Notebook Hardware Guide
What features should I pay attention to when buying a laptop? Which processor should I pick? What can I live without? If you want to buy a notebook, and are puzzled by these questions, then we can offer you some answers in the following article. We will describe in detail what hardware and features you really need.
There are difference classes of notebooks:
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- Office notebooks for entry-level users: office, internet and easy applications
- Professional office laptops and mobile workstations: demanding video applications like CAD, video editing, 3D graphics, etc.
- Gaming / Multimedia notebook: demanding games and multimedia applications which require good performance
- Subnotebook / Ultrabooks: small, light, mobile
- Netbooks: small-format PC
- Tablets: the rising star
Our Notebook Purchase Consultation will inform you about what, besides the hardware, is important in a laptop. If you already have an idea of what you want, then take a look at our Buyer's Guide, to refine your search and find the perfect match.
Office Notebooks for Entry-level Users
A model of this category is intended to be used mainly for surfing the Web and office. Neither the CPU nor graphics performance are as important as a good keyboard or a good display for this category. We recommend testing the keyboard before purchase. Low noise and temperature emissions are also important as they will allow the user to work comfortably.
Often, weak mobile processors offer sufficient performance for office use. Really cheap, entry-level models, which rely on netbook CPUs, like the AMD C-series (AMD C-60), will freeze now and then. Installations and load times of especially complex websites can take a long time. We recommend the AMD A-series or the Intel Pentium series for fluid office performance. These models have a nice balance between performance, price and power consumption and grant the user some future security. If the buyer has a bigger budget, then s/he should consider the stronger Core i3 or Core i5 CPUs. The fast quad-core processors of the Core i7 series are not worth the money for mere office work.
For more information, take a look at our CPU comparison.
Modern notebook processors are equipped with an Integrated Graphics Processor (IGP). This chip helps with easy tasks like processing (HD) videos or the Aero surface in Windows. However, it can not keep up with a graphics card in game performance: A8 and A10 AMD APUs of the Trinity series can run most games at low/medium details, but Intel IGPs (at least below the HD Graphics 4000, starting from the Core i3-3***) have a tangibly lower performance.
A dedicated entry-level graphics card, like the GeForce 610M, is not much faster, and the laptop could probably run just as well on the IGP alone. The graphics card would barely run as the automatic graphics switching technology (AMD: Enduro, Nvidia: Optimus) will use the IGP.
Considering the low RAM prices and the current popularity of 64 bit operating systems, even a low-price notebook should have (at least) 4 GB of RAM. This will help avoid freezes while switching between multiple applications and reduce the load times. An upgrade to 8 GB can be considered, but it will not increase the performance by a great margin.
Regardless whether the laptop has one RAM module or two (Single or Dual-channel mode), the program performance will hardly be affected. Only an IGP could benefit from the additional bandwidth of Dual-channel mode.
Often, laptops store program and user datas on a 2.5 inch storage device. This device can either be a traditional hard disk or a modern SSD. If the user is not going to store large amounts of data on their notebook, then a SSD (more expensive per gigabyte) is the way to go. The SSD will accelerate the notebook and drop the noise and temperature emissions.
Here, personal preferences influence the decision heavily: the mobility of a small display (under 13 inches is not good for heavy office work) or the more space offered by a large screen (open documents can be viewed more clearly). The largest notebooks of the office category have 17 - 18 inch panels. The display has to have a high resolution so as to make effective use of the large surface area. Cheap models often use 1,366 x 768 pixels (15.6 inch, 100 dpi) or 1,600 x 900 pixels (17.3 inch, 106 dpi). A higher dpi will mean a higher price. Displays use the well-known TV 16:9 format as the standard.
If you want to use the laptop mainly for work and it will be mainly used outdoors or in a bright workplace, then an anti-glare/non-reflective display with sufficient brightness is helpful. Outdoors, the brightness for a matt display should be at least 200 cd/m² and glare displays will require much higher brightness for clear legibility.
A wireless internet connection via WLAN (Wireless LAN) is supported by almost all modern notebooks. The main differences lie in the support transfer standards, which include the widespread 802.11n (is being replaced by 802.11ac). Most models support both the 2.4 and 5 GHz frequency, or use multiple antennas to increase transfer speed and range: Bluetooth is usually also included. If necessary, some manufacturers offer a UMTS/LTE module for their notebooks, but if not, the buyer can purchase a USB stick for this feature.
