The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide

April 6, 2010 | Posted By: David Varble
Updated 8/6/2012


A beginners guide to netbooks & laptops and what to look for when buying one by:

David Varble, expert deal hunter and techie superstar who picks the highest quality products at the best prices available. Check out David's best laptop deals and top HDTV picks before making your next laptop or HDTV purchase!

Tips for buying a laptop

  • Do your homework - Before buying a laptop online, I suggest going to a store and checking out the display models. A few things to consider are the keyboard size and feel, screen size and resolution, glossy vs matte, speaker sound, durability, weight and so on. After you figure out which is best for you, then look around for the best deal. One place to check is my weekly best laptop deals page, which features the current hottest and most popular deals. This is a great way to read first hand reviews and relevant information on specific models.

  • Resist up-sells and accessories - Often websites and retail stores try and sell you extras to go with your new laptop: wireless mice, laptop case, external optical drive, RAM upgrade, etc... but resist. You can save money by purchasing these separately when they are on sale. It may be a lot cheaper to buy and replace the RAM yourself, a process that takes a screwdriver and about 5 minutes of your time. Here is a brief video demonstrating the few simple steps to upgrade a typical laptops memory. I suggest consulting your owners manual, however, to determine the maximum speed/size your laptop can handle, as well as any instructions specific to that model.

    Introduction to the Components


    CPU - Central Processing Unit - Possibly the single most important component, the processor or "brain" of the computer is also one of the biggest determining factors on battery life. The faster the processor the more power it uses, and therefore shortens the battery life. Most new laptops come with a dual core CPU, with the exception of some netbooks (usually a single-core Intel Atom) and higher end gaming/desktop replacement laptops (usually a Intel quad-core i7). Here is an example of the typical way CPU specs are listed: Intel Atom N2800 Dual Core Processor (1.86GHz, 1MB L2 Cache). It can be confusing when trying to decide on a processor for you laptop especially the way the frequencies and cache is listed. Not long ago you could judge a processors performance by its speed measured in gigahertz. A 2.8GHz dual core was much more powerful than a 2.2GHz dual core, but now with Turbo Boost in the mix (the ability to run the CPU faster than default automatically) it has become more difficult. A CPU that is clocked at 2.4GHz, can run as high as 2.93GHz if the workload requires it. The main benefit being it saves power by only using what it needs.
    CPU specs usually contain these three specs:
  • Speed of the CPU - measured in gigahertz (GHz)
  • Front-side Bus or FSB - connects the CPU to other system components (like the RAM and graphics card), usually measured in megahertz (MHz) and not always listed.
  • Cache - extremely fast memory built into (or next to) the CPU that stores recently-used data for faster accessibility, usually measured in megabytes (MB). Multi-core CPUs often have L2 (level 2) or even L3 cache.

    AMD
 CPU models - In general the higher the number the better the performance and sometimes just better graphics performance. MX suffix is reserved for the fastest A series processors. 
    Fusion APU:
  • C Series such as the C-60, C-50 & C-30 are ultra low voltage.  Lest expensive
  • E-Series - slightly faster than the C series but still low voltage
    A-Series:
  • A4 Series -Only Dual Core processors with higher clock speeds 240 Radeon Cores at 444MHz
  • A6 Series - Quad Core 320 Radeon cores at 400MHz
  • A8 Series - Quad Core  400 Radeon cores at 444MHz

    Intel
 CPU models - Currently Intel has by far the most popular processors for new desktops and notebooks in their Core processor family. Typically the higher the number the better the performance, unless the model has a "U" or a "L" which designates low power usage and slower clock speeds.  The letter "M" at the end signifies that it is a mobile processor while "Q" on core i7 CPU's stands for the quad core version.  So for example a Intel Core i7-3610QM would be a Ivy Bridge quad core mobile processor. 

