If you've ever ordered a PC through a manufacturer's website, you know that there tends to be two options: Either buy an established model pre-configured, just as you might see it noted in a Laptop Mag review, or buy a base model that you can then tweak somewhat to taste. In the latter case, the vendor typically offers a handful of options for basic components, such as the CPU, memory and storage. At first glance, that might seem to give online purchasing the advantage in terms of convenience and personalization. However, taking the online route means giving up all of the benefits of in-store shopping we've discussed previously.
But here's the reality about in-store laptop inflexibility: It's not true. At least, it's not as true as you might believe. Buying a laptop is much like buying a car. You might find two of a kind in the showroom, but that doesn't mean both will be identical when they leave the lot. Especially for those with less experience in tailoring their portables, in-store options can make your next laptop a more personalized, satisfying experience.
When Bigger Is Better
Among laptops, larger consumer models tend to be classified as desktop replacements (DTRs). On the whole, DTRs will be more feature-rich, as they have more real estate for fitting more options. For example, you'll never see an optical drive on an ultra-thin, but they abound on DTRs. Ultra-thins may not have user-swappable batteries, or even a removable back panel for accessing components. This is one price you pay for extreme portability. Yet with a DTR, you have more ability to buy only what you need and upgrade components.
If you can get away with saving a few hundred dollars with a shorter-life battery, less memory, a lower- capacity hard drive and even a slower CPU, you may be able to easily and affordably order upgrade parts any time from minutes to years after selecting your base model. Who knows? You might even score a mega-deal on a low-end blowout model, have the store order in and install some upgrade parts, and still be money ahead compared to where you would have been if you'd ordered a higher-end configuration. Bottom line: Larger notebooks will give you more configuration flexibility, both at point of order and down the road.
Mind Your Slots
In the same vein as the previous tip, it can pay to peek inside your prospective laptop purchase and examine its slot upgradeability. For instance, many laptops only come with two SO-DIMM slots for RAM. Without getting too technical, suffice it to say that having a memory module in each slot allows the system to run in dual-channel mode rather than single-channel, letting the CPU access two memory banks simultaneously for faster performance.
Additionally, two modules tend to be more affordable than one; i.e., two 4GB modules typically cost less than a single 8GB module. However, if you start with both slots filled from the outset, when it's time to upgrade, you'll have to replace memory you've already purchased. An online vendor may not be able to tell you the specifics of your memory configuration, but an in-store rep should be more helpful.
The same is true for other system components. Many laptops now integrate an mSATA slot for adding SSD-class acceleration to your laptop's storage. If your model doesn't include mSATA out of the box, consider making sure you have an available mSATA slot for possible future upgrading. Similarly, check your laptop's Wi-Fi configuration. Practically every laptop integrates a Wi-Fi adapter seated in a Mini PCI Express slot, but a lower-end adapter will only have one or two antennas -- tiny round ports that connect to antenna wires that weave through the notebook's frame. For maximum throughput, you want three antennas, and this is something the notebook must ship with from the factory. In other words, you might start with a two-antenna adapter, but you better have three antenna wires built into the system if you want to upgrade later. (Tip: Just get the faster 3x3 802.11ac adapter at point of purchase. You'll be glad you did.)
Again, going to a store can pay off when it comes to peripheral selection. Every laptop now comes with an integrated track pad, but heavy users may still prefer a USB or Bluetooth mouse for improved comfort and accuracy. If you don't know which mouse is most comfortable or best matches your system, try it out hands-on. The same holds true for add-on keyboards, especially when bought with a stand and/or dock for the laptop, effectively turning it into a desktop that's still portable. As mentioned, ultra-thins may need an external optical drive, but your applications and use model may also call for external hard drives and/or a large SDXC memory card. In essence, just about anything you might connect to a desktop PC can also connect to your laptop, so make sure you plan well and buy the peripherals that will best suit your configuration and preferences.
Now Hear This
We want to draw attention to upgrading audio in general, both with external speakers and an external USB sound adapter. Because of their extremely limited form factors, notebooks tend to offer subpar sound that not even bundled premium audio algorithms (Dolby, etc.) can remedy. And if you're stuck with tinny 1 watt speakers, why would a vendor pay for a higher-end internal sound adapter? In short, if you care about audio quality and want to enjoy how your media sounds, you will want to upgrade any but the highest-end of laptop offerings. Naturally, you'll also want to hear the differences for yourself in a store. The impact isn't quite the same as a browser pull-down option when buying online.
Judge the Cover
You know the saying, and it's a fact. People will judge your laptop, and perhaps you in the process, by its cover. Start with the lid. From Hello Kitty to carbon fiber weaving, you can select third-party decal skins for certain laptop models and make your shell distinctly you. Then move on to the case. Whether you want a close-fitting neoprene sleeve, rubberized hard case, calfskin messenger bag or any other style, you have only to look and match your taste. Larger stores, of course, will be more likely to carry a greater number of case options, but the Internet is brimming with plenty more…even canvas, hemp and knitted alpaca options. Go wild.
Before You Leave…
As you can see, there are endless ways to customize your off-the shelf laptop purchase and more than a few ways to make sure you can keep customizing later on. But one last point to consider should be an extra coverage policy, because accidents and theft do happen. Nobody knows your use patterns like you. Do you take your laptop out of the house or office much? Is it integral to your life or productivity? Especially if you're active with your laptop, consider improved service coverage through someone like the Geek Squad. A factory warranty may cover defects and malfunction for a time, but what about other circumstances or longer periods? Like any kind of insurance, you need to intelligently assess the situation, provide for peace of mind, and make sure that you keep enjoying the machine you've so diligently tailored to fit your life.