written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Bill Fulks•updated: 10/14/2011
As we approach the holiday season, many consumers will start considering a new laptop for themselves or someone else. Maybe you're one of them! In this visual guide to laptop shopping, we'll have a look at what's important in choosing a brand new laptop.
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The Evolving Laptop Market
Laptops are, at this point, a fairly stable consumer product. What that means is that no huge innovations are being made. Most improvements are evolutionary - which is not to say they're insignificant. Today's laptops are much, much quicker than those three years ago, but the performance has been gained in small, somewhat predictable steps.
That's good news for consumers, because it means there's a wide range of products available at many different prices. With that said, however, the many options available can become overwhelming. Having a visual can sometimes help - so let's take a gander at the features that are important to look for in a new laptop.
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Ports and Connections
One of the features often neglected by buyers until after they've already made a purchase is the number of ports and connections available. These ports determine the types of devices that can be plugged in to the laptop, as well as their number.
Most laptops will come with at least two USB ports and a video output port of some type, as well as Ethernet and headphone and microphone jacks. If you are a basic user, this may be all that you really need. However, it's becoming increasingly easy to fill up a mere two USB ports. One external hard drive and one wireless mouse is all it takes.
Ideally, you should be looking for a laptop with three USB ports or more. At least one of those ports should be USB 3.0, the new high-speed version of the port which provides faster transfer speeds than previous incarnations.
I also suggest looking for a laptop with HDMI out. If you choose to hook up the laptop to an external display at any time, HDMI is by far the easiest way to do so. Virtually all modern displays are compatible with HDMI, and those few that only offer DVI can be used with HDMI via a simple adapter.
FireWire and eSATA ports are, at this point, considered legacy ports are rarely found in new laptops. This is because USB 3.0 is quicker than either, so device compatibility is the only reason to include them.
Some new laptops, like MacBooks, include a port called ThunderBolt. This is a high-speed port even quicker than USB 3.0 that can support both external displays and peripherals hard drives, though so far there aren't many products on the market that support it.
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Laptop displays are still a sore spot for consumers. Although many components on laptops have improved, displays seem to have remained stagnant. Most of them don't look any better than those offered a few years ago, and the most common display resolution of 1366x768 isn't exactly stunning, particularly on the larger 15.6" laptops that often sport it.
There are improvements available, however. Many laptops offer higher display resolutions as an option. On smaller 13 and 14-inch laptops, display resolutions of 1600x900 as an option are common. If you're looking at 15.6" laptop or larger, you may be able to find a 1080p panel available. Companies like Sony, HP, and Lenovo are particularly well known for offering high-resolution panel options if you purchase directly from their website.
The benefits of buying a better display on a laptop are substantial. You'll enjoy better image quality, and you'll also enjoy more usable desktop space because you'll have more usable pixels on the display. On the downside, these upgrades are often $50 to $100 - but spending the extra money is often worthwhile. Remember, you can usually upgrade the RAM or the hard drive down the road, but upgrading the display is virtually impossible.
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Keyboard and Touchpad Feel
When purchasing a laptop, it's easy to get wrapped up in the technology and forget some more basic parts of laptop design, such as the keyboard and touchpad. This will be at your peril, however, because the keyboard and touchpad are the parts of the laptop you'll be directly using the most.
It's a good idea to always use a laptop's keyboard and touchpad before you purchase it, if possible. This will allow you to decide if the keyboard feel is up to your standards. Pay attention to how the keyboard responses to your strokes. Key feel should be crisp, not squishy, and keys should return to position quickly. You shouldn’t feel as if you can outpace the keyboard.
The touchpad also requires attention. Great touchpads usually have a texture of some sort, though it may be subtle and rather smooth (the MacBook’s glass, for example, provides a smooth texture). You’ll want a large touchpad surface, and you’ll want the touchpad to be positioned forward for easy access. If it’s small or recessed within the chassis of the laptop, you may find it to be unpleasant.
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Finally, before purchasing any laptop, you should consider its aesthetic details. Some geeks will argue that function should always trump form, but I disagree, mostly because form often contributes to function. Laptops that are slim and sexy are often more portable than those that are boxy and bulky.
When examining a laptop, take a look at its appearance and the way it’s constructed. Are the materials used expensive, and do they have a quality feel? Or do they seem to be cheap plastics, and put together with little attention to detail. Laptops that feel better built often are better built, and will be both more reliable and more enjoyable to use.
Of course, price is going to be part of the equation here. The more you spend, the more likely you are to receive a product with high build quality. Yet users should not make the mistake of believing that expensive laptops are automatically better built.
I’ve seen my fair share of supposedly high-end laptops made with flimsy plastics. Usually, these laptops try to justify themselves by offering outrageously quick hardware, but they’re so unpleasant to work with and look at that it’s hard to recommend them.
Be patient, and pay attention to the details. You’ll be rewarded with a better laptop.
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Beyond the Visual
Hopefully you’ve found this visual laptop buying guide helpful. I’ve focused on the parts of a laptop that you can see, which means I didn’t focus as much on the hardware.