  • Atom - entry level single and dual core processor, low power consumption found in netbooks
  • Celeron - Intel's least expensive CPU found in lower end laptops

  • Pentium G Series - Budget processors based on the Sandy Bridge architecture with the HT and CPU core turbo disabled.
    Core i Series: - Core [brand] + [processor number] + [suffix]
  • Core i3 - does not support hyper-threading or turbo boost, entry Level
  • Core i5 - 
for notebooks only features dual cores which supports hyper threading and Turbo Boost, mid range
  • Core i7 - comes in either dual or quad cores and also supports hyper threading and turbo boost.  Most come with a quad core, high end
  • (GPU) Graphics Processing Unit - Integrated graphics are built into the motherboard (or CPU) and utilize a portion of the computers system RAM, while dedicated (or discrete) graphics are separate chips that have their own video memory, resulting in better performance. With dedicated graphics cards improved performance, comes more heat, larger size (space for cooling), and shorter battery life. Dedicated graphics cards are a must for gaming laptops. Here is a helpful Graphics Card Hierarchy Chart at TomsHardware.com (mobile graphics included).

    (APU) Accelerated Processing Unit - What's all this APU talk.  Do I still need a video card? The term is currently only used by AMD but Intel's processors full under this category.  It is simply a processor that combines CPU and GPU elements into a single chip.  This means a huge improvement over previous integrated graphics. The new HD Graphics 3000 & 4000 is about 2 - 3 times faster than the previous Intel HD graphics (which was not integrated into the architecture) and  AMD's APUs perform even better. While APUs will not replace a high-end or mid-range discrete graphics card, they are adequate for most tasks aside from 3D gaming. One of the biggest benefits of an APU is improved power efficiency and therefore better battery life.

    (RAM) Random Access Memory - It can be extremely frustrating using a computer with insufficient RAM. When this happens your laptop resorts to using the hard drive to store and retrieve memory data (swap files), which not only takes longer than RAM but also requires more power. When deciding on RAM there are a few things to consider. First you need to find the maximum amount and speed of RAM that your motherboard will take. You can refer to your owners manual, manufacture page, or websites like crucial.com to determine your models maximum RAM capacity and speed. DDR3 is faster then DDR2, but the two are not compatible. However, DDR3 with a clock speed of 1333 for example, is backwards compatible with DDR3 800. Secondly, you must consider which operating system you will be running. Windows 32 Bit versions have a maximum of 4GB (3.4GB of which is usable), while most new laptops come with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-Bit, which has a limit of 16GB. In other words, there is no point in having 8GB of RAM in your laptop if you plan on running a 32-Bit operating system. Microsoft recommends a minimum of 1GB of RAM for Windows 7, which performs much better with less RAM then the notoriously RAM hungry Vista, but I would suggest twice that (2GB). Finally be careful when choosing factory RAM upgrades. Often you can easily upgrade the RAM yourself in a matter of minutes for much less, with the bonus of having the extra sticks as backup.

    Optical Drive - Aside from netbooks and ultraportables, laptops come standard with an optical drive that can read and burn DVDs. Higher end laptops with large screens may come with a Blu-ray drive instead. Without full 1080p (1920 x 1080) screen resolution you wont be able to take full advantage of this unless you hook your laptop up to a TV or monitor.

    HDMI - HDMI is able to send audio and video in full 1080p over a single cable. If you plan on ever hooking your laptop into a high definition monitor or HDTV, then I highly suggest a laptop with HDMI out.

    Hard Drive - Most new laptops come with at a 250GB or larger hard drive, however most are low power 5,400RPM drives that are not as fast as a 7,200RPM drive you would find in a desktop.  It is possible to upgrade to a larger capacity and faster 7,200RPM drive, but you might consider a solid state drive.  In the recent past a solid state drive (SSD) cost substantially more money and offered less storage capacity, however now you can pick up a 120GB or 240GB SATA III SSD on sale for $60 and $140 respectively.  With no moving parts, lighter weight, improved performance over standard drives, and reduced energy use, SSD's are ideal for mobile use. Reduced startup times is where one really notices the improved read & write speeds. Upgrading my old laptop's 5,400RPM hard drive to a SATA III SSD reduced my startup time from 58 seconds to about 20 seconds.  

