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Laptop Computer Buyers Guide

For the first time ever, computer buyers are more likely to buy a laptop than a desktop or tower PC.

In the past, laptop computers generally came with higher price tags than their desktop counterparts, while offering comparatively less performance. Today, entry-level laptops often cost the same as desktops - if not less - and most computer users are unable to distinguish a performance difference between the two. If you are in the market for your first laptop computer, consider the following:

Screen Size

The single most important detail to consider when purchasing a laptop is the screen size, because the size of the screen is closely linked with a laptop’s price and capabilities. If you don’t know what screen size you need, think about how you will use your computer. If you write professionally or edit graphics, a larger screen will ease eyestrain and improve your work efficiency. You might also want a laptop with a large screen if you are a gamer - partially because a large screen makes games easier to see, and partially because a larger laptop is more likely than a smaller one to have a powerful video adapter. A small laptop is a better choice for someone who travels frequently, as smaller laptops are easy to carry and tend to offer superior battery life. Because small laptops usually contain less powerful components than larger ones, they are best suited for those whose primary uses for computers include email, social networking and light office work.

Laptop Categories

You are likely to hear several buzzwords when examining the different laptop product categories. Because of the vast number of products available, these terms help to segment the market into smaller parts that are easier for consumers to understand. The primary categories of laptop computers are netbooks, subnotebooks, notebooks and desktop replacements. Netbooks and subnotebooks tend to have screens measuring 12 inches and under. Netbooks are some of the least expensive laptops because they are optimized for size rather than power. A netbook is likely to have a budget processor such as an Intel Atom, with little RAM or storage. Subnotebooks, on the other hand, are often among the most expensive laptops. A subnotebook generally has capabilities and speeds similar to a standard notebook. The increased cost of subnotebooks is attributed to the engineering feats required to cram powerful components into a small space. Standard notebook computers generally have screens measuring between 13 and 15 inches, and desktop replacements have screens measuring 16 inches or larger. Desktop replacements often feature some of the most elaborate designs of all laptop computers, including luxuries such as multiple hard drives and upgradeable video cards. Some desktop replacement computers are so large and heavy that the term “portable” barely applies.

Laptop Brands

The laptop brands that you are most likely to see in stores include Apple, Dell, HP, Compaq (owned by HP), Acer, Gateway (owned by Acer), Sony, ASUS and Lenovo. All of these manufacturers produce quality computers, and you should neither purchase nor avoid a laptop based on its brand name alone. However, Apple laptops have one significant difference from all other computer brands; while computers made by other manufacturers run Windows (or rarely, some form of Linux), Apple computers run Mac OS. If you prefer the interface of Mac OS to Windows or want to have the ability to run Mac OS applications, an Apple laptop is the most logical choice. If you have no operating system preference, then consider the support policies of each company. If you research the locations of each company’s support call centers, you might find that one has a support center in your country while the others do not. If you are likely to call technical support, knowing you will be able to communicate effectively with support representatives may be a strong selling point.

Laptop Specifications

If terms such as Core 2 Duo, Phenom, i7 and Athlon are confusing to you, take heart; for the average user, the exact specifications of a laptop are less important than you might think. Two laptops released around the same time and in the same price range are likely to offer the same perceived performance for anyone not performing CPU- and graphics-intensive tasks. Be aware, however, that netbooks offer perceivably less performance than other laptops, even for average users - hence the low cost. The typical processors used in netbooks are the Intel Atom and the AMD Neo. These processors are not intended for high-performance laptops. When examining hard drive and RAM specifications, the “more is better” rule always applies. However, there is an exception to this rule - solid-state disks (SSD). While conventional hard drives store information on rotating metal platters, an SSD uses flash memory, like the memory in a storage card for a digital camera. An SSD cannot match a conventional hard drive in terms of storage capacity. However, an SSD is typically many times faster than a conventional hard drive - and more expensive. Choosing between the two is a matter of prioritizing between capacity, performance and price.

Design and Ergonomics

Beautiful industrial design is in the eye of the beholder, and design elements that look attractive to one person might appear overly ostentatious to another. However, thin is definitely in for most laptop buyers. Expect to pay a significant premium for a laptop that squeezes high-end power into a package that fits in a manila envelope. While a svelte frame can bring a high price tag, solid ergonomics can be affordable for everyone. If the laptop you are interested in is available in stores, test it before buying it - even if you have read several positive reviews. Reviewers often overlook little details such as the sensitivity of the touchpad or the stiffness of the keys, and these little details can turn a laptop from a simple computer into a tool that makes work more enjoyable.

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