Laptop Buying Guide 2012: How To Find The Right Laptop For You

Buying a laptop is all about spending the least amount of money, right? Not so fast. While the price you pay should be your final consideration, there are plenty of considerations to think about first. Desktop systems still have their uses, especially in the gaming arena, but for the vast majority of us, the computing world flipped over to laptops several years ago. And with the rise of tablets and tablet-esque operating systems, such as Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8, there's no sign that we're ever going back. Most of us have gone through more than a few laptops by now, whether that's due to simple old age or accidental destruction. I'm going to outline a few key things you should consider before buying any laptop to make sure that you make the right decision — not just the cheapest one. This isn't intended to be an exhaustive guide but more a primer if you're pondering your choices.

Knowing what you need rather than what you want

All the current advertising for notebooks is focused around ultrabooks, because, frankly, they look damned good in advertising; sleek and slender with the promise of plenty of computing power. That doesn't mean that your only option is an ultrabook, although equally it doesn't mean you shouldn't consider them either. What you ultimately need to do is sort out the usage scenario that you're going to apply to this new machine for at least 75 per cent of the time.

Why 75 per cent? The beauty of a notebook is that you can multi-purpose it; while ultrabooks and netbooks are sold on portability, they can make passable heavy-duty systems in a pinch, and equally, the heftiest of desktop replacement systems can be lugged around if you really have to. But working out where you'll be for at least three quarters of your time eliminates all those fringe cases that you might think of as genuinely important and lets you focus on your real areas of need rather than those of want.

Should I bother with an optical drive?

When Apple released the original, very expensive MacBook Air, one of the things that detractors picked up on heavily was the lack of an integrated optical drive. It was relatively trivial to add one externally, and that's still true of any notebook system, but we're entering an age where optically provided data — whether it's the movies we watch, music we listen to or software we run — is becoming the exception rather than the norm. As such, an optical drive sits in the "nice to have" space, rather than the "strictly necessary" space for many users.

While the 75 per cent rule still applies, it's more of an issue at the Ultrabook/Macbook Air space than anywhere else, as most other systems drop an optical drive in anyway. Depending on the system architecture (and your own cash flow and willingness to tinker) it's often possible to replace an unused optical drive with an SSD drive.

Windows or Mac?

With that headline, a few thousand Linux aficionados will have exploded in apoplexy, but the simple fact in today's marketplace is that your choice of notebook operating systems is still largely constrained to Microsoft's Windows 7 (and soon to be Windows 8) and Apple's Mac OS X Lion (and soon to be Mountain Lion).

Apple's made some moves to shed its absolute top-tier pricing in some categories; its MacBook Air offerings are quite price competitive against ultrabooks, for example — but it still positions itself as a "premium" brand. To a certain extent, beyond price it can be something of a taste choice; there are certainly relatively few computing tasks that can't be performed on either platform. The days when Mac users had very few choices when it came to software are long since departed, although the range is still wider on Windows, and there's no doubt where the genuine budget lines lie; there's no such thing as a Mac laptop in Australia under $1099.

From there, it's most handy to sort yourself into a category. I've chosen three; you may find that you fringe a couple of these cases, but they're a useful shorthand to sort out your thinking:

Everyday users

The simple fact of computing life is that while processors and internals have improved in recent years, the basic needs of most computer users really hasn't changed all that much. What that means is that almost any system you'd care to name can handle the very basic tasks with aplomb. If your 75 per cent is in web browsing, email and not much more, then any given system should meet your needs, and most likely will continue to do so. Microsoft's not upped the system requirements for Windows 8, and that means that even older systems can run it, although as we found with some Netbooks, some compromises may have to be made. At the entry level, they may be compromises you'd not even notice.

This can be liberating for your wallet — you don't have to spend as much to get a working system — but it also opens your choices if you're more concerned about other aspects, such as audio, system design or genuine portability. From slender ultrabooks to full desktop multimedia powerhouses, almost anything will meet your needs. This category also catches a lot of day to day business uses, outside those detailed further on.

