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What kind of laptop is right for me?

While a laptop has become a ubiquitous accessory for modern life, the actual process of choosing the right model can take some serious time and research.

In this guide, we'll outline the different categories of laptops and which types are best for different users. We'll also take a look at CPU, hard-drive, and networking options.

Below are a handful of typical user experiences that should help outline what type of laptop is right for you. Chances are, you'll fall somewhere in between two or more of these archetypes, so carefully consider what you'll be using your new laptop for.

The student | The business traveler | The photographer and/or videographer | The gamer | The home user

The student
Students typically require low prices and portability above all. A laptop that can be carried from class to class is key, so many students turn to low-cost Netbooks, which are small, low-power systems that generally cost less than $500. The downside is that these have small screens and generally use underpowered single-core CPUs.

Another option is a 13-inch thin-and-light laptop, which is somewhat less portable, but makes for a better experience when sitting down to write papers and do research. These have dual-core CPUs and often include optical drives. Apple's 13-inch MacBook is a prime example.

What to look for: At least 1GB of RAM; 160GB or larger HDD; 13-inch or smaller display.

The business traveler
Those who work on the road require a robust computing experience, a sturdy, rugged system to safeguard data, and often, access to security and management tools to satisfy the requirements of their IT departments.

Lenovo's ThinkPad and Dell's Latitude are two popular examples of laptop lines made with the business traveler in mind. Both brands offer security features such as Intel's vPro platform and TPM chips, internal software and hardware components that work alongside your operating system.

What to look for: 2GB to 4GB of RAM; 160GB or larger HDD; 12- to 15-inch display; Windows Vista Professional or Windows 7 Professional; mobile broadband modem.

The photographer and/or videographer
Video game players aren't the only ones who need powerful processors, discrete graphics, and massive, fast hard drives. Those who work with high-definition video or high-resolution photographs are among the most demanding of laptop power users.

Apple's 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pro laptops are among the most popular for these purposes. This is especially true as Final Cut, the widely used video-editing software, is only available for Macs (Adobe's Photoshop, however, is cross-platform).

Either a 17- or a 15-inch screen that runs at a high native resolution is suggested. You should also look for plenty of RAM--up to 8GB is ideal--and a large 500GB hard drive that runs at the faster 7,200rpm speed (typical drives run at 5,400rpm).

What to look for: 4GB-8GB of RAM; 320GB or larger 7,200rpm HDD; 17-inch or larger display.

The gamer
While a bit of an endangered species these days, PC gamers are among the most fervent user groups. Most serious PC gamers will naturally gravitate toward desktop computers, with their flexible upgradeability, faster components, and better cooling. But gaming laptops have made great strides in recent years.

Intel's Core 2 Quad and Core i7 CPUs are recommended for 3D gaming, as is a top-of-the-line discrete GPU, such as Nvidia's GeForce N260. High-end brands such as Alienware offer flashy, expensive laptops that can be customized with the latest components, while Gateway's P-series is a good example of a budget-minded 17-inch gaming laptop, with slightly older parts, but excellent overall value.

What to look for: 4GB to 8GB of RAM; 320GB or larger 7,200rpm HDD; 17-inch or larger display; discrete graphics GPU.

The home user
Anyone who does not fall into one of the above categories is likely to fit in here. From parents and children gathered around the laptop at homework time to watching Hulu videos in bed, these are systems that typically stay anchored to one desk, den, or kitchen--perhaps taking the occasional road trip or moving around from room to room.

The traditional 15-inch laptop is still the most popular size, although 14- and 16-inch versions are becoming more common. Every PC maker makes standard mainstream laptops, and they generally have more similarities than differences.

For much less than $1,000, you can expect to find an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, 2GB of RAM, a 250GB or larger hard drive, and a DVD burner. Usually the most configurable of laptops, you can add extras, including a Blu-ray drive or discrete graphics, to many mainstream models.

What to look for: 2GB to 4GB of RAM; 250GB or larger HDD; 14- to 16-inch display; DVD burning optical drive.


What are the different categories of laptops?

The different product categories that laptops fall into is constantly evolving and changing. The introduction of Netbooks in particular has created a relatively new category that has quickly become the fastest-growing segment of the PC market.

While there are many ways to divide the categories--based on weight, price, and components--we use screen size as our primary deciding factor, as it's the clearest physical difference between types of laptops.

