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Monday, 14 July 2014

How to Buy a Laptop?

The laptop market has undergone major changes in the last few years, and there may be more confusion in the notebook aisle today than at any other time. The current selection of mobile PCs encompasses everything from featherweight ultrabooks that barely tip the scales at less than 2 pounds, to lap-crushing behemoths of 10 pounds or more.
The look of a typical laptop has undergone a transformation, with dozens of convertible designs that rethink the standard clamshell to take advantage of touch interfaces. Some systems double as tablets, with hinges that bend and fold, while other touch PCs are actually slate tablets that come with accessory keyboards for laptop-style use. There's simply too much variety in the notebook space for one size or style to fit every person's needs.
That's where this buying guide comes in. We'll brief you on all the newest styles and features, and parse the latest buzzwords and trends, helping you figure out which features you want, and how to find the laptop that's right for you.
Ultrabooks and Ultraportables
Walk down any laptop aisle and you'll notice that the selection has gotten dramatically thinner and sleeker. Intel has spent the last few years pushing ultrabooks, a breed of laptop that combines svelte, lightweight designs with the latest energy-efficient hardware and long-lasting batteries to produce a system that delivers productivity with the sort of portability that old bulky clamshell designs could never offer.

Ultrabooks took the ultraportable category and refined it with industry-wide standards governing everything from boot times to chassis thickness—no more than 22mm (0.79 inch) thick for units with screens smaller than 14 inches. Dubbed ultrabooks, these wafer-thin systems represent a new vision for portable computing, a no-compromises laptop light enough that you'll forget it's in your briefcase, whose battery and storage let it resume work in seconds after being idle or asleep for days. Solid-state drives (SSD)—whether a full 128GB or 256GB SSD or, more affordably, a small one used as a cache with a traditional hard drive—give ultrabooks their quick start and resume capabilities. In the last year, these slim portable systems have gone from being the exception to being the rule, with dozens of new ultrabooks offered by every major PC manufacturer.
Most importantly, the slim designs ushered in by the push for ultrabooks has resulted in a general slimming down of the entire laptop category. Whether you're looking at ultraportables that are carefully designed to be sliver thin, or mainstream PCs and even gaming machines, the entire laptop category is thinner, lighter, and better suited to life on the go. The best of these ultraportables will still cost you a pretty penny, but the performance they offer is remarkable, and they often come with several high-end features to boot. The Acer Aspire S7-392-6411$1,349.97 at TigerDirect.com, for example, is only a half-inch thick, yet still manages to offer a 1080p touch screen, a full-size HDMI port, and more than 8 hours of battery life. The similarly long-lasting Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus$1,248.00 at Amazon takes things even further, with an astonishing 3,200-by-1,800 resolution screen.
Windows 8 and Touch
The most dramatic change to come to the PC in the last couple of years is Windows 8. If you haven't spent anytime with a new Windows PC of late, you may be a bit disoriented by the new interface that's focused on touch-based interaction. Windows 8 is meant to bridge the gap between laptops and tablets. It does that by introducing a new navigation scheme, a tile-based Start Screen that replaces the traditional Start Menu, and an app-friendly software environment. There's more to Windows 8 than can be addressed in this buying guide, but the bottom line is that new operating system has brought touch interface to the forefront. As a result, the majority of new PCs also feature a touch screen, and those that don't will have features in place to provide similar functionality.

If you're in the market for a Windows 8 laptop, a touch screen is highly recommended. Even entry-level models, like the Acer Aspire E1-510P-2671 $369.99 at Amazon or the Toshiba Satellite NB15t-A1304$379.00 at Microsoft Store, feature touch displays, and the Windows 8 user experience is dramatically more intuitive when using it with touch input. The one area where you won't see many touch screens is among gaming machines, where touch would potentially interfere with the precision control schemes needed on the gaming grid.
Hybrid Laptop Designs
This emphasis on touch has done more than encourage the adoption of touch screens. In a further effort to enter the tablet market while still meeting the needs of laptop buyers, a new category of laptop/tablet hybrid has emerged. These new convertible hybrid laptop designs can transform from laptop to tablet and back again, some by way of specialized folding hinges, like the flip-and-fold hinge of the HP Pavilion x360 or the innovative Ezel hinge of the Acer Aspire R7-572-6423.