Pay around: $400-$700 Key criteria: Open. Processor: Intel Core i3 or AMD A4. Older parts here should work just fine, so don't get caught up in the (for example) hype around Intel's new "Ivy Bridge" processors. RAM: 4GB minimum, but (on the Windows side) make sure you're getting a 64-bit version (or option of) Windows; the 32-bit version won't address RAM above 3.6GB or so (depending on the other specifics of the system). GPU: Integrated is fine Storage: 500GB minimum. You can't expand an internal notebook hard drive all that easily.

Students/On-The-Go

I've lumped students and on-the-go computing users (if you prefer a more established but heavily overused term, "road warriors"... eugh) together, because the usage model is much the same. You're moving from place to place, but not always with power to hand, so battery life is a must, as is a system that won't rip your arms from your shoulders after you pick it up the 30th time that day. There are compromises in ultraportable systems, although they're becoming less pronounced if you can step your budget up a bit. For those who need portable but can't step up the budget, there are still a number of netbooks on the market, but you should definitely budget shop, as the arrival of tablets has taken a huge chunk out of the netbook market, and anything you see in-store is likely to be end of life stock.

Pay around: $1000-$2000 (Ultrabook), $300-$500 (Netbook) Key criteria: Battery life, weight/size. You're on the move, but you don't want to destroy your shoulders carrying around a beast of a machine, which makes you the ideal target market for an ultrabook, or at the budget end, a netbook. Processor: Intel Core i5 (ultrabook) OR Intel Atom AMD Fusion E450 (netbook) RAM: 4GB Minimum, 8GB preferable. It's feasible to upgrade the memory in a netbook, but not feasible on Ultrabooks, so it makes sense to invest here Storage: 128GB (SSD/Ultrabook) or 320GB (Netbook). Ultrabooks have started shipping with mechanical drives in some cases, but the speed of an SSD and its portability/durability are key appeal points; sadly you'll pay quite a bit more for a larger SSD. On the netbook side it's a little more open, but for a truly portable system, putting more of your other data on an external drive makes a little more sense anyway.

Gamers/heavy users

"Gaming laptop" used to be an oxymoron, because all the hardcore gamers were busy arguing over who made the best desktop graphics cards. Actually, the last part there is still true; they're still at it, but in the meantime, gaming on laptops (once you get past certain compromises that go with the portability territory) is still definitely something that's feasible to do. The same notebooks that service the gaming market are also good for those who want to minimise compromises in the name of performance, because the key criteria are much the same; fast processors, plenty of memory, discrete graphics and a high-resolution display screen. If you throw around video for a living, for example, you sit in this category.

Pay around: $1000+ Key criteria: Processor, memory, GPU, screen resolution. Here it'd definitely be worth your while getting an Ivy Bridge system, as early benchmarks point to it giving plenty of oomph, which should provide you with good gaming/rendering performance for years to come. There's less information right now about AMD's new "Trinity" APUs, but equally at the high end you should expect to lead the curve for some time, although any serious gamer won't be relying on the inbuilt graphics performance of these chips in any case. Likewise, while for other categories screen resolution is less critical, for both high end gaming and video (and if you're after a system to replace your home entertainment setup) then a high-resolution screen is a must. Processor: Intel Core i7 or AMD A8. RAM: 8GB Minimum Storage: No upper limit, but here look for a 7200RPM or better drive, or a dual system with SSD for fast booting and mechanical drive for storage. Those with very deep wallets could always opt for a system with a larger integrated SSD, but for the moment, that's a costly alternative.


Comments

    Best laptops for gaming (no joke) are Alienware laptops. Unlike their desktop counterparts, they're not actually way overcharged and the performance is actually second to none.

      I agree. I bought a (then) top of the range Alienware M17x at the start of last year.
      Hasn't missed a beat, and is still more than powerful enough to run anything I throw at it on max detail settings.
      Though I wouldn't call it a "laptop" - its a bit heavy for prolonged lap-use. More like a portable desktop.

      Agreed. Besides, if you are going to go desktop, go custom IMO.

        +1 there. Custom is definitely the better option for a desktop (Win/Linux)... Doesn't take too much to figure out how to put together a system either...

      Alienware are OK, but expensive for what you get. I'd say if you look for price over performance, Dell's XPS 15 & 17 (the 17 in particular) is better value. If you want performance, Origin Australia looks to have a better spec for a similar amount, and also offers extended warranty/ service schemes like Dell.