Sizes: UMPC | Netbook | Ultraportable | Thin-and-light | Midsize | Desktop replacement


UMPCs (or ultramobile PCs) are small handheld devices with screens that are between 5 and 7 inches, but they never really caught on. While the idea of a palm-size computer running Microsoft Windows and including most of the features you'd find on a full-size desktop or laptop was an engaging one, most of these devices were not exactly practical outside of a handful of specialized users.

Many lacked physical keyboards and relied on slow, expensive low-voltage processors and wonky touch interfaces. A typical UMPC, such as the Sony Vaio UX390, could cost $2,000 or more.

In the past two years, the iPhone, iPod Touch, and inexpensive Netbooks have largely made this an unnecessary category. The few UMPCs that remain are less expensive, using Netbook components, but are still not terribly useful.

Key features:
5- to 7-inch display
Nontraditional design


Depending on who you ask, Netbooks are either the most exciting thing to happen to mobile computing in years, or they are the downfall of an industry engaged in a painful price war race to the bottom. We generally define Netbooks as having 7- to 12-inch screens, a full keyboard, and an inexpensive, single-core low-voltage CPU.

While the earliest Netbooks had 7-inch screens and Intel Celeron processors, the typical Netbook today has a single-core Intel Atom CPU, 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, and runs either Windows XP or Windows 7.

Small and lightweight, they lack optical drives, have tiny keyboards and touch pads, and are generally underpowered for anything other than Web surfing, e-mailing, and basic office productivity. The payoff is that a typical Netbook can be had for less than $300, an unheard-of sum just a few years ago.

PC makers are currently trying to upgrade Netbooks with faster CPUs and bigger screens, and these new models blur the line with the ultraportable category.

Key features:
9- to 12-inch display
No optical drive
Single-core low-voltage CPU, Intel Atom or comparable
Typically less than $500


Before the rise of Netbooks, ultraportable systems were 11- and 12-inch laptops with then-expensive low-voltage CPUs, allowing them to be small and power efficient, but still relatively underpowered.

The popularity of Netbooks had threatened to make this category irrelevant--after all, who would pay $1,500 or more for an 11-inch laptop, when a $300 10-inch Netbook was a reasonable substitute for basic Web and office tasks?

The ultraportable has been revived of late with the introduction of Intel's new low-cost consumer ultralow-voltage CPUs. These chips are slightly more expensive and somewhat more powerful than the Netbook Intel Atom CPU, and are available in both single-core and dual-core versions.

Some PC makers are calling the thin, upscale laptops that include these new processors "ultrathin," rather than ultraportable, now. Many of these new versions lack an internal optical drive.

Key features:
9- to 12-inch display
Low-voltage ULV CPU
No optical drive
Typically $600-$800


This somewhat unimaginative descriptor is intended for 13-inch laptops. Why do laptops with 13-inch displays deserve their own distinct category? It's because they occupy a unique space in the industry. We define this by pointing out that a 13-inch laptop is the smallest size we'd be able to work on comfortably all day, and at the same time, the largest size we'd consider carrying around more than once or twice a week.

While it's not the perfect size for either task, it walks the line reasonably well between both. A prime example is the extremely popular 13-inch MacBook and MacBook Pro--perhaps the most imitated laptops of all time.

Key features:
13-inch display

Midsize (aka mainstream)

The traditional 15-inch laptop, along with its newer 14- and 16-inch offshoots, make up this category. Although technically mobile products, most mainstream or midsize laptops tend to stay anchored to one location, or only move around a single home or office.

Less expensive mainstream laptops will have resolutions of 1,280x800 pixels , wide-screen 16:9 models will have resolutions of 1,366x768 pixels, and more-expensive versions can get resolutions all the way up to 1,600x900.

Mainstream laptops have dual-core CPUs, most commonly from Intel's Core 2 Duo line, along with between 2GB and 4GB of RAM, 250GB or larger 5,400rpm hard drives, and internal DVD-burning optical drives.

This category covers the widest ground in terms of price and features, starting at around $500 and going well past $1,000. Most typical are $700 to $900 configurations.

Key features:
14- to 16-inch display
Dual-core CPU
Internal optical drive

Desktop replacement

These massive 17-inch and larger laptops are meant to literally replace your old desktop, monitor, and keyboard combination with a single device that can also be easily transported in a pinch.

At a minimum, you'll find an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, with more-expensive models trading up to a quad-core Core 2 Quad or the new, more powerful Intel Core i7 processor. The majority of desktop replacement laptops have discrete graphics cards, either for help in playing HD video or for running 3D games.