The notebook must have at least 2 to 3 USB ports, so as to connect all the usual peripheral devices, such as, mouse, printer or external hard disk (if possible, USB 3.0). A monitor or TV will usually be connected via HDMI, but be careful: resolutions higher than 1,920 x 1,200 pixels are only possible after making adjustments. We recommend the DisplayPort interface for higher resolution external monitors. The positioning of the interface is also important: right-handed users should have the port either on the back or on the left side so that the cable can be put away without cluttering the work area. Left-handed users will want it on the right side or on the back.
Notebooks you might be interested in:
- HP 650: low-priced entry-level model with a Pentium CPU
- Lenovo Ideapad N586: the alternative with AMD hardware
- Dell Latitude E5530: middle-priced office laptop with business ambition
Professional Office Laptops and Mobile Workstations
These laptops are required for very demanding tasks and thus, should be equipped with the best hardware. Users, who create 3D animations, edit videos or run CAD (Computer-Aided-Design) programs on their laptop, require a fast CPU, a lot of RAM, a high-resolution display and a special graphics card.
The bare minimum is a dual-core CPU with a high clock speed - a quad-core processor would be better. Intel's Core i7 models are far better than the AMD quad-core CPUs (like A10-4600M), as two cores in AMD's model structure deliver barely half the performance of their Intel counterparts.
Depending on the size of the notebook, various Core i7 models can be offered (TDP ranges from 35 to 45 watts - Extreme Edition: 55 W). Special ULV processors, which use two cores and have a low power consumption, will be excluded from this category. The top Core i7 models offer more performance than the lower quad-core models (like the i7 3630QM), but are incredibly overpriced. As such, the buyer should carefully consider what s/he requires from their notebook.
Nvidia and ATI provide special graphic cards for professional applications. These are called Nvidia "Quadro" and ATI "FirePro". These models use special drivers which are optimized for CAD programs (processing large amounts of data and stable performance). Unlike standard drivers, these special graphic cards are not aimed for gaming. Some graphic cards are certified for professional software (which means that they have been checked and optimized).
The RAM is very important, as it is required for processing large files by professional software. Workstation models require a minimum of 4 - 8 GB RAM. Some models are even equipped with 16 GB or more. As the RAM can often be easily upgraded, the buyer can even invest in it later on.
Depending on the size, many workstation notebooks offer space for multiple storage devices. As such, the buyer should pick an optimal combination of hard disk and SSD so as to enjoy the benefits of both technologies.
The best professional graphic cards are often only found in 17 inch models (and larger). Thus, the buyer should avoid smaller screens. The higher the resolution, the better - this statement applies to most CAD programs. If an external monitor is not available, then the user will require a notebook monitor with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. The scaling settings of modern operating systems ensure that even small captions and symbols remain legible at very high pixel densities.
The color space coverage and depiction of the display are important for graphic editors. The user should then also make sure that the display has sufficient illumination and contrast. Special models, like the Lenovo ThinkPad W530, have an integrated colorimeter, which guarantees the best possible color depiction. The alternative would be calibration using external hardware.
If the user wants an expensive model, which will store sensitive data, then s/he should make sure that it includes security features. These can protect the laptop from theft or unauthorized access (for example, Kensington Lock, fingerprint scanner, Intel Anti-Theft, which is part of the vPro technology, or other encoding software).
Users, who work at constructions sites, will want a ruggedized notebook, which is a laptop with a special case and security mechanisms which protects it from shaking, water, dirt or even impacts (Panasonic Toughbook).
Mobile internet in the form of UMTS or LTE makes sense if the user needs to access important files on the web while on-the-go. Integrated solutions are better than USB sticks.
A digital DisplayPort interface should be included as it will allow the user to connect high-resolution external monitors. HDMI does not always allow this. The alternative would be an optional docking station, if one is offered for your model.
Notebooks you might be interested in:
- Lenovo ThinkPad W530: the classic business notebook. Great workmanship and many extras.
- Panasonic Toughbook CF-53: robust work laptop for "Off-the-road" use.
