Choosing a laptop


Once upon a time buying a laptop computer was a simple process, but the vast array of sizes, styles and prices means that it now pays to really do your research before you buy. But don't worry if you don't have the time or inclination to scour dozens of tech sites, because we've boiled it down to the basics to help make sure you end up with the right device...

Size matters
Yes it does. The first decision you need to make is how big a laptop you need. If you're using it as your primary machine then you'll probably want to go for a proper laptop with at least a 17-inch screen. However if you need a laptop as a second device you might prefer a 15-inch screen – or to go even smaller with a "notebook", "ultrabook" or even a "netbook" computer.

Out and about
Which brings us to the question of how often you'll be lugging it around with you – and under what circumstances. If you need something to pop out to work meetings with now and then – and you're travelling in a car – then a laptop or a bigger notebook will probably be best. But if you're carrying it on public transport a lot of the time, you'll probably be better served by something smaller.

What it all means
Laptops are generally the bulkiest of the mobile computing options, with screens from 15in upwards. Notebooks are more slimline and usually have screens from 13in to 17in, while netbooks were initially cheap, basic devices with screens from 5in to 12in – but have developed into more powerful devices which can rival notebooks in some cases. Ultrabooks are in the same zone as notebooks, sizewise, but are significantly thinner and usually have top-end specifications – and a top-end price tag to match.

Function over form
While it's important to pick a machine that's the right size for your needs, it's even more vital that your chosen device is capable of doing what you need it to. If you're just using basic office software and browsing the internet, you don't need to fret too much about the spec and a low or mid-range offering will fit your needs. But if you're planning to edit videos or play sophisticated games then you'll want to make sure you've got plenty of RAM, a powerful processor and perhaps a good graphics card – the latter being more for gaming than video.

Windows vs Macbook
Just like with desktop computers, you've also got a major choice to make between machines which run on Microsoft's Windows operating system or Apple's Macbooks. If you're on a budget then Apples are probably off your menu, but at the higher end of the market both have their fans and your decision may be based on aesthetics, on your existing devices or on the software you need to use. Actually there is a third way in the form of Chromebooks, which are netbooks operating on Google's increasingly popular Chrome mobile OS. However these are usually used for cloud-based tasks, so their appeal is somewhat limited.

Brand awareness
So we've just mentioned Apple, but there are a number of other brands to look out for – many of which are particularly strong for a certain niche. Chinese manufacturer Lenovo has a broad offering of laptops, notebooks etc – and its tablet/notebook hybrid Yoga devices have won it many fans. Dell keep prices low and value high with its direct sales model, while Hewlett Packard, Toshiba and Acer all have competitive offerings in the notebook and laptop sectors particularly.

Read the reviews
Don't just buy blind based on brand name and an impressive spec on paper though. Once you've identified a machine you like, check out the reviews on sites like TechRadar, Cnet, Wired and Trusted Reviews. And seek out user reviews from owners who have been living with the devices for a while. These may bring to light issues that won't be apparent from a press review.

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