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Before You Before You Buy a New Laptop

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Technology purchases can be fraught with risk, and few purchases can be as risky as buying a new notebook computer. After all, notebooks can't be upgraded as easily or cheaply as larger desktop PCs. And the compact design of most notebook type PCs means they force some tough compromises.

Laptops can make excellent sense for home office workers because the systems are space efficient and the same PC can be used both at home and in the field. Hook up an external monitor and wireless keyboard/mouse, and even a modest, $500 laptop can serve as a capable command center in your home office. The problem is, buying a new laptop can be a challenge. Here's what to know before you buy.

Define the Mission

Before you worry about specifications and processors, before you think about Windows versus Apple, decide what you will use the new laptop for. Will you perform basic tasks like simple Web browsing, email and document writing? Or will your new system double as a laptop media center, playing videos from YouTube and Netflix and even working as a video conferencing platform? Or are you involved in content creation, ranging from simple blog creation to highly demanding video and graphics editing?

Remember, you are buying a tool, not a set of specifications. Figure out what you will use your new computer for, and then shape your purchase to that mission.

Focus on Mobility

Laptops range from tiny netbooks with 9-inch screens that fit in a purse, to bulky desktop replacements that weigh upward of 10 pounds. Want to use your laptop on cross-country flights? I'd guide you away from that gigantic Dell Latitude with the brilliant 17-inch screen. Need to juggle spreadsheets and documents side by side? Any screen smaller than 13 or 14 inches will cramp your style. You'll find that laptops fall into four general categories:

Netbooks: 9 to 11 inch screen, $300-$400: Best for on-the-go portability and long battery life, but heavy-duty apps will overwhelm it.

Ultraportable: 11.5 to 13 inch screen, $500 to $800: Best blend of ready portability and performance, optimal for frequent travelers; usually lacks a DVD or other internal optical drive.

Thin-and-light: 13 to 15 inch screen, $600 to $1200: Best bang for the buck, with near-desktop performance and reasonable portability.

Desktop replacement: 15 to 17 inch screen, $1200 and up: Best performance, features and display, but at the expense of battery life and portability; great for power users.

Inside the Box: Core Components

Unlike desktop PCs, laptop computers can limit your options when it comes to upgrades like adding hard drives or even memory. First, figure out what will go inside your laptop to ensure your system is equipped to the mission you've defined.

Processor: The processor or CPU is the brain of your new PC and will define what your system can (or can not) handle. Even netbook computers today are adopting dual-core processors, which pack two CPUs on a single chip to let you get real work done even while other tasks like virus checking or music and video playback are going on. I highly recommend a 64-bit processor to ensure you can run the latest operating systems and applications.

Hard Disk and Optical Drives: 200GB is a good minimum for hard disk size. It's big enough to handle all your media and other files, but inexpensive enough to keep you from breaking the bank. Remember you can always drop $150 on a terabyte-sized external USB drive, which you can then use for data backups. For larger notebooks, an internal DVD writer can lets you both run DVD discs and burn files to recordable DVD media. Smaller notebooks can use external disk drives, of course.

Memory: Also known as RAM, system memory is the second most important performance factor next to your CPU. The good news is that it's cheap. You can often buy 1GB RAM modules for $35 or so. I recommend at least 2GB of RAM on any PC, except perhaps netbooks. For intensive graphics or media editing work, consider at least 4GB or 8GB of RAM.

Graphics: This one is critical. If you want better video and 3D graphics performance, look for a model that uses a graphics chip from ATI or Nvidia. Integrated graphics hardware from Intel tends to bog down on games and HD video playback (including Flash-based video from sites like Youtube and Hulu.com), though these chips are just fine for almost all business applications. You just need to know what you want before you buy. This is a complex subject, so take a moment and read Mark Kyrnin's lengthy rundown of graphics hardware for notebook PCs.

Outside the Box: Connectivity

When it comes to buying a laptop computer for the home office, connectivity is critical. Even a modest $500 laptop PC can provide a desktop-like user experience with the addition of an external LCD monitor, mouse and keyboard. And features like Ethernet and wireless network ensure that you new laptop can find its way to the Internet both in the office and on the road.

USB: Most laptops include two or three of the ubiquitous Universal Serial Bus ports on the chassis, and these are used to connect everything from mice and keyboards to printers, scanners and external disk drives. Need more USB ports for your home office setup? Purchase an external USB hub that plugs into one of your laptop’s USB ports and presents 4, 8 or more USB ports for your sundry peripherals. Before you buy, be sure to read up on the speedier and see if it’s worth paying for.

Graphics Connectivity: Graphics connectivity is trickier, but very important if you want your laptop to drive a spacious LCD monitor in the office. Almost all notebooks provide an output for VGA graphics (a timeless standard guaranteed to work with nearly any monitor), but I recommend your new PC also feature an HDMI port. This digital graphics output can send both video and sound to newer TVs and monitors, and can handle full HD resolutions. My little Toshiba laptop, for example, uses HDMI to drive a huge 27-inch Asus LCD display when I’m in my home office. Video professionals may also want a FireWire (known also as IEEE 1394) port to connect to digital video cameras and other devices.

Network Connectivity: Don’t buy a laptop without 802.11g (or the newer 802.11n) wireless capability, as wireless networking is critical to mobility. Also make sure your laptop has an Ethernet port for plugging into fast and secure wired networks. You may want to spend a bit more for Bluetooth, a short-range wireless technology that you can think of as a wireless USB. For instance, you can use Bluetooth to link to your smartphone so you can turn your laptop into a speakerphone.

The Buying Decision

Finally, consider who you are buying from. Different vendors offer different levels of service. Most offer standard one-year warranties, and many provide extended, two- or three-year warranties at extra cost. If you are traveling a lot and subjecting your PC to punishment, the longer warranty might be a good idea.

Buying a laptop PC can be a difficult task. The technology advances quickly and there are always trade-offs you must make to get a system with the right blend of power, portability, features and cost. Shop carefully, read published reviews and, most important, take the time to go to a store and actually try out some of the models you are considering. You may find that the glossy display on one model produces too much glare for your taste, or that the compact keyboard on a netbook system makes it hard to type effectively. A lot of these you simply will not know until you’ve laid hands on the chassis and tried it out.

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