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A Beginner's Guide to Buying a Bargain Laptop

  • Category: Buying Guides

By Brian Westover

Shopping for a laptop can be a daunting task. Even if you spend a lot of time online and know your way around e-mail, chances are still high that you feel a bit intimidated when sales people start throwing around complicated computer terminology. You don't know your gigabytes from your gigahertz, and RAM sounds like a reference to a Dodge truck. Not to worry; you've got PCMag on your side. While you might not know a thing about processor speeds or hard drive sizes, we do, and we are here to help simplify your search for a laptop at a price that won't leave you feeling ripped off.

Anatomy of a Laptop
Laptop computers may be complicated, but they all share the same basic anatomy. Some parts are obvious at first glance, like the keyboard and screen. Others, you might never actually see even if you use computers daily. Knowing what these basic parts are and what they do will help you sort through the jargon and find a computer that fits your needs. Here you'll get a very basic anatomy lesson.

Processor: The real driving force of the computer is called the processor. Think of it as the engine of your laptop. It does most of the work as you run programs. Most processors on the market today are perfectly capable of handling basic web and office use. More complicated tasks require a more powerful processor. An Intel Core processor is best. AMD Phenom and Athlon CPUs give good performance for the buck, but tend to be less battery efficient than Intel processors.

Graphics Card: The graphics card is a specialized processor similar to the CPU, but deals only with graphics. When playing a game or editing photos, a great deal of visual information is being calculated and displayed at once, and without a separate graphics processor to do that work, the regular processor in your computer is easily overwhelmed. Discrete graphics, as opposed to integrated graphics, supply the 3D horsepower and are either made by Nvidia or AMD (formerly ATI). It's a separate processing unit that lives on the same motherboard, but works in concert with the processor to drive visuals.

Optical Disc Drive: Standard in most laptops is an optical drive. So named because they use laser light to read and record information, these drives play CDs and DVDs, and at the more expensive end, play Blu-ray movies as well. DVD and CD playback is standard, as is DVD-R, which allows you to record information onto a DVD.

Hard Drive: This is where the computer stores all of the programs and files it has. The larger a hard drive is, the more information it can store. This is usually measured in gigabytes, or sometimes terabytes. Also important is the speed of the drive, which is measured in rotations per minute—the faster the rotation, the better. Some new drives have no moving parts, and are called solid state drives or flash storage. Storage space is still important with these drives, but they tend to be faster, lighter weight, and more expensive. Look for at least 320GB (500GB of more is best). Also ask about the speed; 5,400 rotations per minute (rpm) is what you get with most laptops, but 7,200rpm ones are becoming more common. Anything below 5,400rpm, and you may want to look elsewhere.

RAM (or Memory): When your computer runs a program or opens a file, it needs some information to be immediately available instead of being stored on the hard drive. This information is temporarily kept in the RAM, and the more RAM you have, the more smoothly your computer will operate. We recommend 3GB minimum; 4GB is best. Keep Anything beyond 4GB isn't really necessary at this point, as the programs you'll use can't take advantage of more memory than that.

Extras: There are plenty of features that come standard now on a laptop, and knowing what they are is important in determining if you'll use them. For instance, a memory card reader allows you to insert your memory card from your camera directly into your laptop for downloading photos and videos you shot. An HDMI port or DisplayPort allows you to connect your laptop to another display so you can view your multimedia files (e.g. photos and videos) on a bigger monitor or HDTV.

What will you use your PC for?

Before you begin shopping for a computer, you need to know what you want to use it for. For many people, this will be simple Web browsing and typing the occasional document. Others enjoy editing photos and videos, or playing games. Each of these tasks have their own unique requirements, and not every computer is well suited to every task.

Most people use their computers for a handful of tasks; browsing Websites, sorting and storing pictures, working on documents and spreadsheets. None of these uses are particularly processor-intensive, and nearly any current system (including netbooks) will work well enough.

Anyone looking to play games on their system will need more processor power and a decent graphics card. If you're only playing a few basic games, then most GPU equipped machines will fit the bill. If you're looking to play Crysis or do any serious gaming, you are probably reading the wrong tutorial and owe it to yourself to gain a better understanding of gaming machines.

If you want to do much in the way of editing video or manipulating photos, you will need both processor and graphics horsepower as well as a lot of storage space. Storage space may come in the form of the computer's existing hard drive, or an external hard drive.

Types of Laptops
There are four categories of laptop that we'll cover here. At the lower end in terms of both performance and price, we have a category called netbooks.

Netbooks: The cheapest laptops on the market today are a separate category called netbooks. Netbooks are built to be light, portable, and cheap. Netbooks have smaller screens, smaller processors, smaller hard drives, and no optical drive. Ranging in price from $300-500, netbooks are perfect for simple, basic computing tasks, but definitely not for gaming.

Ultraportables: Designed to offer the power of a full laptop in a sleek, compact form factor, ultraportables offer a boatload of features, but they can get pricey. Ultraportables feature slightly smaller screens than mainstream laptop, usually between 12 and 14 inches, and have smaller hard drives. Built for high performance and energy efficiency, these laptops are ideal for those who want it all, and are willing to pay for it. Price varies from $650 to $3,000.

Value/Budget: These laptops are built to provide the performance of larger laptops, but use cheaper materials and less efficient components to do it. They provide more than enough processing power for office use, and can handle light photo and video editing. They cost less than $700, and performance is usually proportional to the price.

Desktop Replacements: Desktop replacements are designed to do exactly what the name suggests—replace your desktop computer. They feature larger screens (15 inches or larger), more powerful processors, and usually have a separate numeric pad in addition to the full size keyboard. They are well suited to photo and video editing, and all but the most demanding games. While some desktop replacements can be found for as little as $700, most start around $800 and go upwards from there.

Tips for Laptop Shopping
Know What You'll Use It For: As mentioned above, you need to know what you intend to use the laptop for. If your most strenuous use will be watching YouTube videos and chatting on Facebook, then buying a desktop replacement laptop will cost you far more than you need to spend. On the other hand, if you want to learn Photoshop for making a digital scrapbook, it doesn't make sense to settle for a netbook.

Know Your Budget: Once you know what you're looking for, it's a good idea to try and get an idea of how much those systems cost. Visit stores and ask questions about the different systems. And of course, look over the buying guides and reviews here on PCMag.com.

Try it Out: While processors and hardware are important, it's equally important that you feel comfortable with whatever you buy. Many netbooks, have small keyboards, and some will feel more cramped than others. The touchpad on a computer might look great in pictures, but feel irritating under your fingertips. Figuring out what you like and don't like before you buy can save you a lot of aggravation after.

Buying a new computer can be a tricky experience, but a little preparation will cut through the confusion like a machete through the underbrush. As you figure out what you need to do, and what computer will fit both your budget and your needs, PCMag.com will be here to help you every step of the way.

This article is published in partnership with Ziff-Davis Media
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