When you go to shop for a new notebook, retailers are quick to point out a few specs to highlight all that the system is capable of—the processor, RAM, and screen size, to name a few. However, there's a number of features and specs that they don't tell you that are just as important when making your purchasing decision. Here's a rundown of what they are, how to find them, and how to tell just how good they are—using some of the same tests we perform ourselves.
Touch that Touchpad
It's incredible that one of the most-used parts of a notebook gets so little attention. An erratic touchpad can shave as much as a full star off one of our reviews, yet this is an area where laptop makers often cut corners. And, with all the new gestures Windows 8 brings to the table, it's about to get even more important.
Test the touchpad by opening one of the photos in the Photos folder, and performing these gestures: Pinch-to-zoom, two-finger rotate and three-finger flicking (if it's supported). Also, if you go to Control Panel>Mouse, you'll be able to not only see who makes the touchpad, but what gestures are supported. (Some are turned off by default.) Finally, if the mouse buttons are part of the touchpad itself, make sure that it's easy to press, and that it distinguishes well between right and left-mouse clicks.
Pound on the Keyboard
Even if you're only planning to use that notebook to send email, you still need a comfortable keyboard. Open Notepad, and type out a few sentences. Do the keys feel mushy? Are they too close together? Too small? Are you making a lot of mistakes? If you answered yes to these questions, look for another notebook.
Also pay attention to key travel, especially on Ultrabooks. Some laptop makers make their layouts to shallow in order to make their machines thinner. Another thing we like to see is direct access buttons for volume, screen brightness, etc., instead of having to press the Fn button first.
Test the Webcam
How can you Skype with Grandma if she can't see you? While most business notebooks have fairly decent webcams, the ones inside consumer systems are often a mish-mosh of mediocrity. In the store, open the Start Menu, and look for the notebook's webcam software.
Checking out your mug under the florescent glow of that big-box store should give you a decent indication of how you'll look back home, and also give you a chance to check out any extra features that come with the software. For instance, Dell's Webcam app lets you apply some pretty ridiculous avatars over your face, which should have the whole family in stitches.
Analyze the Display
There's nothing more frustrating than trying to surf the web or watch a movie on a notebook with a lousy display. Washed-out colors and poor viewing angles can make it worse than those little TVs in the back of airplane seats.
Open up the notebook's Web browser and start playing a Hulu or YouTube video. If there's no Internet connection, simply go to the Videos folder, where there's usually a sample clip from Microsoft. As the video is playing, tilt the screen forward and back, and move to either side. Do the colors hold up? Are the viewing angles wide enough? Compare the system in front of you with others before you buy.
Blast Those Speakers
Here's where you might annoy the sales reps, but when's the last time they paid attention to you? While you're watching that video, crank the volume on the notebook, and see if it sounds like an IMAX theater or a transistor radio. Second, where are the speakers located? If they're on the bottom of the notebook, chances are they'll be muffled when the system is on your lap.
Try playing a track or two that's preloaded on the system under the Music menu. Briefly, crank the volume to the max or close to the max to see if the sound is still clear or distorted. Also, check the Start Menu as well as the Control Panel to see if there are any utilities such as Dolby Digital or Beats Audio that let you tweak the sound. If so, fiddle with the settings to see if you can get it to sound just how you like.
Check the Hard Drive
Yes, most advertisements for notebooks are quick to point out the capacious size of the hard drives that come with a notebook, all the better to store those photos and legally obtained videos, of course. But size isn't everything. Especially when it comes to SSDs, the make and model of the drive is a huge factor in its performance.
Want to know who makes your hard drive? Open the Control Panel, select Device Manager, and then choose “Disk Drives.” Not only will it show the name of the company, but it will also give you the model number of your drive, which you can Google to see whether or not it's a dud.