The first thing to consider is that you may want to wait to replace your laptop. Apple’s iPad, and the tablets coming in its wake, have put the computer industry in reset mode. If you own a tablet, you are likely to rely on your laptop less often, extending its useful life. And if you don’t, you’ll probably find over the next year or two that more interesting choices will appear as companies try to bring tablet qualities to laptops and laptop features to tablets.
Some early inklings: Apple’s MacBook Air and the Windows-based Samsung Series 9 start almost instantly, like tablets, and use chips for file storage, like tablets do, instead of hard disks. Also, Apple will soon roll out a new Macintosh operating system, called Lion, that displays programs as if they were tablet apps, and it already has an iPad-like app store for the Mac. Microsoft is working on a version of Windows, likely to appear next year, that fuses tablet and PC concepts. This software will run on some current computers, but new hardware, more tailored to these systems, will be coming.
Tablets vs. Laptops
Laptop shoppers now need to consider if a tablet will suffice—especially if they are looking for a highly portable, secondary machine, as I noted in my last guide. The new iPad 2, which still starts at $499, has at least twice the horsepower of the original model, and now boasts 65,000 tablet-optimized apps. It is gradually morphing into a productivity platform—able, for instance, to edit videos. And it has now been joined by similarly powerful competitors running a new tablet version of Google’s Android operating system and by the $499 PlayBook, the first tablet from Research in Motion, which boasts speedy hardware and a new operating system. Hewlett-Packard’s new tablet, based on Palm technology, is coming soon. Tablets tend to beat small, low-cost laptops in weight, start-up speed and battery life. And they are competitive for lots of common tasks, such as Web browsing, email, social networking, and viewing or playing documents, photos, videos and music. But laptops still win for intensive work like creating long documents, or doing anything that requires precision and benefits from a physical keyboard. They also are more compatible with printers and external disks.
I recommend 4 gigabytes of memory, or RAM, on a new Windows computer, though a Mac will perform well on 2 gigabytes, unless you’re designing complex graphics. A new Windows machine should be labeled “64-bit” for best performance.
The newest, and most advertised, chips in consumer laptops are Intel’s i3, i5, and i7 Core models. But a PC with chips from rival AMD, which usually cost less, or older Intel dual-core chips, will do fine for most users.
Pay attention to this, even if you aren’t big into video or games. Many computers offload nongraphics tasks to potent graphics chips for speedier operation.
A 320 gigabyte hard disk should be the minimum on most PCs, though 250 gigabytes are fine for many average users. Solid-state disks, which lack moving parts and use flash memory, are costlier but faster and use less power. However, they usually have less capacity. As more data are stored online, huge amounts of local storage will be less crucial.
Many PCs now come with a port called HDMI, which makes linking to a high-definition TV easy. There is a new, much faster USB port, called USB 3.0, but so far, few peripheral devices can use it. And Apple has introduced yet another high-speed connector that has little practical use so far, called Thunderbolt.
With the industry in flux and tablets on the rise, if you can wait to buy a laptop, do so. But if you must take the plunge, don’t buy more laptop than you need.