Originally written in 2012.

How to pick the right notebook for you?

I remember the days when computers were a luxury, expensive and slow. Companies were making huge profits and you had to choose between being connected to the Internet or use your phone line. Welcome to 2011, the year where companies are fighting each other for a piece of that market pie. What does that mean for us? Aggressive prices … and more models than you can count. Which notebook/laptop is right for me? Should I go the netbook route? Perhaps a desktop replacement is what I’m looking for! In this article I will try to help you make an educated decision to get the most for your money.

If there are some terms/abbreviations you do not understand, please visit the glossary!

NOTE : I will not speak about Apple’s MacBook Pro/Air in the article. If you are studying in photography, film or animation (anything multimedia), Apple’s offering is very good. If not, it is an overpriced laptop.

So, back to school is right around the corner (or already around) and you are ready to purchase perhaps your first laptop. Exciting moment, but you want to make sure you get the best possible machine for your money. Here is how I recommend you plan your purchase:

Give yourself a budget. It’s easy once at the store to go over budget to later regret it. Give yourself a strict budget, before or after taxes, and stick to it!
Identify your needs. Are you looking for a laptop to do online research and type articles or for a machine to edit pictures and videos? Knowing what you are looking for will help you narrow it down.
Research possible winners online. Google here is your best friend. Found a computer that looks promising online? Enter its model number in Google (i.e. “Asus UL80VT review”) and see what people think of it.
Find a store that has it on display. This one can be a little harder, but if you can spend as much time as you can with your future computer it will help you in the final decision.
You are ready to make an informed decision. You’ve done your homework, you are ready to purchase. Some big box store can have “pressure” salesperson trying to sell you things you do not need. Show up confident knowing what you want and they’ll usually realize they won’t be able to sell extra unnecessary things.
Enjoy your laptop.
Ok so you’ve decided how much you want to spend, now it’s time to identify what are your needs. A couple things to keep in mind when hunting for a notebook are : size, battery life, weight, build quality, CPU speed, integrated or dedicated video card and presence of a ODD to name a few.

Size:

Is this computer going to be travelling in your backpack every day? Is it staying at home and occasionally making the trip with you to school? Will it be in your hands all the time? There are different “categories” of laptops: netbooks, notebooks and desktop replacement.

Netbooks usually range from 8” to 11” (screen size measured diagonally). They are often light and small with great to impressive battery life. The Intel Atom is usually the preferred CPU with some form of integrated graphics chip. RAM and HDD are often on the small side. Great for surfing the web and typing the occasional document. Netbooks have smaller than normal keyboards and require some getting used to. Will be hard pressed to play HD movies and usually come in non-standard display format (1024×600 vs 1024×768).
Notebooks range from 12” to 15.6” and come in various configurations. By far the most popular “category”.
Desktop replacements have 17” screens and weight a ton. Like their name states, they replace a desktop. Keyboard is full size with a numpad, usually has a dedicated graphics card and a beefy CPU capable of running anything. Battery life on the other hand is terrible. Enough to move it around but don’t expect anything over 3 hours.

Battery life:

So you’ve decided which category is right for you, now what is the perfect compromise for you between battery life and weight. A battery is often near 1/3 of the weight of the laptop. Battery size is measured in cells. They range from 3, 6, 8, and 9 cells usually. Some computer models only come with one option of battery, others multiple. Do you have long school days without easy access to an electrical outlet? Perhaps a bigger battery is what you need. If battery life isn’t an issue for you, save on weight and money and grab the smallest one available. Whatever the manufacturer says is the estimated battery life, you can almost always deduce one hour of the time since they test their battery life in the perfect conditions: WiFi turned off, screen brightness all the way down and computer simply idling.

Now you have probably narrowed it down to a certain category, a certain size and a certain battery life expectation. There is suddenly much fewer options and making a choice is getting easier. Before I continue, make sure not to discriminate a laptop only because it “looks bad”. A nice hat can be too tight and give you headaches; beautiful shoes can give you blisters. I think you get what I mean. Now maybe you have a preferred brand you want to go for? I know Dell has superb customer service, ASUS tends to provide awesome warranties, and at the time of writing this article, HP is dropping its consumer products division, so perhaps keep that in mind when purchasing. Don’t ignore a brand because your friend knew someone who used to own one and it blew up. If it fills the bill, find some reviews online (at least 5) and base your opinion on that. Everyone makes a bad product once in a while.

Laptop specifications:

A lot, but I mean a LOT of different configurations are available to you. I can’t really recommend anything in particular because they all have strong and weak points. Big CPUs perform well but are power hungry, ultra portable laptops with undervolted CPUs tend to be a little sluggish sometimes. The popular offerings from Intel these days are their new Sandy Bridge i3/5/7 series with integrated Intel HD graphics. Yes, the graphics chip is actually in the CPU chip itself. They handle HD movies without breaking a sweat, but playing games might be a little taxing if you pump the eye candy. AMD’s offering with APUs, similar to Intel’s technology except with beefier GPUs (also found on the same chip) are a little more power hungry. You can have single/dual/quad core processors. A dual-core (2 cores) is a nice improvement over a single core, being able to multitask more efficiently without any slowdowns. Unless you are doing heavy computer, video editing or rendering, you will not notice the benefit of a quad-core on your laptop. RAM size is also important. Usually the more the better, but not always. I tend to not take this into consideration when I purchase my laptops because I can easily upgrade it myself (and you could do it yourself!) for half the price buying the items online (for example, not a popular big box store that shops in the future). Same goes for the HDD, but this one takes a little more experience to re-install Windows (although relatively easy to accomplish) or to copy it to a bigger HDD (requires a second computer).

