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The Tech-pert: 5 Secrets for Buying the Best Laptop for Your Needs

By Guest Blogger(view all posts by Rick.Broida)
at 12:58PM Thursday April 7, 2011
under Shop Smarter

Shopping for a new laptop can be a daunting task. No doubt you've taken to the Web in search of product reviews and killer deals (Savings.com is always a good place to start, ahem), but many buyers find their heads swimming in a sea of uncertainty. What brand is best? What features are most important? Should I buy a netbook?

I get these kinds of questions all the time from friends and family members, so I've whipped up this handy guide to laptop shopping.
1. All brands are about the same (except when they're not)

Acer, Asus, Dell, Gateway, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba. Which company makes the best laptops? I've tried them all (literally), and you know what? They're all good. Sure, some makes and models offer nicer styling and/or more bang for the buck, but in terms of baseline hardware--screen, keyboard, hard drive, expansion ports, etc.--they're all pretty similar. In most cases, it's hard to make a bad choice.

Now, when it comes to service and support, that's a different story. A 2009 "PC Magazine" service and reliability survey found Apple (see #5 below) and Asus to be the best brands, with Acer and HP at the bottom of the pack. Your mileage may vary, of course. My advice: ask friends, relatives, co-workers, etc. to relate their own experiences with individual brands. (Hint: Facebook is great for soliciting that kind of feedback.)

2. Processor speed just isn't that important

The majority of computer users spend the majority of their time on three things: e-mail, Web browsing, and word processing. From a performance standpoint, these are lightweight tasks; they don't require a sky-high clock speed or multiple processor cores. So although processor speed used to be a major determining factor, it's no longer that big a deal. Virtually any computer you buy today will be "fast enough" for mainstream computing jobs.

That said, if you're planning to edit video or play a lot of graphics-intensive games, you'll definitely want to spend a little extra on a faster CPU. And while you're at it, look for a "discrete" graphics subsystem rather than an integrated one. Because when it comes to graphics and video, a fast processor alone isn't enough.

3. Skip the Blu-ray drive--and maybe even the DVD drive

Before you splurge on a Blu-ray drive--a feature increasingly found in higher-end laptops--ask yourself this: do you plan on connecting that laptop to an HDTV and watching movies? If not, skip the Blu-ray. It's overkill for a laptop, even one with a 17-inch screen. At that size, a Blu-ray movie won't look noticeably better than an ordinary DVD. What's more, PC-based Blu-ray players are notoriously problematic, requiring extra software and frequent updates just to play the latest discs.
While you're at it, ask yourself if you need an optical drive at all. By dispensing with it, you open yourself up to a new class of thinner, lighter laptops (see #4 below). The only reason most people need a DVD drive is for watching movies (which you can download from Amazon or iTunes) and installing software (most of which can be downloaded instead).

4. Forget Netbooks

Netbooks were all the rage last year, but it's time to face facts: they're slow, cramped, underpowered, and not an especially good deal. Indeed, the typical netbook still sells for $250-300, but you can buy a full-size, full-featured laptop for as little as $350.

Personally, I'm a fan of the newer breed of "hybrid" laptops, which have fast components, ample storage, travel-friendly physiques (thanks in part to omitting the optical drive), and affordable price tags. For example, the HP Pavilion dm1z comes nicely outfitted for $449.99, including a state-of-the-art AMD Fusion processor, an 11.6-inch screen, an incredibly long-lasting battery, and a gorgeous design. Read my HP Pavilion dm1z review if you want to learn more.

These days, I wouldn't be caught dead buying a netbook. Way too little bang for the buck.

5. Buying a Mac isn't necessarily the solution to your problems

I think a lot of people get so frustrated by Windows and its many foibles, they throw their hands up and say, "Forget it! I'm buying a Mac!" I can understand that, but before you run screaming to the nearest Apple Store, stop for a reality check. For starters, MacBook laptops start at $999--twice what you'll pay for a similarly equipped Windows-based machine. Granted, Apple has some of the best service in the biz (see #1 above), but is that worth such a steep premium?

What's more, despite their reputation for simplicity, Mac systems can be complicated--especially for anyone accustomed to Windows. There's definitely a learning curve.

Finally, if your Windows exasperation stems from an older system running XP or Vista, I can assure you that Windows 7 offers a much better user experience. It's faster, prettier, and much less susceptible to viruses and other security annoyances. Is it perfect? Hardly. But it's definitely the best Windows to date, and a lot less frustrating than its predecessors.

If you have a specific question I didn't answer here, ask it in the comments below, and I'll do my best to give you an answer!


Self-proclaimed cheapskate Rick Broida has been a technology writer for over 20 years. He has authored over a dozen books, including, most recently, "How to Do Everything: Palm Pre." Currently he writes the Cheapskate blog.