Other systems allow you to dock a tablet PC with an accessory keyboard for laptop-like functionality, like the Asus Transformer Book T100TA (64GB) $329.59 at TigerDirect, or the Sony VAIO Tap 11 $569.77 at Amazon. Some of these hybrid designs offer docking keyboards, with secondary batteries providing all-day charge, while others opt for Bluetooth keyboards, forgoing the bulk of a docking hinge and connecting wirelessly.
Mainstream and Premium
While the entire laptop category has gotten slimmer, there's still a market for the desktop replacement and laptops that blend premium design and function. Desktop replacements aren't quite as portable as smaller ultrabooks, but these 14- and 15-inch laptops offer everything you need for day-to-day computing. Systems like the Acer Aspire V3-772G-9460 $1,233.73 at Amazon offer larger displays, a broader selection of ports and features, and are one of the few categories that still come with built-in optical drives.

While many PC manufacturers have moved en masse to the ultrabook category, Apple hasn't abandoned the desktop replacement, with the ultra-high-resolution display of the Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (2013)$1,849.99 at Amazon becoming the new standard for high-quality graphics. This sort of 1080p+ display is also showing up in Windows laptops, like the Dell XPS 15 (9530)$1,999.99 at Dell, which boasts an astonishing 3,200-by-1,800 resolution screen and premium carbon fiber construction.

Media and Gaming

There has been a lot of hand wringing among industry experts and pundits over the last several months as laptop and desktop sales have started to decline, and tablet sales have expanded to fill the gap, but gaming PCs have actually sold more. For the gamer who wants top-of-the-line performance, the combination of a high-end processor, a potent discrete graphics card, and a large, high-resolution display is well worth the higher prices that gaming rigs frequently command. And, boy, do those prices run high—for instance, the Origin EON17-SLX (2014) is priced over $3,500, and even entry-level gaming systems like the MSI GX70 3Be-007US$1,287.50 at Amazon will cost $1,400 or more.

Before you drop a grand or two on a gaming laptop, however, you should know what you're getting for your money. Powerful quad-core processors are par for the course, with Intel Core i7 and AMD A10 chips pushing serious performance even for non-gaming applications. Discrete GPUs from Nvidia and AMD provide silky smooth graphics and impressive framerates. The Origin EON17-SLX has two GPUs, helping justify its high price tag. Additional features to watch for include high-resolution displays offering 1080p resolution or better, and hard drives that offer 1TB or more of local storage space, letting you store your entire game library on the machine.
Not all gaming laptops are hulking beasts, however. The sleek designs of ultrabooks have given rise to a new breed of portable gaming machine that puts gaming-level performance into a more portable design. These gaming ultraportables, like the Razer Blade (2013) $1,999.00 at Amazon, draw inspiration from ultrabooks, and offer the same sort of thin dimensions and long-lasting battery life. But, just like other gaming rigs, this sort of performance doesn't come cheap, with gaming ultraportables running in the $2,000 range.
What To Look For in a Laptop 
Connectivity is key for a modern laptop. Every model on the market today offers Bluetooth for connecting wireless peripherals, and internet connectivity is delivered with 802.11n Wi-Fi, with the upcoming 802.11ac standard coming to more systems everyday. Mobile broadband options, for when there's no Wi-Fi hotspot handy, include 3G, 4G HSPA+, and 4G LTE, but these mobile options are increasingly rare as users opt for personal mobile hotspots that work with several devices, or that forgo a second mobile contract to stay with their smartphone connection.

Ultrabooks and desktop replacements alike depend upon USB connectivity to work with a broad range of accessories and peripherals. USB 3.0, which offers much greater bandwidth and faster data transfer than USB 2.0, can be found in all but the oldest and lowest-priced designs; it's identifiable by a port colored in blue or labeled with the letters SS (for Super Speed). Some USB ports double as eSATA ports for external hard drives, while others can charge handheld devices, such as cell phones or MP3 players, even when the laptop is powered down. Meanwhile, Apple and HP have taken the lead in implementing Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2, an interface even faster than USB 3.0 for monitors, storage, and docking stations.
The venerable VGA interface is rapidly disappearing, due in part to space constraints in ultrabooks that preclude the bulky connector, and newer monitors and projectors that work better with DisplayPort or HDMI. The latter is especially popular lately, thanks to the demand for connecting laptops to HDTV sets. HDMI's cable-free cousin, Intel's Wireless Display or WiDi, beams a laptop's or ultrabook's audio and video to an HDTV set fitted with a third-party, roughly $100 adapter—either Netgear's Push2TV HD or Belkin's ScreenCast . You'll also find some laptops supporting Miracast, a wireless display standard that works with a wider selection of devices, including HDTVs, mobile phones, tablets, and laptops. Speaking of video, a webcam for video chat is standard equipment on almost every laptop, as is a memory-card slot.
While premium ultrabooks rely solely upon solid state drives (SSDs) for the performance boost offered by solid-state memory, most mainstream systems use a combination of speedy flash memory and the traditional spinning hard drive. These hybrid drives can easily offer 500GB of storage or more, while SSD-only laptops frequently top out at 256GB or 512GB, though larger drives are coming available this year in premium systems. If you need more hard drive space, an external USB 3.0 hard drive does the trick.
What's become scarce, however, is the optical drive. With so many software and game purchases occurring online, and cloud services taking over for many local applications, the optical drive has been dropped from most model lines, with new systems touting slimmer, lighter designs. For those who still need to install software from a disc or want to enjoy movies on DVD or Blu-ray, you can still find them, but it takes some hunting. For those without, external USB DVD and Blu-ray drives are as easy to use as built-in drives.
Beyond Plastic
As laptop designs get sleeker and slimmer, manufacturers are using an array of materials in their construction. Plastic is the cheapest and most commonly used material in laptop frames, but manufacturers have shown great ingenuity in making plastic not look cheap. The most common technique is called in-mold decoration or in-mold rolling, a process made popular by HP, Toshiba, and Acer in which decorative patterns are infused between plastic layers. This process has evolved into etched imprints and textures, commonly seen on laptop lids.

