One size fits all? Just the opposite: If there’s one thing that characterizes the laptop market, it’s the array of sizes and styles to choose from—flyweights that barely tip the scale at 2.5 pounds, lap-crushing behemoths of 10 pounds or more, and everything in between. Indeed, venturing online or into an electronics store to pick a laptop can be an overwhelming experience if you’re not prepared for all the choices and focused on your needs.
That’s where this buying guide comes in. We’ll brief you on the latest buzzwords and trends, help you decide which features matter most, and get you ready to buy the right portable for you, whether it’s a super-slim ultrabook or heavy-duty desktop replacement.
The netbook category, distinguished by low prices and tiny clamshell designs, has all but disappeared—but smaller, inexpensive systems are still in high demand. Newer 10 to 12-inch ultraportables have fully embraced Windows 8, and resurrected the netbook concept with dockable Windows tablets. These slim and portable tablets feature the same Atom processors and small screens seen in the netbooks of yesteryear, but that small screen is now a detachable tablet, offering a level of portability and convenience that netbooks never could. The Acer C7 Chromebook (C710-2847) and the HP Envy X2 (11-g012nr) weigh about 3 pounds when docked laptop-style with a keyboard, and drop to 1.5 pounds when used as a tablet alone.
There’s another newcomer offering small, inexpensive laptops, as well, though it may come from an unexpected source—Google. Chromebooks leverage Google’s free Chrome operating system to put all of your internet connectivity needs into a small laptop, and by forgoing Windows, these systems can be sold for significantly less than competing systems. The Samsung Chromebook Series 3 (XE303C12) , for example, sells for $249, and the Acer C7 Chromebook (C710-2847) is even cheaper than that. This web-centric notebooks aren’t for everybody, but they are definitely worth checking out if you want a portable laptop primarily for browsing the Web and working online.
A year ago, ultrabooks were the newest thing in the laptop world, taking inspiration from the likes of the Apple MacBook Air 11-inch (Mid 2012) . Ultrabooks took the ultraportable category and refined it with industry wide standards governing everything from boot times to chassis thickness—no more than 18mm (0.71 inch) thick for units with screens smaller than 14 inches. Dubbed ultrabooks, these wafer-thin systems represent a new vision for portable computing, a no-compromises laptop light enough that you’ll forget it’s in your briefcase, whose battery and storage let it resume work in seconds after being idle or asleep for days. Solid-state drives (SSD)—whether a full 128GB or 256GB SSD or, more affordably, a small one used as a cache with a traditional hard drive—give ultrabooks their quick start and resume capability. In the last year, these slim portable systems have gone from being the exception to the rule, with dozens of new ultrabooks, offered by every major PC manufacturer.
For a basic laptop that offers ultrabook-style portability, there are plenty of thin and light laptops available, like the 13-inch Dell XPS 13-MLK or the larger Acer Aspire M5-581T-6405 and Asus ZenBook UX51Vz-DH71 . Intel’s competition hasn’t taken this shift lying-down, however. HP has an entire line of AMD-powered laptops with ultrabook-like proportions, such as the HP Pavilion Sleekbook 15z-b000 . All offer full-sized keyboards and enough horsepower for desktop applications. Right now, the hottest part of the ultraportable segment falls under an Intel-trademarked term called ultrabook; more on ultrabooks in a minute.
With the arrival of Windows 8, which makes an aggressive push towards touch interfaces and tablet-like designs, the ultrabook category has morphed from merely thin and light to offering all manner of touch-enabled models, like the Sony VAIO T15 Touch (SVT15112CXS) . Touch has also come to the AMD-powered Sleekbooks, with systems like the HP Pavilion TouchSmart 15z-b000 Sleekbook .
With thin designs offering more mobility than past laptops and touch-enabled displays becoming the norm, the ultrabook is being shaken up yet again with the introduction of convertible designs that offer both laptop and tablet functionality. Whether it’s the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 that folds around to change from laptop to tablet and back, or the Asus Taichi 21 , which puts a touch-display in the lid of an otherwise standard ultrabook, the lines between laptop and tablet have been bent and blurred considerably in recent months.