- Dell Precision M4700: powerful workstation in a 15.6 inch format.
Gaming and Multimedia Notebooks
A laptop of this category should be suitable for gaming and running demanding multimedia applications. Performance is very important. The display should also be large and bright enough. The disadvantages of such models usually include: heavy, short battery life, loud fan emissions and high temperatures.
A dual-core CPU from the Pentium or Core i3 series (minimum) is needed as modern games demand quite a bit of processing power. Since a few years, the trend has changed from high clock speeds to more efficient processors with multiple cores. Most new games support more than two cores, and in some cases, like Battlefield 3 (especially multiplayer), a powerful quad-core can be helpful.
Currently, the Intel Core i7 3940XM sits on the performance throne (Extreme Edition with free multiplier). Of course, this CPU is currently not only the fastest mobile processor, but also consumes the most power and wears the highest price tag. The other Core i7 CPUs also offer great performance for much more lower prices.
So, the buyer, who wishes to save a few hundred Euros, should pick a Core i5 model from the Intel Ivy Bridge generation. These offer sufficient performance for the task at hand despite only having two cores (with Hyper-threading - 4 cores). Thanks to the Turbo Boost technology, the Core i5 CPU can leap far ahead of the cheaper Core i3 processors in games and applications with poor parallelization.
Sadly, AMD's product palette can only cover the lower price regions. Even the top model, the A10-4600M, falls short of a Core i3 3110M and is thus not a good choice for a pairing with a high-end graphics card. Of course, the AMD CPUs are a valid option for entry-level models, but the number of models which actually use these processors is relatively low.
The graphics card is practically the heart of a modern gaming laptop. We recommend a card from the performance class 1 or 2 (see Comparison of Laptop Graphic Cards). The performance of different mobile graphic cards is documented in our Benchmark List of Mobile Graphic Cards. Graphics card of performance class 3 should be considered the minimum for this category, as otherwise, the user will have to put drastic limitations on the resolution and detail level.
The graphic card memory should be large and GDDR5 memory is preferable to DDR3 VRAM. A speed difference due to more memory is only noticeable when the graphics card is handling extremely large textures or very high anti-aliasing settings. However, these settings can usually not be handled by slow models.
The clock frequency of the graphic card is also important. Models with little memory but high clock speeds can (at times) prove faster. Often, the exact memory clock speed (and the clock frequency of the graphics card core) is determined by the notebook manufacturer, which means that even though different laptops may have the same exact graphic card, there is no guarantee they perform at the same level.
High-end performance is provided by two identical graphics cards in SLI or CrossFire. Of course, these packets are offered at horrendously high prices and are plagued by so-called micro-stutters in games. In addition, the system has to have great cooling.
In any case, the notebook should have Nvidia Optimus or AMD Enduro on-board. These technologies allow the computer to dynamically switch between the dedicated and integrated graphic chips depending on the load. Simple multimedia tasks are handled by the IGP, which leads to lower power consumption.
Modern applications and games require a minimum of 4 GB RAM. 8 GB or more is better to have, but not always necessary. As RAM prices are relatively low, and it is usually easy to upgrade the RAM of your notebook (often detailed in the manual), you should not save money in this area. New notebooks are usually delivered with 64 bit versions of the operating system (for example, Windows 8), and as such, the maximum amount of RAM which can be installed (and used) in your notebook, is determined by the memory controller in the CPU and installed modules.
Films and games require large amounts of data, which makes it live without a traditional HDD. If possible, the user should buy and install an additional SSD drive (in the mSATA format if it is supported by your laptop) and put the operating system and most important applications on it.
A great film and gaming experience requires a large display with an appropriate resolution. One should make sure that the graphics card is suited for the native resolution of the panel, as a lower resolution can appear washed out on LCD panels. The Full HD resolution in games often requires a powerful graphics cards. Depending on the size of the display, a high resolution can even lead to very small caption and symbols, which is usually corrected by modern operating systems.
Widescreen or standard? This question is hardly worth asking as gaming notebooks almost exclusively use 16:9 widescreen displays. The multimedia laptops even have a few models which use an extremely broad 21:9 format (which is well-suited for movies).
