Are you in the market for a new laptop? Choosing the portable computer that is right for you is, in many ways, tougher than selecting a desktop system. It’s very common for laptop shoppers to overlook very important issues such as weight, display size, and more. In this post, I’ll compile some of the best guidelines to follow when choosing your new system, and try to prioritize them with very important considerations near the top.
Don’t Ignore Weight. Especially if you travel a lot or work exclusively on a mobile basis, weight really matters. I’ve known road warriors who have ended up with neck braces because they toted machines weighing over five pounds. Especially among PC notebook computers, the subnotebooks, such as the ThinkPad X Series models, are amazingly light. You typically give up features like internal CD drives, but if that becomes a big issue, you could always choose to carry an external drive.
Screen Size Matters. Notebook computers have their screen sizes quoted in diagonal measurements. If you want a lightweight subnotebook and spend most of your time in applications such as a word processor or an e-mail engine, you don’t necessarily need a big screen. But a larger screen means you can get higher resolution and view more of a detailed document, such as a large spreadsheet. In fact, most of the people I know who choose large screens do so because they live in applications like spreadsheets.
Memory Before Processor. Sure, it’s good to get a fast processor in your portable system, and many of the best newer processors, such as the Intel Core Duo chips, will save you battery life and give you good performance. However, it’s still true that in recent years, the amount of memory you have installed tends to make more of a performance difference than the chip does.
If you often perform very processor-intensive tasks, such as video editing or high-end gaming, you want a very fast processor. But you can save money by avoiding the absolute fastest chip, memory prices have generally been in decline, and memory has a profound effect on today’s applications and operating systems, so you want lots of it. If you’re looking to stay on a budget below about $1,500, get 1GB of memory. If you can spend a little more, get 2GB or more. You’ll be able to run more applications concurrently, and they’ll perform better, as will your operating system.
Built-In Wireless. Although you can add Wi-Fi capability to a notebook through an inexpensive adapter at any time, it’s really nice to have it built in. Evaluate what is built in as you buy. For example, Apple integrates draft 802.11n technology into its notebooks, which makes them work very well with Airport Extreme base stations. However, 802.11n is not a ratified standard yet. Most notebook buyers on the PC side get 802.11g wireless built in. Also, consider whether you might eventually want to add a wireless broadband option to your system. EVDO and EDGE are the two popular services for that, and monthly plans are now priced better than they used to be.
Drives. Rewritable DVD drives are nice to have with a notebook, but the internal ones also add a lot to the cost of the system. Consider whether you really need this option. Many web workers can save money and carry less weight by eschewing internal drives, and many of them don’t spend all that much time in applications that require options such as optical drives.
Hard Drive Capacity. How much capacity you need here is really a function of what applications you use. I know a lot of people who choose to save money by going with a smaller drive, and then, as they need to, they shell out for USB keys or other kinds of removable media to extend their capacity needs. If you work with media like photos, video and music a lot, get a higher capacity drive. If you do a lot of word processing, HTML, and e-mail, you can save money by going with a smaller drive. External hard drives are rapidly declining in price, so you could add one cheaply later.
Buy Online. Even at larger retail outlets, such as Best Buy, you won’t get nearly as much choice as you can get if you buy online, and the best prices are online too. Also, the retail outlets tend to push one or two brands aggressively. Shop for your portable system online and seek to configure it with your ideal options, rather than standing in a high-pressure environment where you get few choices.
Input Devices. I’ve stood in a usability lab and seen how surprisingly touchy users of portable computers are about input devices. Some people love touchpads and some people hate them. Some users like the red eraser-like mouse metaphor on the ThinkPads, while others hate it. Especially if you are buying online, try to get your hands on the input device built into the notebook you are considering before you buy.
Consider a Docking Station. Docking stations are handy to have if you frequently tote a notebook back-and-forth between home and the office. If you keep one in the office, you just pop your notebook into it to instantly hop back on the corporate network, have access to all the ports you need, etc. Docking stations typically cost $50 to $200, so do consider whether you really need one.
Do you have any good laptop shopping tips?