Laptops buying guide

Take the guesswork out of choosing your next laptop.
 
Learn more
 
 
 
 
 

01 .Introduction

ONLINE_LaptopBuyingGuide_LEAD

Tablets are the hottest tech toys these days, but they can’t match most laptops for performance. They range from basic, budget models all the way up to powerhouse performers that can replace a desktop PC.

With many models available across several categories, finding the right laptop to suit your needs and budget can be tricky. We examine:

  • Choosing a laptop to suit your needs.
  • Typical laptop usage scenarios.
  • Different laptop categories.
  • What to look for when shopping.
  • Technical jargon simplified.

Advantages of a laptop?

  • Portability: Laptops are small, light and battery powered. You can take a laptop just about anywhere.
  • Energy use: They typically use much less power than a desktop PC when connected to mains power, and have a low annual running cost.
  • Performance: Modern laptops pack just as much of a processing punch as many of their big brothers and they do it in a smaller package. 

Advantages of a desktop PC?

  • Connectivity: A wider range of connection ports than laptops due to space restrictions.
  • Price: Desktops can offer better performance at a lower price, especially if you build one yourself.
  • Power: Even the most powerful laptops can’t match the performance and storage capacity of top-end desktops, which can take advantage of the fastest processors, graphics cards and full-sized hard drives.
  • Upgrading: Upgrading a desktop with new components generally is easier and cheaper than a laptop.
  • Expansion: Desktops offer more internal space for processors, hard drives or SSDs and cooling systems.
After reading our guide, you may find that a desktop is better suited to your needs. See our desktop buying guide for more information.

 
 

Sign up to our free
e-Newsletter

Receive FREE email updates of our latest tests, consumer news and CHOICE marketing promotions.

 

First, you need to work out what you want to do with your laptop. The computer you buy now will likely be the one you use for the next three-to-five years, because in most cases, laptop hardware is difficult to upgrade. Knowing how you want to use your laptop can help you pinpoint the most suitable hardware.

Determine your needs and wants

Make a list of the main activities and programs you want to use, such as word processing, photo, video or audio editing or playing computer games and rank them in importance. Consider future needs as well. Potential employment or study prospects are good indicators of how these may change.

List any specific programs you need and note their system requirements (check the product website). Don’t underestimate your needs, you may find that your computer can’t run your favourite program or game if you try and save money by buying a low-spec machine. But don’t go overboard. A multimedia powerhouse that’s loaded with RAM, the latest processor and a powerful dedicated graphics card is tempting, but it will cost more. 

Set a budget and stick to it, because a computer isn’t much good if you can’t afford software!

User profile

Most consumers will fit into one of three general categories:

  • Casual user: You want to check emails, watch movies and surf the internet. You won’t need a huge amount of power, graphics or internal storage. Suggested minimum specs: 4GB of RAM, Intel i3 processor, 320GB of HDD storage and integrated graphics.
  • Intermediate user: You play some games and watch movies. This range will suit families, students and business people. You’ll need mid-range power, graphics, memory and a decent amount of storage. Suggested minimum: 4GB of RAM, Intel i5 processor and 500GB – 1TB of HDD storage.
  • Power user: You’re the kind of person who pushes their computer to the limit with 3D rendering software, video/photo editing programs or sophisticated games. Suggested minimum: 8GB RAM, Intel i7 processor, 1-2TB of HDD and/or 128-512GB SSD or a hybrid drive.

Usage scenarios

Below are typical activities for casual, intermediate and power users. Understand confusing terminology or technical terms with our jargon buster.

Internet usage

Web browsing, email, social networking and online programs require little computing power. In most cases, your online performance is determined by your internet connection speed. If you have a fast connection and a high download limit, you’ll likely download more content.

Office work/Assignments

Even a low-end model should be powerful enough to run office and productivity programs. Complex spreadsheets and large PDF files may require a mid-range computer.

Listening to music

Listening to songs won’t require a fast laptop, but a decent amount of RAM and a mid-range processor is a must for people with large music libraries. If you want to listen to music while you work or surf the net, your computer will benefit from extra RAM to handle the multiple activities. 

