My mother needs a notebook, and I promised to get her one for Christmas. Since this is her first mobile computer -- she only used desktop PCs until now -- I had to make sure that I have covered all the bases before I made a buying decision.
This guide looks at the things that I needed to know, and others that I could decide on my own.
I made the decision to take her to a nearby electronics store to test some of the devices there, as it is usually better to see something with your own eyes than having it described to you only.
The list below is divided into two parts: first usability related features, and second technical features. I'm not including the look and feel in this guide.
Please also note that I'm not making a lot of suggestions here either way. I'm not favoring a particular brand over the other, a cpu that you should get, or anything else.
What you find below are things that you need to be certain about before you buy a laptop. Some may be obvious, others not so much.
A resource guide is available after both sections that you can use to read reviews, look up and compare models, and make educated decisions.
My suggestion would be to write down what you want to do with the device first, and then go through the list below to pinpoint what you really need.
There are lots of things to consider in this regard, and I'd like to address the most important ones only here:
1. Screen size
Laptops come in many different screen sizes, from 10" to 18" and even less or more if you look long enough. Screen size is important for a variety of reasons. First, you need to be able to read properly what is going on. If you select a size that is too small, you may run into issues or slow yourself down because things are not as readable as they should be.
If you pick a larger screen size, you automatically increase the weight of the device and may also impact its battery life.
Depending on how you work with the computer, you may want a full qwerty keyboard with numeric pad, or a smaller keyboard instead where select keys are missing.
Smaller devices have smaller keyboards usually, which often means that the keys that they offer are smaller as well.
It boils down to how you use a computer. If you ignore the numeric keypad and the arrow keys for the most part, then there is nothing wrong with picking a smaller sized keyboard.
Weight can make a big difference. Do you want to chuck 3.5 kilograms of laptop around with you while you are on holiday or on a business trip, or do you prefer the lighter variants that are below the 2 kilogram mark?
A difference of 1 or 2 kilograms does not look like much, but it can make a big difference throughout the day.
This includes what features you want the notebook to have and the components that power it.
1. Optical drives
Do you need an optical drive? My mother wants one to play DVD movies and music CDs. Most ultrabooks don't come with one, and while it is possible to buy an external drive, it is not really suitable for mobility.
2. Processor and video card
Depending on what you want to do with the device, you may need a powerful process and video card, only a powerful processor, or neither.
While it is always great to have a powerful CPU on board, it may not make such a big difference if all you do is check emails, browse the Internet, and write documents.
If you want to view HD contents, or run a game or two on the device, then you may want to consider getting a better processor and a more powerful video card for those purposes.
So, if you can pick a laptop with an Intel Haswell cpu, that is a good thing as it improves a lot of things including the devices battery live.
If you are into gaming, you should pick up a notebook with an Nvidia or AMD graphics card, e.g. a NVIDIA Geforce GTX 780M.
3. Storage and RAM
One cannot have enough memory. The lower limit should be 4 Gigabytes of RAM, which should be enough for most cases. If you game, or do a lot of real-time editing, you may want to add more RAM to the notebook if possible.
Storage is usually available in abundance. Depending on what you want to do, you may want at least 500 Gigabytes of hard drive storage, especially if you plan to play high-end games or like to have large collections of videos, photos or other media on the device.
If you do not, you may fare better with a fast 128 GB or 256 GB Solid State Drive.
Many notebooks, especially those with Windows 8, ship with a touch screen. It adds another control option to the device. Instead of using the keyboard or mouse, you can now use fingers to control what is going on.
While that may sound like a nice idea, it depends on how you work with the notebook on how practical that is.
5. Other components
You may have other requirements that are important to you. Maybe you want Bluetooth 4.0 support, a microphone jack, support for a docking station or a detachable screen.
What do you want to connect your computer up to? E.g., Do you do presentations that require connecting your computer to a projector with a VGA connection? Do you want to link your computer to an HDMI connection on your TV? Yes, there are adapters for such things, but it's always nice not to have to fool with them.
7. Screen resolutions
Screen resolution is no longer tied to the screen size like it was in earlier days. You can now get small sized devices that offer a high screen resolution.
The bare minimum that I'd go for is 1024x768, but if you can get more, take it.
While there are sites out there that review certain laptops, I have found two retail sites to be really good for getting opinions on select models.
Amazon is the obvious choice. While the laptops there may not always be the cheapest, popular ones get a lot of user reviews. My suggestion would be to read those reviews, especially the good and bad ones, to get a solid understanding of a device's advantages and disadvantages.
You may find devices here with thousands of reviews that can help you tremendously in your decision making process.
Newegg is a popular shop, and while the comment counts on the site may not come close to those on Amazon, they may provide you with reviews that are often more technical in nature.
Plus, the site is a lot easier to navigate as you can use the sidebar to narrow down the listing.
3. Test Freaks
The website accumulates reviews from other sites. This makes it ideal for research, as you find out how it was rated on Amazon, CNET, Best Buy, and other sites. It is a price comparison engine as well, so that you can check out the cheapest offers on the site.
While I would do some research of my own on this before I make a buying decision, it can provide you with a good baseline for that.
Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments and I'll add it asap. Lets make this the best guide ever.
Advertising revenue is falling fast across the Internet, and independently-run sites like Ghacks are hit hardest by it. The advertising model in its current form is coming to an end, and we have to find other ways to continue operating this site.
We are committed to keeping our content free and independent, which means no paywalls, no sponsored posts, no annoying ad formats or subscription fees.
If you like our content, and would like to help, please consider making a contribution:
Ghacks is a technology news blog that was founded in 2005 by Martin Brinkmann. It has since then become one of the most popular tech news sites on the Internet with five authors and regular contributions from freelance writers.