Buying Tips: Laptop Bargains (Part 1)

11/30/2012 10:41:16 AM

We go bargain hunting, and this time laptops are in his sights

Choosing a new laptop could be the most import ant purchase you make this year. Laptops are becoming an ever more prevalent part of our lives, with the majority of US residents spending between four and six hours in front of a computer every day. Considering this investment in time, you should aim to spend a proportional budget on getting a good machine - remember, spending more today will often reap rewards tomorrow, as a more powerful PC will last you much longer with good performance.

General Buying Tips

As a rule, laptops are not as upgradable as desktop PCs, so it's important to get the core guts of the machine right. Processors and video cards in particular are important, as a video upgrade will usually be impossible, and a CPU swap will require almost complete disassembly of the system. Storage and memory on the other hand are relatively easy to augment at a later date, rarely requiring much more than removable of the back cover. When choosing a laptop it's important to decide how you will be using the system and prioritize different aspects of a machine's specification accordingly. If you plan on putting it in your briefcase for example, you will want to prioritize a light-weight and compact design. If you need to use the system on trans-Atlantic flight you will need to make sure the battery life is the best it can possibly be, and that the system is compact enough to be used comfortably on a flip-down tray table.

Description: Laptop Bargains

If you plan using your laptop as more of a desktop replacement you'll need to allow for more storage and workspace, and don't expect great battery life. What you can expect however is a lovely, big, high-resolution screen and plenty of power. Gaming laptops are essentially desktop replacements that also allow you to play the latest games, and inevitably you will need to increase your budget. Almost all gaming laptops come with 17" or 15.6" screens and are rarely portable or last beyond a couple of hours when running on battery. Unfortunately there is no 'jack of all trades' product out there. A gaming laptop needs to be fairly hefty in design to deliver the necessary performance required to play the latest games and the power draw of its components precludes a long battery life.

The smallest notebooks on the market actually come under a different category: netbooks. While these are fully fledged x86 architecture computers, their performance is many times slower than a normal laptop and you need to check your expectations accordingly. For several years netbooks have been marketed as 'ideal for the occasional user who just browses the web and does office tasks'. While this is true to an extent, the Internet is a very different animal these days. Lots of us use the web to access services like catch-up TV, YouTube or to stream movies and TV shows over services like LoveFilm or Netflix. The trouble is the hardware in a netbook is not up to the task of streaming video unless you choose your specification very carefully. A netbook is rarely the best choice of computer unless space really is at a premium. By going for a full fat mobile architecture - even at the very bottom end of the market - you will see a massive difference in capability and the system is far less likely to need upgrading as soon as your usage patterns evolve slightly

The iKIT is the smallest notebook in the world

The iKIT is the smallest notebook in the world

Many laptop manufacturers offer models with healthy allocations of hard drive space and memory only to skimp on the processor itself. Remember our golden rule from earlier - upgrading storage and memory components is simple, while swapping out the CPU may not even be possible. Aim for a Core i3, i5 or i7 chip where possible instead of a Pentium or Celeron model and you will be rewarded with far better multi-tasking capabilities, much stronger longevity and a worthwhile upgrade path. We would go as far as to say it's better to buy a previous generation i3 or i5 chip than it is to go for a brand new Celeron or Pentium product, because the performance offered by these cut down processors is rarely satisfactory - particularly as your system gets filled with programs.

For most users, 4GB of memory is sufficient so long as you don't go crazy on the number of applications you plan on running at once. If you use your system in an inefficient way or know that it will be clogged with programs by other members of your family no matter hard you try, 6GB or 8GB will be a better bet. Avoid systems with 3GB or less memory - this is really too small an allocation by today's standards and you'll have to throw away memory modules rather than augment them due to their lower capacities.

Only you, the user, know how much hard drive space you will need. It's not uncommon for even entry level notebooks to ship with healthy hard drive allocations of 500GB or more, but there's no point in picking one laptop over another just because it has more HDD space if you are not a heavy user of data. If shopping for a more expensive machine, try to find a hard drive with a 7200rpm spin speed. It will greatly improve performance and you'll notice much snappier boot times. Even better is a solid-state drive. These will revolutionize a machine's multi-tasking capabilities, as well as give you a peerless user experience on a day-to-day basis.

Something all users deserve is a good screen. Don't fall into the trap that all screen sizes are the same - delve deeper into the specification and check the resolution. 15.6" panels in particular can vary widely in spec, with some models featuring a 1366x768 resolution and others a luxurious 1920 x 1080 resolution.

Value Laptops

Description: Good value laptops are worth hunting for

Good value laptops are worth hunting for

Scanning the web for bargains in this category revealed the usual smattering of Celeron and Pentium equipped models. Bucking the trend was the Medion Akoya E6221, available for the extremely tempting price of $469.38. This 15.6" model packs a Core i3 2350M dual-core 2.3GHz processor with Hyper-Threading, 4GB of memory, a 320GB internal hard drive and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. It has a DVD writer as standard, two USB 3.0 ports and a card reader. This is a contemporary and surprisingly punchy specification that will deliver excellent performance for students and other people on a budget that still need good performance. The 15.6" LED screen won't win many awards with a 1366 x 768 resolution, but this is par for the course in this sector and whichever way you slice it, this is a lot of laptop for well under $485.58.

Description: Choose wisely…

Choose wisely…

In order to get a system that is significantly better in specification than the Medion, you'll need to raise your budget by around $242.79, to $728.37 including VAT. This will get you a Lenovo IdeaPad G580 - one of the cheapest models around to pack in an Ivy Bridge third-generation Core i5 chip. This increases the clock speed to 2.5GHz, but more importantly greatly speeds up multimedia thanks to vastly superior integrated graphics. i5 chips also feature 'intelligent performance' - Intel's buzzword for Turbo Boost - which raises the core speed on active cores when others lie underutilized. When fully boosting, the 15 in this chip can hit a desktop-equalling 3.1GHz. The G580 also offers 4GB of memory, a DVD-RW drive, a 500GB hard drive and a battery life of six hours - two more than the Medion. Once again the 15" screen has a resolution of 1366 x 768 but you shouldn't expect more than this without laying out more money.

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