Post all notebook/laptop/tablet pc related questions here
Since there are many "what laptop should I buy?" questions being posted. I decided to help make the decision easier for some by creating a mini-guide to help narrow down which of the many laptops, is best suited for your needs.
Some years have passed since the time I last wrote this guide. Some major changes have occurred in the notebook industry since then. In addition,
I will change the format of this guide since it appeared to be too technical for many of the posters here. The old guide can still be found on the bottom of this thread.
lets start off with common questions!
1. What Brand should I buy?
This makes as much sense as asking "which car is better, Honda or Toyota?" or "is Chinese food better than Italian?".
Notebook companies make more than one notebook, and many of them have more than one line!
Lets take for example, Dell. In 2011, Dell produces several lines of notebooks: Inspiron, XPS, Vostro, Latitude, and Precision. They are aimed at different markets, built differently, and even have different levels of support. When people say "Dell sucks, or Dell is great" they tend to generalize an entire brand with multiple lines, with issues they had with one particular model.
In general, notebook companies have consumer models.. these are aimed at the average person. These notebooks tend to be the cheapest models in the company. They are usually made entirely with plastic. Their support services tend to be busier and less personalized. For most people, consumer models are more than enough to meet their needs.
include (but not limited to): Dell Inspiron, HP, Toshiba satellite, Lenovo Ideapad, etc. Some consumer models offer great performance:cost ratios (as in getting the best specs for the dollar).
are aimed towards business users. They are usually better built, using some kind of metal like aluminum, magnesium, even titanium, in certain areas. They tend to be very conservative looking (black, silver, grey). Features they may offer that consumer models don't normally have include more security software, finger print readers, shock protected hard drive, spill proof keyboard, etc. Business models tend to have very modular construction, meaning that many parts are easily accessible and easily exchangeable. Business models include: Dell Latitude, Dell Precision, HP Elitebook, Lenovo Thinkpad, etc. Business models will usually be pricier than their consumer counterparts. Workstation notebooks tend to be based on business models, but feature higher spec features and will be much pricier. Service is usually better for business models. From my own experience you get far better service with a Dell Precision notebook than a Dell Inspiron notebook.
These became popular around 2008 or so, although the fad has died down since the emergence of tablets. These are usually small notebooks that tend to be around 7" to 11" in screen size. They tend to be begin cheap, from $150 to $500. However they are usually underpowered and comes with a basic version of an operating system. Most Netbooks tend to use the Intel Atom processor. These are good if you need something cheap and mobile, but don't expect it to have the power of a pricier notebook. I also do not suggest using this as your main computer.
Beginning in late 2011, Intel has been promoting the ultrabooks, which are basically notebooks around the specs and size of the 2011 Macbook Air, which in this case is considered the inspiration for this class of notebooks. They tend to be around 11"-13" in screen size and between 2 to 3lbs. Like the Macbook Air, they are very thin and very light. Unlike Netbooks, they are pricier, but have better performing CPUs. At the end of 2011 the only Netbooks are the Asus UX31 and 21, Lenovo U300S, Macbook Air, Toshiba Portege Z835, HP Folio, and the Acer Aspier S3. Its expected that 2012 will bring in far more ultrabooks
Before netbooks and ultrabooks, you had the ultraportable category, which tended to be notebooks between 11" to 13", are generally under 4lbs. They are a much broader category, and have a wider price range. For example the Sony Z series is lighter than nearly any Ultrabook or Netbook, and has far more power and the highest resolution screen on any 13" notebook, but it is also by far the most expensive. In contrast the Lenovo X220 is roughly the cost of an ultrabook (slightly less with coupons).
are aimed at people who want the best video card possible in a notebook. they tend to be at least 15.4", but usually 17" and above feature better video cards. Most of the time, these models are based on some consumer variant, and spec'd up. However most of the popular ones are based on whitebooks (usually Clevo and MSI). In the past sellers of these whitebooks were less open about the ODMs, but these days many of them are open about it, usually advertising "so and so model, built on Clevo". Also keep in mind that unlike desktops, 99% of the time you cannot change the video card in a notebook
2. What do you plan to do on a notebook?
People who usually care about price or performance need to consider what they want to do with their notebooks. Things like surfing the internet, downloading stuff, watching videos, playing mp3s, and using Microsoft office are not very demanding and could be done on any notebook.
