Laptop buying guide

A laptop or notebook - as they're sometimes called - is a self-contained portable PC that can run for at least an hour or two from an integrated battery pack. They integrate everything you need to do most computing tasks in a notebook-sized device including the display, keyboard and all the components required to run a PC.

The big advantage of laptops is their portable nature, and some models can offer up to eight hours of battery-based running time. Similarly their small size means even large 17-inch models are easily put away once you've finished using them, so they don't clutter up your home when not in use.

With prices now equal to, or even below that of their desktop equivalents, laptops are just as popular as desktop systems. The main disadvantage of laptops is they're generally not as powerful as desktop systems, offering reduced processor and 3D graphics power. They're also not usually capable of being upgraded much, beyond perhaps adding additional memory.

When choosing a laptop it's important to understand how price is balanced against performance. If you want to use a laptop at home or in the office for internet access, or business work, then an entry-level model will suffice. Look for Intel Celeron and Pentium or AMD Athlon and Sempron processors.

If you don't plan on travelling with the laptop you can consider models with screens up to 19 inches in size. But if you plan to use a laptop on the move then models with a 15-inch screen or less are more portable and weigh less. Specific ultra-portable designs will also provide bigger capacity batteries for a longer running time. Look out for Intel Core and Pentium ULV models or AMD Turion processors.

Gaming performance with laptops tends to be poor unless you opt for models with NVIDIA or ATI dedicated graphics, found on higher-end models. High-end processors for laptops are the Intel Core i5/i7 or AMD Athlon II.

As a guide here are a few select examples of system specifications for different grades of systems:

Home and business work

  • Processor:Intel Celeron, Pentium or AMD Sempron
  • Memory:2GB
  • Hard drive: 120GB+
  • Graphics: Integrated
  • Display: 15 to 17 inches
  • Optical drive: DVD rewriter

Ultra portable

  • Processor: Intel Core/Pentium ULV or AMD Turion
  • Memory: 3GB+
  • Hard drive: 250GB+
  • Graphics: Integrated
  • Display 11 to 15 inches
  • Optical drive: N/A

Gaming and high-end user

  • Processor: Intel Core i5/i7 or AMD Athlon II
  • Memory: 4GB+
  • Hard drive: 500GB+
  • Graphics: AMD Radeon or NVIDIA GeForce
  • Display: 15 inches+
  • Optical drive: DVD rewriter or Blu-ray
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