While Blu-ray drives are available in some mainstream systems, they make the most sense in desktop replacements, which often (but not always) have native screen resolutions that can handle hi-def 1080p content.

The tradeoff is that these laptops tend to have very short battery life. Being big and heavy by definition, they're unlikely to spend much time away from a wall socket, so PC makers opt for more powerful hardware rather than energy-saving designs.

While 17 inches is the most popular size, there are a handful of 18-inch models, and even a couple that top 20 inches. With sizes nearing those of personal TV monitors, desktop replacement laptops make good hybrid entertainment centers for the den or dorm room, putting your computing, video, and music devices in a single box.

Key features:
17-inch (or larger) display
Intel Core 2 Duo of better CPU
Discrete graphics
Poor battery life

What CPU should I look for?

The single most important component in your laptop is its central processing unit, or CPU. Essentially the brain of a computer, this processor has a huge impact on what applications you can run, how smoothly they run, and how many you can run at the same time.

The two biggest players in the CPU arena are Intel and AMD. Of those, Intel's CPUs comprise the lion's share of the market currently. Most laptops currently have dual-core CPUs, such as Intel's Core 2 Duo. Low-cost Netbooks, however, use single-core CPUs, such as Intel's Atom.

Options: Intel processors | AMD processors | VIA processors


Core i7: Intel's newest line of mobile CPUs adopts the high-end graphics/gaming performance of the desktop Core i7 line, and is expressly for those who want top-end power--namely, hard-core gamers and those who prefer desktop-level graphics processing power. The Core i7 Mobile series has better power management than its desktop cousins, but they still draw more power than other laptop CPUs, and will generally be found only in larger desktop replacement laptops.

Core 2 Duo: This is Intel's ubiquitous mainstream processor, which comes in a variety of designs based on processor speed and manufacturing size. A newer line of Core 2 Duo CULVs (consumer ultralow-voltage processors) have slightly slower performance, but allow for longer battery life, and are showing up in new ultrathin laptops, where space, cooling, and battery life are key issues.

Atom: Intel's entry-level single-core processors are found primarily in the popular Netbook category. Their limited performance is best for simple, single-task computing such as e-mail, basic Web browsing, and office document work. They're fine for low-expectation budget computers, but are unable to play most games or HD video. Common Atom chips include the N270 and the N280, and you should generally avoid the slower Z-series Atoms, intended more for handheld mobile devices than laptops. Revisions to the Atom line are due in early 2010.

Also from Intel
Core 2 Quad: As the name implies, these are four-core processors that excel at multitasking and computing that requires running multiple apps at once.

Core 2 Solo: Some of Intel's ultralow-voltage processors (ULVs) still have only a single core. These sit somewhere between the Atom and the dual-core ULV CPUs. They're often seen in ultraportable laptops that aim for small sizes and good battery life but leave our mainstream features such as optical drives. While these chips are a small performance step up from the Atom, the price premium asked for them makes us suggest holding out for a dual-core ULV processor.

Pentium Dual-Core: Multicore CPUs that don't qualify for the Core 2 Duo tag are marketed as Pentium Dual-Core. We've seen these in very inexpensive mainstream laptops, and they're a good value if you need a dual-core 14- or 15-inch laptop for less than $600.

Celeron: There are still a handful of Celeron processors available in the least-expensive mainstream laptops. As trading up to a Pentium Dual-Core laptop can be as little as $50 more, we suggest avoiding Celeron CPUs.


AMD Athlon X2 Dual-Core: AMD's alternative to Intel's Core 2 Duo processor amounts to an affordable budget alternative in mainstream laptops, but we've found that Intel CPUs consistently perform better in similarly priced systems. This has not always been the case, and these two companies have swapped the top performance spot more than once over the years.

AMD Athlon Neo: Found in thin-and-light notebooks and Netbooks, the Neo is one of AMD's newer processors. It favors long battery life and low power consumption, similar to Intel's Atom processor. Unfortunately, the systems we've seen with the single-core Neo have been more expensive than Atom Netbooks, with very little performance boost. The new X2 version of the Neo is a dual-core part, and has some potential.

AMD Turion X2: This is AMD's low-power-consumption version of its mainstream laptop CPU.


