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:
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.
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.
"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.