        No way that’s not true! Even with same specs, Alienware’s are easily meant to be overclockable as well (like desktops) and stock for stock they always have better performance in scores (plus in the m18x you can even put two graphic cards in there.. blows XPS (Still on SandyBridge) and Origin out of the water.. though this price is heftier). Video card options aren’t even close from configuring it.

          I purchased an Alienware laptop which actually caught fire a couple of times from getting so hot. It went back for repairs several different times, motherboard replaced, video card replaced, screen replaced, the list went on.

          In the three years it was under warranty it was in the service center for more than 12-14 months. It failed again about a month out from warranty ending and after 5 months and numerous emails and phone calls from me they sent it back to me with an apology letter saying it hadn't been fixed because it was now out of warranty. I know have a very expensive paper weight sitting under my desk.

          As much as I loved that laptop for what it would do when it was working I would never buy another Alienware.

          Whoa! Take a deep breath, mate.

          I'm not saying you can't be proud of your precious Alienware M18x. No reason you can't blow a $6k+ wad over Alienware goodness - I've done it myself. You definitely get a high-performing machine. But, you pay a large amount extra for a diminishing return. If you're on a budget, they're not the best choice.

          And yes, the XPS line is running Sandy Bridge (with a 30% discount until the end of May, when they get the refresh that Alienware did at the start of May). Before then, you could get an M17x with an i7-2760 and GTX 580M (iirc) for around $3.5k, or an XPS17 with an i7-2760 and a GT 555M for $2.8k. Both'll get you going in Diablo III - but you're not going to get ultra Witcher 2 performance out of either one (even if you o/c the M17x).

          As for Origin, all I said was better spec at same price, not best spec at any price. I know Origin offer to do all sorts of crazy crap to spec a machine up beyond what you can do on their site, including SLI and Crossfire setups, iirc. Dell also do it - though I don't know how far you can push it, but you're talking about a company that used to sell this as a "laptop":

          http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2007/09/oqo2_vs_dell_xps_m2010_fight/

            It's funny because you think I was getting angry in my last post.. or defensive. Nope.

            Have you not checked Alienware prices recently? Let's break it down though just to get some perspective.
            Alienware M17x r4 with i7-3720QM (Ivy Bridge) with turbo up to 3.6GHz, 1080p WLED, 8GB of RAM, 750GB HDD, and a single AMD HD 7970M (which imo is faster than the GTX 675m) costs a grand total of 2.56k. That's not anywhere close to the $6k+ range, we're talking laptops here not desktops. And yes, that config will get some beast Witcher 2 performance. For perspective (off topic), two 7970m's (Cross Fire) are slightly faster than a desktop GTX 590, last years most powerful card. A single wouldn't be as fast obviously, but still beastly.

            Proof - http://www.gamefaqs.com/boards/916373-pc/62847476 (there are more on Notebook review if you want)

            I don't doubt Origin are beasts in their own way, but Alienware's have seriously dropped their price and are now affordable. If you want M18x with 7970m CF, then yes you're looking at just under $4k. But you're getting desktop performance.. on the go.

              Well, you did start by saying I was lying, so I'm sorry if I interpreted that as aggressive. And we ARE both being defensive, but nothing too serious :)

              I've been trying to decide between the m17x and the XPS 17, and I'm pretty familiar with the pricing. In fact, I'm off to see if I can beat down the price of an older m17x to sub- $2k this morning. Otherwise, I'm with the XPS17. Why?

              You're aboslutely right on the m17x, but it requires you to spec everything other than the card and the processor to the floor (and get $150 off on the RAM upgrade). Do the same thing with the XPS 17, you get a i7-2860QM (also turbos to 3.6), 1080p WLED, 8GB of RAM, 750GB HDD and 555M for $1.5k, and it can play anything the M17x does - but with lower quality settings on some demanding games: http://www.notebookcheck.net/Computer-Games-on-Laptop-Graphic-Cards.13849.0.html . Then I can use that extra $1k plus another $1k from my tax return to build a desktop that blows both machines out of the water.