Reflective displays are usually picked by manufacturers, as they often offer higher brightness, more contrast and crisper colors than matt displays. Sadly, they are also plagued by reflections in bright surroundings. These tire out the eyes quickly and made the picture hard to recognize.
Wireless LAN is often integrated into the model. In addition, multimedia devices offer Intel Wireless Display which allows the streaming of videos to a special receiver, which in turn is connected to a TV or monitor.
The buyer should make sure that the model has large cursor keys, as they are often required for racing and Jump 'n' Runs games.
Good sound output, more specifically, good speakers are often what gamers are looking for, as they are important in expressing the atmosphere of a game. That is why, many manufacturers, like Asus or Toshiba, co-operate with speaker manufacturers to develop the best possible speakers. Still, most gamers require headphones as these are often better than the best integrated speakers.
A HDMI or DisplayPort interface is sensible if the user wishes to connect an external display, and thus make it possible to have a second monitor, a beamer, more work area or a higher resolution.
Notebooks you might be interested in:
- Schenker XMG P722: extensively configurable. Also available with SLI and multiple hard disks.
- Alienware M14x R2: futuristic and fast, but in a 14 inch format.
- MSI GE70: solid and fast middle-class gamer with a 17 inch display.
- Toshiba Satellite U840W: an unusual 21:9 multimedia notebook for movie fans.
Tip: you can take a look in our Top 10 Multimedia Laptops and our Top 10 Desktop Replacement Laptops to find a suitable model. Which graphics card is required for which game? You can find the answer in our extensive Gaming List on Mobile GPUs.
For more information, visit our purchase consultation forum.
Thin, light and mobile - Subnotebooks & Ultrabooks
In this device class, mobility is important. So the user should look for small dimensions, low weight and long battery life. The CPU and graphics card should be optimized for max power saving, not for delivering max performance.
Models of this category almost exclusively use the Intel ULV CPUs which boast low power consumption (TDP up to 17 W) and offer decent performance.
Special, power-saving CPUs are not limited to any price class and have a wide range: from entry-level (Celeron, Pentium) over middle-class (Core i3, i5) to high-end (Core i7). Before making a decision, consider the fact that ULV CPUs have lower clock speeds and offer less performance that standard CPUs. As such, the buyer should get a sensible compromise between price and performance, as offered by the Core i5 series, which even has enough performance for demanding programs.
AMD is not well-represented in this segment as few manufacturers employ their power-saving APUs (like the A6-4455M). The performance is higher than that of netbook processors, but it lags behind the Intel counterparts.
Additional information about mobile processors (power consumption and performance) can be found in our Laptop Processor Comparison.
The IGP is the best way to maximize run time. In case of an Intel CPU, the IGP will most likely be the HD Graphics 4000, which is suitable for the occasional gaming session at low details.
If a dedicated graphics card is included in your model, then it will probably belong to the entry-level or middle-class. It should definitely turn off while the laptop is idle as this will save on battery life. At load, owners of thin Ultrabooks will have to deal with the additional heat and possible throttling due to the dedicated GPU.
Take a look at our Comparison of Laptop Graphic Cards to learn more about the different classes of graphic cards and other power-saving solutions.
The RAM is a relatively cheap notebook component and the user should not feel the need to skimp on it. 4 GB is recommended and is standard for most Ultrabooks. Expensive models even use 8 GB of RAM which lends them security for the future. Users who want to upgrade the RAM themselves should check if an open slot is available, as sometimes the installed RAM is already soldered into the notebook. The RAM should run in dual-channel mode as this benefits the integrated GPU.
Ultrabooks are often equipped with SSDs. This raises the performance and lowers the net weight of the device. Plus, SSDs can be very thin (mSATA models) which means that they can be installed in increasingly thinner models. Power consumption is another pro, especially in this category.
The smaller the device, the more compact it is and the less power it consumes. The display should have an acceptable resolution so as to provide sufficient work space for the user. The simple HD resolution of 1,366 x 768 pixels is standard, but high-end models can offer even the Full-HD or higher resolutions.
Reflective displays are a bad choice for travelling, as bright environments can cause a myriad of reflections to dance on the screen, making it either harder or impossible for the user to read and it will put a strain on the eyes.
Additionally, the display should have sufficient brightness: 200 cd/m² are good for a matt panel - any lower, the display would be illegible in direct sunlight.
