If you look anything like this student when you’re trying to figure out what laptop to buy, you have no hope.
Just kidding! Check out Anandtech’s Laptop Buyer’s Guide for 14 inch laptops and smaller – great for back to school shopping. This should help with narrowing down what is most important in a laptop for you, what to look for, what to avoid, etc. Hit the jump for my short version of what to look for in terms of processor, graphics, etc., and my ultimate recommendation of one of the best all around laptops in this category.
Disclaimer: do not go on if you are looking for an Apple computer – this is PCs only, since the only choice Apple kids have to make is, “do I want a 13″, a 15.6″, or a 17″? A fair* bit more complicated for PCs, but much more variety!
Size – 14″ – 13,3″,
14″ nowadays is the bare minimum for portability – anything above and you are starting to look at desktop replacement, which tend to more higher powered and frankly, unnecessary for many of the day to day tasks that we at college use laptops for (which emphasizes the need for portability, with the need for trips to the girlfriend’s dorm room, erm, I mean library, and back home).
With the 14″ – 12″ category, look for CULV processors, which are growing in popularity with their 4+ hour battery life. Within this group, try and get one of the i series from Intel. i3, although the lowest on the totem pole, works fine and has minimal differences as opposed to the i5. A jump to the i7 gives you significant performance boost, but at that point your spending way too much or you’re looking at 15.6″ laptops. Besides, the real noticeable difference come from the presence (or lack) of graphics cards.
I highly recommend a dedicated graphics card if you’re going to be watching anything in HD or doing any gaming (for gamers, the Nvidia 310M, from personal experience, works just fine – 330M is preferable!). If you do get a dedicated GPU and decide on Nvidia, look for Optimus if possible – this technology allows for automatic switching between dedicated and integrated graphics, which translates to much better battery life (dedicated graphics chug significantly more juice, in exchange for performance). This reduces any hassle with reboots/physical switches/etc., so be on the lookout.
For modern computers with Windows 7, 2 GB is a minimum – 4 is recommended. If you are going to be doing a lot of graphics intensive (read: Photoshopping 5 Lolcats photos simultaneously) work, particularly in the CAD field, 4 GB is a must. Windows 7 performance also performs drastically better with 4 GB of memory, so it is a worthy upgrade in terms of cost-benefit.
12″, 10″ and below
Anything below 12″ and you are starting to look into netbook territory – here you will find relatively underpowered laptops that will suit you fine for basic word processing and web surfing, but don’t expect HD video anytime soon – many machines still stutter with this. Look for 8 hour battery as a minimum if shop in this category, and your best bet is with the newer 1.6 Ghz Atom processors from Intel. Otherwise, it’s all about aesthetics, keyboard feel, and touchpad.
My recommendation in this category – first check the manufacturer/build (Eee PCs and MSI’s Wind are generally very solid), check out the keyboards/touchpads at an electronics shop, and shoot for a 1.6 Ghz Atom processor with 7+ hours of battery with preferably 2 GB of RAM and a Windows 7 Starter edition.
For the Lazy Person – My Ultimate Recommendation
For those of you that just trust me for some reason, here is my final recommendation:
U30JC or a related build of this laptop.
It is the one I am currently using and am extremely happy with, that follows many of the above recommendations. 4 GB of RAM, 13.3″, Intel Core i3-330m at 2.3 Ghz, Nvidia 310M card with 512 MB of VRAM (read: plays GTA IV, Mass Effect 2, Bioshock 2 very smoothy at low-mid settings), and a wonderful keyboard. Granted, it came with a lot of bloatware, but nothing an OS install can’t handle (which students can get for $30)