How to Buy a Laptop / Notebook Computer

You want to buy a laptop do you? And looking at the vast choice available you are confused.....not to worry....heres some advice.

Before I go into details, a quick recap of processors is essential. Be aware that it is the processor (cpu) that governs the price of the laptop (along with the screen size). The two major companies manufacturing CPUs are Intel and AMD (there's Apple too but lets stick to mainstream laptops). Intel makes the famous line of Pentium processors (''Intel inside'' ting tong ting tong!). For laptops you have three main cpus available - Mobile Pentium 4 (basically a desktop P4 processor), Pentium M (low voltage cpus which enhance battery life and are specially built for laptops) and the Mobile Celeron processor (poor man's P4 cpu). Wait a minute, you say, you didnt mention the Centrino processor. That's because Centrino is not a processor - it's a technology. Centrino is a combination of 3 things - Pentium M cpu + 855 chipset + Wireless Pro (802.11b). The other company is AMD - they make really good cpus that rival Intel's cpus. Traditionally AMD cpus have had heat generation problems but lately there aren't many complaints. I would advice you to stick to Intel processors which have good re-sale value.

The next Q is....what will you use the laptop for? Are you going to use it for simple stuff - spreadsheets/word processing / internet browsing? Then go in for a Celeron CPU. If you are going to do more serious computing, intend travelling frequently and want to run the laptop on its battery, go in for a Pentium M laptop. If you need wireless access go in for a Centrino laptop or a Pentium M laptop (u can add wireless technology using a pcmcia card). If you aren't going to move the laptop around much or you want a laptop for games, get a Mobile P4 laptop. But be aware that a Mobile P4 laptop is a desktop replacement - it will be heavy and will run hot.
Now that you have the CPU decided, think about the size of the screen. 15'' is today's ''sweet spot''. But you do get smaller or bigger screens. Choose the size that fits your budget. 14'' or less is a bit too small these days unless of course you want a ultra portable (read expensive) laptop. For gamers, the bigger the screen the more fun they will have. Bigger screens are also good for spreadsheet warriors and DTP professionals.

The next item on your list is RAM (temporary memory). Most laptops come with Windows XP which needs at least 256 mb ram to run happily. I urge you to upgrade to 512 ram for best results. The more RAM you have, the better your laptop will behave. It is said that increasing your RAM is the best and cheapest way of improving performance of any computer (i.e. without changing the motherboard/cpu).

Another thing to look at is the graphics memory. You can either choose dedicated video memory or shared architecture. Dedicated memory means that your video card has its own memory and does not have to ''beg'' for memory from the system memory (RAM). A rule of the thumb - dedicated memory = fast performance. Gamers and DTP guys must insist on dedicated memory. Good graphic chips are ATI Mobility Radeon or Nvidia GeForce. The more video memory you have, the better it is. Try to get a laptop with at least 32 mb video memory. Most laptops use shared architecture these days which is a cost cutting measure (an example of shared architecture is Intel's extreme graphics). If you are not going to play serious 3D games or run heavy duty graphic programmes, shared architecture will be just fine. But make sure that you have enough system RAM (read 512) because the video memory is going to steal part of your RAM.

The hard drive capacity will be in the region of 30 gb and above. Get the maximum bang for your buck - don't fall into the ''I'll never need that much capacity'' rut. You will need all the hard drive space you are given so get the biggest capacity you can afford. For normal laptop users 40 gb is sufficient. You can easily increase hard drive space by buying an external USB 2.0 hard drive.
Battery life is very important for road warriors. Expect 3-5 hours battery life from most laptops. Mobile P4 laptop batteries will last much less. Always go in for a lithium ion battery as against a nickel hydride one.

Most laptops offer optical drives - the best value for money today is DVD-ROM + CD-RW drive. This means that you can read DVDs and read/write CDs. If you have lots of money to spend, get a laptop with a rewritable DVD drive.

Sound quality on laptops is just about acceptable for movies/songs/games - you cant go wrong with Harmon Kardon / Altec Lansing speakers.

One important factor to consider is weight. You don't want a dislocated shoulder do you? So ....the lighter the laptop, the better it is for your health! The catch is that the lighter the laptop, the more expensive it is going to be. Don't forget the AC adapter - some laptops have huge adapters which weigh a ton!

Ask the salesman for a free laptop bag as well.

Get a laptop with lots of USB ports which will come in handy and will improve the versatility of your laptop. Make sure that the USB ports are USB 2 (technology which is much faster than the old USB 1.0). An external USB mouse is a must as the inbuilt pointing devices are really painful to use.

All laptops come with built in modems and usually have LAN connectivity. Some laptops offer card slots where you can read/write to memory cards (as used in cameras).

Most laptop companies offer minimum software - Windows XP and basic stuff. They won't even give you Office software. You will have to add more software yourself. To keep prices down, some companies offer Linux operating systems - unless you are seriously strapped for cash, I would advice you to stick to windows. As soon as you get your new laptop, make copies of the recovery CDs and store the original CDs safely. Carry the copies with you when travelling extensively.
Now, armed with the above knowledge dive into the market and choose the best laptop you can afford. Compaq and Toshiba make excellent laptops so check them out first. Compaq is generally cheaper than Toshiba. I used a Compaq laptop initially but later on moved to Toshiba as I found their laptops better. This is a personal choice so don't read too much into it. Compaq and Toshiba are well established in most countries so repairs are not a problem. Find out where the nearest repair centre is and keep that information handy.

A laptop is usually a long term buy - forget about upgrading laptops. So choose carefully. Check the warranty - National and International. Remember that some companies will not honour your International warranty and will tell you to take the laptop back to the country where you bought it! Make sure you clarify this point before you buy the laptop.

Take good care of your laptop. Invest in a surge protector. Don't move the laptop when it is switched on. And remember the golden rule - NEVER drink tea/coffee while working on a laptop!

I am a Merchant Navy officer living in Mumbai. When I am not sailing the high seas, I enjoy surfing the net, playing computer games, swimming, listening to music and reading books. Over the years I have picked up lots of information about computers that would be useful to non-technical people. I would love to share this information with other people and assist them in any way I can.