Laptops used to be simple. Almost all of them had a clamshell design, with a display that folded onto the laptop keyboard . You picked the laptop you needed based on factors like price, weight, and performance. But it's different today: New form factors, different operating systems, and disparate user needs conspire to make choosing a laptop a complex chore.
Do core processor specs matter, or has system performance reached the point where users won't even notice a 300MHz frequency bump? Should you buy a laptop at all, or would a tablet better suit your needs? I'll answer all these questions and more as I explore the challenges of buying a laptop (or something like a laptop) in the age of Windows 8.
Define your needs and budget
Before you pull out your credit card, consider how you'll be using your new machine. Perhaps you do a lot of business traveling, and carrying something lighter than your current 6-pound behemoth would improve your life on the road tremendously. Or maybe you're looking for a shared family machine, or a laptop that you can hand off to a student to do schoolwork on. Or you might want a high-performance system that can deliver high frame rates in 3D games.
Let's look at the main buying factors for each scenario.
Business laptop: If you're a frequent business traveler, mobility and ruggedness are important laptop features for you. Consumer-grade laptops may look sleek and attractive, but many business-oriented units are built to absorb the shocks of constant travel. Hardcore performance is less important in this scenario than portability, sturdiness, and battery life.
Shared family PC: Many families used to share a small PC in the living room or family room. Desktop replacement laptops—gargantuan systems with 17-inch or larger screens—often fulfill that same role today. For many families, roomy screens and large hard drives outweigh such factors as top-of-the-line performance and battery life.
Student laptop: High school students may need laptops that support basic mobility, but not much else—and this helps keep the cost of the laptop low. Many college students need all-purpose machine that are more robust. Performance is a bigger consideration, too, but physical desk space is likely to be limited, so a smaller machine may make the most sense.
Gaming machine: PC gamers may be willing to accept more weight and less portability if the payoff is better performance. Such performance-oriented features as quad-core processors and high-end mobile GPUs require more-elaborate cooling technologies and bulkier cases, which in turn mean increased weight. The result can be a special-purpose laptop like the Razer Blade.
The recently released Razer Blade is a great gaming machine with a 17-inh display, but it won't suffice for many general-purpose needs.
Regardless of your specific needs, make sure that you understand a laptop's target user prior to buying it. Once you settle on the features you want, from most to least important, lock down a budget. Setting a budget will help you narrow down your choices. But make sure that your budget takes essential accessories into account. For example, students may need an external, portable hard drive for quick backups, and business users may want to spring for extended warranties with overnight replacements.
Finally consider whether you even need a laptop. Tablet sales have skyrocketed in the past couple of years, and for good reason: Tablets typically cost less than a full-fledged laptop, they're much more portable, and they boot faster than most PCs. If you're looking primarily for a mobile device for browsing the Web, watching video, and playing some light games, a tablet might fit the bill nicely.