Watching videos

This depends on how you access your media. If you download or stream all your content, your requirements will match the internet usage scenario. If you want to play a DVD or Blu-Ray disc, you’ll need a laptop with an optical drive. Many laptops can play DVDs, but few have Blu-Ray drives. Don’t assume that the laptop you’re looking at can play both. A mid-range graphics card and processor will improve video quality and load times.

Playing computer games

You can get by playing most games on a mid-range system, but to enjoy the full experience of the latest blockbusters, you’re going to need a top quality mid-range unit or a high-end model. Sophisticated games can be very demanding on your graphics card, processor and RAM. Although most games let you tweak some graphics settings to make them usable on less-powerful systems, image quality will suffer. If you’re serious about computer games, consider plenty of RAM, a dedicated graphics card and lots of processing power. Online games such as Call of Duty or World of Warcraft need a fast internet connection as well, but browser-based games (e.g. FarmVille) are usually much less demanding.

Photo/Video/Audio editing and 3D rendering

These programs require a powerful system with plenty of RAM, processing power and a decent graphics card. They need a webcam and inbuilt microphone, which most laptops have. A larger screen size will provide more room for complex onscreen menu systems.

VoIP Calls

VoIP, Skype etc don’t require a lot of power: a 3G phone can do the job after all. But you’ll need a webcam and inbuilt microphone which most models have these days. A larger laptop will provide a bigger screen which can be beneficial.

Laptops fall into several unofficial categories. Retailers often use these terms interchangeably, so we’ve broken down the most common models into six broad families. 

Notebook (aka laptop)

A full-sized laptop will include most of the same kind of components as a desktop PC. Standard notebooks are available in models to suit casual, intermediate and power user. They try to strike a balance between portability and functionality. Full-sized notebooks (eg 15-17”) usually have an optical drive, but this adds to the weight and bulk.

UltraportableONLINE_LaptopBuyingGuide_Ultraportable_asus-pu500ca-xo053g-1image

Ultraportables are all about being compact and light without skimping too much on performance. The smallest models weigh around a kilogram! 

To maintain a slim profile, ultraportables miss out on some features that are standard on larger notebooks. Most don’t have an optical drive, which means you can’t use CD/DVDs without an external add-on; they tend to have fewer ports (USB, FireWire, HDMI etc), and some lack a connection for an external monitor. Some ultraportables use SSDs rather than hard disc drives, as they’re smaller, lighter, faster and less power hungry.  

Ultraportable screens rarely exceed 13 inches and keyboards are less than full size. Some rely on wireless connectivity exclusively, as Ethernet ports have been omitted to reduce the overall thickness. There are some models that ship with a USB to Ethernet converter, while others offer this as an extra cost option.

Ultrabooks are a sub-category of ultraportables. Ultrabooks need to meet special criteria set by Intel before they can carry the name officially. This includes using a special, low-powered processor and solid state drives, which improves battery life. Consumers who travel regularly may find the trade off in power for battery life beneficial. Ultraportable is a general term for a slim, lightweight, portable computer. See our review on thin and light laptops for more information.

ONLINE_LaptopBuyingGuide_Netbook_HP_mini_2

Netbook

Netbooks are small, relatively inexpensive and they run on the fairly low-powered Intel Atom processor. Though once popular, largely due to their low cost, they’ve been phased out as demand dwindled due to the emergence of tablets and ultrabooks.

ChromebookONLINE_LaptopBuyingGuide_Chromebook_Samsung-180101-3

On the outside, a Chromebook looks like a standard laptop. On the inside, they run Google’s operating system, Chrome OS. Chrome OS can only run web-based apps via the Chrome browser, such as Office Web Apps by Microsoft.  They need an internet connection to function properly and some models include 3G connectivity. The Chromebook can be a low-cost alternative to users that are happy to be tied to the web.

MacBook 

ONLINE_LaptopBuyingGuide_Macbook_pro_retina_mc976na

Apple laptops are available in two flavours; the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. They run the OS X operating system, which is unique to Apple computers. The latest version is called OS X Mountain Lion.

The MacBook Air is Apple’s flagship ultraportable, available in 11.6 and 13 inch models. The Pro is available in 13 and 15 inch models. All Mac laptops are housed in an aluminium unibody. The Pro models use better processors and can also be set up to run Windows. Third Generation (post 2012) MacBook Pro models have Apple’s Retina Display, which has the highest number of pixels that the human eye can see at normal viewing distance. You can compare all the current models at the Apple Website.

