Buying a laptop is an easy process. As with buying any electronics you should start by visualizing yourself using the item, try to see where and how you will be using your new laptop. Will you use it mostly at a desk? Will you travel a lot with it? Do you play games or use 3D rendering software?
As with any computer equipment the top of the line hardware costs disproportionately more than the mainstream stuff. This means it’s best to buy only what you need and not splash out too much on very expensive gear that will go out of date quickly. Having said that if you really could use a DVD burner and a high resolution screen then of course you should get them.
Are you a power user?
The majority of computer uses don’t need anything beyond Office applications, email and the Internet. So if you’re one of these people you should go for a very cheap Celeron based laptop, from Dell an entry level model such as this will be under $700. The standard 14.1″ or 15″ screen will be fine for light work, especially word processing and reading online articles. I really suggest you get at least 512mb of RAM since Windows XP is a real memory hog.
The drawbacks of an entry level laptop such as this are basically performance. These laptops use what’s called ‘integrated graphics’ or ‘shared memory graphics’ this means that the graphics subsystem shares access to the main memory with the central processor rather than having it’s own dedicated memory.
This ‘sharing’ of memory resources means that basically all 3D games won’t run on an ‘integrated graphics’ laptop and performance in graphics heavy applications will be poor (although most light users wouldn’t notice).
Another thing to remember is that Pentium 4s and Pentium 4 Celerons suffer much more of a performance hit from integrated graphics that Pentium M (Centrino) laptops. So for example if you have a digital camera and you intend to do a little bit of photography stuff on your laptop I would suggest going for an inexpensive Pentium M laptop rather than a Celeron (which is rock bottom in graphics performance).
One positive thing is that these entry level laptops are usually quite compact and generally have good battery life since they lack a lot of high drain components.
Laptops that do more
I expect most high power users will already know all of what I’m covering in this article so I’ll pitch this at first time ‘serious’ laptop buyers. If you plan on playing a few games or running multiple applications (say web designers) then you’ll want a laptop with a bit more performance.
For graphics professionals or serious hobbyists I recommend getting a Pentium 4 3Ghz or higher laptop with 128Mb of video RAM. Most filtering or rendering computations go much better on the Pentium 4 because of it’s high clock speed and memory bandwidth. While the Pentium M/Centrino is great for games and multitasking it doesn’t have the ‘legs’ for hard core tasks such as encoding DVD movies or music.
What the Pentium M/Centrino does have on it’s side is efficiency. It’s nearly as fast as the top end Pentium 4s but uses way less power and produces much less heat. This means that no matter what applications you use with your laptop, if you carry it around a lot and use it on the road I recommend you buy a Pentium M/Centrino laptop.
So if you’re after a large ‘desktop replacement’ laptop get a Pentium 4 otherwise get a Pentium M.
Mobile graphics processors
In the last year there has been a massive increase in the range and power of mobile graphics processors. Currently ATi has the edge over nVidia withe the Mobile Radeon 9700. This is a great graphics chip but unless you play games there’s no real reason to pay extra to get it. You’ll be fine with other options as long as they have at least 64mb of video memory.
Mobile hard drives
Again new 7200 rpm drives have hit the market in the last 12 months. Some notebooks such as the Sager 8890 support multiple drives in RAID arrays that can serious improve hard drive access speed. If you work with large files (such as heavy graphics, sound or video editing) then I would definitely go for a laptop that supports RAID 0 over 2 or more drives.
The mobile market is getting big
A huge number of people are switching to mobile computers since they save so much space and are so convenient. Prices are dropping fast and new technologies are coming out every 6 months. With this in mind it might be better to save a few dollars on by buying a middle of the road laptop now and upgrade in the next 12 months selling off your old laptop. That way you keep up with the latest technology and never pay through the nose for bleeding edge technology.