Via Nano: A third low-power processor option for Netbooks, the Nano is from chipmaker Via. The handful of Netbooks we've seen with Nano offer similar-to-better performance than the Intel Atom, and Via says this CPU is eventually destined for a wider range of products than just Netbooks.

A note about GPUs and Netbooks

While discrete graphics chips, such as the GPUs provided by Nvidia and ATI, are key for video editing and PC gaming, it's important to note two new Nvidia products that will also enhance certain products in the Netbook arena.

Nvidia Ion: Nvidia's first graphics option for Netbooks, the Ion is based in part on the integrated GeForce 9400M GPU in Apple's MacBooks. The added graphics power can help Atom-based Netbooks play back HD video smoothly, and even handle some basic gaming.

Nvidia Tegra: Nvidia's integrated CPU/GPU is intended for hybrid devices, which are smaller and more affordable than Netbooks, running hybrid versions of smartphone operating systems. The Tegra focuses on smooth HD video playback and some graphics capability, and also appears in mobile entertainment devices such as the Zune HD.

What type of storage and drives do I need?

Even though cloud computing and online storage can help eliminate some of the need for physical drive space, it's always nice to have a large hard drive in your laptop. On the other hand, while optical drives used to be commonplace, they're quickly becoming optional in laptops with displays that are 13 inches or smaller.

Drives: Hard drive | Optical drives | Swappable vs. fixed drives | External drives

Hard drives: HDD and SSD

A notebook hard drive
removed from the system.

Traditional HDDs provide basic, inexpensive space to save programs and files indefinitely--or at least for the life of the drive. This type of "spinning platter" hard drive, which is the standard for both desktop and laptop PCs, has grown steadily in capacity, and now laptops can be found with drives up to 500GB in size. Be warned that capacity alone does not make a good hard drive. The hard disk's rotational speed also makes a big difference; a 7,200rpm notebook disk delivers significantly faster performance than a 5,400rpm model, though a faster drive may also shorten your laptop's battery life.

SSD drives, or solid-state drives, have no moving parts, and, unlike traditional hard disks, are less likely to be physically damaged by movement, and generate little to no heat. They are similar to the SD cards found in digital cameras and other devices, or the internal memory in the iPhone, PSP Go, and other portable devices. Keep in mind that SSD drives are more expensive and usually offer smaller capacities than HDD storage. In terms of performance, they offer hypothetical advantages, but in real-world terms, the results are a mixed bag.

When getting a hard drive, it's always good to get more than you might think you need.

Optical drives: DVD and Blu-ray

Unless you're going
budget, don't settle for
anything less than an optical disc drive.

While nearly every laptop used to have a CD/DVD-burning drive not so long ago, today many Netbooks and thin-and-lights don't include an optical drive at all. They're still useful for installing software from a disc, burning backups of media, and importing music CDs, as well as for playing DVDs, of course, but with downloadable media growing in popularity, optical drives aren't quite as appealing as they once were.

Blu-ray drives, which can play back high-def Blu-ray movies, are being incorporated into higher-end multimedia notebooks, but make sure the laptop has a 1080p resolution screen (1,900x1,080) capable of playing back Blu-ray content at full quality.

External drives

This is an external drive
tethered to a Sony notebook.

External drives--storage and media-burning options that hook up to your notebook via USB, FireWire, or eSATA cables--come in many shapes and sizes, and can be traditional platter hard drives, SSD storage drives, or even outboard optical drives.

Also note that USB-connected flash-memory thumb drives are becoming so cheap and compact that buying one or two for backup and extra storage space is nearly an impulse decision. Having a thumb drive on your keychain is a great way to transfer data to and your PC.

What do I need to stay connected on my laptop?

Mobile broadband

If your travels regularly take you beyond the reach of Wi-Fi hot spots, you may want to consider spending a little extra for a notebook with a built-in mobile broadband antenna (the terms WWAN or 3G are also often used for this type of connection).

These antennas let you tap in to a cellular provider's data network. While they can be incredibly useful when Wi-Fi connectivity is spotty, the technology has its downsides: data plans still tend to be pricey; throughput speeds, while improving, are still slower than most high-speed Internet connections; and your built-in cellular card can typically work with only one cellular provider.

The good news is that 3G data plans sometimes allow for the purchase of subsidized Netbooks that not only save some money, but come with a 3G antenna built in. If you don't have one, there are a variety of USB or ExpressCard adapters that can add this functionality.


What laptop accessories do I need?


Mouse and keyboard

Wireless keyboard and
mouse for home use.
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