In 2008, unit shipments of notebook PCs outpaced sales of desktop PCs for the first time, and for good reason. With their fast dual-core processors, large screens, spacious hard drives and various connectivity options, today's laptops don't exact many feature compromises and still give you the freedom to work where and when you want.
Better still, prices continue to drop: A well-equipped business portable can be had for around $800, and $1,400 will get you a model with almost all the bells and whistles. You also have more varied choices than ever, with 16-inch screens available in larger machines and a new class of ultra-compact, ultra-affordable netbooks designed to be take-everywhere Internet/e-mail companions.
Here we offer guidance on the type, components and features to consider when selecting your next laptop, as well as some of our current favorite entries in each category.
Select Your Size: Bantamweight to Heavyweight
Before you start thinking about the specs of your notebook, you first have to decide which category of machine — determined by its weight and screen size — best fits your needs and working style. Display sizes range from a somewhat cramped eight inches to a behemoth 18.4 inches (with stops at nearly every size in between), while weights range from less than three pounds to almost nine pounds.
|Dell Studio XPS|
Netbooks are the smallest laptops. Designed to be Internet companions (hence the name) for checking e-mail and surfing the Web while on the go, they are small and light enough (typically 2.5 to three pounds) to toss in a bag and have with you all the time. The smallest netbooks have eight-inch or nine-inch LCDs, which means you'll have to scroll both horizontally and vertically to see all of a Web page or document.
The sweet spot for this nascent category has quickly become the 10-inch models, which relieve you of the need to scroll sideways to see most Web pages. That larger screen also lets manufacturers squeeze in wider keyboards, which makes typing much more comfortable than on an eight- or nine-inch netbook.
Aside from portability, the major selling point for a netbook is its low price (for the majority of models anyway). At anywhere from $299 to $499, you can commit to a netbook without applying for a government bailout. But that low price comes with an important caveat: A netbook is intended to be a complement to your main PC, not a replacement for it.
While a netbook has the essential computing gear — Wi-Fi and Ethernet for connectivity, built-in storage, USB ports and memory card slots for loading files — there's no room for a CD or DVD drive on board. And to keep prices (and internal heat levels) low, netbooks typically have low-power processors (Intel's Atom line has become the standard) that are fine for simple Web and word-processing tasks, but would be maddeningly underpowered for tasks such as creating a PowerPoint presentation. Think of it this way: A netbook is the right choice for content consumption, not content creation.
Moving up the size, power and price ladder brings you to ultraportables. This class of machine typically has a 12.1-inch screen (and hence a roomier keyboard than a netbook) and weighs three to four pounds. If you are on the road daily or travel frequently (two or more times per month) and want a machine with you at all times, an ultraportable is the best fit.
Unlike netbooks, ultraportables typically have comparatively powerful processors, so you won't trade much in the way of performance to get a compact machine. Many models even have optical drives built in, so you have all your essential components. Of course, miniaturization doesn't come cheap, so you'll pay a premium for an ultraportable compared to a larger laptop with similar specs. An entry-level ultraportable can be had for just over $1,000, while a more robust configuration will set you back $1,500 to $2,000.
If your job entails a lot of note taking, you may want to consider a convertible tablet PC. Models in t ultraportable sub-class are typically outfitted with 12.1-inch screens that swivel and fold flat against the keyboard, so you can use the included stylus to jot electronic notes or use your finger to navigate Windows and application with the touch of a finger.
For the majority of business buyers a notebook in the thin-and-light category is the best bet. Sporting screens that are either 13.3 inches or 14.1 inches in size, these machines give you a bigger view of your work while still maintaining comfortable portability — four to six pounds and about an inch or so thick. All thin-and-light machines have the optical drive built in and most are powered by dual-core CPUs, so you can use one as your primary PC. A good thin-and-light costs around $1,000, so you don't pay the premium an ultraportable exacts.
Price-sensitive buyers will want to consider a machine in the mainstream category. Laptops in this class, which includes budget models, are equipped with 14.1- or 15.4-inch displays and are heavier (six to seven pounds) and larger (around 1.5 inches thick).
But if your travel consists of schlepping the machine from your home to the car to the office and back again, the extra heft may not matter to you. But the savings will: A solid mainstream laptop costs about $800, and if you don't mind settling for a lesser processor you can find a bargain machine for hundreds less.
If you want all the comforts of a desktop PC in a form factor that you can still tote when necessary, consider a desktop replacement notebook. New models with 16-inch screens deliver a good balance of big-screen comfort and reasonable portability.
Other models have 17-inch or even 18.4-inch screens, and are usually laden with all manner of multimedia and/or gaming goodies that drive up the prices to north of $2,000. But if you want a single machine for work and play, a desktop replacement might make more sense than buying a separate desktop and laptop.
Specs: Screen Type and Resolution
Once you've settled on the right class and screen size for your needs, you'll notice that many manufacturers offer a selection of LCD panels. Most consumer laptops these days come standard with "glossy" panels that don't have a coating to cut down on glare and reflection from ambient light.
These panels tend to have crisper text reproduction (especially at smaller point sizes) and more vibrant color reproduction, since there's no coating to dull things down. But if you tend to work in harsh lighting conditions — overhead fluorescents, lots of windows — you may want to opt for a panel with an anti-glare coating, which is available in most business lines.
You may also have a choice of screen resolution (the measure of how many pixels are found in the horizontal and vertical dimensions) for the model you've chosen. The decision you make here is crucial: Since LCD panels are designed to look best at their native resolution, you won't be able to change your mind and simply set it to a different resolution and expect it to deliver the same image quality.
|Toshiba Protege M750|
There are differing schools of thought on selecting a screen resolution. Some believe you should opt for the highest-resolution panel you can get, and then use the application's zoom feature to overcome the often-tiny default text sizes you'll find displayed at that high resolution.
Others believe that you should pick a resolution that delivers a comfortable working environment in the applications you use most often. One rule of thumb: If you work with video and images regularly, a high-res screen is the way to go; if all your work is text-based, a quality lower-res screen will suffice.
Specs: Processor RAM, and GPU
Though you might be tempted by the $400 price of a Celeron-based notebook, we strongly recommend you select a model with a processor from Intel's Core 2 Duo family or AMD's Turion X2 Ultra line. A new laptop should give you three to five years of productive life, and these processors have enough overhead to handle whatever demands Windows 7 and next-generation applications might place on them. (The exception is with netbooks: Since dual-core powerhouses aren't offered in this class, your best choice is an Intel Atom-powered machine.)
As for all the various GHz ratings, there's no need to get too hung up on the processor speed. Yes, a 2.4-GHz processor will be about 10 percent faster than a 2.2-GHz chip, but you would likely only be able to tell if you ran a PC benchmarking program. In real-world use, you won't notice that much of a difference.
What will have a noticeable impact on performance is the amount of RAM in your system. Buyers on a budget can scrape by with 2GB, but if you can afford it, step up to 3GB or 4GB. The graphics chip in your system will also have a significant impact on perceived speed, though most business users will be well served by the integrated graphics that come standard with the Intel Core 2 Duo or AMD Turion X2 Ultra platforms.
That said, if you indulge in video work or like to occasionally play 3D games on your work system, configure a machine with a dedicated (often called discrete) graphics engine from Nvidia or ATI.