    Screen - Screen resolution is the number of columns and rows of pixels displayed on a screen. Determining the correct screen size and resolution for you is a large factor in which laptop to buy. A laptop with a 13.3 inch screen for example, may come in different resolutions: (1200 x 800) or (1366 x 768). With more pixels being crammed into the same size screen, you are able to see more of a webpage. However, this also makes text and desktop icons smaller. Another factor to consider is LED backlights vs conventional compact fluorescent tubes found in budget and older laptops. LED (Light Emitting Diode) backlights tend to provide more contrast while using less power, providing longer battery life.

    Here is a list of typical screen resolutions and possible sizes (diagonal):

    Screen Resolutions Typical Screen Sizes
    SVGA (800 x 600)12"
    XGA (1034 x 768)12", 13.3", 14", 15"
    WXGA (1280 x 800)15.4″, 14.1″, 13.3, 12.1″
    WXGA+ (1440 x 900) 14″
    SXGA (1280 x 1024)14″, 15″, 15.7″
    XSGA+ (1400 x 1050) 12.1″, 14″, 15″
    WSXGA+ (1680 x 1050)15.4″
    UXGA (1600 x 1200) 14″, 15″, 16″
    WUXGA (1920 x 1200)17″, 15.4″
    Retina (2880 x 1800)15.4″

    Determining Your Computing Needs

    Netbooks

    NetbookNetbooks work great as a secondary PC or for younger children, and for travel or on-the-go use. Generally netbooks have 12" or smaller screens, weigh (2-3 pounds), and cost less the $500. They are not designed to replace the functions of your desktop or laptop, as they generally lack the power for serious computing. A typical netbook has an ultra low voltage CPU, such as a (1.6GHz) Intel Atom, 1GB of RAM, 160GB 5,400RPM SATA hard drive, no optical drive, and often run Win 7 Starter, or Linux.  When netbooks first came out I felt they were too slow and underpowered to be taken seriously, but the typical low power netbook of today is competes with a full size laptop from a couple of years ago.  Improvements in the Intel Atom and AMD E series processors and integrated graphics have made netbooks a serious consideration. AMD's E-series processors outperform Intel Atoms in most tests and significantly better at game performance. 

    Price: $500 or less
    Pros: Low price and portability
    Cons: Small screen, limited processing power
    Ideal Netbook:
    AMD E-450 Dual Core Processor (1.65GHz, 508-600MHz, 1MB L2 Cache)
    2 GB RAM
    12" 720p (1366 x 768) Display
    120GB Solid State Drive
    Windows 7 OS
    Wireless 802.11n & Bluetooth
    3 or 6 Cell Battery
    HDMI Port


    Ultraportable

    UltraportableEven thinner and lighter than a Netbook, weighing less than 4 pounds, while offering more power. Generally costs from $600 to $1,600+. A typical ultraportable notebook has Intel Core i processor, 11-15" screen with 720p or higher (1440 x 900) display resolution, integrated graphics (to save room and heat), and often no optical drive. The main difference between a Netbook and a Ultraportable, besides the price, is processing power and screen size, allowing them greater functionality for general computer use.  Some ultrabooks have limited external ports, such as no ethernet, only 2 USB ports, etc.   Some manufactures are choosing soldered RAM making it impossible to upgrade, so be sure to look before settling on the 2GB model.

