Once you’ve identified the most likely category for your new laptop, you can start refining your choice by looking at individual models. Use this section to help you determine the hardware to meet your needs.
GRAPHICS AND SCREEN
Most laptops will have inbuilt graphics capabilities designed to be low in performance and power usage. Discrete graphics chipsets can be found in high-end laptops and are designed for uses such as gaming. If this doesn't interest you then any of the built-in graphics options should suffice. While a small screen means a laptop that’s smaller and generally lighter, large screens are undoubtedly better for graphics, gaming or viewing HD video. You may still get high resolution in a small space. 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 too, for comparison.
- You want at least two or more USB ports, but with such variety among models you’ll also find video out (using VGA or HDMI), headphone and mic ports, ExpressCard and memory card slots, Ethernet for networking, and even eSATA for high-speed external storage.
- If you want to transfer photos from a camera straight to your computer, it’s useful to have a memory card reader. 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. If you plan to use it, check compatibility with your camera’s cards.
- If expanding the hardware capabilities of your laptop is important, look for 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 generally supports both. It provides for more flexible extension of your laptop than USB ports. You could use it, for example, to provide 7.1 surround sound via an ExpressCard sound card if conventional stereo sound via the headphone jack isn’t sufficient.
- Check where the headphone and microphone ports are located: some laptops have them at the front, which can be uncomfortable if you actually use the computer on your lap.
- Also 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.
Wi-Fi is a given in a laptop, but look for the 802.11n standard: most routers now meet this and it’ll provide 150 megabits per second (Mbps) in place of the older g-standard’s 54Mbps. Also often available is Bluetooth, which will allow you to pair Bluetooth devices to the laptop, such as headphones, mice and even your phone.
STORAGE AND SOFTWARE
Solid-state storage drives are attractive for laptops as they are low-power and have no moving parts. However they are still expensive and come in much smaller capacities than traditional hard drives. High-end laptops are more likely to come with one or more large-volume drives for lots of storage, but even a single hard drive or an SSD can provide enough storage for most usage scenarios. If you need more, you can always plug in a USB external hard drive.
Windows is the de-facto operating system for most laptops, but low-power netbooks may run Windows XP or a form of Linux or Android. Most laptops also come with a bag of other programs, some of them not always useful. Look at what’s installed and disable any programs you don’t need – they’ll only suck up CPU power and reduce battery life.
PROCESSOR AND MEMORY
The processor (or CPU) is the heart of any computer and speed is a large factor here. The faster it is, the more it will cost, but programs (depending on what you use) may load and respond faster.
Intel processors dominate with more than 80% of the market, ranging from the Atom, designed for netbooks, through to the Core 2 Duo range and more recently Core d i7. Dual-core processors run multiple programs at the same time more efficiently, and larger, faster laptops may even have quad-core processors. AMD has a range of corresponding processors designed for laptops with names like Phenom, Athlon and Turion. Generally, AMD processors can be a bit cheaper, while providing a similar level of performance.
Having enough memory is crucial. With Windows 7 you don’t want anything less than 2GB, and fortunately with the exception of some netbooks this is standard. The more memory you have the better your system will run when using multiple programs at once. As a rule, 4GB should be enough for all but the most demanding applications, but to take full advantage of anything more than 3GB you’ll need to run the 64-bit versions of Windows 7 or Linux.
A laptop’s power supply is the elephant in the room: the brick you need to carry around to recharge the battery. They’re getting smaller, thankfully, and some netbooks now have a plug-in power supply like a phone charger. For larger laptops, remember you’ll be carrying this around with you, so look for compactness and thin cables. Batteries also come in various sizes. If you’re doing a lot of travelling, it may be useful to have a larger battery, or just a spare, to take with you.