Buying a Laptop/Netbook

Posted: January 13, 2011 by ryanlecocq in Features

When buying a portable PC it’s easy to be disappointed.  If you buy it for light gaming, it will likely not run games it meets the requirements for.  If you buy it as a portable movie player you may find the battery life is only 25% of that listed when used for this.  Before I go into any of my own tips, the first bit of advice I have is read multiple reviews online before buying.  Sites like Cnet and Tom’s Hardware will generally test battery life under all conditions and if the laptop is even slightly game friendly, you’ll find benchmarks.

General

Battery life:

For Netbooks a 6-cell Lithium-Ion battery should provide adequate life.  For a bigger laptop with multiple cores, you want at least a 9-cell Lithium-Ion or even better, one of the new batteries made of synthetic materials.  The battery life listed by the manufacturer generally only applies to using word processors or light browsing.  If at all possible, find a review that lists the battery life under heavy use (like playing HD video).  Also, keep in mind what you really need it for.  8-9 hours sounds nice, but in this day and age, how often are you 8-9 hours from a power outlet, USB port, 12-Volt or charge pad?  Most modern portables have adapters to charge off just about anything, and remember you use almost no charge while in standby.  So for an average day of college or work, you may be there 8 hours, but only need 4-5 hours of low-use battery life and maybe an hour of youtubing at lunch.

Keyboard size and layout:

This one is huge.  No matter what size of portable PC you buy, try to get a keyboard that is as close to full size as possible.  Also matte chicklet keys are much better than gloss keys of any kind.  Another thing to watch out for is keys being shrunk to make more space.  Nobody likes a Z where half of left shift should be.  Even if you buy online, try to go to a store to lay your hands on the keyboard before you order.  Key noise is important too as you will hear it a lot and so will your co-workers.  I would recommend a portable mouse in any situation as all trackpads are created equal(ly poorly) in my opinion.

Screen type and resolution:

Basically get a screen that’s LED backlit.  It’s becoming the standard and it’s better in every way.  You shouldn’t expect to pay more as newer models just have LED backlighting standard.  As far as resolution, pay attention to whether it’s 16:9 or 16:10 (this can be accomplished by applying simple math to the max resolution).  16:9 is closer to theater aspect, so movies will have smaller bars.  16:10 is TV wide-screen and also more comfortable to the eye for other uses, like word-processing, at short viewing distance.  So if you mostly watch shows and type documents, a 16:10 resolution (like 1440×900) will suit your needs better.

Frontside Bus speed:

Having a fast frontside bus rating means you can run faster RAM.  It will also make your USB slightly faster, but that’s pretty negligible.  As far as you processor, that is running on a multiplier of the FSB, so rated speed isn’t as important.  Basically if the laptop has a 667Mhz FSB, you can only run 667Mhz DDR2 RAM.  Newer systems with i-series or Phenom II CPUs have 1333Mhz and even 1600Mhz FSB speeds standard, meaning you can run those RAM speeds.

Media Laptop

If you want your portable to competently handle videos, you need to examine the integrated graphics processor.  Since we are assuming games don’t matter, the opposite is true of what you want for gaming laptops.  Gaming IGPs like Radeons or Geforces work for games, but are hit or miss for improving the quality of video.  For most online sites like youtube or Netflix, your GPU is completely shut out in every way.  So what you really want is a newer Intel GMA or VIA Chrome.  These IGPs totally stink for gaming as they are designed with one purpose in mind, to reduce latency and compression of online videos.  These also provide superior performance in streamed gaming services like OnLive as they actually clean up the image, as opposed to a fancy nVidia IGP that would sit there like a brick.  Also keep in mind that you need a dual-core to process an actual Blue-Ray quality video.  For compressed HD videos (like Netflix) however, you can manage on even a Netbook with one GB of RAM and a shared memory IGP.

Gaming Laptop

For gaming you want a gaming GPU or at least an integrated graphics processor with dedicated graphics memory (separate from the main RAM).  For minimal games like WoW and strategy games, even a Netbook with an nVidia ION or ATi HD4225 will perform well at decent settings.  If you want to play shooters anywhere above the lowest settings and lowest framerates, you need a real gaming laptop.  Alienware’s m11X is pretty decent under $1000 and under 5lbs, but in general, you’ll be over the $1k mark.  Remember the same things I mention in my other guides when it comes to graphics.  Under 50 in a series for nVidia (GT 230) or under 500 for ATi (HD3200) are not real gaming cards.  They will run WoW alright, but you need something like a mobile GT 260 or an HD 3850 to play any decent Call of Duty.  Also look at max RAM capacity and HDD space.  4GB and 250GB sounds like a lot now in a laptop, but in a year or two it could take that just for World of Warcraft.

General Closing

Keep in mind that overall there are some better and worse brands, but no manufacturer has a sterling reputation in portables.  The absolute known worst are Sony, Dell and Gateway.  Although I’ve owned good products from all of them, they have the absolute highest failure rate in laptops (even higher than Walmart and Best Buy’s own budget brands).  Apple used to make the best laptops around, but that is no longer a safe assumption.  If you’ve owned a MacBook anytime recently, you’ve probably become very familiar with the Apple Store and the customer service line.  Although they aren’t by any means perfect, brands like HP, Acer, Asus and Samsung have been making headway in quality recently and all of their new portables have excellent durability and warranty support.  Finally, trust your eyes and fingertips.  If you can find the model you want on display and check it over thoroughly for build quality and comfort of use, you probably won’t be disappointed.  Sure you won’t be able to examine the quality of the circuits, but what looks and feels cheap generally is and the opposite is just as true.

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Comments
  1. lagunawsu2 says:

    My advice: Never buy a laptop for gaming. It will be obsolete in two years…if it lasts that long. Do yourself a favor and build a simple desktop from scratch…you can upgrade it over the years and it’s not gonna have coffee, soda or water spilled all over it.

  2. ryanlecocq says:

    Yeah, ain’t that the truth. Fortunately gaming laptops now are upgradeable (yay)! They have mini PCI-E connections and a bay that opens to swap out the GPU. Now you’re cookin with gas.

    The m11X from Alienware is the cheapest and smallest with this feature at $799, but if you want to start with more processor you can get a pretty solid setup for around $1200.

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