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Laptops, PCs and More

In the market for a new computer? Let's step back, take a look at your options, and offer a little bit of advice.

Laptop or desktop?

We'll start simple, with something you probably already know. There are desktops: computers designed to stay put on your desk. And then there are laptops (a.k.a. notebooks - same exact thing), which are designed to be portable. So far, so good, right?

Obviously, if you need to take it with you - whether you're a businessperson going to meetings, or a student going to class - you need a laptop. But even many folks who do all their computing at home prefer laptops to save space. (And, of course, it's nice to be able to take your laptop over to that nice comfy chair - especially if you have a wireless Internet connection.) You'll still pay more for portability, though the difference isn't as huge as it once was.

If you need the most powerful computer you can find, chances are you'll still want a desktop. If you think you'll ever need to add features inside the computer - such as a TV tuner or a more powerful video card - you'll want a desktop, too. That's why, while there are gamer-oriented notebooks (check out Alienware), most serious gamers still want the power and upgradability of desktops.

If you choose a laptop, remember: not all laptops are equally portable. Some, called desktop replacements, typically have more features - and they're heavier, too. Many have big (17" or bigger) displays: great for watching movies, not so great if the guy in the airline seat in front of you presses the 'recline' button!

Others, often called ultraportables, typically weigh less than four pounds. But you sacrifice power and features, and many folks find their keyboards and screens too small to work comfortably. In between: 'portables' and 'mid-sized' units that balance weight with features, and usually cost less, too.

Even tinier - too small to even be called laptops or notebooks: tablets. Great for connecting to the Internet, checking email, reading, watching videos and even playing!

Mac or Windows?

Elsewhere on this site, we introduce both Microsoft's Windows and Apple's Mac OS operating systems - the software that makes your hardware come to life. Here, let's just say that whether you go Windows or Mac, you have plenty of choices for both desktops and notebooks.

Your Mac choices all come from Apple. On the notebook side, they range from the superlight, superthin MacBook Air - each starting around $999 - $,1099 to the MacBook Pros (optimized for folks who create and use lots of video and audio) starting at $1,299 - $1,999.

On the desktop side, there's the tiny Mac mini, starting at $599: just add your own keyboard, mouse and monitor, and you're good to go. Then, starting at $1,299, Apple also offers the 'all-in-one' iMac. ('All-in-one' means the flat-screen LCD monitor and the rest of the computer's guts are built into the same unit - a great space saver.) And, if it's power you crave, there's the very high-end Mac Pro. As the name implies, it's targeted at professionals who work with high-powered graphics programs, need all the speed they can get, and are willing to pay for it - more than two grand, at last look.

If you're sticking with Windows, plenty of companies are competing for your business - which means there's usually a bargain to be had. Among the leaders, there's Dell... HP (which also owns Compaq nowadays)... Gateway and eMachines (both owned by Taiwan's Acer conglomerate nowadays)... Lenovo (formerly IBM's PC business, now part of a Chinese firm)... Sony, with its stylish and pricey VAIOs... and Toshiba (primarily for notebooks).

If you're buying a desktop, one more option is a 'white box' system, built to your specs by a local PC builder who'll warranty his (or her) work - someone who's right down the street, not working in a call center half a world away.

Features to look for

Computers change fast, so specific advice tends to get obsolete in a hurry. But we'll take our chances with a few tips (primarily for Windows PC buyers):

  • Comparing computer speeds isn't easy, but one place to start is with the processor: your PC's brains. If you're buying a Windows PC, look for one that runs at 2.0 GHz or higher. (That means, at minimum, Intel Core i3 or AMD Athlon II processor.)
  • More memory is better. Get at least 1.5 GB if you're running Windows 7, 2 GB if you're running Windows 8.
  • A bigger hard drive is better, too - especially if you create MP3s, work with video, download podcasts, or do other audio/video stuff. Sure, you can clutter up your workspace with added external hard drives later. But delay the inevitable with a built in hard drive that's 250 GB or more (for desktops); 160 GB or more (for notebooks).
  • If you're planning to work with home video, make sure your computer will 'burn' (that is, create) DVDs - not just watch them.
  • Finally, if you're connecting to your company's (or clients') secure business network, you'll probably need either 'Windows 8 Premium' or 'Windows 7 Professional', not ‘Windows 8’ or 'Windows 7 Home Basic'.

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