Laptop

Before you go shopping for a laptop PC, dedicate a few minutes to thinking about exactly what you'll need from your new laptop - and how you'll be using it once you take it home.

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The Big Picture

Before you go shopping for a laptop PC, dedicate a few minutes to thinking about exactly what you’ll need from your new laptop — and how you’ll be using it once you take it home.

Laptops span a wide range of possible types, from massive desktop replacements that serve as communal living-room PCs to ultralight systems designed for business travelers constantly on the go. Between those extremes lie a myriad of choices, but laptops usually have several common elements that you need to consider: performance, expandability, battery life, and connectivity.

Are you looking to replace a desktop PC, with all its functionality? Will you be using the machine while you’re on the road? Do you intend to play hardcore games, watch movies, or edit digital photos and video on your portable rig? Or will you be using it mostly for surfing the web and for handling basic productivity applications?

Are you a home-video editor? If so, you’ll want a high-quality CPU and, possibly, strong GPU performance. Will you be connecting the computer to your home entertainment system? Note that options such as Intel’s WiDi or Miracast will make integrating your laptop into your HDTV or A/V system much easier.

Windows 8 adds new wrinkles, such as touch capability. Knowing how you plan to use the system will simplify your buying experience.

If you are purchasing a laptop at retail, you’ll encounter a modest array of models with preset features. If you’re shopping online, you’ll be able to customise your machine (within whatever limits the manufacturer imposes). Either way, having a clear understanding of the features and specs will help you make the most appropriate choice.

However, prior to examining a laptop’s performance specs, and well before you commit to buying it, try to spend some hands-on time with the machine. Is the keyboard comfortable and logically laid out, or is it cramped and confusing? Is the touchpad responsive, without being twitchy? If you’re looking at a Windows 8 system, does it offer a touchscreen or at least a touchpad with edge detection?

Now let’s look at the most important individual components and factors.

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Samsung's ATIV Smart PC running Windows 8

The Specs Explained

The key specs to consider in connection with the central processing unit are the clock speed, shared cache, core count, and thread support. Higher clock speeds often deliver only minor incremental improvements in performance; sometimes moving to a larger cache will have a bigger effect. A greater number of cores — shifting from a dual-core to a quad-core CPU, for instance — will also increase power consumption, heat, and fan noise while reducing battery life.

A person looking for a photo-editing system might be well satisfied with those trade-offs. On the other hand, a perpetually on-the-go business traveler whose laptop mostly handles videoconferencing, email, and document sharing might be better served by a smaller, quieter laptop equipped with a dual-core CPU and a longer-lasting battery.

We recommend that you plan on at least 4GB of memory for a modern laptop. Don’t skimp, because you won’t be able to add memory to an Ultrabook or similar ultraportable systems such as the MacBook Air. If you must economise, bear in mind that a larger amount of memory delivers more bang for the buck than a faster CPU.

A laptop equipped with a 14-inch display is not inherently better than one with a 13-inch screen. A bigger display doesn’t necessarily provide more capability — you need to look at the whole package. What’s more, screen resolution is as important as screen size.

Too many business-oriented laptops offer 15-inch screens with a native resolution of just 1366 by 768 pixels. Some laptop displays provide the same resolutions available on HDTVs: 1280 by 720 pixels (commonly marketed as 720p, this resolution is too low for a 15-inch laptop), or 1920 by 1080 pixels (which is commonly marketed as 1080p).

You should consider the type of panel you’re buying, too. If colour accuracy is crucial to your work, choose an LCD panel based on IPS (in-plane switching) technology. If you’re a gamer, you may prefer the fast response time that a TN (twisted nematic) panel delivers.

Evaluating battery life is tricky because, whereas battery tests tend to be standardised, the way people use their laptops is anything but. A laptop that can reliably run office programs for eight hours between charges might last barely three hours when displaying video. Bigger batteries weigh more, too.

Every laptop now includes some form of Wi-Fi, but the lightest, thinnest systems might lack a wired Ethernet port. Such a port can be especially important for college students, as some campuses have Wi-Fi in classrooms, but only wired connections in halls of residence. Bluetooth is handy for connecting input devices, such as mice — particularly if the system provides only two USB ports. Bluetooth is also useful for pairing your laptop with some printers and smartphones.

Lighter is usually better, unless it comes at the expense of durability. Examine how the weight is distributed across the laptop, too, especially if you’ll often be carrying the laptop with other gear or if you’ll be juggling it in tight quarters.

Serious gamers will want a discrete graphics processing unit, since integrated graphics hardware limits any laptop’s game performance. But beware of low-end GPUs whose performance may not be any better than the graphics core integrated into a modern CPU. GPUs are also becoming important in other applications optimised for parallel processing, such as media encoding.

Solid-state drives are fast, but they provide far less capacity than similarly priced mechanical drives. Digital-media enthusiasts might prefer the latter, unless they’re toting portable storage. Many current-generation laptops combine a small SSD that acts as persistent cache for a larger hard-disk drive, for the best of both worlds: This arrangement offers fast boot and resume times and quick application loading, plus a good amount of storage.

Though having a generous number of USB ports is desirable, you might want to trade one or two of them for a flash memory card slot and Bluetooth. USB 3.0 ports deliver much faster through­put (with USB 3.0 devices, at least) than USB 2.0 ports do, so look for those. Another nice-to-have feature is USB charging, which lets you charge your smartphone, tablet, or other USB-enabled device while the laptop is sleeping.

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Lenovo's X1 Carbon ultraportable

Buying Tips

Don’t rush to a website, click an appealing laptop, and head straight for the checkout. Instead, take time to consult s hands-on reviews and user reviews of that machine, which may reveal problems with your choice that you hadn't considered.

If a particular model’s reviews look solid and the system meets your needs, shop around, even if you intend to buy direct from the manufacturer in the end.

When the laptop arrives, unpack it immediately and test it to confirm that everything is working properly. Some manufacturers’ policies sharply limit the period for returns and exchanges, so the sooner you discover a problem, the easier time you’ll have resolving any difficulties.

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