Mainstream and Premium
While ultrabooks and their ilk now make up the majority of laptops on the market, a few mainstream notebooks you’re used to can still be found. These 14- and 15-inch laptops aren’t as portable as the new crop of slim systems, but offer everything you need for a day-to-day PC. Systems like the HP Envy X2 (11-g012nr) or the Sony VAIO E15 (SVE15116FXS) may not be as portable, but without the size constraints introduced by the ultrabook design, they offer larger storage capacity and a broader selection of features. And while many PC manufacturers have moved en masse to the Ultrabook category, Apple hasn’t abandoned the desktop replacement, with the updated MacBook Pro 15-inch (Mid 2012) and the ultra-high-resolution display of the MacBook Pro 15-inch (Retina Display) . These sorts of 1080p+ displays will soon be showing up in Windows laptops, but can already be found on the premium Google Chromebook Pixel (64GB, LTE) .
Media and Gaming
For something outside of the mainstream, there are still large 17-inch media centers available, like the Dell Inspiron 17R Special Edition (7720) , which caters to elite audio and video buffs with large 1080p displays, excellent audio, and Blu-ray drives. While there are a few systems made specifically with media-lovers in mind, most are made for gamers. The gaming laptop—distinguished by powerful discrete graphics processors and features the offer a competitive edge online—has seen a dramatic expansion in the number of designs and variations available. While there are still high-end systems, like the Origin EON17-SLX , for those who want the very best, budget-friendly gaming systems are offering better capabilities for more affordable prices, as seen in the Asus G75VW-DH72 . Portability has become a bigger focus as well, shifting from the stereotypical back-breaking 10-pound systems to smaller and lighter laptops, like the Razer Blade (2012) or the Maingear Pulse 11 , which let you take your games on the road.
What To Look For in a Laptop
Connectivity is key for a modern laptop. Every model on the market today offers 802.11n Wi-Fi, and many support Bluetooth. Mobile broadband options, for when there’s no Wi-Fi hotspot handy, include 3G, 4G LTE, and WiMAX.
Ultrabooks may have just one or two, but most laptops have three or four USB ports for plugging in storage devices and peripherals. USB 3.0, which offers much greater bandwidth and faster data transfer than USB 2.0, can be found in all but the oldest and lowest-priced designs; it’s identifiable by a port colored in blue or labeled with the letters SS (for Super Speed). Some USB ports double as eSATA ports for external hard drives, while others can charge handheld devices such as cell phones or MP3 players. Meanwhile, Apple has taken the lead in implementing Thunderbolt, an interface even faster than USB 3.0 for monitors, storage, and docking stations.
The venerable VGA interface is still the most popular way to present PowerPoint slides on a big screen, but newer monitors and projectors work better with DisplayPort or HDMI. The latter is especially popular lately, thanks to the demand for connecting laptops to HDTV sets. HDMI’s cable-free cousin, Intel’s Wireless Display or WiDi, beams a laptop’s or ultrabook’s audio and video to an HDTV set fitted with a third-party, roughly $100 adapter—either Netgear’s Push2TV HD or Belkin’s ScreenCast . Speaking of video, a webcam for video chat is standard equipment on almost every laptop, as is a memory-card slot for loading images from a digital-camera card.
Except for ultrabooks with 128GB or 256GB solid-state drives, most laptops nowadays come with 320GB or 500GB hard drives, with a growing number stepping up to 750GB or 1TB of storage. Most people, to be honest, don’t need all that hard drive space, unless they’re aspiring videographers—and if they are, external USB 3.0 and eSATA drives are readily available.
What’s become scarce, however, is the optical drive. With so many software and game purchases occurring online, and cloud services taking over for many local applications, the optical drive has been dropped from most model lines, with new systems touting slimmer, lighter designs. For those who still need to install software from a disc or want to enjoy movies on DVD, you can still find them, but it takes some hunting. Many systems equipped with optical drives actually do you one better with Blu-ray drives becoming more widely available and less expensive, as seen on the Asus G75VW-DH72 .
As laptop designs get sleeker and slimmer, manufacturers are using an array of materials in their construction. Plastic is the cheapest and most commonly used material in laptop frames, but manufacturers have shown great ingenuity in making plastic not look cheap. The most common technique is called in-mold decoration or in-mold rolling, a process made popular by HP, Toshiba, and Acer in which decorative patterns are infused between plastic layers. This process has evolved into etched imprints and textures, commonly seen on laptop lids.
