Laptop Buying Guide
The are numerous laptops available on the market. Today's notebook market ranges from 10 inch netbooks to 18 inch DTRs (Desktop Replacements). So every buyer can find the right model for themselves, as long as they know what they are looking for.
The first step is to specify your needs, which would allow you then to pick out the best-suited class of laptop. Our Notebook Hardware Guide will provide a lot of useful tips as it takes a detailed look at each hardware component. This article focuses on the soft skills of a laptop - essentially all the general aspects which are important when buying a laptop.
Should you have any questions of a technical nature or about specific models, you can post it in our forum, where our informed and helpful community can answer it.
Case and Connectivity
The case of a notebook is like the chassis of a car. Besides the looks and the design, the material, workmanship and resulting sturdiness of the model all play an important role. The buyer should keep this point in mind, as a rapidly ageing, crunching and scatched laptop will not be covered by any warranty. Of course, a low-price entry-level laptop will hardly be high-quality and sturdy. In fact, it will probably also use light metals and synthetic materials. Usually, notebooks use simple synthetic materials, but even these materials can vary in quality.
If you get the opportunity to compare laptops in your local electronics market, test the models and compare them to each other: check how strongly the case deforms under pressure, if there are any noticeable gaps or if the model makes noises when being handled. Picking up the laptop with one hand on the hand-rest region should not cause any problems or deforming. You will see that the differences between laptops can be enormous. Neither the price (even expensive models can have poor workmanship), nor the well-known company name guarantee quality.
The display is a weak point of many laptops. To be precise, we often see issues arise from the hinges which connect the screen to the base of the laptop. This part of the notebook is strained intensively over the time the laptop is used, and as such it should be as big as possible. If the hinges of a notebook let the display wobble strongly or can not hold it in position, then the user might be faced with hinges worn out by years of use.
If you plan to use your notebook on-the-go without an additional cover, we recommend having a reliable closing mechanism. This will ensure that no foreign objects enter the gap between the screen and base of the laptop and damage the fragile panel. So the fragile and expensive display can be closed and protected. Sadly, many manufacturers have stopped using such mechanisms in their models.
Interfaces and Ports
Another important topic is the number, type and positioning of interfaces on the laptop. Here, it is important to know what the laptop will be used for. What do I plan to connect to it? Which upgrade possibilities do I want to have? Where will I use the notebook? On the go or rather on the desktop? The following are the most important modern interfaces.
USB ports: As the name indicates (Universal Serial Bus), the USB interface serves as a universal interface for peripheral devices. This includes printers, external hard disks, external TV cards, Bluetooth and WWAN adapter, mice, keyboards, gamepads, USB sticks, digital cameras, Smartphones, MP3 players, etc.
Of course, all these devices will not be connected simultaneously. However, if the notebook has few ports (usually the case in subnotebooks and Ultrabooks), then the user will have to get a USB hub.
Keep in mind, there are various, backwards-compatible versions of the USB standard. These vary in transfer speeds. Currently, the fastest one is the USB 3.0 standard ("Super Speed") which can deliver 300 MB/s in everyday use (about 10x the speed of USB 2.0). USB sticks and external devices benefit greatly from the standard's fast speeds. Interfaces, like FireWire, eSATA or the ExpressCard slot, are being pushed out of the market by the USB 3.0 standard.
Many manufacturers offer special "powered USB" interfaces, which can charge a Smartphone even when the laptop is off. Pay close attention to the connectivity of the laptop, if you want this feature.
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Audio jacks: although it is quite old, the classic audio jack is found in every modern notebook (typically in the 3.5 mm format). Often, two audio jacks are provided (one for headphones and the other for microphone), but nowadays a few laptops use combined jacks for headsets.
The best possible audio quality and multiple-canal output is offered by digital transmission, usually via digital display out (HDMI, DisplayPort). Uncompressed PCM signals, Blu-ray formats Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD can be delivered to the appropriate receiver and output from there - and all this with 192 kHz, 24 bit resolution and 7.1 channels (depending on the standard).
