1.Choose your form factor
In the changing world of laptops, knowing what to buy can be a complex process.
Everyone wants the best performance, but what about price? How big a screen can you get before you sacrifice portability? How many ports do you need, and what size hard drive will do the job? Do you want a hybrid? Do you need a touchscreen for Windows 8, or can you go without?
Your best weapon before you go shopping is to be informed. To help, we’ve created this guide with a few pointers on what you’ll need to consider before buying a laptop.
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We break down laptops into three basic categories by weight, with some overlap: ultraportables (
Ultraportables used to mean expensive, full-featured, yet light laptops. But now, even Sony’s Vaio Z has disappeared from the market, leaving it to Intel’s ultrabooks and the MacBook Air. Occupying the 11- to 14-inch space, these laptops can now genuinely claim great portability with minimal performance sacrifice, thanks to SSDs and reasonably speedy dual-core CPUs. Going for between AU$799 and AU$2800, depending on build quality, aesthetics, screen quality and storage capacity, they usually come with good battery life. They’re generally not gaming or high performance machines, but should address most of your everyday tasks.
Mid-weight laptops are going through a transition. This has typically been dominated by 15.6-inch budget laptops under AU$1000, but you can get everything from your basic budget laptop up to a powerful gaming laptop. They’re usually bristling with ports and will have a DVD or Blu-ray drive built in. Unlike ultraportables, you’ll usually get a dedicated graphics card here (to the benefit of games, but detriment of battery life), lots of ports (including a few legacy ones) and you should be able to get quad-core CPUs with little worry.
Thanks to laptops like the MacBook Pro with Retina display and the Samsung Series 9 ditching the optical drive, but still providing power, it looks like the ultrabook mentality is starting to reach this category as well.
If you want desktop power, you need a desktop replacement. With screen sizes of 16- to 18.4-inches, weight as heavy as 6 kilograms and average battery life of less than three hours, these behemoths are not for people on the go. However, they can accommodate a wide range of performance parts and are just right for power users of all kinds — especially gamers. Here, as far as cost is concerned, start at around AU$1500, and the sky is the limit.
2. THE CPU
When it comes to processors, a general rule of thumb is to buy the fastest that you can afford. Problem is, it’s not all just about speed these days. A GHz from one family of CPUs doesn’t equal a GHz from another.
There’s also the question of how many cores you should get. Entry level these days is dual core, which will suit most people just fine. There are also triple-core and quad-core processors out there, but keep in mind that not all applications take advantage of this extra power. Some video-encoding applications, 3D applications and games will use them, though, so if you’re a content-production maniac or a gamer, it’ll likely be worth investing in a quad-core machine. If you mainly just browse the internet, then dual core is perfectly fine.
3. THE SCREEN
Screen quality is finally becoming important in laptops. Thanks to Apple, almost everybody seems to be racing to release something with an in-plane switching (IPS) screen these days. This means better colour and viewing angles than typical laptop displays, which are known as twisted nematic (TN). If you can afford a laptop with an IPS screen, we absolutely recommend it.
Another factor to consider is resolution. A huge majority of laptops ship with a resolution of 1366×768. While this looks fine on 11.6-inch laptops, by the time you get to 15.6-inch, it tends to make everything seem comically large, and images tend to lack detail. A new rash of Windows 8 laptops have sought to address this, offering full HD (that’s 1920×1080) IPS screens on everything from 12.5-inch to 15.6-inch screens. There are 11.6-inch laptops that run full HD as well, but things tend to feel a little cramped there.
Then, of course, there’s Apple’s amazing Retina displays, available on its 13.3 and 15.4-inch MacBook Pros. To give you an idea of how much is crammed into one of these displays, a 15.6-inch, 1366×768 screen manages to fit about 100 pixels in each square inch. At 2880×1800, the MacBook Pro Retina 15.4-inch fits in around 220. This high amount of pixels (dots) per inch has been given the rather descriptive name of HiDPI.
Having enough memory is vital to system performance, and lots of RAM lets you run more applications simultaneously. Sufficient RAM is also necessary for image and video editing, and crucial for 3D gaming. This is especially true in laptops, because integrated laptop graphics processors can have little or no memory of their own and share the main system’s RAM.
