Monday, March 22, 2010

GADGETS: Choosing a Laptop over a Netbook

A few articles ago I wrote about what to look for in a Netbook. Recently, it occurred to me that some people might actually need a laptop for the reasons I outlined previously.

The main reason to buy a laptop instead of a netbook is because you want to do some hard core multi-tasking or play games. Your laptop will probably be your desktop replacement. Laptops, while not the preferred venue for the most advanced games out there, will still run most of games pretty well. This is at least in part because of the similarities in PC and Xbox architecture. The relatively simple port makes it economical for companies to write PC games that will also play on an xbox (which is a few years old) and expand their market. Additionally, it's kind of a bad idea to limit their customer base to the narrow group of people with outrageously expensive computers.

I will say, I'm a PC. I am still a fan of Apple's portable gadgets, and if I had unlimited financial resources, or was really into video production, I might get a Macbook Air or Macbook Pro. I'm not a Mac hater. They make beautiful gear that's easy to use and incredibly reliable. However, for the purposes of this article, I'm going to go ahead and not recommend an Apple laptop. Macs multi-task well if productivity is your thing, but nobody writes games for Mac OS. Also, you pay a lot for Apple. This is partly because they have fairly unreasonable hardware standards and your computer will never have driver issues, but also partly for the symbol on the case. Also, if you're looking for a Mac laptop, you have three choices, and you really can't go that wrong. So you really don't need any advice.

Shopping for a PC, there are three key items to consider: Price, Power and Style.

PRICE: Price range is important, but doesn't require too much advising. You're going to need to spend a bit more than you would on a netbook. It could be as little as double or as much as 3-4 times. I would budget around $1200 or so. Less than that, and you might not be getting something better than a netbook, and more than that, you're just spending money on marginal increases in power.

POWER: This is the single most important factor in your laptop purchase. You're buying a laptop instead of a netbook. You need to make sure it's actually more powerful than a netbook. To this end, I'm going to briefly discuss how CPUs work, and how Windows 7 differs from previous versions. You need a basic understanding of this to help you make an informed purchase, so bear with me for a couple of paragraphs.

Think of each piece of software you want to run as a liquid, and think of your CPU as a cup. Many modern computers have multi-core CPUs. Think of these as having more than one cup where your operating system can pour programs. Under Windows XP and Vista, multi-core CPUs were not used effectively. It was like holding one cup above the other, and waiting for the first cup to fill until programs spill over. In practice, this rarely ever happened. Windows 7 is considerably smarter. Under a heavy load, Win7 will pour programs into different cups to help distribute the load and make your multi-core CPU do a lot more work.

It is for this reason that you want to make sure your laptop has a multi-core CPU. Even if its clock speed is similar to a netbook, with two or more cores operating under Win7, it will be considerably faster at multi-tasking. Stay away from any CPU that says "Celeron". It's decade-old technology, which is why it's really cheap. They have multi-core versions, but you're better off getting a more modern CPU. I would also stay away from any CORE 2 CPUs. While they are dual core, they're affordable again because they're slightly outdated. What you want to look for is the new Core i3, i5 or i7 models. The i3 and i5 have 2 cores, so they'll be considerably faster than any netbook, and the i7 can have up to 4 cores, which will blow away a lot of desktop machines. You're probably best off going with an i3, as the price of the others scales up faster than their capabilities. If the computer you're using is more than a couple of years old, it will be a huge upgrade in speed, while still being affordable. If you're used to an i3, you might not even notice the speed increase on an i7 anyway.

Another advantage of the iX series of processors is that they're all 64 bit, so you can get even more out of Win7. Most users probably won't really notice because there's not a lot of 64 bit software out there right now, but there will likely be a lot more soon, and this is a long overdue upgrade.

Another super important thing to look for is a dedicated video card. On the label, it will say something like ATI or nVIDIA on a separate line. If the label doesn't specifically mention it, keep looking for another option. Drawing pictures on your screen takes a lot of math. Netbooks do all of this math with their already-limited CPU and ram. If you're buying a laptop, make sure it has a fancy mobile video card in it. It will have its own dedicated video ram and another processor to help carry the picture-drawing load. This is important for everything. Multi-tasking, YouTube, gaming. Literally everything your computer does. I cannot stress this enough. Make sure it has a dedicated video card. If you're still not sure, ask a salesman or a Nerd Sherpa.

STYLE: I'm generally a function over form kind of guy, but let's face it. You're buying a portable computer. It's portable. You want it to look cool, because people will see it, and inducing gadget-envy is every nerd's responsibility. Sony does an especially good job at this, but you're going to pay a little more for the VAIO stamp than for a similarly-powered Dell or Gateway. However, Best Buy seems to have fairly uniform pricing based on the unit's capabilities with only limited brand name variance, so definitely let the design of the machine play a part in your decision.

As with any computer, there are a number of other considerations. Hard drive space isn't generally too limited in modern laptops. Your hard drive is going to be relatively huge, and with external drives, it's super easy to expand. Any laptop is going to have plenty of USB ports, and again you can expand with external hubs. RAM is the last thing I would worry about when making your choice. While RAM is super important, if you chose an i3-XXXm processor with a dedicated video card as I've advised above, the machine most likely already comes with plenty of RAM. If you're nervous about it, look for 4gb. More than that is kind of overkill and while less slides you down into Netbook range, it probably won't kill you if the rest of the specs are acceptable. Battery life may be of concern to you, but remember. This thing is going to be a beast. It's going to suck down battery like mad. You're mostly going to use it plugged in. Still, if mobility is of concern, just about any laptop battery will let you watch a DVD before it dies.

Lastly, don't forget stickers! They're important for laptops too. Gadget envy!

As usual, if you require any personal sherping for your laptop purchase, drop me a line! I can help.

@nerdsherpa, purveyor of portable computing.


  1. Frequent contributor to my awesomeness, @katewallftw made a good point just now about pricing. My spend-less-than-$1200 figure is assuming you want a pretty decent machine for gaming. If you're just in the market for productivity and multitasking, you can afford to spend less.

    If you need more specific advice to tailor a laptop to your personal needs, I can help with that too.

  2. @pnkrkgrl:

    Photoshop is kind of a beast. It devours system resources like crazy, so the more processing power you can throw at it, the happier and more productive you'll be. I would spring for at least an i5-520 CPU, and definitely get something with a dedicated video card.

    For Netflix, pretty much any computer should be fine. However, you should make sure the one you choose has HDMI output, so then if you or a friend already have an HDTV or relatively new monitor, you can easily broadcast your movies to a bigger screen.

    I'm a fan of Sony, so I'd recommend something like their VPCCW27FX/B series. They come in a couple of different colors, have a super powerful CPU, a 512mb of dedicated video memory for photoshop or games. The price tag is a little hefty at $950 bucks, but if it's in your price range, I'm sure you'll be happy with its performance.

    If $950 is a little too steep, they have the VPCCW21FX/W with the i3-330 CPU and half the video memory for around $100 less. This machine will still be great for your graphic design needs, and again, HDMI output for connecting to monitors.

    Let me know if this helps!

  3. A very belated comment to say that this post rocks. Super helpful as I am about to embark on a *long* overdue laptop purchase, and my knowledge is stuck in about 2004. Oof.

  4. @K

    If you need any specific advice on hardware, let me know and I'm happy to help.