I started out looking for a laptop for school: I gave myself a budget and said to myself, "Buy the best laptop for the money." That shouldn't be hard, I figured. Just compare the numbers in speed and memory. Unfortunately, numbers aren't everything, and some numbers are more important than you would think. Here are the basics for non-computer-geeks about what I learned.
April 11, 2007: Please note that this guide was written in early 2006 and is directed mostly towards Windows XP or earlier laptops. However, this information will give you a very solid start even if you are looking for the latest and greatest. I will update this guide in a year or two when I upgrade to a Vista laptop... what is top-of-the-line today will be very affordable (and still current) tomorrow!
* Processor Speed: This is usually given in GHz (1GHz is 1000 MHz). This is a good indication of how fast a computer is with a given processor. Unfortunately, this is useless for comparing the speed for computers with different processors. For a certain computer speed, the processor with the least GHz usually takes less battery power and produces less heat.
* Processor: This is a good indication of how new and fast a computer is, and gives the speed in GHz between different models of a processor. Up-to-date processors include AMD Athlon, Pentium 4, Pentium Celeron, and Pentium M. Of the four, Pentium M is fastest for a given GHz rating, and as of 2006 is a very safe bet. In terms of comparing AMD Athlons and Intel Pentiums, I doubt there is an exact formula - each processor has to be compared separately. I just decided to go with the Pentium M, as it is more popular and gives me more options (but see below in the "advanced stuff").
- Centrino: This is a common label emphasized by sellers. Importantly, it means that it has a Pentium M processor, a specific Intel chipset, and a specific Intel wireless card. Another laptop with identical specifications is not worse off from lacking the "centrino" label, as non-Intel wireless cards are not necessarily worse, and are sometimes preferred.
- Dual core processors: Very briefly, dual processor systems have, yes you guessed it, two processors, resulting in better performance (but NOT twice that of each individual processor). Only applications that are specifically adapted to using dual-core processors benefit from such systems; other applications benefit only if different processors handle different applications and thus avoid overtaxing one processor with too many programs. In short, such processors are faster in many situations but come at a price that may not be necessary. Such systems will inevitably consume more battery power and produce more heat.
- Advanced stuff - AMD versus INTEL (Pentiums): If you do find a comparison between a specific AMD processor and a specific Pentium processor, note that AMD-Athlons and the like are preferred for computer gaming while Pentiums have other strengths. "Benchmarks" are generally considered a good test of how fast a computer performs and are in tested in different areas (such as memory performance, application performance, etc...). Search online for the free program "Everest Home Edition" put out by Lavalys, Inc., which will not only tell you all of the features of your computer but will run memory benchmark tests and display how your computer compares to other processors. Run these tests on your current computer or on a friend's computer; use this to find processors that are faster (if that's what you want) or closest to (if you want to save money) the computer you tested. You can even send the download link to the seller and ask him to send you a report of the entire system and benchmark analysis to get exact information about a computer you are considering. My friend purchased an AMD Athlon media center computer that the salesman claimed to be about equal in performance to the Pentium M that I purchased (on eBay). Running the Everest benchmark tests showed his computer was not as fast in "memory read" but better in "memory write" and "memory latency" (less). I did notice that his computer processed tasks such as loading photograph thumbnails and copying large files notably slower, but started up faster and had better video performance. This could have been due to other factors such as larger video memory, but I believe this just supports the idea that AMD's are better for gaming while Pentiums are better for other tasks at equivalent speeds.
* Memory (RAM): 1GB = 1000MB. All you need to know about RAM is that it influences how many programs you can run at once without slowing down your computer. For 2-dimensional work (photographs, word-processing, etc...) 256MB RAM should be enough, according to most sources - lower is not recommended unless you have a pre-Windows XP computer. 512MB is a very safe bet. For gaming and 3-D graphics, 512MB or even 1GB is recommended. Over 1GB is definitely a waste of money until you upgrade to Vista (unless you make large 3D animation files). Upgrading RAM is very affordable and often cheaper than buying a computer with more RAM to begin with - just note the maximum RAM the laptop supports, which is the most you will be able to upgrade to.
* Screen size: Measured diagonally across the screen. The larger the screen, the heavier the laptop, for a given model. More important is if it is wide-screen (good for watching movies) or regular (more square-shaped, good for word processing). Bigger screens are more bulky but more comfortable.
* Resolution: This is the maximum resolution, or sharpness. Higher resolution means everything appears smaller. However, you can usually lower your resolution to make things more comfortable. Higher resolution is usually preferred for photos, games, and movies. Go to a desktop and change the resolution (right-click on the desktop and select properties, then go to the settings tab, for Windows XP) to see how you like the different ones. *NOTE*: Often when changing a laptop's resolution to lower than its natural resolution (1280 x 1024 changed to 1024 x 768 for instance) the image will appear a bit fuzzy; this is unavoidable, unfortunately, but is barely noticeable and easy to get used to.