    Price: $600 - $1,600 +
    Pros: Reduced size & weight without compromised performance
    Cons: No optical drive, integrated graphics, and cost
    Ideal Ultraportable:
    Intel Core i5-3317U (1.8GHz) 
    13.3" (1920 x 1080) LED Backlit Display
    128GB Solid State Drive
    Windows 7 OS
    6 or 9 Cell Battery
    Aluminum Chassis


    Midsize (All Purpose)

    Midsize LaptopMidsize laptops are still small enough to haul around, but large enough to work efficiently. 14-16 inch screens, dual or quad core CPUs, 2-8 GB RAM, 250GB or larger hard drive, and DVD burner are typical. Cheaper midsize laptops have lower screen resolutions (1280 x 800) or (1366 x 768), while the more expensive ones offer higher resolutions, up to (1600 x 900). Often times, Blu-ray drives are not included due to the limited screen size. Even with a 15.6" screen and (1440 x 900) resolution, you cannot take full advantage of HD 1080p (1920 x 1080) content.

    Price: $300 - $1000
    Pros: Large enough to work comfortably w/ more functionality then a netbook, often budget priced
    Cons: Depending on price/model, limited processing power and battery life
    Ideal Midsize:Intel Core i3 or AMD E Series APU
    8GB of DDR3 RAM
    15.6" (1600 x 900) LCD Display w/ LED backlight
    120GB SSD Hard Drive
    Wireless N & Bluetooth
    6 or 9 Cell Battery
    Discrete Graphics Card


    Desktop Replacement

    Desktop ReplacementDesktop replacement laptops will cost you $800 or more; not ideal for portability but still better than lugging around a desktop, keyboard, and monitor. These larger laptops are often used when space is limited. Battery life is often less than three hours on desktop replacements due to the large screen size, faster processor, and discrete graphics card; therefore they are generally tethered to a wall socket. These laptops typically have a screen of 16-18" and are geared towards media.
     
    Price: $800 - $1,500 +
    Pros: Large high definition screen (usually capable of displaying Blu-ray resolutions), powerful processor, and full size keyboards
    Cons: Big and heavy and often with short battery life, not made for portability
    Ideal Desktop Replacement:
    Intel Core i5 / i7 Sandy Bridge Processor
    17.3" 1080p (1920 x 1080) Display
    Blu-ray Drive
    8GB DDR3 RAM
    1TB 7,200RPM Hard Drive for storage & Solid State Drive for operating system
    Discrete Graphics such as the Nvidia GeForce GTX 480M


    Gaming Laptop

    Gaming LaptopThe biggest difference between a typical desktop replacement laptop and gaming laptop is the graphics card. Gaming laptops try to pack the power of a desktop into a portable size. Gaming laptops and notebooks typically contain high speed Core i7 processors, a dedicated graphics card with at least 1GB of video memory (preferably 2GB), 8GB of DDR3 RAM, 15-18 inch screen with minimum of (1440 x 900) resolution, and SSD to run your OS.

    Price: $1,300 - $3,000 +
    Pros: Gaming power of a desktop while still being somewhat portable, top of the line graphics and processors
    Cons: Most expensive with the shortest battery life
    Ideal Gaming Laptop:
    Intel Core i7-2960XM Quad Core (2.7GHz, 8MB Cache)
    16GB DDR3 RAM
    18" 1080p (1920 x 1080) LED Display
    2 GB GeForec GTX 680M Graphics
    1TB 7,200RPM SATA Hard Drive for storage, and Solid State Drive for OS
    Windows 7 64-Bit
    Blu-ray Drive


    Cash Back Resources

    Newegg Coupons
    HP Coupons
    Apple Coupons
    Dell Coupons
    Tiger Direct Coupons
    Best Buy Coupons
    Lenovo Coupons
    Walmart Coupons

