What to look for in a laptop.
It can be hard to know what to look for when buying a new laptop, even for those who stay current with computing trends. If you’re looking into a new machine this year, here’s a quick run down on the specs you’ll be looking at and why you want them. This is a pretty high level approach, so experts can probably skip it over unless you’re looking for a refresher.
Describing the processor can be done a few ways: it’s like the brain of your computer in that it makes all of the decisions, and it tells all the other pieces what to do and when to do it. It’s also like Grand Central Station in that all of the data that you see flows through the processor at some point.
You’ve probably heard the term “multi-core”. Older processors only had one core, whereas newer chips have up to eight cores (expanding to 12 later this year). That means that the processor can devote its full speed to a task for each of those cores. You can see how that would be useful for multitasking, right?
Both Intel and AMD offer chips that can boost power on demand. Intel calls their technology “Turbo Boost 2.0” (in their newer chips) while AMD has chosen the catchy “Turbo Core” moniker. Both of these technologies will detect when apps aren’t optimized for multi-core processing and instead of wasting your extra cores, they power them down and supply the extra power to one core, delivering a hefty speed boost. It’s pretty cool.
You’ve probably heard the old adage that integrated graphics are bad. We can update that to “integrated graphics were bad” after the rollout of this year’s Core™ family of processors from Intel and AMD’s really impressive Fusion™ line.
Essentially what both companies have done is put the graphics chip right on the processor chip. That means that the bottleneck slowdown we used to get when sending data down the thin pipe to the graphics chip or card is gone.
What does that mean to you? You can buy a system with integrated graphics that will actually play most modern games, and play them well. It means you can get a system with integrated graphics that will play Blu-ray discs at full resolution without stuttering. You can output high quality content to your TV without suffering from quality issues. Yeah, it’s a big deal.
There are plenty of ways for your laptop to help you be everywhere during the school year, but there are a few core technologies you want to have.
This is the super-important one! Wireless N gives you the ability to connect to almost any open Wi-Fi network, or any secured Wi-Fi network to which you have permission to access. Wireless N (sometimes called 802.11N) is the best implementation of Wi-Fi yet, compatible with b/g/a networks, and it features longer range and faster speeds.
Wi-Fi is great for smartphone owners whose phones have Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities. That technology lets you share your 3G/4G data plan with your laptop - handy for access anywhere!
This is short-range wireless that lets you connect your other devices to your computer–it's mostly used to connect smartphones for wireless syncing and file transfer. It can also be used share your 3G/4G connection with your laptop, depending on the smartphone.
High speed cellular data can be built in your laptop, or you can add it with a data stick. It's a convenient way to cut the cord, and it's secure (unlike coffee shop hotspots). This comes with a price tag, though, as you have to pay for the data you use.
When it comes to RAM more is always better. Why? Despite how fast hardware improves, software is always one step ahead, and software developers are GREEDY! They want to take advantage of system resources to make sure that their software offers the best experience. That’s great, except when you’re running two, or three, or ten apps that all want to do that… then you’ll start to run into bottlenecks as those finite resources are used up by stuff that you’re running.
So how do you deal with it? When you’re looking at a new system with only 2-3GB of RAM you need to keep in mind that Windows 7 is going to eat up a chunk of that RAM just to run, leaving you with between 1-1.5GB of RAM for the stuff you want to run. Upgrading your RAM is one choice… or you could consider a system with more RAM built-in. 6GB of RAM and above will offer you plenty of breathing room for modern media apps, as well as giving you some growth room for the future.
There are two words that should strike fear into the owners of small hard drives everywhere: High Definition. HD content is awesome… and huge. Whether we’re talking about Full HD 1080p (which your camcorder should be recording), massive RAW images from your DSLR, or uncompressed audio files for your music collection, high quality content takes up a lot of space.
When it comes to a laptop you can always add an external drive, but they’re bulky, they add a power drain on the system when you’re not plugged in, and they can be stolen or misplaced relatively easily. You could always upgrade your hard drive down the road, but then you’ve got to go through the process of transferring your information and installing the new drive; it can be a pain. Pick a machine with a larger hard drive right off the bat and you can avoid those hassles.
Got an example?
Let’s take a look at the Toshiba Satellite C650D. It’s got all the bells and whistles on the outside: big screen, big keyboard, numeric keypad, and a built-in webcam. On the inside, though, it’s got all the big features I’ve just talked about. The AMD E350 processor has that Fusion™ technology I mentioned, for powerful built-in visuals. 6GB of RAM gives you plenty of headroom for lots of programs, and the 500GB hard drive gives you serious digital shelf-space for your library of files.
The final word
When it comes to buying a laptop it’s clear that while smaller might be better for the actual form factor, when it comes to internal components: bigger is better.
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