Wireless LAN - wireless networking is a must, especially as a model of this category will be primarily used for surfing the web. Users, who want to be online on-the-go, should purchase a UMTS/LTE module. A Bluetooth module is useful to transmit data to a Smartphone, printer or mouse without wires.
A second battery can be useful for mobile use. However, some models have a securely integrated battery, which prevents the user from swapping in the replacement. Most subnotebooks lack an integrated DVD drive, which means that the user will have to get an external device (sometimes these are delivered with the laptop) or get the files on a USB stick so as to transfer them to the computer.
A (Mini) DisplayPort or HDMI interface allows the user to connect a larger external monitor to the notebook/Ultrabook.
Notebooks you might be interested in:
- Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E130: small subnotebook for entry-level price
- Apple Macbook Air: the luxurious classic amongst the ultra-thin subnotebooks.
- Dell XPS 12: multi-faceted Convertible Ultrabook with a touchscreen
- Asus UX32VD: gaming-ready Ultrabook with a dedicated graphics card
Visit our Top 10 Subnotebooks and our External Tests for more information.
Netbooks - The Small-Format PCs
Low price, maximum battery life - the small Netbook is based on this simple principle. Unfortunately, the once booming market is now a shadow of its past self. Many manufacturers have completely or partially stopped producing these devices, as buyers want Ultrabooks, Tablets and Smartphones more. Netbooks are available for less than 200 Euros, but often lack an optical drive and have a relatively low performance.
If you surf a lot on the Internet and like to have your device with you at all times, then the Netbook is a good choice. The buyer should know that a Netbook offers minimal performance and is often too slow for more demanding tasks, like picture editing. Most devices, due to pricing and performance, are not even run on Windows and use a different OS (usually Linux-based). Microsoft introduced Windows 7 Starter edition for this reason.
Two platforms are specially developed for Netbooks: Intel's Atom processors and AMD's C-series. Sadly, these are much slower than their notebook counterparts, like Intel Pentium or AMD A-series. Thankfully, they consume less power and cost a lot less. Due to these reasons, both series are often found in Netbooks. The Atom (for example, N2600) has the advantage of consuming very little power, while the C-series (like the C-60) offers a slightly higher performance.
The user should know that most Netbooks are not suited for demanding tasks or multi-tasking. Even simple tasks, like surfing the Internet, are performed with tangibly poorer performance than a "real" notebook.
Usually, on-board graphic cards of the lower performance class are installed. These have the task of accelerating videos (even in HD resolution). The Atom series is not suited for gaming due to low performance and driver issues. On the other hand, the AMD GPUs can at least display older, less-demanding games.
Additional, dedicated graphics cards are not installed in Netbooks (maximum 10 inches large). The small case is not suited for the additional power consumption and the CPU is too slow to make much out of it.
Netbooks are often equipped with 1 to 2 GB of RAM. This is sufficient for the simple tasks the device is required to perform. However, users, who like to have multiple browser tabs open simultaneously alongside an Office program, should consider an upgrade.
Due to financial reasons, Netbooks are usually equipped with a simple 2.5 inch HDD. If you do not need large capacity, then a small and cheap SSD is a good choice to accelerate the device.
Netbooks typically have a screen size (diagonally) of up to 10 inches. Larger devices will belong to the subnotebook category. The 1,024 x 768 pixels is the standard resolution for Netbooks (like 1,366 x 768 pixels for a 11.6 inch screen). Of course, such a low resolution, limits the available work area accordingly.
The buyer should pick a matt display so as to be able to use the laptop on-the-go. The screen should also have sufficient brightness. Low-quality TN panels with poor viewing angles and low contrast are the rule for this category.
A WLAN is a must and a UMTS module is optional (depends on if the user wants to be online everywhere). Bluetooth will allow the user to connect wirelessly to a printer, mouse or Smartphone. This reduces the cable salad and leaves interfaces free, which is especially important in a Netbook, which does not have many ports to begin with.
If you work a lot with the Netbook at home, consider getting an external keyboard (maybe Bluetooth), as Netbook keyboards are very small. An external monitor would also be a good investment. Many models have a suitable, digital HDMI interface.