    Share this:
  • Comments
    April 6, 2010 | Posted By: Shagger
    Almost as good as if I had wrote it myself! :)

    j/k - Great article!
    April 19, 2010 | Posted By: hhh2oboy
    Thanks! it was very helpful!
    April 21, 2010 | Posted By: earthshock
    thanks for posting.. really helpful..
    April 26, 2010 | Posted By: babuofusa
    Few things you didn't talk about:
    1) RAM size and use of RAM
    2) Intel i3, i5 processors and turbo boost
    3) Miscellaneous features like bluetooth, USB ports, memory stick slots, S-Video output, Webcam, Integrated Mic etc
    4) Difference in Mac and Windows
    5) If Athlon has processor in similar to i3 and i5

    But anyway very nice article. Thanks!
    April 28, 2010 | Posted By: ProfitAfterRebates
    A comparison of intel i3, i5, and i7 processors would be helpful.
    April 29, 2010 | Posted By: Logician1313
    More articles coming soon!
    May 10, 2010 | Posted By: soso
    Not a beginner and still found this very helpful, gave it to cousin so he won't bother me to explain!
    May 27, 2010 | Posted By: sundhar23
    A real commendable job.I had given this URL to pkp.in for one of the queries for laptop.
    June 21, 2010 | Posted By: BigTen333
    Great overview! Would be nice to have a chart that groups processors of like performance together. For example which AMD's and non I Intel processors perform about the same as which Intel I processors? Which I processors don't have a similar chip in the Core2 Duo/Quad, and AMD lines?
    July 5, 2010 | Posted By: busnut
    Nice job - thanks OP!
    July 24, 2010 | Posted By: Clubguy
    I've learn nice idea for purchasing quality Laptop PC
    July 27, 2010 | Posted By: Caller
    Excellent! Thanks!
    August 10, 2010 | Posted By: onlineonly123
    Nice article, information about memory would be helpful
    October 4, 2010 | Posted By: Logician1313
    Thanks for the suggestion onlineonly124! I added RAM information to the "Components" section above.
    November 15, 2010 | Posted By: nomorerack
    This is so helpful. Thanks for all the tips. :)
    November 19, 2010 | Posted By: susanqy
    bookmark it, Great post
    November 22, 2010 | Posted By: victoriahouserob
    This is the best overall, simple reference chart covering all the essentials in Portable Computer purchase fit, usage and standards. Absolutely wonderful. I will be sharing this with relatives who do not know so much about CPU's to confidently and effectively manage the purchase process with salespersons in stores. Thank You. I'll probably print a copy for my wallet too just in case!
    February 8, 2011 | Posted By: amabdeb
    Nice job, very hepful. This is one of the best reference chart covering all the essentials in Laptops usage and standards. Absolutely wonderful.
    February 21, 2011 | Posted By: pavankalyan2011
    update this article.
    August 6, 2012 | Posted By: Logician1313
    Updated =)
    August 7, 2012 | Posted By: FrugalFreaky
    durability and longevity, Only two smart factors to consider.
    September 1, 2012 | Posted By: bestbuy1115
    great post!!!
    September 2, 2012 | Posted By: Campinout
    Not impressed of course ;) You are not winning any silver metals with this one L1313....LOL!! Kidding aside, very helpful information that will help many newbies.
    April 12, 2013 | Posted By: NewWanderlust
    Thank you! Much more comprehensive than most "basic" guides. Answered many of my questions and prompted me to research some other things for better understanding (not a bad thing).
    June 22, 2013 | Posted By: fw4evva
    Great post. Thank you.
    August 19, 2013 | Posted By: ernestable
    Any chance you will come back soon with more details that were suggested be included to really make this article a super one, vs. a good one. Not all of us are newbies, and I realize that your data was aimed at us newbies,, but like I said, some of us are just above "newbies" and we are hungry for more relevant material and this is the perect platform to show it all.

    Thanks anyway for the great time invested by you and your effort in putting this together for us folks.
    Post A Comment
    Log in using Facebook


    TRUSTe online privacy certification

    While FatWallet makes every effort to post correct information, offers are subject to change without notice.
    Some exclusions may apply based upon merchant policies.
    © 1999-2014