                Hang on, I never said you were lying, just that your statement wasn't entirely correct :)

                End story is, if you want to buy a desktop, don't even bother with a laptop, put that 2.5k into a desktop and build yourself a beast. Specifically speaking, that GTX 555m is way down the list compared to the 7970 (the best card on the list). My opinion is basically - IF you're getting a laptop for gaming, you go for the best quality you can get. It's no fun playing a game on medium settings, you won't enjoy it that much (ie: the difference between ultra and medium on Skyrim is astounding graphically speaking).

                Difference - http://www.notebookcheck.net/Computer-Games-on-Laptop-Graphic-Cards.13849.0.html

      Don't bother with Alienware prices! Buy an ASUS G74! 1/3 of the price and they are monster! Never EVER get warm or hot. plays BF3, and i never had a problem with em. They just released the G75 too :)
      Roughly $1300.

        Not trying to start a fanboy war here (so don't think I am) but the side by side performance is unmatched on the Alienware laptop! Just see any benchmark test or frame rate tests and you'll see. Plus, you don't have the newest options for video cards in Asus computers (looking at the spec sheets now). Their ultrabooks are fantastic, but I'd rather pay the extra 1,000 for an Alienware laptop and get the power to price ratio.

      I agree with this too, now only if they didn't look so terribly nerdy design wise.

    Confused, why not spend more time explaining the most important part in a "gaming" laptop, the GPU or better yet explain the irrelevance of GPU Memory in a Laptop. Dont' bother buying one for gaming, unless it has a decent GPU... CPU, SSD, etc are all irrelevant if the graphics card is a dog. At least the article isn't full of plugs for manufacturers like these usually are...

    http://www.notebookcheck.net/Computer-Games-on-Laptop-Graphic-Cards.13849.0.html

    This list while incomplete might help people make a more informed decision when it comes to this, be hard pressed to find a "gaming" laptop that is worth buying for 1000 dollars when looking at this list of how some of those Mobility Cards actually perform in real world tests.

    Whenever someone asks me which laptop they should buy, I tell them to buy a Mac. There is a threefold reason behind this:

    1: I don't have to go the the store with them to buy it.
    2: When it breaks down I don't have to fix it (because I cant! Plausible deniability, how good is that?! )
    3: It looks pretty.

    Telling my parents to buy a Mac has been one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.

      Personally though, I agree with the Alienware thing. I'm rocking an m11x myself.

      No way that's not true! Even with same specs, Alienware's are easily meant to be overclockable as well (like desktops) and stock for stock they always have better performance in scores (plus in the m18x you can even put two graphic cards in there.. blows XPS (Still on SandyBridge) and Origin out of the water.. though this price is heftier). Video card options aren't even close from configuring it.

      We can only assume that your parents have money to burn, and/or you don't care enough to be properly helpful. Most of the parents I've helped select a new PC have quite basic needs (email, browser, music and movies) and a $600-800 Windows machine is more than enough.

      I've never had a Mac and have always been skeptical, and two years ago I had to get one for school. Now that I've had two years experience using one, and still use one mostly every day, I think that gives me the right to give my honest opinion about Macs.

      Basically (and this is for a relatively young person whom is immersed in modern technology, so this may or may not apply to parents needing email and google etc.), I think they absolutely suck. The problem is that there is no margin for error. What I mean by that is, say that a program in Windows starts to behave badly, or say, Google Chrome freezes. On Windows, usually it just means it's lagging. Fair enough. I'll wait a minute and then I'll be able to keep using it. On my Mac, if Chrome freezes, that's IT, it's had enough, there's no chance I get to keep going on with whatever I'm doing. This applies to mostly every program, things that would simply slow down a program's progress on Windows brings it to an abrupt halt on OS X. That is the main gripe with it, it's not very forgiving is what I'm trying to say.

      In addition to that I think the design is rubbish, and the battery life certainly stinks. What began with a full 6 hours of battery life under relatively intense usage dropped down to about two hours from full charge in about 8 months. After that battery I got a new one and it died about as quickly. However they are quite hardy, I'll say that much. A friend of mine threw his down a flight of stairs and it still works.