HybridONLINE_LaptopBuyingGuide_Hybrid_Dell_XPS_Duo_12

Hybrids combine the features of a laptop and a tablet. They can quickly switch between touchscreen tablet mode and traditional keyboard mode, using a variety of ways to make this transformation, including sliding, twisting and fold-back mechanisms. Although hybrids are very versatile, they face the same ergonomic design issues as ultraportables, and usually weigh more than a standalone tablet. If you’d like to learn more, see our hybrid laptop review.

04.Laptop components and technical terms

 

Knowing what’s inside a laptop will help you determine which system will suit your needs. It’s important to remember that if you’re buying a laptop for its portability, it needs to be light enough to carry around. Also, the latest model may have all the top end parts, but if the manufacturers have skimped on the cooling components it could overheat.

Central Processing Unit (CPU) 

The CPU is the brain of the system, and is responsible for running the bulk of your laptop’s activities. CPUs are manufactured by Intel and AMD, and are available in low, mid and high-end models. There are three key factors you need to consider when investigating the CPU: The model grade, the speed rating (noted in gigahertz or GHz) and the number of cores. As a rule of thumb, a higher number in each category means better system performance, faster load times and the ability to run more programs at once. The CPU is just one cog in the machine however, as many other components contribute to these factors. Figures over 2GHz are common.

Remember, there’s more to consider than the figures alone. A higher end processor will still be faster than a lower grade processor running at the same nominal speed. For example, an Intel i7 2.1GHz can perform better than an i5 2.4GHz. Age is also a factor; a new i5 1.9GHz (Ivy Bridge) model can perform better than an older i5 2.4GHz (Sandy Bridge). High end processors can have a heavy impact on battery life, and will usually generate more heat. Newer models use the 4th Generation Haswell processor, which are designed to be more power efficient.

RAM (memory)

More RAM will improve performance when running multiple programs at once. Although you can scrape by with 2GB of RAM, this will only cover you for computing tasks running one program at a time. In practical terms you’ll need a minimum of 4GB, but you should aim for 8GB if you’re an average user or 16GB if you’re a power user.

You also need a minimum amount of RAM to run certain operating systems. For example; 2GB is the minimum required to run the 64-bit version of Windows 8, while the 32-bit version needs at least 1GB. To make full use of your RAM, you’ll need the 64-bit version of Windows 8. The 32-bit can only utilise up to 4GB, whereas the 64-bit version can utilise up to 128GB in the Standard Edition and 512GB in the Pro Edition.

A program can only utilise so much RAM however. Photo editing software for example may only utilise 5GB of RAM, regardless of how much is installed in the computer. More RAM does not always mean better performance for an individual program, but it will let you run more programs simultaneously.

Some laptops include RAM slots, so you can add some further down the line. For example; if there are two slots, one may be left empty for expansion. You can save money by buying a computer with an empty slot to add RAM yourself, instead of buying a computer with the same amount of RAM preinstalled. Just make sure to get the right kind of RAM to suit your particular computer. You can ask a salesperson to install it for you if you don’t feel up to the task.

Graphics 

Built-in (integrated) graphics are suitable for most common activities, but a dedicated graphics card is required for computer games, image processing and 3D rendering. Laptop graphics cards range from 1 - 3GB, and are available in a huge range of models from multiple manufacturers. Average users will find that 1GB of dedicated graphics will suffice, while power users may want of 2GB.  

Sophisticated video games and 3D rendering will look beautiful with a 3GB card, but the heat generated when working at full capacity requires a good ventilation system. This can increase the size, weight and cost of the laptop. If you want to output to a 3D monitor, you will need to buy a laptop with a 3D-compatible card.

3D vs 3D ready

3D monitors are gradually rolling onto the market, but very few laptop screens can display a 3D image. Most are 3D capable or 3D ready, which means the graphics card is capable of outputting a 3D signal to an external 3D monitor. If you’re unsure, ask the salesperson if the laptop is really 3D or just 3D ready.

Screen

While a small screen means a laptop that’s smaller and generally lighter, large screens are generally better for graphics, gaming or viewing HD video. More laptops aimed at the power user market are integrating high definition screens. The table (right) shows the most common screen resolutions you’ll encounter, and the names sometimes used to refer to them. We’ve included HDTV resolutions for comparison as well.


