The laptop has, for many people, become the only home computer needed. Fast, yet portable, they offer the best of both worlds, and can be had for $500 (or less). Their lure is understandable.
Yet a laptop is also more complex and, compared to a desktop, far less flexible. A desktop user unhappy with a monitor, keyboard or mouse can simply replace it, but laptop buyers have no options. This means picking the right system is both more important, yet also more difficult. Here’s what to look out for if you’re ready to open your wallet.
Going Too Big – Or Too Small
Buying the right size of laptop is important because it determines not only display size but also impacts the size of your keyboard and touchpad. Choosing one that’s too small and you’ll feel cramped, but too big and you’ll have trouble with travel.
Think about how you’ve used computers in the past. Do you usually use your computer at home, or are you often on the road? If the former, you’ll likely want a 15.6-inch model, but road warriors will prefer a system between 12 and 13 inches. Those who do a bit of both should consider 14-inch models. You should look at weight and thickness, too, because a heavy 13-incher can weigh as much as a light 15.6-inch notebook.
Be honest with yourself about your requirements. Many individuals over-estimate their need for portability, as there’s a certain allure to the idea of owning a PC that can be used anywhere. But going too small can land you a system with a tiny display and annoying keyboard. Remember that tablets are even better travel companies if you have no need for a keyboard.
Not Paying Attention To Ports
If you last purchased a laptop more than a few years ago you may expect your new model to have all the basics including multiple USB ports, a card reader, individual jacks for your headphone and microphone, Ethernet, and a couple of video outputs. But times have changed, and ports are starting to go extinct.
Today, a common 15.6-inch laptop will have three USB ports, one video output, a combination headphone and microphone jack, and Ethernet. Some models are better, but some are worse, and small laptops are starting to drop Ethernet altogether and slim USB down to just two ports.
If you never connect peripherals, this won’t impact you. But if you have a few external hard drives, and like to use a mouse instead of a touchpad, you’ll need to pay attention. Splitting ports is possible, but the necessary adapters are bulky and inconvenient, so it’s best to buy a PC with the ports you need built-in.
Convertibles May Not Save You Money
The release of Windows 8 has given PC makers the chance to build touchscreen laptops that convert into tablets by either detaching the display or folding it over the keyboard. The best models are an interesting option, but don’t buy one because you think it’d be more expensive than owning a computer and a tablet.
There are certainly models that are inexpensive, and can serve both purposes, such as the ASUS Transformer Book T100. But these tiny alternatives are not enjoyable PCs, and also aren’t great tablets. You get what you pay for, and what you’ve paid for is a cheap tablet and a netbook.
More expensive options, like the Acer Aspire R7 and Dell XPS 12, can provide an excellent laptop experience, but they’re large and heavy for a tablet. Though not unusually, and plenty fast, most people will find them uncomfortable to use relative to an iPad. Your best bet is to buy a tablet and laptop individually – for now, at least.
Don’t Assume You Have To Buy Windows 8
Microsoft’s touch-optimized OS has been controversial for a variety of reasons, but the most divisive is the interface. Though it works for convertibles, it’s rather pointless if you don’t have a touchscreen, as the large, attractive Metro tiles work no better than icons. And while it’s now possible to boot directly to the desktop (with Windows 8.1), there are settings and features that can only be accessed through the Metro UI.
Many people think they have to buy Windows 8 (or go with a Mac), but that’s not entirely true. Manufacturers that let you customize your PC, including Dell and HP, still sell models that ship with Windows 7. Smaller makers like Origin and Digital Storm also provide this option. Choosing Windows 7 makes sense if you don’t plan to buy a touchscreen computer and/or have no interest in touch apps.
And there’s a new star on the rise; Chrome OS, a stripped-down operating system from Google that relies on web connectivity and can’t run Windows apps, but they offer decent performance can be had for just $200. While not the best choice for a primary PC, choosing a Chromebook is a good idea if you want a laptop to complement a desktop you already own.
Don’t Go Beyond 1080p With Windows
Resolutions beyond 1080p are now available in high-end laptops and will likely become more common as the year advances. On the low end, this means a resolution of 2560×1440, while the most expensive options offer 4K (3820×2160).
While this can result in an extremely sharp image, Windows has difficulty with displays that boast a pixel near or above 200 pixels per inch. This is because graphics in Windows are rendered with certain dimensions measured in pixels, so placing more into the same space reduces the size of everything – fonts, icons, menus and more. Some scaling options are available to compensate, but they’re no longer sufficient.
Windows will need a significant update with new scaling options to meet the needs of people using pixel-dense displays. Until this happens, you should stay away from the lure of 4K and other super-HD resolutions. Laptops with these panels can be difficult to use even for people with perfect eyesight.
You should shop for a laptop the way you’d shop for a car; consider your needs, and eliminate what won’t work before deciding what will. Like a car, your laptop is likely to be with you for at least three years, and possibly more than five. And like a car, you’ll be relying on it almost every day. So take your time, make a list of needs, and check it twice; the effort will pay off!
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