Take heart! When you're out shopping for a laptop, years of experience in technology and an IT certification are not required. Whether you're embarking on your first notebook buying experience -- yes, it's still more common than some might think -- or your 15th, the fundamentals of the purchase process remain the same.
In fact, if all you do is keep the five following bits of guidance in mind as you set foot in the computer store, we guarantee that you'll have a smoother, more rewarding experience and likely be more satisfied with your laptop for a longer time than you might otherwise be. Don't worry -- none of this is hard. Let's dig in.
1. Know What You Want.
If you walk into a store with nothing more specific than "I want something for gaming" in mind, you're going to be frustrated immediately and probably disappointed in the long run. We're not saying you need to know the exact make and model you're after right at the outset, but you should have a firm grip on your needs. What applications do you plan to use, and how demanding will those apps be on your hardware? Do you have weight and/or size preferences? Have you settled on which operating system -- Windows, Mac, or Chrome -- best fits you? Do you have a budget range in mind, both high and low? This last point is important, because you can underspend as easily as overspend, both of which run the risk of premature obsolescence and paying for unneeded features, respectively. The object of the game is not to find yourself looking back in six months, thinking, "If only I'd …"
2. Know the Other Specs.
Many times, an e-tailer will only reveal the top-level specs for components. Yes, it's a 500GB hard drive, but that's not even half of the hard drive's story. What about its spin rate, typically shown in platter revolution speeds of either 5,400 or 7,200 rpm? (Spin rate is a major factor in the drive's total performance, since the slower the platters rotate, the slower the drive can pull data from those platters.) Similarly, solid-state-drive performance can depend on the type of flash memory used in the drive. If you have an application that depends on storage while it's running, such details will matter, but you may not see them listed on a basic spec sheet.
The same goes for features such as the number of cores in the CPU. (If you have an application able to process eight threads simultaneously, but your CPU only offers four cores, you've got a significant bottleneck.) Similarly, the speed of system memory (RAM) can determine a large part of performance in memory-hungry software, which today means everything from the operating system to 3D games to photo editors. Not least of all, consider the specifications of the graphics adapter, especially with CPU-integrated graphics. (See number 5 below.) If all you run is a Web browser and MS Office, your graphics needs are minimal, but if you run cutting-edge 3D games on low-end or most integrated graphics engines, you're going to get very frustrated very quickly.
We understand that this is the hardest piece of advice on our list. If you're new to laptop components, how are you supposed to know about these things? Well, you may have to invest an hour or two in learning from friends, articles or -- of course -- a good sales rep. But the time invested will pay large dividends. Take notes, assemble a questions list to review while shopping and be leery if you can't get good answers.
3. Know Your Fatigue Spots.
Are you prone to eyestrain from poorly designed or misconfigured monitors? Wrist strain from cramped keyboards? Patience strain from slow apps? Ear strain from tinny, microscopic speakers? All of these things can be experienced in the showroom, and how much or little of each you experience will vary by laptop model. The key is to be patient. Take an hour, even two, to try out as many of the models as you need. You're not going to know how a monitor feels on your eyes after 20 seconds of cursor jiggling. Get as comfortable as the showroom allows. Work through a few apps. Really look, and listen to your body. If you're persistent, you'll perceive the differences between laptops and get a sense for the relative value of each in terms of your physical appreciation of them.
4. Know Your Cosmetic Preferences.
We're not saying, "Be vain," only "Be honest." For many users, especially in the business world, a laptop is like a suit. The appearance says something about you. Materials, dimensions, build quality and aesthetics matter. Does it look cheap? You're never going to get an appreciation for such things from a 2-inch-high picture on an e-tailer's page. ''Also be aware that, as with fast-food photography, pictures can fudge reality. Get your hands on a laptop, and you'll know if all that glitters in the pictures is really gold.
5. Know Your Sales Rep.
Just as there is a range of experience levels among users, the same is true among salespeople. Some will be more knowledgeable and experienced than others. Don't be shy about interviewing them and finding one you grow to like and trust. Having done your homework with point number 2 above will be critical here. For example, you might ask a sales rep to compare the performance differences of this versus that laptop, especially if one uses "integrated" and the other "discrete" graphics (meaning the first builds its graphics core into the CPU and the second keeps graphics separate from the CPU in a dedicated chip called the GPU). Integrated graphics are essentially free, whereas discrete graphics will add to the system cost.
Traditionally, you used to get what you paid for in laptop graphics, but the distinction has blurred greatly in the last few years. Even if a sales rep can't immediately tell you about differences in execution core counts, memory architectures and dynamic frequencies, he or she should at least know how to find the information you want and guide you to reviews showing benchmark numbers revealing the pros and cons of each system.
A computer salesperson is like any other sales rep. Is the person helpful and concerned? Does he or she make an effort to educate you and convey confidence? Or does that person set off your BS alarm? Unlike online shops, part of what you're paying for with a physical, store-based experience is having an advisor. Make use of it.