Choosing a Laptop Computer: How to Compare Laptops
written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 5/20/2011
Choosing a laptop computer is like choosing any product - you need to consider the features different products offer and then decide on one which is best for you. However, laptops are complex pieces of computer hardware, and that makes it hard to tell what features are really best.
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Comparing Laptop Computers
You've decided that you need a new laptop. Your old one is big, clunky, and runs out of fuel quicker than a funny car. It is simply time to upgrade.
The good news is that laptops are constantly becoming more affordable and more powerful. The bad news is that the market is bigger than ever, which means you have to choose from a wider variety of options. To decide what you want you must compare laptop computers, but there are so many laptops available that it can be hard to determine where to start.
In this guide I'll help you compare laptop computers by focusing on specific attributes like the processor, the display and the battery. Once you know more about the parts that make up a laptop you'll have an easier time deciding on what you want - and you can detect when your local Best Buy sales representative is trying to steer you towards a laptop that doesn't fit your needs.
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The processor is the first piece of hardware the average buyer focuses on when he or she needs to compare laptop computers. This is for good reason. The processor partially or completely determines how quickly your computer can perform most tasks.
The number of cores on your laptop's processor will have a big impact on performance. A core is a processing unit capable of independently executing code. Most of today's laptops are dual-core models, as this offers a balanced compromise between performance and battery life. However, some larger laptops have quad-core processors. These are very fast, and good for laptops that will always be plugged in to a power source. Quad-core laptops typically last no more than three hours away from a power source, and even that is stretching it.
Clock speed is also important, but not as important as it used to be. The architecture of a processors - the underlying design - has a big impact on performance. To make things easier for you I have listed common processors below and ranked them in terms of performance from slowest to fastest.
Athlon Neo X2
Athlon or Turion X2
Athlon II X2/X3/X4
Phenom II X2/X3/X4
Atom Dual Core
Core 2 Duo Ultra-Low Voltage (identified by SU prefix in the processor's name i.e SU3500)
Celeron Dual Core
Pentium Dual Core
Core 2 Duo
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Another component you might consider when you compare laptop computers is the RAM. This is much easier to compare than processors. More RAM is better. 2GB of RAM is better than 1GB. Yes, there are different speeds of RAM available, but these real-world performance variance between RAM of different speeds is too small to worry about.
Generally speaking, you shouldn't settle for less than 2GB of RAM in anything except for a netbook. 4GB of RAM is preferable.
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You should not forget graphics when making a laptop comparison unless you truly have no intention to ever run any game. There is a massive difference between the fastest and slowest graphics solutions, so it is important to buy a laptop with a graphics processing that fits your needs.
The most basic form of graphics is integrated graphics. This type of graphics processor shares system memory. Examples include Nvidia's 9400M, the ATI HD 3200/4200, and Intel HD graphics. Although there is some performance difference between these solutions, the truth is you won't have an enjoyable game experience with any of these options.
You should instead look for discrete graphics when making your laptop comparison. A discrete graphics processor has its own memory. The most basic discrete solutions include the Nvidia 310M and ATI Radeon 5470. These are capable of playing most games at low detail settings. For real gaming you'll need something beefier, such as the Nvidia 330M or ATI Radeon 5730.
The graphics market moves quickly. The Notebookcheck Mobile GPU list is a good place to find the latest benchmark information relating to discrete mobile graphics processors.
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It is easy to forget about your the display when making a laptop comparison, but you should always consider it before buying. The display is what you'll be staring at for as long as you use the laptop, so it should be a good one.
Most displays are very glossy. This makes colors appear more vivid and also makes the laptop appear more attractive when not in use (i.e. when it is in a store). However, glossy displays are hard to use outdoors and in brightly lit rooms. Matte displays provide less attractive visuals, but they're don't create distracting reflections. Matte displays are rare - you'll usually have to buy a business-oriented laptop like a Lenovo Thinkpad if you want one.
The display resolution is also important. The layman often assumes a larger display will be able to display more information, but that isn't the case. It is the resolution - the number of pixels on the screen - that makes it possible to display more information. If you increase a display's size, but don't increase the resolution, you'll simply display the same amount of information at a larger size.
The most common resolution today is 1366 x 768. This is fine for laptops with a display size of 14 inches or smaller, but you'll also find this on many 15 inch laptops. Laptops of that size are often better with a higher resolution, such as 1600 x 900, but not all large laptops give you that option.
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Ports and Connections
Don't forget to check the available connections when making a laptop comparison. Some laptops will have numerous connections, such as FireWire, USB 2.0 and HDMI, making it easier to plug in perpherials like portable hard drives, digital cameras and even HDTVs. Make sure that a laptop at least has enough connections to handle all of your current perpherials before you buy.
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Battery life may or may not be important when making your laptop comparison. Consider how you will use your laptop and how often it will be used away from a power socket. If it is always going to be plugged in you don't need to worry about battery life one bit. This means you can buy the fastest, biggest laptop that you can afford.
If you do use your laptop away from a power source, however, how often do you/will you do so? Will you be using it for an hour on the couch? Three hours at a local coffee shop? Six hours during a full work day?
Also, keep in mind that the battery life figures quoted in marketing material are usually best-case scenarios. They're usually 20% more than what you can achieve in real-world usage. Read reviews about the laptops you're considering in order to find out how the true battery life stacks up to the claims.
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These are the most important variables to consider when you are thinking of buying a laptop. There our others, of course - such as the laptop's design and weight - but these tend to be less important. Comparing laptops based on the information in this article should help you narrow the field down to just a few laptops that meet your needs.