How to Pick a Laptop Computer

Laptop computers are the larger variety of portable computers, they offer a little more power, faster processors and larger monitors. They are pretty good replacements for desktop computers but their size makes them harder to transport. If you are looking for smaller, more portable models then you should have a look at our guide on how to pick a notebook computer.

Although there are a huge number of laptops to choose from, always remember to get what you need and don’t get wrapped up in the latest technology unless you really need, which most likely, you won’t.

Laptops aren’t as customizable as desktops, which means you choice of internal parts is limited to those the manufacturer chooses. Sticking with well-known brands will help ensure the parts inside are decent.

As they are difficult to change, a brand will be split into models by the processor speed and extras. All through the range there are often options for increasing the amount of memory or certain other parts. Pick your processor first, then monitor size. They will match the video card and monitor, so you don’t need to think about this much.

Intel processors seem to be the best overall when it comes to laptops, unlike desktops where the competition is close, Intel is my choice here. Here’s how much you can expect to pay for them.

  • $600 and up – Celeron M laptop
  • $800 and up – Pentium M laptop
  • $1000 and up – Core Duo / Core Solo laptop
  • $1200 and up – Core 2 Duo laptop

The monitor should be a size you like, it basically determines the size of your computer. 15 inch is about the smallest for a desktop replacement as anything smaller will be a strain. Otherwise look at our notebook computer guide.

I recommend 2GB of memory for running Windows Vista, at least 1GB for running Windows XP. I used to recommend less, but after some discussion in the comments of this post (thanks Steffan) and my choices when getting my wife her laptop recently, I’ve raised these requirements. Memory has come down in price dramatically since this article was first published so getting more is a very cost-effective investment.

A hard drive should be able to store all your data. If you’re not sure how much space you need just consider the following. Day-to-day storage will not take up much space and a hard drive of 40GB should be fine. A full CD will take 0.7GB, a full DVD movie takes from 6GB to 8GB usually. If you do store DVDs on your computer, then you could consider getting a much bigger drive. I would stick to a drive around 80GB which is flexible. Backup unneeded data to DVDs with a DVD burner.

I recommend a DVD burner because of only slightly more cost, but tons of convenience. Make sure it is built-in.

A laptop needs lots of built-in extras and there are some essential ones.

  • USB ports, 2 or 4 at the back are essential, some at the sides or front make for easy connecting.
  •  The DVD burner mentioned above.
  • Network port
  • Modem port
  • Wireless
  • Bluetooth (might be an option)

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Choosing a laptop computer has become better, but in many ways harder as their popularity has increased. With a wide range of laptop computers on the market, they are extremely customizable to fit your every need.

There are a few reasons you would get a laptop computer as opposed to a desktop computer, and you have to be clear on what you intend to use the laptop computer for in order to get the right one.

Many people want a laptop computer for it’s portability, as that is only the first very logical reason. If you want a super portable computer you might be better off with a notebook computer, which would offer smaller size for those who really need something ultra-portable.

If you are still intent on getting a laptop you will need to spend upwards of $600. This is at the very lowest possible end of the scale and around $1000 would be much more resonable for a good laptop computer.

Let’s consider what you are going to use your laptop computer for.

Programs like Microsoft Office don’t require a huge amount of power to run and will run fine on nearly any laptop computer. You might want a larger monitor if you want to use the laptop computer at home as a desktop replacement. Extras like a DVD writer can be a great investment for a computer that serves as the primary computer at home or at the office. A good graphics card will be necessary if you will use the laptop computer for games of high-quality image editing. Wireless capabilities will be necessary for a computer on the move.

Size does matter, but it only really refers to the size of the monitor. You can get very high performance laptop computers that have 17 inch screens, but these will set you back over $2000. More reasonable is a monitor that is around 15 inches, maybe a little smaller or bigger.

The processor makes more of a difference if you intend to do use programs like video editing software or new games on your laptop computer. For more general tasks, most of what’s available should be fine for your needs. Newer models from both Intel and AMD will improve the performance quite a lot with their dual-core processors. This new bread of computer cpus boost performance without a huge increase in the power consumption of the processor.

