How to Buy a Laptop

Category: Hardware , Laptops

A laptop computer makes a popular gift to give or receive. But the laptop landscape is dotted with thousands of species and subspecies. Which one should you choose, and how should you buy it - online or in a big electronics store?

Buying a Laptop

Buying a Laptop: Netbook or Notebook?

The major division among portable laptop computers is the notebook versus netbook distinction. Basically, a netbook has just enough computing power and storage space to connect you to the Internet; there, it finds computing resources to do serious work. A netbook also has a small screen and keyboard; it's designed with heavy emphasis on portability at the expense of usability. Often a netbook will not have a CD/DVD drive, so you it won't double as a portable DVD player, and you won't be able to install new software from a CD.

A notebook has lots of disk storage, CPU processing power, etc., to do work locally even if you can't connect to the Web. It's screen and keyboard are big enough for extended periods of video viewing and typing. Naturally, a notebook is heavier and more expensive than a netbook. Netbooks can be found for under $300 now, but a quick scan of the shelves at local retailers tells me that there are plenty of bigger and more functional notebooks in the $400-$500 price range.

If your primary considerations are price, a light weight machine, and small form factor, then a netbook may be just the ticket. I travel on business 3-4 times a year, and I'm getting tired of lugging my old Sony VAIO, which weighs in at over 10 pounds. And since I use it mostly for webmail when travelling, I'm thinking about an Asus, Acer Aspire, or an HP Mini netbook. But if you're buying a laptop to function as your primary workstation, you'll want something a little beefier.

Recommended Specs For Notebooks

Within the notebook genre are several subdivisions based upon features and performance. Generally, you don't want to mess with a notebook that has less than these core features:

CPU: 2.0 Ghz or faster
RAM Memory: 2 GB or more
Hard Drive: 160 GB or larger
Optical Disk: CD/DVD read/write drive
Screen: 15+ inches, 1440x900 resolution minimum
Ports: Ethernet, USB, PC Card, Firewire, SD
WiFi adapter: 802.11G or 802.11N
Operating System: Windows 7 or XP (avoid Vista)

If you find a good bargain but the notebook's hard drive seems too small, ask about upgrading to a bigger one free of charge. The difference in cost per gigabyte is truly tiny these days and a motivated vendor should be negotiable.

A faster hard drive is another upgrade you may want to negotiate before you buy. Normally, notebooks ship with 5400 rpm drives. Upgrading to a 7200 rpm version improves data read/write speed by one-third; programs load and execute faster, DVD movies stream more smoothly, etc.

Where to Buy a Laptop

Should you buy online or in a local brick-and-mortar store? Well, there is no answer to that question that doesn't involve asking more questions. Do you care whether you drive on potholes; if cops arrive when you call for help; or whether there are homeless shelters available when you get laid off? If not, then you needn't worry about paying state and local sales taxes; you can buy online from some outfit in another state.

Do you trust total strangers? Do you trust the nice things that total strangers say about other total strangers on the Internet? If you do, then you shouldn't have any problem buying a steeply discounted brand name notebook online. Does nothing ever break on you? If that's the case then tech support probably is not a consideration and you can buy from the online vendor who offers the lowest price because he spends nothing on tech support.

These are a few things to consider when shopping for a notebook or netbook computer. What factors did YOU consider when purchasing a laptop? If you bought a netbook, does it meet your needs? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "How to Buy a Laptop"

Posted by:

Rebecca Sutton
22 Dec 2009

Bob, might want to consider the Toshiba netbook for your travels -- it has a full-size keyboard and 9 hr. battery life.

Posted by:

Joe Hathaway
23 Dec 2009

I have bought two large HDTV plasma TVs online recently, a rather expensive camera and three less expensive ones, a refurbished strong desktop online, and many other items too numerous to mention, some at 20% or so of local prices before sales tax, and two earlier desktops locally.

But, when I bought a $1000 laptop several years ago, I bought it from a local big box store. It is a comfort to know that if something really goes wrong, I can carry it back to Circuit City and get help with...

Wait; never mind...

Posted by:

23 Dec 2009

One important aspct you forgot is the battery life. Manufacturers keep prices low by offering smaller capacity 6 cell batteries. However for larger laptops particularly if you are going to watch movies on battery power definitely need 9 cell larger capacity battery.

I say try to get larger capacity battery, more memory and larger disk drive right in the beginning. Upgrading them later is costly affair.