If all you do are these, you don't really need a dedicated video card, or some high performance processor because most likely the things you will be doing, won't take advantage of it. So if you don't need a high end video card, save your money!
on the other hand, if you do gaming, auto cad, rendering things, etc.. you will likely need some kind of video card. notebooks 13" and below will usually have a lower end video card. 14-15.4" will usually have a mid range video card, and 17" and above will offer you a high end video card. You should also consider whether or not a notebook is really ideal for you, or if you're better off with a desktop. Notebooks have constraints on heat since the unit is smaller than a desktop!
Something important to consider is screen size. You can read more about it in the old version below. The screen is what you'll be looking at most of the time and the size should be important. In addition, screen size affects weight.. the bigger the screen, the heavier the notebook. you'll need to take into consideration how mobile you need to be as a heavier notebook may note be comfortable to carry.
2B. When to buy a notebook
So you've decided on the size of the notebook you want, and what you want to do with it. You will then ask, when is the best time to buy? To put it simply, buy only when you REALLY NEED IT!
. Technology is always changing and things will become obsolete in no time. It makes no sense to buy something in March, for use in September, especially since there will be something new at that time. New versions of notebook vary in the time they are released (Intel usually releases their new notebook processors around early Spring), so new models begin appearing from that point on. Apple for example releases new models somewhere between March to May, and giving minor updates around October. Usually around the time when a new notebook will be introduced, the current models will undergo steep price drops. If you feel that the next line up doesn't really offer something you need, then the cheaper soon-to-be-obsolete model may be better for you.
2C. Deals and purchasing
Not all companies offer the same deals and discounts. Dell for example, constantly releases coupons which cut the price of their consumer models at a significant percent! however coupons for their Business and workstation models are rare. HP also releases coupons. Sometimes ordering directly over phone can result in discounts if you can haggle well. Dell, HP, and SonyStyle have direct sales operators to whom you can haggle with. Also be warned that if you contact these companies directly, they may ask you to purchase things you don't need, which can be very expensive. Know what you need, and now what the regular price should be so you can aim for lower. Some companies, like Apple, don't really give many discounts outside of education ones, and prices tend to be more fixed even after time has passed. Don't ask me for coupons either as I can't keep track of them.. however check out slick deals, notebookreview forum's deals section, etc where you can find postings of them.
Another common question brought up is whether an Apple notebook is for them. Apple is one of those companies that has a much simpler line up, 3 models of Macbook Pros, and 2 models of Macbook Airs. Its rumored that in 2012 the two lines may merge to become one and the same.
If you value performance:price ratios over everything else, then certain models of Macs will not be for you because they will be consistently more expensive than a consumer level notebook. However, it is also faulty to compare them to consumer level notebooks as the build quality of most macbook models, are up there with business models. Macbook Pros are built from an "aluminum brick". Like business models, these higher end macs are physically well built, more polished, and have a better fit and finish than their consumer counterparts. In addition, Apple is also producing the OS, and other software for their system.. most PC vendors are using some one elses programs (Microsoft windows, adobe, etc) when packaging their system.. in the end, its the reason why Apple can be more expensive. People considering macs should ponder whether or not Mac OS is for them (although these macs also come with the ability to run Windows, you will have to purchase it yourself).. some people like it, some don't. However Mac OS will meet the needs of nearly every casual computer user (net, videos, music, downloading).. and for those into video editing.. offers some world renown programs. If you plan to become an iOS developer, you need a Mac. Finally, although macs are pricey, they depreciate well. Since Mac OS has a smaller market share than PC users, there's less risk of viruses as well (but its not 100% immune to them). On the other hand others may prefer Windows as certain programs are still not found on Macs (particularly industry specific ones). Some however, may prefer to stick to other brands due to the lack of certain ports on Apple notebooks, stronger preference to windows, or those who are with limited budgets.