* Hard drive capacity: If you don't have too many photos, videos, music, or games to store, a hard drive of 40 GB should be more than plenty even for causal gamers and regular photo storage. Because external hard drives are so cheap, and a laptop's internal hard drive is neither difficult nor overly expensive to replace, buy the smallest hard drive you really think you need, to save money. Of course, consider if you will be loading your music CD's onto your computer, uploading high resolution digital photos, recording video, and installing all of the latest 3D games - upgrading your hard drive is better avoided, after all. If it has a DVD-RW drive, where you can copy information or files to DVDs, each DVD can store more than 4GB. If you buy DVDs in a pack, each DVD will cost less than $1! This is an extremely cheap alternative storage source for files such as pictures and videos that you do not need to access frequently.
* Hard drive RPM: How fast the drive spins. In short, this is how fast the hard drive can be accessed to read and write data. The faster the better. Expect laptop hard drives to spin much slower than desktop hard drives. Remember that hard drives are usually easy and affordable to replace, so you may be able to upgrade as new drives come out. (If you are buying a laptop with a slow or small hard drive and wish to upgrade it, search for the laptop model under eBay's Laptop Accessories in the hard drive section to see how much it would approximately cost.)
* Warranty: More valuable than you would think. If the laptop comes with a transferable warranty of a year or more, increase its value in your mind. To give you some idea of warranty value, some companies charge $100 - $300 just to extend their 1 year warranty by a year or two. A parts and labor warranty should let you send in your laptop to the company and get it sent back all fixed up. Check to see if they cover the shipping charge, if that is important to you. Some warranties will even cover a service person coming to your home to fix your computer.
* Condition: New means new. Generally, new laptops are still sealed in their box. "Factory Sealed New" means it is actually refurbished by the manufacturer. Refurbished means that a laptop was not new, then fixed, checked, and brought up to new condition. This ranges from store displays or opened box laptops that were never used to broken units that were fixed. Buying refurbished means you could get a great deal on a practically new laptop, but occasionally you might get a laptop that had something wrong that was not fixed or detected. Used means the laptop was owned by someone before and is now being sold. The disadvantage of used over refurbished is that it often has not had a full checkup and reconditioning. The advantage of used is that you can find out if the laptop has broken down often (if you trust the seller) and thus avoid "lemons" that require larger service costs.
* Video/ graphics: This is important only if you want to play or edit movies and is vital for 3D gamers. There are two types of video memory, shared and dedicated. Shared memory means that the video memory is being borrowed from the system memory (RAM). This both reduces the available RAM for other purposes and is slower to access. Slower to access means bad video performance, but lower price. Thus, you would usually want dedicated memory only if you play games or watch high resolution movies. Surprisingly, dedicated video memory raises the price of the laptop greatly. Dedicated memory usually comes with a graphics card (ATI Radeon, GeForce, etc...) and has its own memory in MB. 32MB, 64MB, and 128MB are common values. Pick the highest one you can afford, if video is important to you. To get an idea of the video memory and graphics card you need, look at the back of your latest game or media software CD-case or manual. Usually, they will include the video memory and/or graphics card they need under "system requirements."
Fun Fact: I actually spent $200-300 more than I had to on my laptop, just because I wanted it to play one of my favorite games. I never regretted it, although a handful of games have come out recently that my laptop can't play. Laptop video cards are generally NOT UPGRADEABLE! If you must play all the latest games, get yourself a cheaper laptop and buy a desktop that you can upgrade as new games and video cards come out.
* Brand: This is important to look up each individual laptop online to see reviews and specifications. Each computer brand has its own way of naming its laptops (Dell Inspiron, IBM Thinkpad, etc...) as well as either letters, numbers, or both to give the more specific series and model (IBM Thinkpad T60 123abc). When you are not looking at an individual series or model, brand is only important for its reputation in customer service, value, durability, and warranty.
* Tablet PCs?!? These are simply laptops with a screen that you can write on. Slate tablets have a detachable keyboard, while convertible tablets are like a regular laptop with a screen you can move to lay upside-down on your keyboard. These are a bit uncommon and cost more than regular laptops with the same specifications. Think first, "do I really need this?"
* Other Screen Stuff: Anti-glare is a very useful feature, for anybody that hates to have part of the screen invisible because of a source of light. Outside-readable screens are designed to be visible in bright light and are very expensive. Wide screen viewing angle is important if you hate decreased visibility when you move your head to the side.
* Optical Drives: These are CD and DVD readers and/or writers. Smaller laptops are usually without. CD-R and DVD-R can only read, while CD-RW and DVD RW can write as well. DVD+, DVD-, and DVD-RAM are different formats supported by different manufacturers, but drives are now available that can read and write to different formats (DVD+/-). DVD DL means it can write to dual layer DVDs, which can store about double on a single side. HD, BD, and AOD are other formats with increased storage capacity, which I don't have room to go into.