Display output: whether it be an external monitor, beamer or TV, laptops offer display output interfaces which can send the necessary data to these devices. The following connectivity possibilities are available:
The HDMI interface is especially popular in consumer laptops. This interface (up to version 1.2) can only offer a max resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. Although new standards have relieved this limit and now support up to 2160p (also called 4K2K), many high-resolution monitors have drivers which canonly accept the Full HD resolution via HDMI.
The (Mini-) DisplayPort comes to the rescue. This interface can even provide output to a 30 inch display with a 2,560 x 1,600 pixel resolution (or higher). Currently, the DisplayPort is being pushed out indirectly by the mechanically and electronically backwards compatible Thunderbolt interface, as it supports additional protocols, such as PCI-Express, and it thus a competitor to the USB.
Analog video output is provided by VGA. This interface is found less and less in notebooks and is only required for connecting older devices, such as outdated beamers. A high-quality signal quality is not always guaranteed, due to occasional ghost images, blurriness and flickering.
LAN and WLAN: With the expection of a few really thin Ultrabooks, most laptops are equipped with a Gigabit LAN interface. Many users still rely on this interface as it provides high transfer rates (above 100 MB/s) and reliable transfer quality.
Just as important and more comfortable - the WLAN module of a laptop. The standards 802.11a/b/g (older) and 802.11n are widespread. Depending on the number of antennas and transfer stream, the net transfer rate can reach between 150 to 600 MB/s, of which only a third really remains. Besides the speed, the buyer should also pay attention to whether the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies are supported (if required).
The new 802.11ac, which is already available since the start of 2012 as a precursor model, pushes the WLAN technology into the gigabyte speeds. However, we do not expect the technology to completely take over the market till 2014.
Bluetooth and WWAN: besides WLAN, many notebooks also have Bluetooth. Usually this technology is provided by the same Mini-PCIe-card which offers WLAN. This wireless technology is useful for connecting peripheral devices, such as, mice, keyboards or Smartphones. Currently, the 2010 version 4.0 distinguishes itself from the other, older standards thanks to its special energy-saving features as well as higher speeds.
In the consumer market, it is rare to see the additional WWAN module. Depending on the model, the module will support, in addition to UMTS, its expansion, HSPA(+), and the LTE standard. The buyer should check if the installed adapter support as many frequencies as possible (Germany: 800, 1,800 and 2,600 MHz). If not, then the data turbo will only be available in certain locations or with specific providers.
The optimal arrangement of the connections is a mixture of subjective preferencies and practical applications. So it is important whether the user is left- or right-handed. If a lot of connections are placed on the side which you use the mouse, then this can cause an unnecessary cable salad.
For these deliberations, it is important to determine which connections are used and then how often/how long they are used. This can help in reducing the cable salad and free the user's work from issues arising from this issue. The placement of the ventilation opening is also important. The warm emission may be comfortable in the winter, but in the summer it can be a problem.
The quality and user-friendliness of the input devices is just as important. This covers the classical keyboard, available numeric pad (num-pad) and additional keys and shortkeys, for example for a media player. In addition, the touchpad with its additional keys and (if available) trackpoint also belong to this category. Mechanical switches (WLAN on/off) and controls like volume control also belong to this category.
There are various, different keyboard layouts. This can be a problem when the user switches to a laptop made by a different company, as they might install the FN, Delete, Alt and Cursor-keys in different positions. Usually, users get used to the new keyboard within a few weeks.
It may happen that the keys are small. This can be especially problematic when it is the Space, Strg, AltGr, Shift, Enter or Cursor keys. This is not only a problem in subnotebooks (small dimensions), but also crops up in big desktop replacement laptops (starting at 17 inch displays).
Last but not least is the pressure while typing; this differs from manufacuter to manufacturer. The offering ranges from long, soft, desktop-like stroke distances to very short and hard impacts. Chiselled, flat keys may be attractive, but they are not the most user-friendly. Due to the trend towards chiclet keyboard, ergonomically formed keys with a concave surface are getting rare.
In addition to all the above, the user will also have to check the workmanship of the keyboard for flaws. A few of the main flaws include: a keyboard which is not installed properly and one which clatters or bends while typing. Such issues can lead to poor recognition or sticking of individual keys.