        You think Apple's aesthetics is rubbish? Wow... That's one of the things they do best.

          Not Aesthetics- i think he's trying to say what I've believed for some time now, having been using Mac's/iPod's/iPad's/iPhone's for work in the last 2 years- they're boring.

          All Mac's look the same. They have for many years. The only "evolution" in design is to get thinner. They're still silver/black. They're still anodised aluminium/glass. If you like that- great, but you can't tell me it's "revolutionary design" anymore.

          Look, they're still very attractive, but come on; look at those Ultrabooks! Samsung 9 Series, Asus UX31. THEY are attractive.

          Oh and the edge of MacBook Pro's dig into your arms when you type....

          I think their design is far more feminine and generally doesn't appeal to me much. I like the current MacBooks, although the design is getting very long in the tooth now, but the Air is too rounded and soft. I think the original iPhone was absolutely horrible looking, as were the original iMacs, and the iBook was the stupidest looking laptop of all time. They looked like toilet lids.

        That's an interesting perspective and something I have had to specifically deal with several times this week. I started a new job this week and spent most of Mon-Tues logging on to each of the 6 MacPros and setting up my user account - Outlook, font manager and server access - all painfully slow on Mac. My new boss went through it with me on her computer, first up, and every time we got a spinning wheel of death, she immediately did a "Force Quit", even though I was sure, and later confirmed, that it was just lag from the network. I'm sure she would defend Mac to the death and simply accepts that kind of behaviour (and/or blames the software, not Apple) but you're right, applications rarely recover from that on Mac. The stupid, little tit-mouse thing is driving me insane, too. I'm taking my own in today.

      I would never recommend a Mac unless they're sure. It's a great piece of hardware no doubt, but it lacks value. Ultrabooks are better imo (if the price is right.. and discounts are great at times)

      My grandparents neighbours had been trying to convince them to get a mac.

      They asked me if there is any reason they shouldn't. I just said I don't support macs, so any future issues will have to go through a mac store.

      I know if they buy one they'll try and push me to help them with the stupid thing anyway.

      My mother's Windows machine needed fixing every 6 months. Bought her a EEEPC running Linux 5 years ago and haven't had to fix it once. Every power up is like a fresh installation of the OS. Go Linux!

    It's nice that they list these "look for X in your laptop for it to do Y", but I wish they'd also put a few examples of a product with it.

      Good call... There's a heck of a lot of different models out there, and even if the specs look good, there's some you wanna steer clear of.

    Which is the category that has TrackPoint/variants thereof?

      There isn't really a set category for those, but most laptops with business people in mind would be the best bet.

      For example, Lenovo make all their thinkpad with trackpoints, and those range from 500 dollar i3 system to 4000+ no-compromises machines. They also have an ultrabook coming soon, as does HP.

    I'll just stick it out to the end of the year when I can buy a Win8 touch screen ultrabook.

    Pity there was no category for "desktop replacement".

      ASUS G74

    Gaming laptop? Ive done alot of research the last couple of months and if you want a monster then look at metabox (Clevo). These things are insane!

    Nowadays, you can find quite easily laptops with no operating system preinstalled and save a few bucks and headaches, while gaining performance if you install the right operating system.

    I'm currently shopping for a new laptop and do not know what I need.
    I'm retired so I get to spend a lot of time on mine. The following is a list of how I use my laptop 99% of the time = [2 screens going most of the time] watch TV & Netflicks via home's router, loads of word processing, One Note, Power Point, Excell, some Smart Notebook, creating & editing photos and movies [family's not business]. and of course tons of music files.
    I do a lot of uploading and downloading of files daily.
    I understand I need a fast processer. At any one time there is 250 - 350 GB of all those files taking up the memory. I know I have to have a lot of memory of both types. The Photo Shop program and the Smart Notebook program takes lots of memory.
    Please forgive me, I know next to nothing concerning the specks of a computer so shopping for a new one overwhelms me.
    What I am asking here is 'What specks do I need in a new laptop?
    O yes one more question 'I read somewhere that now computers can feed into a flat screen TV via WiFi. If so, what is needed?'.
    I realize the first question is a big one ..... so all thoughts and advice will be welcome.
    Nanny

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