Help Me, LAPTOP: What Specs Do I Really Need on My Notebook?

Your job requires a high-performance machine, but how much is more than you really need? Gigabytes, rpms, GHz, CPU and GPU naming conventions can all be very confusing. That's what sent Behrooz to us for assistance.

I'm studying civil engineering, and I'm confused about buying a laptop. I don't know what specs I require. I need something that has good graphics and calculating power. I mainly work with AutoCAD, ETABS, MATLAB, and other engineering software, so I know I need high-end specs. But what does that mean, exactly? Just how much RAM do I need, for instance? I would also like a system that weighs less than 6.5 pounds, has a big screen, and doesn't get too hot. So all of that considered, what should I get?

RAM, or Random Access Memory, is a computer's lungs. It allows your machine to breath easy as you plow through heavy-duty applications, and an insufficient amount can result in sluggish performance. RAM comes in two varieties: DDR2 and DDR3. The first kind features speeds ranging from 400 to 800 MHz, whild DDR3 operations at 800- to 1.6 MHz. The higher the number the faster data can be transferred in and out of RAM, plus DDR3 consumes approximately 30 percent less power. For the high-powered applications you are running, look for 4GB of RAM. That means you'll need a 64-bit system, because 32-bit Windows 7 machines only recognize up to 3.5GB of RAM.

Another important spec to look for, in terms of top of the line power, is a high-end CPU. The central processing unit of a notebook executes the calculations you need to perform. They come in three varieties: single-core, dual-core, and quad-core. More cores means more power. You will need a quad-core machine. That means you'll want to look for an Intel Core i7 CPU. These chips feature Intel's hyper-threading technology for enhanced multitasking along with Turbo Boost for when you need speed on command.

When it comes to graphics, there are two types: integrated and discrete. You'll want discrete, which use dedicated video memory, so as not to bog down your CPU's processing power while performing graphically-intensive tasks. ATI offers the Mobility Radeon HD 4870 chip, or Nvidia has the GeForce GTX 280M.

The hard drive of a notebook holds all your data, and is one area where you may be able to skimp a little. An SSD would be the top of the line. Because there are no moving parts, these drives are faster, more durable, and power-efficient. However, you can get a standard mechanical hard drive with a high-rotation speed (7,200 rpms) that could serve you well. The size of the hard drive depends on your storage space needs, but we'd recommend you get at least 320GB.

All of these specs combined may cost you a pretty penny. We would recommend you look at either the Lenovo ThinkPad W series or the Dell Latitude E6510. The former can be configured on for $1,539 to include Core i7, 4GB of RAM, discrete graphics and a 7,200-rpm hard drive. The Dell offers 2.66-GHz Intel Core i7-620M, 4GB of RAM, discrete graphics, and a 7,200 rpm hard drive in a 6.6-pound package with a 15.6-inch screen for $1,854.

Anna Attkisson
Managing Editor
A lover of lists and deadlines, Anna Attkisson heads up features and special projects for, in addition to covering social networking and accessories. She joined the LAPTOP staff in 2007, after working at Time Inc. Content Solutions where she created custom publications for companies from American Express to National Parks Foundation.