Which laptop should I buy?
14th Feb 2012 | 15:36
Choose the right laptop for gaming, portability, home and more
Which laptop should I buy?: Laptop types
Choosing a laptop can seem like a complicated task, as there are so many models on offer, and a huge range of prices.
Can you get away with something cheap, you might wonder? Or will you have to spend more? Should you focus on the CPU first? The screen, the laptop graphics card, battery life, portability - something else?
When buying a laptop, though, you should start by focusing on your own needs. How will you want to use the new system? Understand your own requirements and that will automatically give you a much clearer idea of exactly what you're after.
Consider the applications you'll want to run, for instance.
If you really only want to browse the web, send emails, write a simple letter or two, play music and watch DVDs, then just about any laptop (as long as it has a DVD drive) will do the job, and spending £300-£400 or so will give you an acceptable system.
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If you'd like to edit video, though, or run other resource-hungry apps, then you'll need a laptop with a faster CPU, more RAM and storage space. Expect to pay considerably more, perhaps £600 and upwards.
And if you're after a laptop than can handle the latest games, then your system will need even more power and storage, and a dedicated graphics card, the faster the better. Prices may start at £600 or so, but if you're after decent performance then you might have to spend three times that amount, perhaps more.
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Think also about how these requirements will affect the portability of your laptop.
If you're planning to edit video or play games on the system, then you'd probably also like a large screen, maybe 17 or 18-inch.
But that makes for a large, heavy laptop, and will shorten your battery life considerably - as will the fast CPU, large amount of RAM, and so on.
And, unfortunately, powerful laptops tend to be larger and have a shorter battery life, just as a general rule. There are exceptions, if you're willing to pay a lot of money, but otherwise you shouldn't expect a gaming laptop to be something you can carry around and use anywhere, for hours on end - because it's not going to work like that.
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Put this all together, then, and the best laptop to buy for you should fall into one of three possible categories.
"Home" systems start with the basic browsing, email and media setup. You can extend them to handle image, audio and video editing tasks if you like, even game playing at a push, but performance won't be great: these laptops are more about value for money.
And while you can take them from room to room, or to school or work if you like, they're not designed to be hugely mobile. Expect to pay £300 to £800.
Ultrabook laptops start with more compact systems, without a DVD drive to save on weight and size, so they're very easy to carry around. Battery life will be good, allowing you to work just about anywhere. And at the high end you'll also have a powerful CPU, lots of RAM and storage space, although this can be very expensive. Expect to pay anywhere from £300 to £2000 and more.
"Power" laptops meanwhile concentrate on features above all else. You'll have a dedicated graphics card, a 17 or 18-inch display, a Blu-ray drive, and a similar level of CPU, RAM and hard drive power that you'd find in a desktop PC.
So game playing won't be a problem, but these systems will also be heavy, and have a poor battery life. Prices in this category start from around £800, but if performance is vital then you can expect to part with £1,500 - £2,000, perhaps more.
If you want ultra-portability and a very low price then you could look at netbooks as an alternative. They're low-powered, have tiny screens and don't come with DVD drives, but they're also very easy to carry around and can have a battery life of five hours or more. We're more interested in laptops in this article, but if a netbook would better suit your needs then take a look at our reviews.
If you're still not quite sure which laptop will suit you, don't worry - it should all become more clear on the next page, when we look at the options available within each category.
Which laptop should I buy?: Power or portable
You should now have a general idea of the sort of laptop you want: either a Home, Ultrabook or Power system. But what does that mean in practice? Focusing on each category in turn will give you a better idea of which laptop to buy.
If you need a system that will do just about everything you can do on a desktop PC (play games, edit video or run other demanding applications), and you don't mind having a heavy laptop with a short battery life as a result, then opt for something in the Power category.
You'll want something with at least an Intel Core i5 processor, maybe a Core i7.
4GB of RAM is a must; a 500GB hard drive is probably a sensible minimum, 1TB better if you can afford it; and opt for a Blu-ray, rather than a DVD drive. Remember, you'll be looking to keep this system for 2 or 3 years, so it's wise to buy more than you think you'll need right now.
A 17 or 18-inch screen will give you plenty of room to work. And if you're looking to play games then you should ignore slow integrated graphics - that's anything with a name that starts "Intel GMA", "VIA" or "SiS"), and opt for a speedy dedicated graphics card instead.
Which means picking a laptop with a Mobility Radeon HD product perhaps, or one of the better GeForce chips. Nvidia's product range is more confusing, but you'll find more details on its site.
Great examples of Power laptops include the Toshiba Qosmio X770, which features an i7 CPU, 17.3-inch 1920x1080-resolution screen, a 1TB hard drive, 8GB of RAM and Nvidia's phenomenal GTX 560M graphics card with 3D support, all for around £1700.
