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There are a lot of laptops out there to choose from. I think, though, that the differences between them are probably not so significant. (Disclaimer: I'm not really super-qualified to opine about this topic since I only buy Apple laptops these days (and for the last, oh, 8 years or so), but I was recently asked for tips on how to think about choosing a laptop, and I came up with a few that I think should continue to be true for quite some time.) For the purposes of this post, I'm assuming you definitely want a laptop, and not a tablet computer (iPad or the like). That's a different decision and perhaps a topic for another post. I'm also assuming you're looking for something straightforward and consumer-grade -- that you're not, for example, a software developer or a serious gamer. All of that said, here are just a few decisions to make that can help guide your choice of laptop.
First choice: Mac OS or Windows OS? This is often a religious war and you can find an arbitrarily large number of online debates and discussions about this particular topic, so I won't spend a lot of time on it. Frankly, either could serve your needs perfectly well. (The thing I like about Apple laptops is that I don't have to decide - I run both Mac OS and Windows OS on my Apple laptop. And, to be blunt, I don't find this a particularly interesting debate. I think Mac OS wins hands down on virtually every parameter I care about except that the place I work for is a Windows shop. And since I started using computers back when all I had to work with was a command-line interface (not Windows or Mac), I find switching between Windows and Mac OS pretty straightforward.)
Second choice: Form factor? Or, put another way, physical size. Do you want a light and small laptop that's easy to travel with, or is that not so much a factor for you? Recently there's been a push toward so-called "netbooks" - they're lower power and cheaper, but also small and light. But if you need to be running many applications at once or will be doing processor-dependent tasks (like video or even photo editing), then it might be an issue (although even then, given how powerful even so-called "low-end" chips are these days, you might be just fine.) But, while some regular laptops could be stand alone computers (as in, the only computer you need), low-power netbooks probably work best as a satellite computer to to a more powerful desktop. Apple goes the other direction - their ultralight computer is the Macbook Air - thin and light, but not actually "small" - and reasonably powerful with a very fast hard drive. It's also one of their more expensive laptops.
Third choice: Memory and disk. My advice: get as much of both as you can afford, with a priority on memory (RAM).
Other considerations that may help you narrow things down: How does the keyboard feel? How hot does the machine get when in use for long periods of time? What's the battery life like? What's the reputation of the company you're buying from? (For Windows laptops, I currently prefer HP over Dell. I've also heard reasonable things about Lenovo. For the record, I don't own a laptop from any of HP, Dell, or Lenovo, and nobody (alas!) paid me to write about them.)
A few additional tips and suggestions:
- Always get at least one extra power cord.
- Don't skimp by skipping the webcam - it'll be useful for something.
- If you can buy an extended warranty (for example, Apple offers AppleCare for 3 years), get it. Paying for an extended warranty is not necessarily a good deal for desktop machines, but laptops get banged up and tossed around and if it saves you even once, it's worth it.
- Make frequent backups - laptops also get stolen or have coffee poured into them.
- Recognize that laptops in heavy use probably need to be replaced every 2-3 years. Mine start physically falling apart (the one I have now is 2 years old and is dented and creaks if I start typing too aggressively). Even if you don't physically beat on your machines, after about 3 years it probably won't be up to the task of doing everything you need to do smoothly anymore.
Finally, keep in mind that the decision probably feels more momentous than it is. Stick with a quality manufacturer, get enough RAM, and don't get too attached because you'll be replacing it in 2-3 years.