* Weight: Just a word of warning: if you buy an ultralight laptop (less than 4 lbs or so), its performance may be so compromised that after all of the accessories you carry with it are added up (a CD drive, an extra or larger battery, a more comfortable keyboard, etc...) it may weigh as much as a regular 5 or 6 lb laptop. Ultralight laptops usually have cramped keyboards, reduced speed and memory, no CD or DVD drive, smaller screens, etc... but only have a difference of a couple pounds. Think: "do I really need an ultralight?" Otherwise, 5 or 6 lbs is a very light weight, and weight will go up for laptops that are desktop-replacement capable (media centers, etc...). Higher capacity hard drives and batteries add to the weights, so a company usually gives a laptop's weight at its minimum (or even without the battery!). Be careful when reading the laptop's weight in the specifications, and check a variety of sites for the maximum given weight or one that specifies how it was measured.
* Battery: Very important, as batteries are not created equal and never give enough time. Battery life decreases over time, and batteries need to be replaced every 1-5 years, depending on usage. The higher the watt-hours of a given battery, the longer it lasts. Also, for a lithium-ion battery, more cells = more life. Battery life ratings (in hours) are not always accurate; different computers drain battery power differently, and battery ratings are usually given for a computer running minimal processes (no Internet, no graphics, power-save mode, etc...).
* Wireless: Make sure the computer is wireless Internet capable, if you need to use it wirelessly. Wireless cards are easily installed into most laptops, however. Wireless LAN Internet comes in three main types (a, b, and g). B is the slowest, and A and G are the same speed. G is more common. If the computer is "centrino", it should come with a b or b/g wireless card. Wireless card types are usually written as: 802.11 followed by a, b, g, or a combination. Try to get a laptop that has 802.11g at least, and 802.11a/b/g is even better.
* Keyboard and Mouse: There are two types of common laptop "mice" inputs. One is a touch screen that controls the mouse with your finger movements. Another is a little eraser-like knob that lets you control the mouse by moving the finger in only one spot. Unless you have a clear preference, get a laptop with a touch panel at least, or both if possible. The small "eraser" is hard to adjust to. However, if you configure the settings, you may find yourself preferring it; it reduces necessary hand movements considerably. You can always hook up a standard mouse to your laptop. Keyboard: unless the keyboard is "full size" you may have trouble adjusting. Check how much % of full size the keyboard is.
* Ports: Minimum requirements are at least one USB (multipurpose, very useful port) and at least one VGA (video connection to external monitor/ projector), as well as an Ethernet port for wired Internet and headphone and microphone ports. More ports with more variety is best. Other ports of note include a FireWire port (generally used with Apple products such as iPods), an S-video port for video output (an alternative to VGA, which are not available on all external devices), printer port for most printers, and PC card slots (card bus) (which take "cards" that have a large variety of functions - generally, you can buy a PC card to replace almost any type of port. However, they are mostly used for wireless adapters.)
* Audio: Look in the review for each particular laptop to check for audio quality. Media center and desktop replacement computers often have higher quality speakers built into them, while other computers save weight and space and have tiny speakers capable of simply OK and relatively quiet music. External speakers or headphones will be necessary in such cases if you need better sound quality.
* Cool extras:
- A built in microphone is always nice, but don't expect it to replace an external microphone for the best recording quality.
- A fingerprint sensor saves time by replacing all of your passwords with a swipe of a finger. External fingerprint sensors are sold relatively inexpensively to be plugged into a port such as the USB or even a PC card slot.
- Bluetooth (short range wireless, generally computer to device communication) and Infrared (generally computer to computer communication) are useful if you have other devices with these capabilities. (Example: another infrared capable computer or bluetooth mouse).
- A shock-mounted hard drive resists damage and data loss from falls and jostles. Get this if you can afford it.
- Better casing and metal hinges are nice if you expect to have your laptop for long and put it through some stress.
- Does it have an operating system and other needed programs installed or included? Does it come with an extra battery, a protective case, or other laptop accesories? This can save you lots of money, especially if you need expensive software such as the latest versions of M.Office and Windows.
MOST IMPORTANT TIP: For any given auction that you are interested in, put the laptop brand and model # into Google along with the word "review" or "reviews". This should help you find more about the laptop without having to study it in detail, including its drawbacks and its advantages. CNET even has video reviews of many laptop models!
Also, find out about the variation for a particular model. One laptop model can be released for several years, undergoing improvements and add-ons throughout time. Also, companies usually allow a buyer to customize a new laptop, with add-ons and improvements costing extra. Check how old and which options that particular laptop has by contacting the seller.
Finally, if the laptop model is still being sold, go onto the manufacturer's website and try to customize a new laptop to be as close as possible to the one being auctioned. This will give you an idea of its value new. Also, look at other, completed auctions for the same brand, model, and specifications and see how much the laptop is selling for. Some auctions go much higher than average for that item; this will allow you to tell if you are getting a good deal at the time.
DELL LATiTUDE D630 Laptop 2.2GHz/80GB/2GB WINDOWS 7 DVDRW WiFi NOTEBOOK COMPUTERNOT WORKING, AS IS ASUS ZENBOOK UX31E LAPTOP NOTEBOOK
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