When you're shopping for a laptop computer, it's important to remember that it's more than just the size that counts. These compact, portable companions can pack a serious punch to match all but the most powerful desktop computers, if you have the budget for it. And you know what to look for. That's where we come in.
Why buy a laptop?
Total computing portability is enticing enough, but what other benefits can a laptop offer?
Laptops typically use much less power than a desktop PC. They have a low annual running cost.
A laptop will take up much less space in your home or office than a desktop PC.
There are several categories of laptop, to suit a variety of needs, though these categories are not always clearly defined. Generally speaking you have ultraportables, all-rounders, multimedia powerhouses and student/budget laptops, and so on.
Many laptops can match the power of mid-range desktop computers.
Laptops come with a monitor, keyboard and trackpad built in. Desktop PCs don't always come with these, so adding them on could incur extra costs.
Most tablets run iOS or Android, which may not include your preferred programs. Laptops can run full Windows, OS X or Linux, giving you access to all the mainstream programs you need.
Sounds perfect, right? Well there is one notable drawback. Upgrading most laptop components is difficult – and for the average person may be impossible – as the interior is specially designed to cram everything in, while staying as compact as possible.
What types of laptops are available?
Laptops tend to be classified into several groups. The terms 'laptop' and 'notebook' tend to be used interchangeably as a general description, but you can break these down into smaller categories:
- Notebook (aka laptop): A full-sized laptop will include most of the same kind of components as a desktop PC, but strikes a balance between portability and functionality.
- Ultraportable: Thin, light laptops that cut out some of the bells and whistles (e.g. CD/DVD drive) and the number of connection ports to maintain a slimmer profile. The smallest models weigh about a kilogram. An Ultrabook (note the capital U) is a specific type of ultraportable, which meets specifications set down by Intel. Among their strong points is strong security and anti-theft protection built in at the hardware level. Although the MacBook Air is regarded as the inspiration for the Ultrabook class, it's not actually an Ultrabook.
- Netbook: Small, inexpensive laptops that run off the low-powered Intel Atom processor. These have been largely phased out, to be replaced by tablets and Ultrabooks.
- Chromebook: A notebook or ultraportable laptop that runs Google's unique operating system called Chrome. Chrome OS looks like the Chrome web browser and can only run apps downloaded from the Chrome Store.
- MacBook: Apple's laptop computers come in three families – the ultrathin MacBook Air models and revamped MacBook, and the high-performance MacBook Pro.
- Hybrid: Combine the features of a laptop and a tablet and you have a hybrid (also called a convertible or 2-in-1). They can quickly switch between touchscreen tablet mode and traditional keyboard mode, transforming in a variety of ways, including sliding, twisting and fold-back mechanisms.
So which one should you buy?
Within each brand's laptop family are usually several similar models that vary in power, capacity and a range of other features. Picking one that suits your needs can be a bit of a pain though. Do you go for a budget unit with limited capabilities, a high-powered top-end laptop that can play the latest games without breaking a sweat, or something in between?
That's a question only you can answer, but first it's a good idea to narrow down how you intend to use your laptop. If you want to take it with you on-the-go a lot, you'll want something thin, light and easy to carry – an ultraportable. If you want something to give you all the power of a desktop computer while being transportable with relative ease, go for a multimedia powerhouse. Most other laptops fall somewhere in between. Here's a broad guide to entry-level, mid-range and high-end models:
- Entry level: These low-cost laptops are relatively low-powered, but quite capable of most general computing tasks like web browsing, email and general word processing. They can handle most basic multimedia tasks – like video streaming – and are best suited to casual users and students.
- Mid-range: Aimed at regular computer users, families, students and business people. Mid-range computers can run most software and games, but may struggle a bit with high-end functions like video editing and games that require fast graphics processing.
- High-end: For serious computer types that like to push their systems with intensive computing tasks like editing video and audio, 3D rendering and high-end games, these are obviously the ones to go for.
Windows, OS X or Linux?
Ask a room of techies whether you should go with a Windows, Mac or Linux laptop and you'll start a heated debate that no-one will win. All three systems have their good and bad points, but it's important for you to choose a side before you start, because it affects your software choices and – possibly – your hardware decisions too. This is definitely the case with OS X, which only runs on Apple's Mac family.
Here's a look at the pros and cons of each:
- Windows software has the lion's share of the market, with the widest range of programs available. Though Windows 7 is still popular on older PCs, new Windows computers will come with Windows 10, which is designed to work across a wide range of devices including tablets and which comes with touchscreen support built-in.
- OS X is designed to work specifically with Apple hardware, providing tight integration that offers advantages in ease of use and consistency across programs. Many programs for Windows have OS X versions and many OS X-only programs offer file-format compatibility with Windows programs. You can install Windows on Macs using OS X's built-in installer utility called Boot Camp. This will let you run Windows natively on the Mac hardware without any software emulation, to give you full performance. You can also run Windows OS and programs using virtualisation software such as Parallels Desktop for Mac, VMware's Fusion or Oracle's Virtual Box. These programs let you install other operating systems such as Linux. Whether you use Boot Camp or a virtualisation program, you'll need to purchase the Windows operating system separately.
- Linux is generally free, as are most Linux programs, and it can run on a wide range of PCs as an alternative to Windows. There are many flavours of Linux, with the most popular being Ubuntu.
In some cases, you may have to side with a particular system to use specific programs. It's a good idea to look into each alternative and spend some time with them all before deciding.
What to look for
CPU (central processing unit)
This is the brain of your computer. The number of cores, processing power and price range is a good indicator of the overall level of CPU power on offer. Laptops generally use low-power-consumption CPUs for better battery life. Be careful in comparing the Intel family of CPUs with those from AMD – their main competitor – as quoted speed figures aren't directly comparable. Likewise with the sub-families of each brand – for example, Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 are increasingly high performance even at the same quoted figure in GHz; likewise with the new M series processors.
RAM (random access memory)
A lack of RAM will slow your computer when performing multiple or labour-intensive tasks, like image processing. Look for a minimum of 4GB (gigabytes) even in a budget system, but ideally aim for 8GB for most general-use laptops.
A small screen means a smaller laptop that's generally going to be lighter, but large screens are better for graphics, gaming or watching movies. More laptops aimed at the high-end market have high-definition screens.
Don't underestimate how much space you'll need. Make sure you have enough room for all your current programs and files, as well as the fast-growing collection of videos and music that most people now tend to accumulate. Look for a 1TB (terabyte) hard drive as a starting point, but preferably double that. However, you may want to sacrifice storage space for speed and go with a built-in solid-state drive (SSD) if you want extra performance. An SSD is much faster than a hard drive and having one can lift the overall performance of a laptop considerably. If you need extra storage, you can always use a high-capacity external hard drive, a portable hard drive, or wireless portable storage.
Computer components can run hot, especially within the confines of a compact laptop case. Check for hot spots under the laptop after it's been on for a while, especially when working hard. These hot spots can get annoying if you're using your laptop where the name would suggest.
Many laptops will have the graphics processor built into the motherboard (called "on-board graphics"), rather than on a separate ("dedicated") graphics card. High-end models may have a dedicated graphics card which has its own video RAM.
Often called "the brick", this is the block and cord that you use to plug your laptop into a standard wall socket. If you have to take this with you for recharging, it can add considerably to your overall weight.