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Laptop prices have continued to fall this year for all categories except the very cheapest netbooks. Meanwhile, performance and features have kept creeping northward, giving consumers incredible buying power –- and plenty of options — when it comes to notebook PCs.
What Are Your Options?
Four general classes of laptops remain on the market. Here’s how they shake out (from smallest to largest):
Netbooks — Inexpensive and designed for tossing into a backpack or briefcase, netbooks typically have just enough power for checking the occasional e-mail or web page, and that’s about it. Specs are variable, with screen size generally between 8 and 12 inches.
Prime examples: Acer Ferrari One and MSI Wind U110
Ultralights — Through a few serious feats of engineering, many ultralights now pack as much power as their larger brethren –- while keeping an exceptionally slim profile and, in most cases, good looks, too. Screens run between 11 and 13 inches in size, but prices are sky-high.
Prime examples: MacBook Air (11- and 13-inch models), HP Envy 14
Mainstream Notebooks — The “mainstream” now swallows up a wide selection of laptops from 13 to 16 inches in size. Price and performance vary widely, but you will rarely pay more than $1,000 for a solid mainstream notebook today, and often much less.
Prime examples: Lenovo IdeaPad Y460 and Lenovo ThinkPad T410s
Desktop Replacements — Relatively rare now, these 17-inch-and-up notebooks are designed to stay put rather than be toted around. Desktop replacements sacrifice low weight and trim size in order to pack as much power into the machine as possible, and prices can run two to 10 times that of a typical mainstream notebook.
Prime examples: Apple MacBook Pro 17-inch, Sony VAIO VPC-F115FM/B
Key Laptop Features
So, how does one go about sifting through the mess of terms and acronyms to determine which laptop to buy? Pay attention to the following specs:
Screen Size and Resolution — The most important consideration in your buying decision. Only you know how much screen you need, but also pay close attention to the screen’s resolution. A 1600 x 900–pixel screen can pack 37 percent more information on the screen than a 1366 x 768–pixel display, regardless of the physical size of the display.
RAM — No computer today should be without 3 GB of RAM minimum, and 4 GB is standard. You’ll need a 64-bit operating system to take advantage of more RAM than that.
CPU — Intel’s Core i5 processor is the standard for solid performance, but Intel’s Core i3 processors can work well, too, if you need to save a little cash. AMD’s latest releases of the Athlon II are roughly on par with the Core i3 and can save you $100 or so. Other chips (especially the Atom) generally aren’t fit for the demands of modern operating systems and should be selected only for netbooks.
Graphics — Integrated graphics will give you a pretty dismal visual experience. If you plan to play any game beyond Solitaire –- or want to make use of Windows’ niftier graphical tricks, you’ll want discrete graphics. Both Nvidia or ATI chips work well.
Optical Drive — Still sticking with physical media? You are if you’re a gamer or dealing with big software-package installs. Blu-ray and DVD burners add flexibility but increase overall weight and size. DVD is generally still standard on larger laptops. Generally not included in netbooks or the MacBook Air.
Hard Drive — 320 GB has been the standard this year, and 500 GB is quickly taking over. There’s little need for most users to upgrade from there.
New and Upcoming
As always, there’s never a good time to buy a laptop, because the market changes so quickly. There’s nothing you can do about it now, but if you really want to sit on the bleeding edge, here are a few extra issues to consider when investing in new hardware.
WWAN — Wireless WAN isn’t as big a deal today as it was last year, since most smartphones can now be tethered to a laptop, letting them do double duty as internet-access devices when Wi-Fi isn’t available. Still, WWAN can be more convenient, more reliable and easier to set up. It’s also available in both 3G and 4G flavors. 3G yields about 600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps in download speeds while you can expect 3 Mbps to 6 Mbps from 4G. Downsides? Only certain carrier networks are compatible, and you’ll have to shell out a monthly fee and possibly sign a service contract.
SSD Hard Drives — You can get a slight performance boost by trading in your hard drive for a solid-state drive, essentially a bunch of flash memory chips instead of a spinning disk. SSDs are faster, lighter and — best of all — silent, but they’re considerably smaller. They’re also more expensive, often costing double what a standard hard drive does.
Touchscreens — You can easily boost the price of your laptop by adding a touchscreen to it. Some are single-touch, some are multitouch, and most manufacturers have them as options now. It may sound cool, but ask yourself if you really want to spend your workday pawing at your laptop’s display, covering it with fingerprints –- and add $200 to $500 to the selling price.
USB 3.0 — The latest standard for USB is backward-compatible with older USB devices, but lets you connect to the highest-speed devices on the market as well. Many new computers are coming equipped with one USB 3.0 port (plus several older USB 2 ports). You’ll notice the difference because it’s blue on the inside.
HDMI — The easiest way to transmit both HD picture and sound to a display, an HDMI-out port can transform your rig into a multimedia streaming hub.