In the end, though, plastics are often associated with low-priced laptops, while more classy models rely on metal. A common, premium choice is aluminum, which has a more luxurious look and can be fashioned into a thinner chassis than plastic. Unibody construction, where the entire chassis is made from a single piece of metal, has become the gold-standard, seen on the Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (2013)$1,199.00 at Amazon. Other designs mimic this same look and feel with an all-metal chassis that securely sandwiches two separate layers together.
Other light, but strong, chassis materials include magnesium alloy and carbon fiber. Both add strength while keeping overall weight low. Glass has long been found covering displays, but with ultra-strong variants like Gorilla Glass, you'll find glass being used in everything from the lid to the clickpad, as seen on the glass-covered lid of the Acer Aspire S7.
Under the Hood
The most dominant processor chips come from Intel, which in recent months launched its fourth-generation (code named "Haswell") Core processors. Made with ultrabooks and hybrid designs in mind, these new processors offer significantly improved energy efficiency, resulting in battery life that stretches through most of the day. Compared with third-generation (codenamed "Ivy Bridge") CPUs, Haswell parts—identifiable by model numbers in the 4000s as opposed to the 3000s—not only stretch battery life, they also boast improved graphics processing. AMD's own line of processors, code named Kabini and Temash, also offer enhanced performance, but can't match the efficiency gains of Intel's latest chips.

Whether Ivy Bridge, Haswell, or AMD APUs, you should find an integrated graphics subsystem adequate for graphics tasks, unless you're a part-time gamer or a CAD user. High-end, discrete graphics processing units are terrific for 3D games, transcoding 1080p video, or watching Blu-ray movies, but like fast processors, they also feast on laptop batteries. Nvidia (Optimus) and Apple (Automatic Graphics Switching) have, and AMD (Enduro) has announced, technologies that stretch battery life by switching seamlessly between integrated and discrete graphics based on application demand.
With the move to ultrabooks, most laptop designs have non-removable batteries that can't be swapped out for a spare. While sealing batteries into the chassis does allow for thinner designs, it removes the possibility of swapping out batteries on the go for longer use between charging. On the other hand, the efficiency gains of Intel's Haswell processors mean that most laptops will last for the better part of a day.
Buying an Extended Warranty
Most laptops are backed by a complimentary one-year warranty on parts and labor. The standard warranty is a limited one, so it won't cover accidents that stem from a spilled drink, a key scraped off by a fingernail, or a drop to a hard surface. Extended warranties are also available.

Most laptop manufacturers also sell accidental coverage as a separate plan on top of optional extended warranties, so you might end up spending close to $300 for three years of comprehensive coverage. Apple offers a maximum three-year extended warranty ($250), while most Windows-based laptop manufacturers will offer up to four years.
Our rule of thumb is that if the warranty costs more than 15 percent of the laptop's purchase price, you're better off spending the money on backup drives or backup services that minimize downtime. Of course, you can't put a price tag on peace of mind. There are instances when the logic board or the display—the most expensive pieces of a laptop—fail, and while rare, such a catastrophe can cost you half of what the laptop is worth. Defective components usually break down during the first year; anything after that is usually attributed to wear and tear.
Be sure to check out our picks for the best laptops, as well as the top-rated laptops for business and gaming.
Post from : pcmag.com
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