Some people practically pick a laptop by playing "pin the tail on the PC" while blindfolded. Others try to ask as many questions as possible about important facets of the machine. Guess which group is more satisfied months later?
Let's make sure you fall in the second crowd. That process starts by going to a local computer store, where you can get proper answers. Which questions should you ask? Well, we have some suggestions.
Which components fit my applications?
Only you know which programs fill the bulk of your computing day. Are you a gamer? A programmer? A media editor? Someone who lives and breathes on websites? One way to approach the question is to take your biggest, baddest application and look at its "suggested" (as opposed to "required") hardware configuration. But, in reality, even this will fall well short of what you truly need. Modern users can keep dozens of apps and browser windows open concurrently, which will blow away even the most aggressive recommendations of any given program.
Instead, you might buy according to your type of use priorities, such as speed or graphics performance. You then map those priorities against the laptop's primary components: CPU, GPU, memory, storage and battery. If most of your use focuses on browser-based titles (Gmail, Evernote, Office Web apps, online games and so on), piling on CPU horsepower and storage will make very little difference. Rather, you might give more thought to having a lower-power CPU (such as the new Intel Core M) and longer battery life. Alternatively, if you're deep into, say, 4K video editing, you'll likely care less about battery runtime but demand a top processor (Core i7), at least 16 GB of memory and a solid-state drive (SSD) for the fastest possible file editing.
Just make sure you buy for the future, and not just today. Can you take an educated guess about if and how your use might change over the next 12 to 24 months? Buy accordingly.
How light should it be?
Weight matters, as does the amount of time you'll be carrying it. Given the popularity of Ultrabooks and MacBook Airs, does it make sense to pay more for less? Again, the answer will depend on your regular use. A featherweight system will cost more -- about $800 to $1,200 -- because it marries swift performance with 0.5-inch thickness. Achieving such svelte dimensions demands exceptional engineering and highly specialized parts, but the end result is a cutting-edge laptop that can be comfortably carried in the crook of an arm all day. For half that price, you could get a notebook with similar performance (although probably less battery life), but it would likely be twice the weight or more. Carrying a 7-pound laptop plus a power brick on your shoulder all day is no treat.
Does touch matter?
Especially with the arrival of Windows 10, touch functionality is becoming more integrated into everyday computing than ever before. But touch screens do cost a little more -- about $100 more, give or take. And let's be fair: Unlike on a smartphone, touch can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help on PCs, as anyone who has tried to use touch to control Windows' small buttons and drop-downs will testify. However, touch can be a great time-saver for image manipulation and broad gestures, such
as scrolling through long Web pages; plus, it's excellent for operating in tablet mode (as with convertible 2-in-1 notebooks). Moreover, most premium notebooks come with touch functionality by default. But if you're shopping in the budget to mainstream range, touch can either be a productivity booster or an unnecessary cost, depending on your needs.
Which screen specs really matter?
Honestly, display specifications are some of the wonkiest, most subjective attributes you'll see in computing. Brightness and contrast can be measured differently across manufacturers. Does viewing angle mean that text is legible, or that colors begin to shift? The one spec that does matter is resolution. The higher the resolution, the sharper your text and images will be, which can improve readability, make gaming more enjoyable and prevent eye fatigue (although you may need to increase your font size to avoid having to use a magnifying lens with the highest-resolution displays).
In general, you do get what you pay for with displays, even if the specs are debatable. How do you know? You have to stand in front of it for a while. Try reading documents and watching high-def videos. Play with it and get used to it. Bounce back and forth to a laptop with a lower resolution, and see if you can tell the difference. You may discover that budget options may not have the display quality you want, but you'll never know until you experience the screen in person.
What kind of storage do I need, and how much?
What type of drive should you buy -- a hard drive or an SSD? That depends on whether you prioritize capacity over speed. Hard disks are, hands down, less expensive. On the other hand, SSDs can be several times faster, depending on the application.
As for storage space, the answer is increasingly up for argument. Traditionally, the answer was always easy: Buy as big as you could afford, because you'll fill it all soon enough. However, now we have cloud storage, which is shouldering an increasing amount of capacity demand. (Consider: Why save a movie to your system when you can stream it whenever you like for pennies?) Do you need to save your Office files locally when your system is always online and can fetch anything from the cloud almost as fast as you can pull it up locally? Ultimately, we still advocate buying as much drive storage space as you can afford, but now we'll add a caveat: You probably won't fill that drive nearly as quickly as you might have in years past.
Windows, Mac or Chrome?
Opening the Windows vs. Mac debate is like arguing religion or politics, but, again, you may want to get more acquainted with Windows 10 before coming to a final decision. The real question to ask, if you're shopping for a budget or secondary laptop, is whether a Chromebook can meet your needs for a fraction of the price. Most people still haven't tried out Chromebooks, but they can be a) great for 100 percent Web-based use and b) frustrating if you need to control OS options or set up peripherals. Regardless, we recommend experiencing all three while considering your everyday laptop needs. In the battle between heart, head and wallet, one option will inevitably win out.
Traditional Clamshell or 2-in-1?
"I prefer a big, heavy clamshell laptop," said no one, ever. You buy a behemoth-book for only two reasons: 1) It's all you can afford at the low end, or 2) your performance or ruggedness needs are so demanding that a big laptop is your only choice. Fortunately, most clamshells these days vary from acceptably light (4 to 5 pounds) to really light (less than 3 pounds).
But then you have to decide if the clamshell is better for your needs than a tablet is, or if you need both in the form of a 2-in-1 convertible. Tablets are often more affordable, but they remain focused on content consumption more than on creation. (Settle down, iPadders. We know you can create on tablets, too, just not as well as on a high-caliber PC.) As mentioned before, the smaller the laptop, the higher the price, and the extra flexibility of a convertible raises the price tag that much more. Ultimately, design is a highly personal choice that will be decided by your budget, comfort threshold and applications. If you're a writer, you have little need for a tablet. If you're a media producer who frequently presents to clients, a convertible may make the most sense.
When you're laptop shopping at a local store, dozens of choices, big and small, should be weighed to make sure you're happy with your laptop purchase. The above questions will get you started well on your way to an informed, personalized decision. Just remember: Buying without trying is like driving blindfolded on the suggestions of backseat drivers. Drive safe, and buy smart. serge