We’d recommend buying slightly more RAM than you need to extend the useful life of your laptop. While you can add RAM yourself after purchase, in these days of super-slim laptops, memory sockets may not be easily accessible by the user
laptops shrink in size, so do their keyboards and how much the keys can depress when you type. If possible, try some simple typing exercises before you buy. The smaller the keyboard, the more creative the vendor may have been with key size and placement. Pay particular attention to the space bar, Shift, Ctrl and Backspace/Delete keys. Be sure that all are in good locations for your hand size and typing style.
Keep an eye out for backlit keyboards, as well — these help immensely when typing in dim light.
Unless you plan on travelling with a mouse, test the laptop’s touchpad for comfort and responsiveness. Some touch pads include extra features, such as multi-touch capability — although, their performance in this regard can vary greatly, depending on where the touchpad has been sourced from and the software involved. Apple is class leading in this respect, touch pads used for Windows machines still haven’t caught up. They might have most of the features, but the execution and responsiveness is, at best, skittish.
6. GRAPHICS CARD
Wifi is an indispensable feature, and most laptops ship with a standard called 802.11n. This can operate on two frequencies, with most mainstream laptops supporting 2.4GHz and premium laptops supporting both 2.4GHz and 5GHz. The difference: 2.4GHz has greater range, but lesser speed. It also has more chance of interference, either from your neighbour’s Wi-Fi or from other implements that use the 2.4GHz spectrum, like microwaves and cordless phones.
5GHz has less chance of interference and higher speed, but has smaller range — you’ll find your speed drop off dramatically the further you get away from your router. Your wireless router will also need to support 5GHz for you to take advantage of it. This is pretty easy to spot, as usually you’ll see a reference to “dual band” somewhere.
You might have also heard of something called 802.11ac — this is 5GHz wireless, but with significantly greater speed and range than 802.11n. At the time of writing, although you can buy 802.11ac routers, this isn’t supported natively in any laptops; you’ll have to buy a USB wireless adapter to use it to its full potential.
you might have a two- or three-year warranty on your laptop, your battery is generally only covered for one year.
Two specs to look for in laptop batteries include capacity (measured in milliamp hours, or mAh) and the number of cells. Typical batteries have a mAh rating of between 2000mAh and 6000mAh — higher is better. Cells are the actual compartments where power is produced, and can range from four to 12 — the more the better. Keep in mind, though, that this may cause the battery pack to stick out from your laptop in potentially awkward positions.
Some laptops don’t have easily-swappable batteries, in an attempt to cut down on physical size and to lengthen battery life. Be aware of this — when your battery dies, you may need to take your laptop in for a service, rather than simply swapping the battery out yourself.
On the other hand, some can take a second battery, either by replacing the optical drive or by placing a shim on the bottom. Check your accessories before you buy.
Make sure that you have enough ports on your laptop — at a minimum, look for two USB ports (three to four is better). USB 3.0 ports would also be preferable, as opposed to the slower USB 2.0 — although this won’t affect things like keyboards and mice, for storage, it can be a huge benefit.
Connecting a monitor will, these days, involve an HDMI or mini DisplayPort output. There’s also Thunderbolt to consider; this wonder port can double as DisplayPort, but can also connect to high-speed storage devices, video capture devices or connect to a hub (as in Apple’s Thunderbolt Displays) to provide extra ports like USB 3.0, Ethernet and more.
Sadly, a lot of monitors (and projectors) still don’t have HDMI or DisplayPort support, so you may need to buy an adapter to connect your laptop to DVI or VGA ports instead.
With laptops becoming ever slimmer, they often tend to drop the Ethernet port, meaning you’ll be reliant on Wi-Fi, rather than a network cable to get you online or to connect to other computers. This won’t matter to a lot of consumers, but those who demand high, reliable speed will want to make sure that their laptop comes with one. If not, you can get USB
Laptops are notorious for having terrible speakers. While a lot of laptops these days are including some version of Dolby, THX, Beats or other sort of “branded” sound, this is usually all done in software, and often paired with such tiny speakers that it doesn’t make that much of a difference. On the other hand, if you see a speaker brand like JBL, Bang & Olufsen, Altec Lansing or Harman Kardon, there’s a chance you’re getting better than the average — the larger your laptop, the more likely you are to get better sound as well.
Our recommendation: get a good set of headphones, or a stereo or 2.1 speaker set. You can even get speakers powered by USB if you want something portable that doesn’t require a power point.