NAME ASPECT RATIO WIDTH (pixels) HEIGHT (pixels)
VGA 4.3 640 480
SVGA 4.3 800 600
XGA 4.3 1024 768
XGA+ 4.3 1152 864
HDTV 720 4.3 1280 720
WXGA 15.9 - 16.1 1280 768 - 800
SXGA 5.4 1280 1024
WXGA (max) 16.9 1366 768
SXGA+ 4.3 1400 1050
WXGA+ 16.1 1440 900
UXGA 4.3 1600 1200
WSXGA+ 16.1 1680 1050
HDTV 1080 16.9 1920 1080
WUXGA 16.1 1920 1200
WQHD 16.9 2560 1440
WQXGA 16.1 2560 1600
COMING TO A SCREEN NEAR YOU
QFHD (4K) 16.9 3840 2160
UHD (8K) 16.9 7680 4320



Storage

More storage space means more room for files and programs. More storage however means more weight, which isn’t ideal if you’re looking for a highly portable model. Mass storage comes in two formats, Hard Disk Drive (HDD) and Solid State Drive (SSD). HDDs are cheaper, averaging around 10c per gigabyte, and they can hold more data. However, they are slower and generally more susceptible to damage due to their moving parts.

SSDs have no moving parts, resulting in faster speeds and greater stability, but they are more expensive, costing between 60c and $1 per gigabyte. Some ultraportables use hybrid drives, which use an HDD to store your media, and an SSD for your operating system. These usually cost slightly more than a laptop containing an HDD, but offer better storage performance.

Wireless

Wi-Fi is standard in all modern laptops, but double check that the model you’re considering includes the 802.11n industry standard. Bluetooth is now standard in all laptops, aside from some of the cheapest models, so you can pair Bluetooth devices to the laptop, such as headphones, mice and even your phone or iPod.

Power Supply

Colloquially called the brick, this is the block and cord that you use to plug your laptop into a standard wall socket. Higher end components increase the laptop’s power requirements, which will usually increase the size of the power supply. Carrying a large power supply around with your laptop can be difficult, so it’s important to check the size and weight of the unit before you buy.

Cooling/heatsink

Laptops can only fit so many fans inside their casing. Manufacturers have come up with different means of cooling laptops including heatsink technology, which extracts the heat from the components and disperses it into the air. If a laptop has a top end graphics card but I will require a better cooling system. This can add weight.

USB

All laptops support USB 2.0 and most have USB 3.0 ports, which offer faster data transfer.

Connections

  • We recommend a minimum of three USB ports. Other connections include video out (using VGA or HDMI), headphone and mic ports, ExpressCard and memory card slots, Ethernet for networking, and even Thunderbolt for high-speed external storage.
  • A memory card reader is useful for transferring photos from your camera to the laptop. Most new laptops have one, but it may not support all the card formats commonly used by cameras: SD standard, mini and micro; MS Pro, SDHC CompactFlash and MMC. Laptops commonly support SD standard and mini or micro with a converter.
  • If you want to expand the hardware capabilities of your laptop, look for a model with an ExpressCard slot. The ExpressCard has replaced the older PC Card (otherwise known as PCMCIA or CardBus), and comes in two sizes (34mm and 54mm) – the slot is usually 54mm, which accepts both sizes, but smaller laptops may only accept 34mm cards. It provides for more flexible extension of your laptop than USB ports. You could, for example, use it to provide 7.1 surround sound via an ExpressCard sound card if the conventional stereo sound via the headphone jack isn’t sufficient.
  • Consider the positioning of the USB ports, which you’ll find useful for everything from USB keys and external hard drives to keyboards and mice for those times when you have desk space. Those located at the back aren’t often as useful as those on the sides, and make sure there’s room to comfortably plug in your most-used devices.
  • Most modern laptops place ports on the side, but some have the headphone and microphone ports on the front.
For more information, see our desktop buying guide components and costs.


These quick tips will help you pick a laptop that suits your needs. Our jargon buster is a useful reference if you encounter any complicated technical terms.