GRAPHICS POWER:The Nvidia GTX 560M gives the X770 enough power for serious mobile gaming
And the fabulous Alienware M18x uses a powerful i7 CPU and AMD's Radeon 6900M graphics card, giving it incredible gaming performance. It weighs a hefty 5.7kg and has an 18.2-inch screen, so you're unlikely to want to carry it around with you too much, but you'll get an incredible gaming experience for your £1850.
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If you'll mostly be using your laptop on the move - in the car, on the train, nowhere near any recharging points - then it'll need to be light, something under a couple of kilograms, and with as long a battery life as you can manage.
There are some great Ultrabooks around that offer speedy performance with light frames and small size. Look for something with a screen size of 11 to 13 inches, and you'll see plenty of Ultraportables running new low-power Intel Core i5 and i7 chips. They also use flash memory instead of hard drives. This also helps to save battery, but it actually helps to improve performance too, though it means you get less storage for the same price.
The Asus Zenbook comes in 11- and 13-inch models, with a choice of i7 and i5 processors and 125GB or 256GB of storage.
ART OF ZEN:The stunning Asus Zenbook is slim and fast
These Ultraportable machines are great for working on documents, or for generally basic computing tasks. They can handle some powerful applications thanks to their multi-core processors, but they only offer basic graphics performance, so no hardcore gaming on them.
If you're not wedded to Windows, than you should absolutely look at the Apple MacBook Air line. They offer excellent battery life, extremely fast performance and are some of the best-made portable laptops around. The 11-inch version starts from £849.
MAC CHOICE: MacBook Airs offer a huge battery life in an extremely light and slim chassis
If you want portability without sacrificing features, then check out the Sony VAIO VPC-Z21V9E. It's a thin, light laptop that offers a higher-resolution screen than its contemporaries, as well as a docking stations that adds an optical drive, more ports and even a better graphics card. Of course, you'll pay for these features, to the tune of as much as £2,699.
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You probably don't need a tiny laptop, of course. Or one with the power of a desktop. You just want something basic, which offers good value for money, and that means you're better off with a system from the Home category.
If you need to do little more than run Windows, visit your favourite websites and send emails, then you can get by with something very basic . An Intel Core i3 will offer all the performance you need when paired with 4GB of RAM and a big enough hard drive for you documents – 250GB or so.
So, for instance, the Sony VAIO VPCEH2F1E won't break any performance records, but it has a bright and clear screen, along with welcome extras such as 802.11n Wi-Fi. The battery life is average at around 3 hours, and it's a really good deal at around £450.
GREAT VALUE: The Sony VAIO VPCEH2F1 offers great features for the price
For around the same price, you can find some other really well-specced machines. Samsung's RV520 offers good performance from an Intel Core i3 processor, but packs in 6GB of RAM, so will be great for those who like to edit their HD movies on their laptop. The screen isn't quite as nice as some out there, but for around £450, you get no small amount of muscle.
PLENTY OF RAM: The Samung RV520 can multitask with the best of them
If you want something that won't take up the whole sofa when you're using it, the 14-inch Dell Insprion 14z is a great-looking, speedy laptop that offers really superb battery life, and though it's a little more at £579.99, it's absolutely worth every penny.
RUBY RED:The Dell Insprion 14z offers excellent battery life and good looks
There's no need to feel you're somehow being short-changed by opting for a basic Home laptop, then. This is a highly competitive market, and there are plenty of powerful systems to be had at absolute bargain prices.
You should now have a better idea about which laptop to buy, then, but there are just a few more general tips you can follow to ensure the purchase goes smoothly.
Think about how you'll need to use your laptop over the next two or three years, for instance, then decide how much you can afford to spend to achieve all that. You won't then get tempted to pay out "just" another £50 or £100 more, and if you have a set budget then it'll be easier to go shopping later: you can just ignore everything that's too expensive.
Then keep an eye on our laptop reviews and ratings, where you'll find the best laptop reviews which will quickly point you at the models you must take seriously, and the ones you really shouldn't.
When you find a likely candidate machine, try to locate one - or a similar model from the same range, at least - in a local PC store before you buy. This will let you try out the screen, test the keyboard, the track pad, maybe hear the sound quality of the speakers, all the vitally important elements that you really can't understand from a spec sheet alone.
And when it's time to buy, always use a credit card, if at all possible. Hopefully the laptop will arrive, on time and in fully working order, but if there are any issues then the Consumer Credit Act may mean the credit card company is equally liable, so giving you another way to recoup costs in the event of any problems.