Posted by:

23 Dec 2009

In your article about buying a laptop at an online
or at a brick-and-mortar retailer, I have a difference of opinion. If you choose a dependable online seller that does have tech support and steeply discounted prices you can get some very good deals. It may be true that sales taxes support road maintenance, police services, and social services, but if you live in a rural area like I do you get none of these services from state and local governments anyway. So why not buy where you can really save some money. I saved over 1/3 of the price by buying a laptop from a trusted online seller.

Posted by:

Ravi Agrawal
23 Dec 2009

Well, I guess your article covers all of it. But one thing I would go against this is the size of the screen. I would prefer going for an under 15" screen as mentioned. Somewhere around 12" to 14" to be precise. A bigger screen adds to the area of the laptop. There are plenty of them with smaller screens within the same price range that have enough power to make the big ones shy away.

Secondly Glossier Screens are a big No-No for me. I prefer those ones with Matt finish which won't reflect your image as you do in a mirrror.

Thirdly the power cord should not be sticking out behind the screen. It adds to the length of the workspace, you have. What if you have a very small cosy work area in your bedroom where there is enough place only to place a large sized book. A power cord sticking behind the screen would matter a lot in that case. Plus the Cord is bound to get cut off while operating it in flight or if you handle it clumsily.


Posted by:

23 Dec 2009

I definiely recommend not only brick and mortar stores, but one whereyou might even see the owner working there. You might pay a little more but 1. you are supporting a local business and keeping people out of homeless shelters and in the long run helping yourself. 2. If you have a question, there is a friendly person to answer it or do a minor repair without having to wait 3 to 10 days to get your machine back. 3. Shopping that way, for me at least, is more fun. Maybe I'm a hypocrite, but I do by my software online (I live in Germany and I find it cheaper to order from the US)

Posted by:

Jan C
29 Dec 2009

I just purchased a HP notebook from a local vendor here in Canada. I did not buy online because I am a computer dummy and I'm not fussy about big box stores. This way I get quick answers and help, support my local community and I got a resonable deal because I do almost all high ticket shopping for computer needs there.

Posted by:

07 Jan 2010

I always wonder why you neglect the Apple line (Macbook Pro, Macbook Air, etc.)

Posted by:

Bill Eastman
07 Jan 2010

I saw a good buy advertised at a local chain store. My HP Notebook is the dv6-2043us and paid $570.00 and send in for a $50 rebate.

Posted by:

07 Jan 2010

Interesting that the email for this popped into my inbox today, since a coworker is asking for advice about buying a laptop.

Asking questions at the store? I have yet to meet a salesman, or even a "tech support" person at Circuit City, Staples or Office Max, that knew as much as I do (and I am not a guru, but I can tell BS when it flows). As for sales taxes, in most states sales tax is a state tax which is mostly used for education (or state police). Road repairs on the state level come from road use fees and gasoline taxes, and local road repairs don't come from the state sales tax.

That said, I support my local store if the price difference is not too great, AND if they have what I want. When you figure in shipping costs and waiting, sometimes it IS better to buy locally. I especially try to support my local camera store because it is a locally owned business and not some mass marketer like BB or Walmart.

Posted by:

Robert DiGrazia
07 Jan 2010

I didn't see anyone mention dockability.
I want a small laptop with strong docking, i.e. a dock that can run multiple displays and assorted connectivities (ether, fire, USB 2,3, optical). If the dock connection is fast enough, the dock could contain "internal" memory, too. Then, carry the laptop around, but when you need muscle, go home and plug in. Instead of a clunky 900-pin connector, a dock that uses two or three optical lines would be best.

Posted by:

B. Ulu
12 Jan 2010

I also would like to add that some vendors offer software bundle along with the purchased laptop. Although a lot less, your total bottom line should also include the software you will be needing. People most often forget about this when creating a budget.

Posted by:

Jennifer Abej
24 Jun 2010

The main criteria is technical specifications. We cant do compromise with these. Nice post. Thanks

Posted by:

yogesh Ran
26 Feb 2011

I want to buy a laptop with i3/i5 processor,4GB Ram and 500 GB harddisk, which one is best and cheap in this range. I m interested in Lenovo what I heard that there is heating problem in Lenovo is it true. Please sugest me my budget is 35000 to 42000 Indian rupyess

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Article information: AskBobRankin -- How to Buy a Laptop (Posted: 22 Dec 2009)
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