Rugged vs Sturdy
does not mean the same thing. For example a Macbook Pro will feel sturdy. Its unibody construction means there's very little flexing in the chassis and lid, and the keyboard rarely flexes. However that does not necessarily mean its rugged. A Panasonic Toughbook for example, is what you could consider Rugged. it has a shock mounted hard drive to protect the hard drive from sudden movements (particularly Falls!), handle spills to the keyboard, and many other types of abuse. Levels of ruggedness varies depending on industries.
4. Notebooks/netbooks vs Tablets
The iPad has repopularized the tablet, which has since then spawned many similar tablets (usually sporting Android). When it comes to choosing between a notebook/netbook or tablet, for the time being, Tablets excel at consuming media, traditional notebooks/netbooks excel at producing media
. What this means is that you can do all your websurfing, music listening, movie watching activities on a tablet. But when it comes to serious work, such as typing documents, making powerpoints, making videos, etc you're better off with an actual computer. Keep in mind that for both Apple tablets and Android tablets, app makers always make their apps on a computer.
Some people may choose to go the route of a tablet plus an external keyboard which is fine too, but keep in mind that an iPad with an external keyboard ends up weighing more than an 11" Macbook Air
5. Hard drives
As of late 2011, some computers come with the option for a solid state drive (SSD). In comparison with traditional hard drives, SSD's are generally faster. Also because it does not have any moving parts (unlike a traditional hard drive which has moving parts like a platter, head, actuator, etc) it doesn't make much noise, suffers less mechanical break down, and consumes far less energy. The downsides is that SSDs are very expensive, you get more storage space for the buck on a traditional hard drive. Another downside is the number of re-write cycles, as SSDs generally have much less than traditional hard drives, and in some cases some of the newer models have even less to save cost. However as technology improves, things will change and SSDs are still much cheaper than when they were first introduced to the consumer market.. but still has some ways to go. Many super thin notebooks like the Ultrabooks, tend to use SSDs due to space concerns.
6. Built in China/Japan/USA/etc
Another common concern I see is where the notebook is built.
To put it simply, notebooks are built in multiple places.
What it says on the bottom of your notebook many only be representative of the final place it was assembled at. Open up your notebook completely, you will most likely find that your hard drive, ram, chassis, battery, screen, etc will be built in different places.. this is due to outsourcing.
The sheer majority of notebooks are built in China and Taiwan. Companies like Dell, Apple, etc contract companies like Quanta, Compal, Foxtronn, etc to build their notebooks. This is why Quanta is always termed the world's #1 notebook manufacturer even though the average person never heard of them. This is not just true for notebooks but for most electronics too! Sony outsources PS3 production to Foxtronn.
7. Buy what makes you happy
Ultimately, you should buy whatever makes you happy. For people who prioritize looks over performance and price.. they may feel miserable being stuck with a cheap, good performing notebook that looks like a pile of dog turd. Others may feel frustrated that their pretty thin piece of machine, can't run their favorite games. The Sony Vaio CR and CS series remain popular because of its looks (it comes in pink), despite that it is over priced and offers very little performance for the money. The same could be said about the Vaio P netbook which has the limited functionality of a netbook, but costs as much as a notebook. There are obviously many people who are happy with these types of purchases, and if they are happy that's what counts.
8. Other technical stuff
AMD vs Intel - There once was a time when AMD was competitive with Intel in the notebook CPU market. However for the past several years, AMD cpus have not been able to match a comparable Intel CPU in terms of controlling heat and reducing power consumption. In general AMD chips are associated with budget notebooks because they are cheaper.
glossy vs matte screen - in 2005, matte screens were more common in notebooks than glossy. in 2009 nearly all notebooks are using glossy screens except business notebooks. There are pros and cons on both of them, and each person reacts differently to each screen. Glossy screens tend to have better contrast, but can be reflective. Matte screens may appear dull to some but are not so reflective and easier on the eyes. Its mostly a personal taste and I personally like both. These days we also see edge to edge displays, which are glossy screens with another layer of clear material over it that gives it an edge to edge look.. these are even "glossier" than the standard glossy screens!
