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Laptops / Notebooks

Laptops Buying Guide
Laptops computers have come a long way from what they used to be....
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Laptops Buying Guide

Laptops computers have come a long way from what they used to be. As technology gets smaller and smaller, designers are able to cram not only a lot more into these little computers but also a lot more powerful components as well.
Before getting into the technical end of things, I'll first touch on the visual end of things; the physical design of laptops. Most will range from slightly under an inch thick to as deep as almost two inches thick. A lot of this depth will depend on what type of components you have in the laptop and what type of cooling they require. Hotter components will require larger heatsinks and blowers inside the notebook thus leading to a thicker design. Screen sizes on a notebook will the biggest determining factor to the overall size of it. Most notebooks will range from around 13” screen sizes up to a whopping 19”+! The most common sizes will be 14.1”, 15.4” and 17” but with many digital media notebooks and desktop replacement style notebooks we are starting to see manufacturers play around with non-standard screen sizes a lot more. All new notebook screens follow the same trend as most new desktop screens; they are starting to come only in widescreen. A few options you might find with a notebook screen are gloss or matte finish and LED backlighting or traditional cathode backlighting - both will play a slight factor in overall price. Of course the colours and funky designs that notebook bodies are coming in are practically endless these days and many manufacturers are even offering custom designs if you're willing to cough up the extra cash. However, anything can look pretty on the outside to let's dive more into what you need to look for inside your new notebook.

The CPU will be one of the more important hardware pieces inside your new notebook. You will probably want to consider budgeting to get the best possible CPU that you can afford. Not only is this a good idea for the horsepower behind your computer but it’s also a good idea because in a notebook you can not upgrade your CPU like you can in a desktop machine. This means that whatever CPU you purchase you will likely be stuck with it until you make your next notebook upgrade. I mention this because it is a more important thing to consider. Some of the other components can be upgraded in a notebook, but usually not the CPU. Some people need a simple and cheap notebook for nothing more than internet and document use, so these people probably won’t look at their notebook the same way as someone who is buying it for a specific use (such as graphic design or music production). When you are checking out the CPU options available in new notebooks, you will probably see the striking similarities to their desktop counterparts. Most notebook CPUs are coming from the identical series’ as desktop CPUs, with even their speeds being the same in some cases. The only major difference between the two is that the notebook variants do have slight design changes to allow their use inside a notebook (think more limited cooling and battery life). Although all new notebooks have pretty much transitioned into the dual core spectrum, quad core is one sticker you won’t find on many of them yet. Transitioning to more cores in a CPU of course means more heat, so we won’t see some of these goodies available instantly in notebook designs just yet.

RAM (memory) is an area that I probably don’t need to discuss a whole lot in this guide. Most desktops have either 2 or 4 slots for RAM where as notebooks are constricted to having only two. Since notebook RAM sticks are coming in capacities up to 2gb a piece that makes it possible to have notebooks with up to 4gb of RAM. A decent new one will usually ship with between two to four gig to help both Windows Vista and all of your applications co-exist in peace. Unlike the CPU, notebook RAM is easily upgradeable by either yourself (if you’re comfortable enough with basic hardware install) or by a computer repair shop. This way you can easily add a little more in the future to help extend your time before needing to buy a whole new notebook.

Gone are the times of having small hard drives in your notebook. With 2.5” notebook hard drives now shipping in sizes upwards of 500gb, these little drives are matching the storage capacity of most new off-the-shelf computer systems. At this time, new notebooks are shipping with hard drives that are usually at least 160gb and the highest end models will come with 500gb drives. As manufacturers are able to squeeze even more space onto hard drive platters we will start seeing even larger drives. For the curious techie’s, all new notebook hard drives are using the same SATA interface that desktop drives use but most are 5400 rpm as opposed to 7200 RPM like in our desktops. Using a 5400 RPM drive is usually favored because they produce less heat than a 7200 RPM notebook sized drive. Now it’s time to talk about the future of notebook hard drives, something that is slowly starting to creep into some models out there already. SSDs, or Solid State Drives, are essentially a flash based hard drive. Although they look almost identical to a mechanical hard drive on the outside, you won’t find a single moving part inside these little guys. Rather, under the hood of an SSD you will find something that looks identical to what’s inside your USB flash sticks and SD cards; lots of flash memory chips. The gains from these drives are that they are many times faster than a conventional hard disk drive because there are no moving parts to slow down the reading and writing of data. This gain of speed will help tremendously with reading and writing files as well as the speed of the operating system itself. However, the downfall to these drives is the same problem that plagued early model USB flash drives; the amount of storage that can be packed into one of these little cases. At the current time, SSD drives range from 4gb up to 128gb, but expect to pay a very hefty price tag for most 128gb models! With this in mind, the cost to storage ratio of these drives is still not good enough to make them mainstream enough for every new notebook so most manufacturers are offering them only as an add-on choice.

Graphics card variations in a notebook are just like what you would find in a desktop computer. The majority of notebooks out there use an integrated graphics chip that is usually a part of the entire mainboard chipset used on the motherboard itself. For example - Intel graphics, VIA graphics, etc.. Since these are basic performance chips they are enough to handle the needs of the Windows Vista operating system and maybe some older games or games that aren't reliant on heavy graphics acceleration. For those looking for a notebook that will allow them to do some moderate gaming on, they actually do exist! By paying a little more when purchasing it isn't hard to find higher performing notebooks that use an actual Nvidia or ATI powered graphics chip in them with dedicated (not shared) video memory. These cards will often have similar series names to their desktop counterparts but for obvious reasons will be scaled down quite a bit to reduce the extreme heat from a desktop chip that a notebook simply could not cool adequately enough. For those willing to pay a lot for the best graphics possible, I have also seen some high end gaming laptops that are running an SLI setup with two internal Nvidia graphics chips! If you want the best of both worlds then it is possible to get notebooks using both a separate graphics chip and the integrated chipset one. What these setups will do is dynamically switch to the offboard graphics when a demand is placed for accelerated graphics, but for regular use the onboard graphics will be used to help dramatically lengthen battery life.

When it comes down to it, there is a huge variety of laptops on the market to choose from. Most manufacturers will have any number of different models with each model coming in several hardware configurations. If you need a laptop for either a specific purpose or to fit a specific price, it shouldn't be hard to find that “perfect machine”.


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