The battery life of netbooks is usually very long, which means that the user could comfortably watch films on-the-go. Sadly, as the device lacks an optical drive, an external drive or USB stick should be procured. This would allow the user to install Windows straight from the USB stick.
Netbooks you might be interested in:
- Acer Aspire One D270: well-priced, runs long and suitable for outdoors use.
- Acer Aspire One 722: an AMD Netbook with decent graphics performance.
- Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E135: ThinkPad interpretation in a Netbook form.
The Top 10 Netbooks and External Tests can provide further information.
Our Purchase Consultation Forum is also available.
Tablets - The Rising Star
Most think that Apple invented the tablet PC, but in reality it has been around for a long time. For the majority of that time, it was a side note in the business category. The first iPad changed all that. Since then, every popular manufacturer has brought a tablet of their own onto the market. The sheer number of these devices threatens to overtake the number of notebooks.
In principle, there are x86 and ARM tablets, whereby the latter dominates the consumer market. The existing operating systems for tablets include Apple's iOS, Android and Microsoft Windows RT. The former two dominate the market, while Windows is a more recent introduction to the market and is gaining in popularity. Depending on the size, hardware and performance, the price for a tablet ranges from 50 to 1000 Euros.
Processor and Graphics card
CPU, GPU and many other components of a tablet are integrated together on a SoC (System-on-a-Chip). These SoCs are often based on the designs of the British chip developer ARM, which in turn are licensed by manufacturers like Nvidia (Tegra 3), Samsung (Exynos 4412), Apple (A6) or Qualcomm (Snapdragon S4) for their own products.
Depending on the performance class, tablets nowadays contain 1 to 4 cores. By using the clock speed and underlying architecture, we can approximate the performance. For example, SoCs based on the Krait or Cortex-A15 architecture are just as fast as Cortex-A9 models with double the clock speed. The CPU performance affects a majority of applications on a tablet, like the loading of a web page while surfing.
The video acceleration is performed by a dedicated unit, which leaves the GPU with the primary duty of fluidly running games. Due to the various graphic solutions out there, it is hard to make a general statement about the performance; however, a fast and modern CPU component of a SoC generally indicates a relatively strong GPU (this is a very general guideline).
A typical ARM OS requires 512 to 1,024 MB of RAM (mainly LPDDR2/DDR3L) for a fluid interface. Larger amounts of RAM (2 GB and above) improve the multi-tasking speed, which means that browsers or Apps can remain open in the background.
The specified flash storage capacity of a tablet might not be the free space available to the user, as the size of the pre-installed OS and Apps has to be subtracted first. For a buyer, this might change things, but that depends on what the tablet is going to be used for. If you want to save videos and music on the device, then extending the storage with a memory card is an option worth considering.
As with a notebook, the size of a display affects the price, mobility and uses of the device. Cheap tablets offer touchscreens up to 7 inches, whereas the higher price segments boast 10 inches.
For sufficiently fine depiction and work space, the screen should at least support the simple HD resolution. Expensive models usually have Full HD or even higher resolutions. Most tablets use a high-quality and strong viewing angle IPS panel as standard, but cheap models resort to low-quality TN fabrications. If the tablet will be used outdoors, we recommend having a high brightness so as to overpower the reflections on the glossy panel.
WLAN should be integrated in every tablet as this is the easiest way of transferring data for such a model. Some manufacturers even offer models with WWAN support, which allows the user to create a mobile bandwidth connection.
For cheap Android devices, the buyer should check whether the manufacturer offers an upgrade to the next release of Android. It is especially annoying if a recently-purchased laptop can not be updated and after a few months of use, it is already outdated, as it lacks the new features.
Compass, gyroscope, position sensor, light sensor, proximity sensor, GPS and other extras are required for certain Apps or simplify everyday use. Warning: a lot of tablets which seem like a great deal skimp out on these extras.
The installed battery is usually the critical point. Especially for high-end SoCs, the manufacturer should ensure that the capacity is large enough so that the battery is not drained after a short game. Good models last an entire workday or longer while surfing or watching videos.
Tablets you might be interested in:
- Apple iPad 4: latest edition of the classic with Retina display.
- Google Nexus 7: strong price-to-performance ratio and Vanilla Android.
- Microsoft Surface: the first Microsoft tablet with an ARM and x86 version.