Nvidia vs ATi - these are the two dominant brands when it comes to notebook video cards. For the most part their line ups are comparable to each other and there are pros and cons to each of them. Again, its a personal preference and those who have very specific needs, will know which card they want. Keep in mind that most notebook manufacturers do not offer an Nvidia AND ATi version of the same notebook, its one or the other. (Asus used to have two models of the same notebook, one with ATi and the other with Nvidia, but these are no longer current).
CCFL, LED, and RGB-LED screens - in the past, most notebooks use a CCFL backlit screen, basically one (and in some cases) two tubes that light up your screen. Lately there has been an increase in LED backlit screens, which use white LEDs to light the screen. The advantages of LED are numerous.. it allows the screen to be thinner and lighter, it is much brighter, and does not dim as fast over time as CCFL screens. This year we also see a limited amount of notebooks with RGB-LED screens. Notebooks in general, do not have screens as good as monitors. They cannot achieve the full 100% of the Adobe color gamut and rely on dithering to make certain colors. However there are some notebooks that use RGB backlit LED screens, which can produce 90-100% of the color gamut. There are a very few select number of notebooks that use IPS screens, such as the Lenovo X220, these generally offer by far, the best viewing angles and colors. The easiest way to tell if the screen is an IPS screen or a regular TN panel is to adjust the screen to extreme angles. If the color inverts, its TN.. if it stays the same its a TN panel. for those who own an iPhone, the screen is an IPS panel.
4:3, 16:10, and 16:9 ratio screens - in 2004, most notebooks were using a 4:3 ratio screen (more squareish looking). Today nearly all notebooks no longer use this, and 16:10 has became common (more rectangular). 16:9 models have also been increasing and will likely replace 16:10 (even more rectangular looking). This is not necessarily because one is better than the other.. but because the screen industry wants to standardize the sizes they produce for televisions/monitors onto notebooks. Thus companies like Dell, Apple, etc who buy screens from companies like AUO, Chi mei, LG, and Samsung, are forced to make this transition on economical grounds. For some, such as people who like to browse the internet, and programmers, this trend has been counter productive as wider screens offer less precious vertical space. For others such as people who like to view two documents on the screen, this has been beneficial.
Refurbs - sometimes great deals can be found in Refurbs, especially with Dell. In most cases (but not all), they are virtually brand new with very minor blemishes (such as faint scratches in the back, etc). They come equip with warranties and can be returned within a certain period of time. Please check the specifics with each vendor.
Outside of the US - Outside of the US, other countries may have specific models and brands not sold in the US (such as LG, BenQ, etc). like wise certain deals or features in the US cannot be found in other countries. Pricing of the same notebook can vary from each country to another. Keyboards will most likely be very different, and power supplies need to be double checked.
Even the highest quality, most reliable, notebook model can have certain flaws. Defective models occur anywhere, just makes sure your warranty is there and request for an exchange. Sometimes you'll find a very vocal, angry, minority who will make the problem of a specific notebook model bigger than it really is.
10. Authors own opinion on things
If you were to ask me what I'd recommend.. I generally prefer business notebooks because of my experiences with the service. My Dell Precision for example, had its keyboard, screen, and chassis replaced.. all for free as part of the deal. the construction is very modular and parts are easy to access. Since it is a business model, the company usually ensures its stocks on spare parts lasts a while.
In terms of specific models (as of 2011), for thin and light notebooks, I lean towards the Macbook Air 13" or the Lenovo Thinkpad X220. No ifs and buts. While Intel has attempted to use ultrabooks to steal some of the Macbook Air's thunder, they are all lacking in one way or another.. for example one may not have the MBA's higher res screen, the backlit keyboard, or a good keyboard and touchpad. I prefer the MBA 13" over the Macbook Pro 13" because of its lighter weight and better screen. As for windows notebooks, the X220 is a light business model (some may be put off by its looks), that comes with an IPS screen, and with the right coupons, could be had for less than $900. Since it's an X series, it is one of the best built Thinkpads.
disclaimer: if you buy something and it blows up, not my fault!
Blacker than a moonless night, Hotter and more bitter than hell itself... that is coffee