It's that time of year again. The summer is winding to a close and that means colder weather, leaves changing their color and schools everywhere are about to open their doors. One thing that a lot of parents (and students) are dreading is that school's are beginning to require their students own laptops to use in their classes. But fear not, for I have compiled a guide that will make buying the right laptop much easier for you. And if you're not going to school this fall, this guide should still assist you in your quest for a business or personal laptop for yourself or someone in need this holiday season.
Why are you buying a new Laptop?
Maybe you're one of the parents looking to find a laptop for their child to take to school this year, or perhaps you're looking for a system that will give you a new edge at the office. The reason you are buying your laptop is going to determine what you're going to need out of the new system. If your laptop is going to be using Computer Animated Design software for example, you're going to want a more powerful processor than if you're merely using it for Word Processing or Internet based research. Are you a hardcore gamer? Do you like editing photos or creating videos? Are you a musician looking to get some better exposure? It may be best for you to jot down every possible scenario you could see yourself using the laptop before you read the next section of the guide, to be sure you're getting everything you need out of the system.
Laptops come in all shapes and sizes.
Size does matter.
This is a feature that a lot of people overlook when buying a laptop, but the size and physical features of the laptop are arguably one of the most important. Where the processor, amount of ram, and hard drive can be upgraded and replaced as needed, features like the size of the laptop, the placement of its various input/output ports and it's weight are all things that you're realistically going to be stuck with after your purchase it. Some things to ask yourself are:
- How large of a screen am I going to need?
- Am I going to be carrying this laptop around a lot?
- How many peripherals are going to be attached to the laptop?
- Am I going to miss not having the NUMPAD on my keyboard?
The size of the screen is going to directly affect the size of the laptop, so this question is important. If you are buying this laptop to edit photos, create videos, play games or watch movies and television then you'll likely want a large screen. Keep in mind that large screen laptops are heavier, and therefor if you're going to be crossing a large campus on a daily basis you'll need to consider that as well. The number of peripherals you'll be attaching to the laptop also helps narrow down what you'll be using it for. The most important consideration is the number of USB ports you'll have, as most accessories and devices connect to a laptop using these ports. A printer that isn't wireless, a drawing tablet, a wired or wireless mouse and a USB storage drive are all examples of devices that connect via USB. If you intend on connecting your laptop up to a monitor at any given time you'll want to consider the Output connection on the laptop as well. Finally, one of the most overlooked features of a laptop is the presence or absence of the NUMPAD on the keyboard. The NUMPAD is the 16 button portion beside your arrow keys that sort of resembles a telephone. Though, it is possible to purchase a USB powered external NUMPAD for a laptop, if you're used to having one, it's best to have it attached to the laptop itself.
What makes a good Laptop?
Now that you have an idea about what you want your laptop to look like on the outside, it's time to consider what you'd like to see on the inside. If you're buying this laptop merely to use programs like Microsoft Office, an internet browser and iTunes then you're not going to need a whole lot of power from your system. Laptops on the retail market these days come equipped with Windows 7 as an operating system, and unlike their Vista counterparts a couple years back will come designed to handle running the operating system smoothly. That being said, a good benchmark to set for your system will be 4GB of RAM; preferably DDR3, A quality dual core processor (avoid the Intel Celeron series for example), and then a hard drive based off how much you plan to store on your computer. Typically hard drives from 250 - 500GB are the most commonly found on lower to mid ranged laptops, and that should be more than sufficient storage space.
If your plan is to use more intensive programs, such as Graphic Design software, Music editing software, or anything else that will create an intensive load on your system you'll want to take a closer look at your Processor. A processor that boasts dynamic performance enhancement, such as the Multithreading feature offered in the Intel i series of processors are a good choice for this. The cores of the i3-i7 processors are designed to divide tasks up into threads within each processing core, allowing your system to think it has more cores to work with, the end result being that it can force a little extra power out of your system in a pinch. Another handy feature to watch for is the size of your L2 and L3 cache. The larger the cache, the more your system is able to do without slowing itself down to access more distant memory sources, and that means quicker response times to whatever you need to access.
If you're buying this system specifically for gaming, or for High Definition multimedia or 3D modeling, you'll want to consider the Graphics Card your system will come with. For the most part, a 1GB of video memory in the graphics card should be more than powerful enough to handle whatever your needs are, but it would be wise to check the specific requirements of the game or software you're installing, and be sure that the features you need are included in the design of the card.
Finally, the battery life of the laptop could be important as well. If you plan on using the laptop in a lot of places where there are no power sources, you'll want a laptop with a longer than average battery life. And considering the average battery life of a laptop varies from 2-4 hours, this can be a very important decision for the commuting over-achiever or social butterfly.
The Hard Drive of a Laptop stores all your data.
Where to go from here?
So you've finally decided on a laptop that fits all your needs. It's the right size, has the NUMPAD on the side, doesn't weight too much and it's a sweet shade of charcoal gray. Now that you're ready to dish out on the system, it's time to consider everything else you're going to need to work at maximum efficiency.
For software, consider again what you'll be doing with your laptop. If you're ever planning to take it online by any capacity (and who isn't, these days) then you're going to want a reputable Antivirus program. One of the best right now is from a company called Kaspersky. As of this writing, it has been found to locate and quarantine/remove the largest library of malicious software of any Antivirus in the retail market. The internet security package also includes metrics to protect your personal identity online from online phishers. This can be important if you access your bank information or log into sensitive company assets over the internet.