These input devices are intended as a mouse replacement and are used to control the mouse pointer. Although they are only sporadically used when working with the laptop on-the-go, their functionality and user-friendliness is important. The criteria for a good touchpad are response times, precision, intuitive interface, the positioning and surface texture. Additional features, like multi-touch gestures and hand sensors, have become widespread and can even be found in cheap notebooks. A lot of newer models place the touchpad keys right on the surface of the touchpad, which is not always ergonomical.
Additional keys and Switches
More and more laptops offer special keys, in addition to the keyboard and touchpad, which provide access to a variety of software functions. This includes switches for turning the WLAN and/or Bluetooth on/off and volume rockers. Of course, how sensible these keys are and how often they are required will be determined by each individual user.
One of the most important criteria for most buyers is the display. Especially office laptops, which are used 8-10 hours daily, should be equipped with an excellent display. Basically, displays can be divided into two types: ones with reflective (gloss) surface and ones with a non-reflective or matt surface (non-glare). Preventing reflections is achieved by roughening the display surface, producing prisms on the surface which disperse the reflections. Some manufacturers even install a special coating on their reflective displays so as to reduce reflections.
When picking a display, you should consider the following points:
- reflective displays often have better colors (subjective)
- matt displays only require an average brightness (200 cd/m² or more) to offer good outdoors usage
- reflective displays can only be used outdoors if they have very high brightness. Otherwise, the reflections will make it impossible to read the content.
- distracting reflections on glare displays may even pop up indoors due to bright lights or proximity to windows
- reflective displays tire out the user more than matt displays over a long period of use
On the one hand, the format and resolution of the display are determined by the size of the device, and on the other hand, they are determined by the preference of the user and the available sizes for the model. The current standard is the 16:9 format, and few notebooks deviate below it (16:10) or above it (21:9). The older displays, which used the 4:3 format as the standard, are now nearly extinct.
The resolution and screen diagonal allows us to calculate the pixel density of the model. Low-priced laptops (15.6" with 1,366 x 768 pixels, 17.3" with 1,600 x 900 pixels) usually get a mere 100 dpi, which results in an accordingly pixelated display. Currently, there are expensive models which have displays with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels on a screen diagonal of mere 12 inches. Depending on the user, the word size may have to be adjusted.
The viewing angle stability is important in mobile devices, as such devices are usually moved around a lot and the user wishes to always be able to clearly recognize the displayed content. This means that keeping the picture stable over large vertical and horizontal angles can be really useful, as it grants the user the freedom to move and still enjoy good picture quality. Large deviations in the viewing angle can lead to a darkening/brightening of the display, color invertion or reflections. The IPS panel perform much better, and this is why they are often found in tablets.
The IPS technology also offers high contrast ratio. Cheap TN models of entry-level models can not offer the same quality, which results in a less satisfying black and less life-like picture. This also adversely affects films and games. Users, who often use programs like Photoshop, will require a high color accuracy and large color space coverage (sRGB and AdoberRGB standards). All this information is provided in our in-depth reviews.
Dead pixels are an important and heatedly discussed topic about TFT displays. There are various different types of dead pixels and they are differentiated by their "color". As such, a constantly lit white or black dead pixel in the center of the display can quickly infuriate the user. Almost all TFT displays compy to the Dead Pixel class 2. This means that dead pixels within a certain tolerance limit are expected. Most manufacturers offer a "Zero Dead Pixel" guarantee, while others specify a certain tolerance limit for pixel errors in their warranties. If you want to be sure that your device is free of dead pixels, then you should inspect your device before purchase (local electronics market) or, if buying online, use the obligatory two week exchange guarantee. It is still possible for dead pixels to pop up after a few months or years without any obvious reason.
Touchscreens were a rare feature in notebooks for a long time, but now, thanks to the introduction of Windows 8, the market is being flooded with touch notebooks. The new interface is optimized for touch but also offers the classic desktop, which means that it can be used on classic notebooks, ultrabooks and convertibles. The convertibles are an interesting class and represent the integration of touch in the classic notebook. There are various different approaches to convertibles, whereby the classic approach is closing the display backwards on the keyboard. Usually, an additional input pen is included in business models.