Wireless networking should be standard, as it is so common. A few USB ports are essential. A network port for wired networking, which is still very commmon. Firewire is optional, but a good extra. A PC card slot is the only way to add extra cards to a laptop computer, so make sure it has one or even better, two of these. Note that sometimes one is already in use when you get the computer so it might not even be available if you need to upgrade.

19 thoughts on “How to Pick a Laptop Computer

  1. Hi, I am shopping for a laptop for my wife to do all her school work. I may occasionally take it with me if I travel just for internet convenience. I know a little about them but not as far as the numbers .
    I want it pretty fast with plenty of storage. Is the larger the number the better processor? I am guessing that the larger the numbers the better the hardware. She also need to have vista with the microsoft programs.
    Thanks for your time and any information would be helpful.
    Thank you kindly,
    Christopher

  2. Hi, I am shopping for a laptop for my wife to do all her school work. I may occasionally take it with me if I travel just for internet convenience. I know a little about them but not as far as the numbers .
    I want it pretty fast with plenty of storage. Is the larger the number the better processor? I am guessing that the larger the numbers the better the hardware. She also need to have vista with the microsoft programs.
    Thanks for your time and any information would be helpful.
    Thank you kindly,
    Christopher

  3. Hello I’m looking for a new laptop for my wife. She is an accountant and uses all kinds of programs. I’m thinking of a fast and plenty of storage device. She is all about numbers. She will need all the important microsoft programs (word, excel, office, etc.). Do you think 160-200Gb is enough, too much, or not enough. Now price is a BIG issue. Looking for something between 500-600. I’m thinking of going out the day after Thanksgiving. Please give me some feedback.
    Thank you for your time and support.

    MS.

  4. Hello I’m looking for a new laptop for my wife. She is an accountant and uses all kinds of programs. I’m thinking of a fast and plenty of storage device. She is all about numbers. She will need all the important microsoft programs (word, excel, office, etc.). Do you think 160-200Gb is enough, too much, or not enough. Now price is a BIG issue. Looking for something between 500-600. I’m thinking of going out the day after Thanksgiving. Please give me some feedback.
    Thank you for your time and support.

    MS.

  5. Moe,

    I think 160GB will be more than enough, even if you store a few movies.

    Microsoft Office will set you back around $140 for the Student & home edition here: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/click?id=pODVmEaNj8U&offerid=102327.2765091&type=2&subid=0

    So that leaves at most $450, so you’ll be looking at a netbook of around 10″ or a refurbished laptop.

    This HP (for $500) comes with a 15″ screen and comes with all the extras I would expect (DVD writer, USB ports, etc): http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/click?id=pODVmEaNj8U&offerid=102327.4282669&type=2&subid=0

    This Lenovo netbook (for $400) is less powerful and has a 10″ screen which makes it more portable. No DVD writer though: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/click?id=pODVmEaNj8U&offerid=102327.4011534&type=2&subid=0

  6. Moe,

    I think 160GB will be more than enough, even if you store a few movies.

    Microsoft Office will set you back around $140 for the Student & home edition here: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/click?id=pODVmEaNj8U&offerid=102327.2765091&type=2&subid=0

    So that leaves at most $450, so you’ll be looking at a netbook of around 10″ or a refurbished laptop.

    This HP (for $500) comes with a 15″ screen and comes with all the extras I would expect (DVD writer, USB ports, etc): http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/click?id=pODVmEaNj8U&offerid=102327.4282669&type=2&subid=0

    This Lenovo netbook (for $400) is less powerful and has a 10″ screen which makes it more portable. No DVD writer though: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/click?id=pODVmEaNj8U&offerid=102327.4011534&type=2&subid=0

  7. Hi, I am looking to buy a new laptop for school. I am getting my master degree in architecture so I will be running multiple programs at once such as, autocad, photoshop, indesign, and sketchup. I want to try to keep the actually price of the computer under 650. What do you recommend?