For the screen, keyboard and trackpad, it’s imperative that you are comfortable using them as you will be interacting with them ALL THE TIME. Something not quite right with the screen and colors? Don’t buy it as it will bug you after just an hour of use. Keyboard has a lot of flex (when you press a key a little harder it flexes downwards)? Trackpad not very responsive? Is the palm rest warm? You want to make sure you are as comfortable as possible when using your computer. If anything bugs you, my advice is find another laptop. How solid are the hinges holding the screen? Can you pick it up with one hand at the corner without the cover bending?

The mistake I made purchasing my last laptop was not testing it physically. On paper it was the perfect laptop for me. But after 3 months of use I hated it. Picking it up by the left side with one hand causes the left mouse button to click and remain stuck, which means I would have to restart the computer every time to fix it. Test it in store before purchasing it. Make sure you like it. We usually try on shoes for that exact reason before purchasing them, do the same with your laptop.

Integrated vs dedicated graphics:

Does your laptop use the graphic chip from the processor, using the main shared RAM or does it have its own GPU with its own RAM? If you are intending to play games or do some serious graphic editing, a dedicated graphics card is a good idea, otherwise integrated will do just fine (and is usually cheaper). Dedicated GPUs will usually be made by nVidia or AMD’s Radeon series.

Now what?

Ok, so we’ve decided on the category, size and battery life. On an online website I’ve found the model that looks promising for my needs and I’ve googled the model name for reviews. The laptop only gets awesome reviews, now I need to locate a store that has it on display. I’ve tried it and I love it. Now what? You have two options. Purchase it online or in-store. Buying online means sometimes you can get better deals, but getting customer service afterwards will be harder. Buying in store means you can purchase an extended warranty if you want (usually not necessary but sometimes peace of mind doesn’t have a price). If you do buy in-store, please, do not let them sell you a setup fee. You don’t need it and they can’t force you to buy it. Out of the box the computer will 100% work. Yes it needs some little things before you can get started, but the whole process takes 15 mins and I have a video showing in details how to accomplish it. Only purchase the laptop, perhaps a sleeve or case to protect it, and an extended warranty if you feel like it.

And now you can enjoy your laptop knowing you’ve got exactly what you need for the budget that you’ve set yourself!

Not sure? I’ve recently purchased a new laptop (again…) and here is what I went through in my decision process.

I had put quite a lot of work in the selection of my previous laptop hoping it would last me for the rest of my post-secondary education, sadly I made one crucial mistake : I ordered it online (which is ok) without trying it physically first (d’OH!). On paper my Asus UL80VT is a small beast for my needs, works perfectly, but the quality construction is really poor and the trackpad is terrible! (Of course this is MY opinion.) When you think about it, what are the 3 things you use the most on a computer? The screen, you always stare at it, the keyboard, used to input text and the trackpad to control the mouse. If one of those things works half the time, you are in for a frustrating experience.

Alright, so here was the list I made myself :

I always carry my laptop in my school bag, so I was looking for a laptop 14” or smaller to keep the weight down.
I do not always have access to an electrical outlet, so I need at least 8 hours of battery life.
The laptop must be able to play HD movies and the occasional game.
The keyboard must be comfortable to type on.
The trackpad must work properly.
Built solidly.
Backlit keyboard would be an awesome plus.
A matte screen would be an awesome plus. (vs the usual glossy finish a.k.a. mirror finish)
1000$ before taxes.
Didn’t care much about RAM and HDD size since I would be upgrading them myself
Looks do NOT matter (what would you rather have, ugly shoes that perform really well or nice shoes that give you blisters?)

Now my biggest challenge was the backlit keyboard. Not many computers in my price range and size have a backlit keyboard. Most of them are big gaming computers which weigh a ton and are out of the question. HP had a nice offering with the HP Envy 14.5”, but my only concern is HP is withdrawing from the consumer market (August 2011) and what would happen if something went wrong? But I went online, found a store that had in on display and paid a little visit and tried it for a good 15 minutes. First impressions were good, wasn’t a big fan on the trackpad but it was much better than my Asus! I put it on the good side of my “maybe list”.

So back to hunting online for the perfect laptop, but there always seemed to be a deal breaker : too big, too heavy, too expensive or battery life too short. There are usually different categories of notebooks : gaming, mainstream, netbook and business. It got me thinking, I’m looking for something mobile that’s comfortable with a decent battery life. Business people do that! In no time at all I had found it. The Lenovo ThinkPad X220.

ThinkPad X220 :

12.5” matte IPS screen (IPS is a better technology than the usual TN panel, less eye strain and better viewing angles)
12 hours battery life
Around 3 lbs only!
Has a trackpad and a track point! (Good old little red dot in the keyboard)
One of the best keyboard of the industry
Built like a brick
Has a ThinkLight to light up the keyboard
Powerful new generation i5 processor with integrated graphics HD capable
Now my only problem was finding it under 1000$. With a LOT of shopping around online I was able to order it from Lenovo directly for just under 1000$ taxes included. I’m in heaven!

I know what you’re thinking, I didn’t physically try it right?! When I was shopping around for my girlfriend’s laptop we ended purchasing the Lenovo ThinkPad X120e which is the smaller brother of the X220, built exactly the same, and I loved it so I wasn’t worried about getting a nasty surprise.

Still waiting for it to arrive but you get the idea. The perhaps only flaw in my perfect planning is not trying it physically, but for the money, this is one hell of a laptop (for me and my needs!).