In the end, though, plastics are often associated with low-priced laptops, while more classy models rely on metal. The most common choice is aluminum, which has a more luxurious look and can be fashioned into a thinner chassis than plastic. Unibody construction, where the entire chassis is made from a single piece of metal, has become the gold-standard, seen on the Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (Mid 2012) . Other designs, like the Asus ZenBook UX51Vz-DH71 , mimic this same look and feel with all-metal designs that securely sandwich two separate layers together.
Other light but strong materials include magnesium alloy, as used in the Dell Latitude 6430u and Fujitsu Lifebook U772 , and carbon fiber, seen in the lightweight Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon . Glass has long been found covering displays, but with ultra-strong variants like Gorilla Glass, you’ll find glass being used in everything from the lid,to the clickpad, as seen on the glass-covered lid of the Acer Aspire S7-391-9886 and the touchpad of the HP Envy Spectre XT (13-2050nr) .
Glass and mylar are the two most common coatings for laptop touchpads, some of which provide dedicated mouse buttons while others just have clickable lower left and right corners. The difference is a matter of personal preference, as are laptops such as Lenovo ThinkPads and HP EliteBooks that offer dual mouse substitutes—both touchpads below and pointing sticks embedded in the keyboard. Keyboard layouts are a matter of taste, too, although we’re partial to ones that have real Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys instead of doubling those functions up on the cursor arrows (pressing the left arrow plus a Fn key for Home, for example).
Under the Hood
The most dominant processor chips come from Intel, which at presstime was rolling out its third-generation (codenamed “Ivy Bridge”) Core processors, starting with quad-core Core i7s for performance enthusiasts and avid gamers with mainstream dual-core Core i5 and Core i3 models to follow. Compared to the popular second-generation (codenamed “Sandy Bridge”) CPUs, Ivy Bridge parts—identifiable by model numbers in the 3000s as opposed to 2000s—bring a modest boost in performance and power efficiency and a better-than-modest boost in the chip’s integrated graphics.
Whether Ivy, Sandy, or an AMD APU, you should find an integrated graphics subsystem adequate for graphics tasks, unless you’re a part-time gamer or a CAD user. High-end, discrete graphics processing units are terrific for 3D games, transcoding 1080p video, or watching Blu-ray movies, but like fast processors, they also feast on laptop batteries. Nvidia (Optimus) and Apple (Automatic Graphics Switching) have, and AMD (Enduro) has announced, technologies that stretch battery life by switching seamlessly between integrated and discrete graphics based on application demand.
A big battery can be your biggest ally in a travel-hectic day. Many laptops are offered with multiple battery options, such as a choice of a 3-, 6-, or 9-cell battery pack, depending on your desire for unplugged life versus bulk and weight. Ultrabooks and Apple laptops, on the other hand, have non-removable batteries that can’t be swapped out for a spare. It’s up to you to figure out where battery life ranks in the grand scheme of things. For instance, mainstream laptops tend to come with a 6-cell battery option that lasts between five to seven hours on a charge, while ultraportables and business laptops tend to have multiple battery options—both swappable battery packs and, in some cases, snap-on battery bases or slices—that, when used in tandem, can easily surpass the 10-hour mark.
If possible, it’s always a good idea to look into additional batteries, especially if you spend more time on the road than you do in the office or at home. You should also look at the battery’s capacity, which is usually measured in watt-hours. Two batteries claiming to be 6-cells can have different capacities. A plus-sized battery means extra poundage, but the weight gain is worth it if it means leaving the system unplugged from dawn till dusk.
Buying an Extended Warranty
Most laptops are backed by a complimentary one-year warranty on parts and labor; Asus and Costco sell laptops that come with two-year warranties. The standard warranty is a limited one, so it won’t cover accidents that stem from a spilled drink, a key scraped off by a fingernail, or a drop to a hard surface. Extended warranties are also available.
Most laptop manufacturers also sell accidental coverage as a separate plan on top of optional extended warranties, so you might end up spending close to $300 for three years of comprehensive coverage. Apple offers a maximum three-year extended warranty ($250), while most Windows-based laptop manufacturers will offer up to four years.
Our rule of thumb is that if the warranty costs more than 15 percent of the laptop’s purchase price, you’re better off spending the money on backup drives or backup services that minimize downtime. Of course, you can’t put a price tag on peace of mind. There are instances when the logic board or the display—the most expensive pieces of a laptop—fail, and while rare, such a catastrophe can cost you half of what the laptop is worth. Defective components usually break down during the first year; anything after that is probably your fault.
By Brian Westover, PCMag