Laptop screens range from 9-inch netbooks to 20-inch desktop-replacing behemoths. The vast majority are LCD screens -- just like your flat panel TV.
what you need it for: watching movies, multitasking
factors to consider: Resolution -- the number of pixels in the display -- is often just as important as pure size. A smaller screen with higher res (most top out at 1920 x 1080 pixels) will be able to pick up more details on screen than a bigger screen with less pixels (1366 x 768 pixels is the lowest you want to go). You’ll also have to choose a backlight technology. Regular LCD screens use fluorescent bulbs, but some offer more efficient LEDs (what kind of bulbs) instead.
what to get: Grab something between 13- and 17-inches and keep the resolution as high as you can -- it will give you more room to work. Just remember that the bigger your screen, the heavier your machine and the shorter your battery life. Choosing an LED screen will help you squeeze out more time while unplugged, even though they’re often brighter than normal LCDs.
The hard drive is where all of your computer’s data lives. Think of it like a storage compartment that holds every element of your digital life.
what you need it for: storing your ever-growing collection of pictures, videos, music, and documents
factors to consider: Space, measured in gigabytes (GB), is obviously the most important factor. You’ll also typically see drives rated by how fast the disk spins. This is denoted in rotations per minute (RPMs), and higher RPMs mean better performance.
what to get: Even most baseline laptops come with at least 160GB of space, which Apple says is enough for about 40,000 songs from iTunes. Step it up to 320GB or even 500GB and you should have no trouble avoiding the system slow down that happens when your drive starts to get full. Don’t worry too much about speed: 5,400 RPMs is standard and will be fine; anything faster is just bonus.
RAM (the computer’s short-term memory)
This is fast temporary storage where your computer keeps the data for the programs it’s currently running. Chances are, most of the computer freezes you’ve ever experienced happened because too many open programs clogged it up.
what you need it for: working with programs, especially when multitasking
factors to consider: Generally speaking, more is better, but every computer has its limits. Almost all modern machines can handle at least 4GB, but some can take far more, depending on the operating system and other components.
what to get: If you’re just checking e-mail and surfing the web, you can probably get by on 2GB, but 4GB will make your life easier. If you get a computer that can handle it, 8GB will be better still, but anything higher is probably overkill unless you’re working on the next Toy Story movie. Also, upgrading your own RAM -- it comes in small sticks called DIMMS -- is about as hard as changing the batteries in your TV remote, so check sites like Crucial.com for deals before spending big bucks through upgrades from the factory.
PROCESSOR (the computer’s brain)
By constantly crunching numbers at astronomical speeds, the processor turns digital data into usable information.
when you need it for: watching video on the web, editing photos and videos, playing games
Factors to consider: Unfortunately, this is the most confusing element of the entire process. There are two main manufacturers: AMD and Intel, each with an ever-changing line up of impossibly named models. The number of gigahertz (GHz) will give you a general idea of how fast they are compared to similar models, but even that is fairly unreliable.
what to get: You can spend all day nerding out over things like BUS speeds (TK what this is) and cores (TK what this is), but it’s easier to get a general overview based on category. Low-powered chips like Intel’s Atom provide long battery life for little money, but choke on streaming video. High-end chips like Intel’s Core (i3, i5, and i7) smoke through heavy tasks, but require lots of money and electricity. That said, this is a good place to splurge since you won’t be able to upgrade your processor in the future. Pick something in the middle to high-end range. Buying at the very top of the line often has you paying for bragging rights.
OPERATING SYSTEM (what you see)
Using graphics and text, your operating system organizes raw data into a file system you can navigate with a keyboard and mouse. Without them, your screen would look like something out of The Matrix.
what you need it for: everything
factors to consider: The two main players in this game are Apple’s OSX and Microsoft Windows 7. Apple makes it simple, offering up only one version, but Windows 7 comes in a variety of different flavors. Unless you have a specific reason not to, opt for the most basic version, Home Ultimate. Otherwise you’ll be paying extra for features you’ll probably never use.
what to get: This one really comes down to personal preference, so it pays to get some hands-on time with each one before you make the leap. Many people find OSX to be simpler and more aesthetically pleasing, while others enjoy the level of control offered by Windows. It’s worth noting that you can install Windows on any new Mac computer, but you’ll have to shell out an extra $150 for the software license, so you’re probably better off just picking one and sticking to it.
3 things not to worry about
You’ve got enough stress making a pricey laptop purchase. Don’t dwell on these details.
You can get just about everything, including movies, music, and software via download. Nixing the DVD drive can save you weight and bulk.
Laptop speakers will never sound good, no matter how many certification stickers are on the box. Use your headphones or get a decent set of external speakers like the Logitech Z320s ($60, Logitech.com).
There are plenty of awesome laptop skins and cases available for $20 or less from companies like Musickins or Gelaskins. They protect your PC and will cover up even the drabbest case, so don’t buy that orange model just because it’s…well…orange.
3 must-have upgrades
Okay, so we said don’t stress. But you should remember to ask about these add-ons.
Video chat is getting better all the time. You don’t want to have to choose between blocky video and an awkward external camera cluttering up your bag.
If you want to get the photos, videos, and even music from your computer to your TV, having one of these little ports for attaching an HDMI cable will make the process much easier.
WIRELESS N WITH A BLUETOOTH NETWORK CARD
Having a Wireless N card means you’ll be able to take full advantage of fast Wi-Fi networks, while Bluetooth opens up your computer to wireless accessories like mice, keyboards, and even remotes.
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