  8. Hi, I am looking to buy a new laptop for school. I am getting my master degree in architecture so I will be running multiple programs at once such as, autocad, photoshop, indesign, and sketchup. I want to try to keep the actually price of the computer under 650. What do you recommend?

  9. Jill,

    That’s quite a tough one. I will assume that you are not including the cost of the software into that amount.

    I would recommend something with an Intel Core2 Duo processor, 2GB of memory and a screen of at least 15 inch. The other features will usually be fairly standard. The screen size will make a difference for those graphical applications, and will be quite important, much easier to work with graphics on a bigger screen.

    I found this one below, that meets the requirements, but has only 1GB of memory, but the extra can be added at time of purchase. Refurbished models also offer quite a bit in terms of specifications, but they’re not everybody’s first choice.

    http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/click?id=pODVmEaNj8U&offerid=102327.4230681&type=2&subid=0

  10. Jill,

    That’s quite a tough one. I will assume that you are not including the cost of the software into that amount.

    I would recommend something with an Intel Core2 Duo processor, 2GB of memory and a screen of at least 15 inch. The other features will usually be fairly standard. The screen size will make a difference for those graphical applications, and will be quite important, much easier to work with graphics on a bigger screen.

    I found this one below, that meets the requirements, but has only 1GB of memory, but the extra can be added at time of purchase. Refurbished models also offer quite a bit in terms of specifications, but they’re not everybody’s first choice.

    http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/click?id=pODVmEaNj8U&offerid=102327.4230681&type=2&subid=0

  11. I disagree with a few of your statements, 512mb minimum RAM for windows XP and 1gb minimum ram for Vista is ridiculous, both of those operating systems would come to a crawl with that little RAM. Also, screen size determines weight, and weight is huge when picking a laptop. I'd check out http://www.bestcomputersetup.com, i think they do a better job w/out having to provide information for another guide?

  12. Thanks for your input. I agree that those are on the low side of things, butit is still quite possible.I still run 512MB on my primary desktop computer. When not doing extensivemulti-tasking these minimums are still reasonable.That said, personally I would get double those figures when getting a newcomputer.

  13. So why don't you update the figures? I say this because a lot of junk computers by emachines and gateway the 299$ – 399$ will have 512ram. I've seen computers right out of the box that are slow and sluggish with a couple of browser windows open and excel (one example). Looking at the specs the only limiting factor is RAM and after they upgraded it worked perfectly fine. If people don't buy those computers and complain they'll go away.

  14. Totally reasonable points. These specs had not been updated recently. Infact when I got my wife a new laptop I upgraded to 2GB of RAM before eventaking it home.I've updated the post and given you credit for that.Thanks

  15. I'll sleep better tonight! Hopefully computer manufacturers figure out a way to make a profit considering people buying computers today shouldn't really don't need anything better (at least with the current software requirements)… what they need is to figure out something ridiculous like holographic computer displays that we'd all need major upgrades for. :p

  16. in my opinion: To get cheap laptop computers, you first need to Get a laptop with a standard screen size (about 15.4″). Slightly lower or Higher will cost you more.. then followed by Processor Type and Speed.. i am not worry about current RAM and hard disk space..as i can always add in RAM and buy external hard drive.. but you always need to check how many RAM slots is available.. and is there any room for expansion stuff like that.. :)

  17. So, I know this is for a feedback messages, and I am sorry, but I have no input. I do, however, have a Question or two. I am going into my Senior year of High School and we have a laptop from the mid 90's, one of the old monsters. It can't even dowload iTunes. I really am in need of a decent laptop for schoolwork and for a fairly minimal amount of music and a decent amount of pictures. I'll have to pay for the majority of this computer, so cheap would be helpful. I know nothing on the subject, so PLEASE help me.

  18. Laptop cases are necessary if you are traveling with your laptop computers frequently. Laptop cases basically protect laptops from harm and permits you to carry additional items like extra batteries, mouse and other laptop accessories.

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