Laptops buying guide

Take the guesswork out of choosing your next laptop.
 
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03.Laptop families

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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 

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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.

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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.

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