Guide: What Laptop to Buy

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FlipFloper

In this guide, we'll outline the different categories of laptop users and which laptop will suit them.
We'll also take a look at CPU, hard-drive, and networking options.

The student
Students typically require low prices and portability above all. A laptop that can be carried from class to class is key, so many students turn to low-cost Netbooks, which are small and low-power systems. The downside is that these have small screens and generally use underpowered single-core CPUs.

Another option is a 13-inch thin-and-light laptop, which is somewhat less portable, but makes for a better experience when sitting down to write papers and do research. These have dual-core CPUs and often include optical drives. Apple's 13-inch MacBook is a prime example.

What to look for: At least 1GB of RAM; 160GB or larger HDD; 13-inch or smaller display.


The business traveler

Those who work on the road require a robust computing experience, a sturdy, rugged system to safeguard data, and often, access to security and management tools to satisfy the requirements of their IT departments.

Lenovo's ThinkPad and Dell's Latitude are two popular examples of laptop lines made with the business traveler in mind. Both brands offer security features such as Intel's vPro platform and TPM chips, internal software and hardware components that work alongside your operating system.

What to look for: 2GB to 4GB of RAM; 160GB or larger HDD; 12- to 15-inch display; Windows Vista Professional or Windows 7 Professional; mobile broadband modem.

The photographer and/or videographer
Video game players aren't the only ones who need powerful processors, discrete graphics, and massive, fast hard drives. Those who work with high-definition video or high-resolution photographs are among the most demanding of laptop power users.

Apple's 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pro laptops are among the most popular for these purposes. This is especially true as Final Cut, the widely used video-editing software, is only available for Macs (Adobe's Photoshop, however, is cross-platform).

Either a 17- or a 15-inch screen that runs at a high native resolution is suggested. You should also look for plenty of RAM--up to 8GB is ideal--and a large 500GB hard drive that runs at the faster 7,200rpm speed (typical drives run at 5,400rpm).

What to look for: 4GB-8GB of RAM; 320GB or larger 7,200rpm HDD; 17-inch or larger display.


The gamer

While a bit of an endangered species these days, PC gamers are among the most fervent user groups. Most serious PC gamers will naturally gravitate toward desktop computers, with their flexible upgradeability, faster components, and better cooling. But gaming laptops have made great strides in recent years.

Intel's Core 2 Quad and Core i7 CPUs are recommended for 3D gaming, as is a top-of-the-line discrete GPU, such as Nvidia's GeForce N260. High-end brands such as Alienware offer flashy, expensive laptops that can be customized with the latest components, while Gateway's P-series is a good example of a budget-minded 17-inch gaming laptop, with slightly older parts, but excellent overall value.

What to look for: 4GB to 8GB of RAM; 320GB or larger 7,200rpm HDD; 17-inch or larger display; discrete graphics GPU.

The home user
Anyone who does not fall into one of the above categories is likely to fit in here. From parents and children gathered around the laptop at homework time to watching Hulu videos in bed, these are systems that typically stay anchored to one desk, den, or kitchen--perhaps taking the occasional road trip or moving around from room to room.

The traditional 15-inch laptop is still the most popular size, although 14- and 16-inch versions are becoming more common. Every PC maker makes standard mainstream laptops, and they generally have more similarities than differences.

For a less expensive price, you can expect to find an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, 2GB of RAM, a 250GB or larger hard drive, and a DVD burner. Usually the most configurable of laptops, you can add extras, including a Blu-ray drive or discrete graphics, to many mainstream models.

What to look for:
2GB to 4GB of RAM; 250GB or larger HDD; 14- to 16-inch display; DVD burning optical drive.