The performance is usually either the deciding factor for buyers or not at all important. The processor or CPU and the graphic card (GPU) are the main hardware components responsible for the performance. In our notebook hardware guide, you will find out what hardware is necessary for what application.
Our comparison of mobile graphic cards presents the reader with details information about GPUs of notebooks and the benchmark of graphic cards will allow the reader to compare the graphic cards to each other.
These are often forgotten, but they play an important role. For example, high temperatures on the surface of the case and loud noises due to the fan can adversely affect the work experience. We also include the integrated speakers in the Emissions section in our reviews and rate them according to their sound output and max volume.
Although emissions are hardly important while playing games, they can be a problem when working in a quiet office. As such, office notebooks and subnotebooks with hardly any load (running office programs, etc.) should be silent or as quiet as possible.
Besides the emissions, other factors can also influence the subjective experience. The fan control is one of these factors, as a constantly-running fan and a fan which keeps turning up and down, are two different things. It is also possible that the fan noise is distracting by itself, if it is too high frequency. Another source of noise would be the optical drive (DVD, BD), which can drone out the fan when in use. As the level of emission depends on the speed of the drive, some tools can be used to throttle the drive and thus drop the noise emissions. The whooshing of the hard drive is often only noticeable while idle. In fact, SSDs have no mechanical parts and are thus, silent.
Beside the noise emissions, the surface temperatures can also be a source of problems. Every now and again, models are released which exhibit a hot spot (a local area which gets really hot). Very high temperatures are not only uncomfortable to deal with, but might also reduce the life expectancy of the installed components and create instability in the system.
Almost every notebook is equipped with integrated speakers, but the sound output can vary greatly. If you intend to use your laptop for music or DVD playback, then you should check the laptop's speakers before purchase. The alternative is connecting external speakers or headphones.
A laptop with a battery which is too small, is like a car, with a tank limit of 10 liters. The only difference is that for your laptop, you don't need a petrol station, but a power socket.
This point is heavily dependent on the use of the device. From experience, notebooks are mainly used on a table, where the user has a power outlet available. However, if the buyer decides that s/he wants a model for use on-the-go, then it is important to check if the laptop's battery offers passable run times. An alternative would be an additional battery, which would allow the notebook to run over two charges. Some manufacturers include "Ultra- or Multibays" in their models. These slots can be used to install an optical drive or an additional battery.
Overall, Lithium-Ion (Li-ion) or Lithium-Polymer (LiPo) batteries are used for laptops. The latter has a higher energy density. Although many manufacturers promise to use methods which spare the battery and proclaim that the battery capacity only decreases slightly after multiple charge cycles, it is useful to have a second battery as a backup in case of a defect. For modern notebooks, it is no longer necessary to remove the battery when the laptop is off.
The manufacturer's specifications about run time (without load) are often useless in use. It is more important to check if a notebook can deliver long run times in a realistic scenario (medium brightness, WLAN on). For good run times, the capacity of the battery (in Wh) and an efficient system with conservative hardware, are important. You can find out here how to increase the battery life in any model.
Warranty is very important for notebooks. The compact build and intricate balance between the hardware often makes it impossible for the user to repair any defect themselves (replacement parts are also hard to find on the market). As such, the laptop has to be sent back to the manufacturer and the repair can cost quite a bit of money.
A warranty is the best solution to avoid such issues. Most manufacturers offers guarantee periods of 1 to 2 years (from the date of purchase). Business models can often offer 3 years as the standard guarantee, but this is included in the price. The purchase of additional service packets should be carefully considered by keeping the notebook price and the additional premiums in mind.
Some companies offer insurance policies, which present the user with the option of insuring their laptop independent of the manufacturer. Depending on the contract, damage due to personal negligence or theft can be insured against.
- Additional information about the technical aspects of notebooks can be found in our Notebook Hardware Guide.
- If you have further questions about notebooks or mobile computing, feel free to visit our helpful community in our forum.
- Detailed information about the tests we run in our reviews can be found here.
- Detailed information about CPUs and GPUs can be found in: Notebook Processors and Comparison of Laptop Graphic Cards.
- If you want to a notebook suited for you, check out our reviews or take a loot at our extensive database of external notebook reviews.