11:22 AM

How To Buy A Laptop

Whether you are a road warrior, daily commuter, or media mogul, make sure that your next notebook is a good fit. We look at gear from Lenovo, eMachines, HP, Sony, and Acer.

The Sony VAIO VGN-AW190 is built for the media mogul with $1,700 to burn, with an 18.4 inch HD display, HDMI port, Blu-ray player, and NTSC/ATSC TV tuner.
(click for image gallery)
With the direction the economy has taken, it's likely that the bulk of your disposable income has already been disposed of. Still, since we are always on the move, buying a portable computer is often one of the more important buys that people will make.

There are actually some decent values available -- especially in the netbook category -- which, some say, is what's been keeping notebook sales thriving. And, with the end of the tax year looming, it’s a great time for many of us to buy a new laptop.

There are three main categories of laptop users:

  • Type 1: The Road Warrior: Constantly on the go, your portable lives in your suitcase, under your socks, and the only time it sees the light of day is on the plane and in hotel rooms.
  • Type 2: The Daily Commuter: If it sometimes feels as if your portable should have its own EZ-Pass card as it travels from home to office and back again (and maybe the occasional side trip to meetings and satellite offices), then you're looking for a computer optimized for the daily commuter. Shame it won't get you into the HOV lane.
  • Type 3: The Media Mogul: Work is for the office. This one is for serious play -- video, audio, graphics, and gaming -- either in the living room, in the park, or at a friend's house. The trick is to develop a satisfying system for use at home that will produce a rich media experience that you can carry out on the veranda.

There are laptops available for every type of user, and you want to make sure that the computer you buy is the one that will best fit your needs. Starting on the next page, you'll find recommendations, depending on how you plan to use your computer.

Windows, Linux, Or Mac?

Which operating system your laptop runs should be your choice, not the end result of urgings from fanatics on either side of the spectrum. Naturally, if you're already comfortable with Linux and you find a distribution that looks and works close to what you already use, go for it. Of course, the more commercial (i.e., "popular") versions are typically found on the more expensive laptops, while splinter distributions, tweaked for the tiniest of netbooks, will often mean a learning curve -- even for the Linux pre-anointed.

There's no way to manufacture excitement about having Windows as your operating system. On the other hand, Windows XP is the most often (and sometimes only) option. This means that you don't have to worry about putting lipstick on the pig that is Vista. Be forewarned that adopting an "anything but Windows" philosophy when you don't actually have any experience outside of Windows can be a recipe for a stupidly steep learning curve.

For this particular collection, we really don't need to think about Apple's OS X. Had Apple actually delivered on the $800 MacBook everyone was expecting, it probably would have dominated two of our categories. Unfortunately, Mr. Jobs and crew don't know how to build $800 computers -- or so they say. If you find yourself drawn to a MacBook despite our sage advice, just remember: There will be a learning curve and it will probably be a little steeper than some Windows-to-Linux moves might require. There appears to be an agonizingly "similar but not equal" approach to matching up the equivalent functions (like having the "X" to close a window on the left side rather than on the right, where it belongs).

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