This is an exciting time for the PC. Contrary to predictions of its death, the personal computer isn’t going away – but it is changing and, in some ways, becoming more personal. Touchscreens, convertible hinges and efficient processors are making a mark.
Changes like this make buying a laptop at the beginning of 2013 a bit different from buying one at the same time in 2012. Many basics are the same, yet others have altered radically, and specifications that used to matter now are adequate in almost any computer sold.
Drop The Top – Convertibles Are Here!
The most substantial change that’s here to stay is the rise of the convertible. Though still niche, a number of new convertibles have been announced or released since the introduction of Windows 8.
First things first – before you figure out how to buy a laptop, you need to decide whether you need a convertible? A laptop with this feature can turn into a tablet by sliding or swinging the display, eliminating the need for a separate tablet. This makes them a good choice for people who desire a tablet yet don’t want to be burdened by multiple redundant devices.
Weight is an issue with convertibles, however, which makes them a compromise for people who prefer to use a tablet for most computing. They also don’t offer any cost savings over an inexpensive laptop and mainstream tablet.
If you decide a convertible is for you the next question is obvious – what kind should you buy? There are many options. I recommend dockables for most people because the display can be completely removed from the keyboard. That sheds the extra weight that can make a convertible inferior to a tablet. Convertibles with a simple flip or fold mechanism, like the Dell XPS 12, are also preferable.
Avoid sliders. They have the smallest and least usable keyboards yet still aren’t much lighter than competitors.
Should You Go Touch?
If you buy a convertible, you will have touch. That’s part of the package. Everyone else must decide if they want to pay for the privilege.
Touch works best for truly mobile users. A touchscreen laptop is easier to use in a tight space, like a bus or economy airplane eat, and it’s easier to use without sitting down. Users who frequently find themselves in situations like these may prefer touch over the keyboard and touchpad.
Most other users won’t gain much benefit. The problem is distance. A standard laptop placed on a desk or table in a comfortable typing position will have a screen that’s too far away to easily touch. You will find yourself leaning forward or slouching uncomfortably to reach it.
Also keep in mind the price. Touchscreens are often a $100 to $150 premium. That’s a lot of money to spend on a single feature. Users who think touch is worth that much money should also think about buying a convertible or a tablet instead.
What Version Of Windows 8?
If you’re buying in 2013 you’ll be buying a laptop that runs Windows 8. So what version should you buy?
There are just two versions that consumers need to know about and, in most cases, will be able to choose between. They are standard Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro. The Pro version throws in a few “advanced” features like:
- Remote desktop connnections
- Encrypting File System
- Hyper-V (a Windows virtualization utility)
- Group Policy account controls
- Windows Media Center
Do you care about any of these features? If so, Windows 8 Pro is for you. Remember, even if your laptop does not come with Windows 8 Pro you can upgrade from the standard version for $69.99.
If you’d like a more in-depth explanation check out our full guide on Windows 8 editions.
Portability Vs. Performance
What you desire more – performance, or portability? Products on the performance end of this choice, like Intel Core i7 quads, are nearly equal to their desktop cousins. They can blitz through arithmetic-heavy tasks without issue.
Products that lean towards portability, like the Intel Core U and Y-Series processors, can last six to eight hours on a modest battery. That makes them a clear choice for frequent travelers.
Between these extremes there is a broad range of Intel Core dual-core processors and AMD dual/quad-core processors. They are quick enough for most tasks yet can offer four to six hours of battery life.
I recommend leaning towards performance if you are in doubt. Consumers have a habit of over-estimating their need for portability. Portable computers look alluring in pictures – but if you never leave home you’re wasting the advantage it provides. Performance, however, is always useful.
Display Resolution & Technology
Laptop displays have improved significantly over the last year. Finding one with a resolution beyond 1366×768 was once almost impossible outside of gaming systems. Now there’s a wide range of products that offer a 1600×900 or 1080p display. If you can afford such an upgrade, buy it. You’ll enjoy a sharper image and will have more effective screen space to work with.
Also look for displays that offer “IPS” technology. Displays built with this offer much wider viewing angles and better color accuracy than those using traditional “TN” panels. An optional high-resolution display is almost always IPS, but be sure to double-check.
Because display options are expensive you may be faced with choosing between a better display and another component. I recommend the display. A slight boost in processor speed will feel irrelevant in a few years, but a great display will always be brilliant.
You may be wondering about other choices like RAM, wireless card or hard drive.
Don’t worry about these too much. Unless you have a specific need that you know requires an upgrade in one of these areas you will likely find the default option to be more than adequate. There are certainly situations where more RAM, for example, can be useful. But most people will never need more than the four gigabytes that is not standard in almost every laptop.