We’ll brief you on the latest buzzwords and trends, help you decide which features matter most, and get you ready to buy the right portable for you, whether it’s a super-slim ultrabook or heavy-duty desktop replacement.
English: Lenovo R500 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The 14-Inch Dividing Line
You don’t hear much about netbooks anymore, and you don’t see the bare-bones minis with 10.6-inch (measured diagonally) screens, cramped keyboards, sluggish single-core processors, and a skimpy 1GB of RAM that defined the netbook category in, say, 2009. Apple’s iPad and other tablets have horned in on their light-duty, Web surfing and occasional word processing territory.
But netbooks’ enhanced successors are alive and well in the lower half of the ultraportable market, where 11.6-inch and 12.5-inch laptops with comfortable keyboards and relatively perky processing power such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X130e and HP Pavilion dm1-3010nrhold sway. These systems typically weigh between 3 and 3.5 pounds and often feature AMD APU (accelerated processing unit) chips that combine a CPU and GPU on the same die.
In the upper half of the ultraportable market are 12.5- and 13.3-inch laptops that usually rely on Intel Core processors. Some, like the 12.5-inch, 4.3-pound HP EliteBook 2560p (Best Deal: $821.97 at CompUSA) and 13.3-inch, 3.2-pound Toshiba Portege R835-P88 (Best Deal: $779.99 at CompUSA.com), find room for onboard optical drives; some, like the 12.5-inch, 3.3-pound Lenovo ThinkPad X220 , don’t. All offer full-sized keyboards and enough horsepower for desktop applications. Right now, the hottest part of the ultraportable segment falls under an Intel-trademarked term called ultrabook; more on ultrabooks in a minute.
Fourteen-inch laptops like the Lenovo IdeaPad U400 (Best Deal: $499.99 at TigerDirect.com) and Gateway ID47H07u (Best Deal: $529.97 at CompUSA.com) are more or less the largest that get carried daily in briefcases and backpacks as opposed to mostly staying on desks. PCMag recommends 13.3- and 14-inch portables to frequent travelers and habitually refers to 15-inch and larger notebooks as desktop replacements (although jet-setters can find a few 15-inch systems, like the Sony VAIO VPC-SE23FX/S and Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (late 2011) , that are thinner and lighter than most 14-inchers).
Whether they’re bargains like Wal-Mart’s Acer Aspire 5349-2635 (Best Deal: $348.98 at Walmart.com) or deluxe models like the Dell XPS 15z, 15.6-inch laptops are the classic desktop alternatives. Most weigh 5 to 7 pounds, with plenty of ports, full-sized keyboards with numeric keypads, and built-in DVD or Blu-ray drives.
The barely luggable 17- and 18-inch units above them range from mainstream models for users seeking a larger view, like the Toshiba Satellite P775D-S7144 (Best Deal: $649.97 at TigerDirect), to media centers for elite audio and video buffs, like the HP Envy 17, to monster gaming systems for hardcore players with heavy wallets, like the Alienware M18x . Such 7.5- to 12-pound systems often flaunt features such as dual hard drives, full HD (1080p or 1,920 by 1,080 resolution) displays, and the fastest mobile graphics adapters Nvidia or AMD can conjure up.
Rugged laptops like the Panasonic Toughbook CF-31 (Best Deal: $4,929.71 at Rugged Depot) and Dell Latitude E6420 XFR (Best Deal: $5,043.00 at Dell SMB) are a category in themselves, overkill (and overpriced) for business travelers but designed to shrug off astonishing abuse such as drops, vibration, rain, and extreme temperatures for vertical markets such as police forces and utility crews. They’re at the far end of a spectrum of sturdiness that includes so-called business-rugged machines such as Panasonic’s Toughbook F9 and HP’s EliteBooks, which aren’t built for torture tests but can survive the bumps and scuffs of travel better than lowest-common-denominator laptops.—Next: Enter the Ultrabook >
The slimmest ultraportables—no more than 18mm (0.71 inch) thick for units with screens smaller than 14 inches—fall into a new category created by Intel in 2011. Dubbed ultrabooks, these wafer-thin systems represent a new vision for portable computing, albeit one influenced by the success of Apple’s 2.9-pound MacBook Air 13-inch : a no-compromises laptop light enough that you’ll forget it’s in your briefcase, whose battery and storage let it resume work in seconds after being idle or asleep for days.
Solid-state drives—whether a full 128GB or 256GB SSD or, more affordably, a small one used as a cache with a traditional hard drive—give ultrabooks their quick start and resume capability. Displays typically measure 13.3 inches, with weights ranging from 2.5 pounds for the Toshiba Portege Z835-P370 to 3.25 pounds for the HP Folio 13-1020s and prices ranging from around $800 to $1,400 depending on CPU and storage.
Larger-screened 14- and 15-inch ultrabooks have trailed their 13.3-inch siblings to market, but systems like the HP Envy 14 Spectre (Best Deal: $1,199.97 at JR.com) and Samsung Series 9 15-inch (Best Deal: $1,399.88 at J&R) are starting to gain traction. Since Intel’s guidelines allow these ultrabooks to be 21mm (0.83 inch) thick, some, such as Samsung’sSeries 5 Ultra 14-inch, contain optical drives for users not yet ready to give up their CDs and DVDs.
Intel has had a monopoly on the ultrabook market to match its trademark on the term, but AMD-based (and slightly lower-priced) ultra-thin laptops are expected by midyear. Not long after that, we should see touch-screen and hybrid/convertible models, like the IdeaPad Yoga that Lenovo showed at January’s CES, that take advantage of the touch interface of Windows 8. For more on ultrabooks, see our How To Buy an Ultrabook guide.—Next: What To Look For in a Laptop >
Connectivity is key for a modern laptop. Every model on the market today offers 802.11n Wi-Fi, and many support Bluetooth. Mobile broadband options, for when there’s no Wi-Fi hotspot handy, include 3G, 4G LTE, and WiMAX.
Ultrabooks may have just one or two, but most laptops have three or four USB ports for plugging in storage devices and peripherals. USB 3.0, which offers much greater bandwidth and faster data transfer than USB 2.0, can be found in all but the oldest and lowest-priced designs; it’s identifiable by a port colored in blue or labeled with the letters SS (for Super Speed). Some USB ports double as eSATA ports for external hard drives, while others can charge handheld devices such as cell phones or MP3 players. Meanwhile, Apple has taken the lead in implementing Thunderbolt, an interface even faster than USB 3.0 for monitors, storage, and docking stations.
The venerable VGA interface is still the most popular way to present PowerPoint slides on a big screen, but newer monitors and projectors work better with DisplayPort or HDMI. The latter is especially popular lately, thanks to the demand for connecting laptops to HDTV sets. HDMI’s cable-free cousin, Intel’s Wireless Display or WiDi, beams a laptop’s or ultrabook’s audio and video to an HDTV set fitted with a third-party, roughly $100 adapter—either Netgear’s Push2TV HD or Belkin’s ScreenCast. Speaking of video, a webcam for video chat is standard equipment on almost every laptop, as is a memory-card slot for loading images from a digital-camera card.