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Selecting a Laptop

First Steps to Deciding Which Laptop Style You Need

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Deciding which laptop to buy can be tough, with hundreds of laptop models to choose from and prices ranging from under $200 for netbooks to over $2,000 for high-end laptops. In addition to your budget, the kind of work and play you plan on doing on your laptop should help you narrow down your choices. Here are some tips for making a wise laptop purchase.

How to Select the Best Laptop for Your Needs

1. Consider your operating system. You have more choices with Windows laptops, but Apple's MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops can also run Windows, which makes these laptops attractive for their versatility. However, Apple's laptops are much pricier. If you're considering this age-old debate between Mac or PC laptop, think about how much you really want to spend (see below) and whether you need a laptop with features (Blu-Ray, touchscreen, TV tuners, etc.) not available on the few variants Apple offers.

2. Start with your budget.

  • Netbooks are the cheapest and smallest type of laptop, and you can actually use them for business, but they're very underpowered and limited, and also getting replaced by tablets and more powerful laptops shrinking in size and weight.
  • You can get a budget laptop, good for most basic tasks like web browsing and word processing, these days for under $500 (even much less during sale holidays like Black Friday and Cyber Monday); these laptops sometimes use older processors and often come in the 15.6" display size. Generally, the smaller and thinner you want your laptop to be, the more you'll have to pay for it.
  • If you have a couple of hundred more to spend (between $600 and $1000), you can get a thin-and-light laptop (4 to 6 pounds and 14-inch to 16-inch displays), with better performance: the latest generation processors, a sizable hard drive of 500 GB or more, and more memory. Thin-and-lights are probably the most common types of laptops being sold (and bought) today.
  • For $1,000 or more, you can opt for either a sleek ultraportable laptop--light in weight, and very thin, with screen sizes 13-inch or less--or go the other way, for desktop replacement laptops or gaming laptops--heavy in weight and with giant 17-inch screens.

Learn more about laptop types.

3. Make a checklist of what's most important to you in your next laptop. Think about how you want to use your laptop to rank the features you should look for in your next laptop:

  • Entertainment, such as music and movies? Go for the larger screen sizes, 15-inch or more, and higher resolution, high definition displays (1920x1800 pixels). You'd probably also want as large a hard drive as possible for all your media storage, e.g., hard drives of 750GB or more. A Blu-Ray player would probably be on your list for movie-watching, as well as HDMI ports and/or wireless TV streaming.
  • Travel or a lot of mobile work? Portability will obviously be your biggest consideration. Look for screen sizes 13-inch or under, weights 4 pounds or under, and a rated battery life of 6 hours or more. You might also want a mobile broadband card in your laptop for Internet access on the go.
  • A lot of graphic/multimedia work or gaming? A large, high-definition screen, lots of memory (4GB is low, 8 GB is better), and a dedicated video graphics card should be at the top of your checklist. For the best performance, look for quad-core processors.
  • For a balance of performance and portability, seek out a thin-and-light or ultraportable laptop with 13- or 14-inch display, the mid-range processor (e.g., Intel Core i5 processor), 4GB or more of RAM, and 500GB or more of hard drive space (or, for better performance, a solid state drive).

4. Read reviews. Once you have your checklist, it's time to find the laptops that fit the bill. About's Guide to PC Hardware/Reviews has rounded up his top picks for best budget laptops for under $600, thin-and-light laptops, and more, while I've rounded up top-rated bargain laptops under $500--most of them around $400 and a couple focusing more on the business/professional-oriented laptops (which I highly recommend). You could also check out review roundup sites like ConsumerSearch to see the most recommended laptops, then compare features to your checklist. Keep in mind that a lot of laptop manufacturers, such as Dell and HP, also let you configure laptops to your specifications--adjusting the amount of RAM or choosing a different hard drive, for example.

5. Compare laptops. Finally, I like to make a table comparing the 2-4 top options. You could use a spreadsheet and list the specs (processor, memory, hard drive, graphics card, etc.) as well as price for each laptop to make your final choice.

Before you buy, also be sure you take advantage of possible savings for your laptop.

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