Buying tips

  • Set a budget and stick to it.
  • Don’t underestimate your computing requirements.
  • Don’t be tempted by expensive components unless you really need them.
  • Look to the future. Buy a laptop that will suit your future needs as well as your current ones.
  • Research all available options before going in, including PC and Mac alternatives.
  • Try before you buy. The keyboard size, layout, mouse type and key pitch (the distance from the centre of one key to the next) vary between models, and you'll find some more comfortable than others.
  • Consider buying from smaller retailers or online as well as national chain stores. Some smaller stores may have good deals.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for a deal. You can get a good price if you buy accessories and software at the same time. See our accessories guide.
  • Ask the salesperson if the warranty is based locally. What's the turnaround time for repairs? Will you be able to get service while travelling? If your notebook has to be sent away for repairs, who covers the transit cost?
  • Be wary of buying extended warranties — they offer little extra protection over your standard Australian consumer rights.
  • Take your time. A laptop is an expensive investment that you’re going to use for the next three to five years. Don’t rush and choose a model that suits your needs and wants.

Jargon buster

  • CPU: Central processing unit, also called the processor or chip. Generally the higher the processing speed, the better your computer will perform.
  • DDR SDRAM: Double data rate synchronous dynamic random access memory. There are three grades available; DDR, DDR2 and DDR3. Higher grades offer better data transfer rates
  • Dedicated Graphics: A separate graphics processing card with memory, measured in GB, specifically allocated to graphics.
  • FireWire: High speed data transfer, capable of up to 800 Mbit/s. Still available on some models, this is being superseded by Thunderbolt and USB 3.0.
  • GB: Gigabyte. A measurement of data. 1GB = 1000MB according to international hard drive measurement standards.
  • GDDR: Graphics double data rate. Memory that’s optimised for graphics cards, currently available in version five (GDDR5).
  • HDD: Hard disk drive, also known as a hard drive, the storage hub for files and programs. Contains moving parts.
  • Heatsink: A heat exchanger that extracts the heat from internal components and dissipates it into the air.
  • Integrated Graphics: A chip on the motherboard that shares the video memory with the processor. These generally don’t perform as well as dedicated graphics cards.
  • Ivy Bridge: Current microarchitecture for the Intel line of CPU’s.
  • MB: Megabyte. A measurement of data. 1MB = 1024 kilobytes (KB)
  • Memory: Internal storage. Your computer has two types of memory: long term (hard drive) and short term (RAM).
  • Optical drive: A drive for CD/DVD/Blu-Ray. Available on most notebooks, and a few ultraportables.
  • PCIe: Also known as PCI Express, this is the most common internal connection slot on modern computers for attaching components such as dedicated graphics cards. The latest standard is PCIe 3.0, but 4.0 is in development.
  • RAM: Random access memory. This temporarily stores data required to run programs. When you are finished with a program, the RAM is wiped to make way for other programs. More RAM means more processes can run smoothly at once. You can run a program on its minimum amount of required RAM, but performance will improve if you have the recommended amount available. RAM stores information only when the computer’s power is on.
  • Retina: An display developed by Apple which claims to offer the highest pixel density that can be seen by the human eye at normal viewing distance.
  • ROM: Read only memory. Most often used to hold instructions for the computer rather than storing user data. ROM stores information even when the computer’s power is off.
  • Sandy Bridge: Microarchitecture for the Intel line of CPU’s. Superseded by Ivy Bridge in April 2012. A processor advertised with Sandy Bridge will not be the latest model.
  • SO-DIMM: Small outline dual in-line memory module. Physically smaller RAM designed for systems with limited space such as netbooks. Available in DDR, DDR2 and DDR3.
  • SSD: Solid state drive, similar to an HDD but with no moving parts. Usually offers greater speeds and stability, but at a higher price.
  • Thunderbolt: An external connectivity tool for high speed data transfer at 10 Gbps per channel over copper wire and 20 Gbps per channel over optical cabling.
  • USB 2.0 and USB 3.0: Universal serial bus. A very common port for attaching peripherals such as digital cameras, printers and music players. All current laptops are compatible with USB 2.0, but only some of the newer models have USB 3.0. Theoretically, USB 3.0 is 10 times faster than USB 2.0.



Your say - Choice voice

Make a Comment

Members – Sign in on the top right to contribute to comments