Another must have for business and school is the Microsoft Office suite. Microsoft Office comes in many packages, and the one that is right for you depends on what you need for work. Most users will find the Home and Student offering to be enough, featuring Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. This allows you to create professional documents and resume's, organize slide show presentations, and create powerful spreadsheets. Other popular programs included in other Office suites are Outlook, a program used to organize e-mail in ways most internet services can not, and Access, a program that can create Databases for organizing and storing information on anything from sales records to your Elvis Presley collectibles. Make sure when you're purchasing a copy of Microsoft Office that it has every program you need to be successful.
Graphic designers or photography buffs will want to get their hands on photo editing software such as Adobe Photoshop. A music producer will need a program to allow them to record, edit and store music. Gamers will need to shell out for their latest digital fix, and Web Designers will likely want to purchase a license for Macromedia Flash or Adobe Dreamweaver.
What about Accessories?
So now you have a laptop and software to go with it. What else could you possibly need? Well for starters, what do you plan on carrying it in? Laptop bags come in several varieties. Slipcases for storing your system in a backpack or briefcase, messenger bags for carrying your laptop and a couple needed accessories, and larger briefcase style bags to carry your laptop along with work materials. They come in all sizes to accommodate a laptop of any size, so be sure the bag you're buying will hold the 17" wide screen your purchased.
Another accessory to add to your list is a wireless mouse. Most people (myself included) do not like the touch pad that comes with your laptop, so by plugging in a receiver into a USB port of your laptop you can replace that dodgy pad with a traditional mouse, AND you don't have to untangle 4 feet of wire first, either. Other input peripherals include a NUMPAD if your laptop keyboard doesn't have one, or a Tablet for sketching or signing documents.
If you plan on listening to a lot of music, voice chatting, or even just taking verbal notes for your to do list, you may want to consider purchasing a USB Headphone/Microphone combination. If you want to add video conferencing, or creating video blogs to that list you'll want to purchase a web camera as well. (keep in mind that many laptops come with a camera and/or mic built into the screen). If you're storing a large amount of data, or storing sensitive data you can't afford to lose, invest in an external hard drive. They store at least as much data as your laptop and can even back up your entire system on a scheduled basis. Plus, they're simple to install and can even be portable, to take with you wherever you go.
If you're going to be printing a lot and working in different areas of the house, a wireless printer is a good addition to any laptop purchase. They're no longer more expensive than their wired counterparts, and the added range and flexibility more than make up for the money spent. Make sure you weigh the cost of the printer with the cost and yield of it's ink cartridges. Typically the cheaper the printer, the costlier the ink to sustain it.
Finally, if you're not yet wireless at your home, there's no better time than now. Your laptop will come with a wireless adapter built right into it, so all you'll need to pick up is a Wireless Router. For the cost of technology, spend the extra $10 or so dollars and opt for a Wireless N system. It has a faster wireless download speed and a much larger signal range, allowing you to update your Facebook status from the bedroom, or destroy your best friends Town Hall from the comfort of your lawn chair. Keep in mind that just about any wireless router you purchase comes with at least 4 Ethernet ports so your wired desktop and/or gaming consoles can still be connected to the network as well.
Most of your accessories will connect to your laptop using a USB connection.
The Router Goes Where?
So now you've finally made your big shopping list of everything you're going to need to get back to school in style this year, and looking at the list you're starting to wonder how you're going to get it all installed, set up and be ready in time for the start of your classes. It's time for you to consider the last step of buying a new system...
Any retailers worth their salt can offer you assistance in setting up a new laptop. They'll power it on, install your hardware titles, install your printer's drivers and in some cases they can even go as far as driving to your home and setting up your wireless network. If the idea of configuring your home computer, new laptop, Xbox 360 and Ipod Touch to a single network frightens you, it may save you hours of frustration to pay and have it all professional installed and configured.
One last thing to consider as well is protecting your investment. If you're starting from scratch, you're likely spending close to a thousand dollars on your new set up, and in some cases even more than that. And though the idea of adding another expense to the already daunting list you're prepared to shell out may seem like a bad idea, the next consideration can literally save your butt in a pinch. What I'm talking about is the dreaded Extended Service Plan. Unfortunately I think that used car salesman and and commission based Electronic stores have given ESP's a bad rap. The Extended Service Plan actually exists to protect your investment from the limited warranty provided from the major electronic manufacturers.
The One Year Limited Warranty provided from companies like HP or Dell cover manufacturer's defects only. Meaning that unless the issue can be traced directly to being a flaw in the manufacturing of the product, HP or Dell will deny you any assistance or monetary compensation for the system. And believe me, they will do anything to convince you that they didn't mess up. What does that mean for you? Well, without assistance from an Extended Warranty, odds are good that you're stuck with that laptop with the dead hard drive and faulty screen.
The extended warranty however, will protect your Laptop against any and all damages and defects incurred during the life of the warranty, typically between 2-4 years. This means that if a year and a half down the road the cheap hard drive that HP placed in your laptop dies out, you can call the company that you purchased your warranty from and either get your laptop repaired, get it replaced, or get your money back (less the money spent purchasing the warranty). And in most cases, the cost of the warranty is less than even the cost of buying the replacement part, let alone the cost to have it replaced.
I hope this guide has been helpful in assisting you in purchasing not only a new laptop, but everything that you'll need to go with it. I spent a lot of time writing this from first hand knowledge, and any feedback you can provide will be most appreciated. Happy hunting, and I'll see you online!