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 an 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 the 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.
- 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
- 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 an “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 support 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 computer’s 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, manufacturer 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 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
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
Even 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
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
Midsize (All Purpose)
Midsize 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
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 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
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
The 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