How to buy a notebook PC

Features James Hunt Jan 17, 2013

Choosing a notebook system can be hard. James gives you some advice to make it easier

The laptop market has become increasingly fractured of late. Notebooks have enjoyed years of popularity as the favoured choice of the casual user, but their position is looking increasingly untenable due to a general trend towards low-power computing.

Luckily we’re on hand to help you negotiate the market and tell you what class of device you need, what you need to look for in it, and how much you should spend. We’ll also advise you on the best alternatives, and tell you what - if anything - you need to look out for.

How much should you spend?

Laptops cost anything from £200 to £1500 for normal models, and can get even more expensive if you decide to buy more specialised or unusual hardware. The trick is knowing whether you’re wasting your money at a certain price point or not. For example, we’d suggest that if you’re trying to spend less than £400, you’re probably looking for a casual-use system that just does email and web-browsing. In which case, a tablet PC or netbook might actually serve you better than a notebook system. Cheap laptops struggle to distinguish themselves in terms of price against tablets, which are essentially purpose-built entertainment devices, and netbooks make good, low-price alternatives. Notebook PCs often feel like the default choice, but if you want to save money, investigate your options with regards to other devices.

Any higher than £400, though, and a laptop is a good idea. It’ll be substantially more powerful and versatile than equivalent-priced tablets - which tend to be the same as cheaper models with extra SSD storage in them. Not bad if you need lots of space for files, but not worth paying for in terms of raw power. Notebooks in the £400-£800 balance power with portability in the most convincing way, and this is the best price range to look for laptops in.

If you’re spending more than £800, though, be careful: you’re entering the high-end Ultrabook class, at which point you’re more likely to get value out of a full-size desktop setup. If portability is a high concern (for example, if you’re a business user or student) then high-end laptops make sense - but we’d suggest you avoid buying one at this price point if it’s just going to sit on a desk in your home - if only because sitting in front of a full-size adjustable screen will be healthier for your spine in the long run!

What make/model/manufacturer should you look for?

Apple has long been the dominant face of laptop technology, with qualities like the ultra-high resolution Retina display and their superior design ethos helping to keep MacBooks in a different league than the competition. Let’s not forget that Ultrabooks, as a concept, only exist because the MacBook Air came out and convinced people that ultra-thin, high-power, minimalist systems were worth owning. However, Apple systems are overpriced, there’s nothing resembling a budget option, they don’t run Windows - and what if you want something that isn’t at the absolute top-end of the market?

HP, Toshiba, Acer and Dell offer reliable budget to mid-field models with the Pavilion, Satellite, V3/V5 and XPS lines respectively - but if you want a high quality laptop, we’d recommend investigating both Samsung and Lenovo. Where the former brands are uninspiring but consistent, Samsung and Lenovo have managed to innovate.

The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, for example, is one of the best Windows 8 devices around. At 13”, it’s big enough to be considered a notebook rather than a tablet, but it can also be used as such - the keyboard folds behind the screen completely, if you so desire. If Windows 8 is an OS designed for tablet use, the IdeaPad Yoga is a system designed to let you do just that. It’s expensive, but it has one quality even the MacBook Air hasn’t got: flexibility.

Meanwhile, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a fantastic Ultrabook, aimed at business users. It looks great, feels great, and has many MacBook-like qualities, such as an SSD and long battery life, but you can save a few hundred pounds on each unit by buying here instead of Apple.

Finally, hardcore gamers wanting a notebook PC should look for the Samsung Series 7 Gamer (the clue’s in the name), which has the high-performance hardware to run modern games at acceptable speeds. Samsung’s custom UI is an interesting addition (enabling mobile gamers to disable the trackpad or Windows keys to save on accidental menu pop-ups) and the case lights give it the air of flash and excitement you expect out of a gaming system.

Of course, there are many laptop models that are acceptable buys, so don’t get hung up on the specifics. It’s more important to know what’s in it than what’s stamped on the case. Which, helpfully, is what the next section deals with.

What technology should you look for?

The technology in laptops varies heavily from model-to-model, but you can expect everything you’d have in a regular desktop system, although perhaps in less powerful or cheaper forms. Here’s what we think you should look out for.

CPU-wise, ideally look for an Intel Core CPU of some description, Sandy or Ivy Bridge (or their AMD equivalents). This will ensure you have the most up-to-date technology, which is also the best value, best performing technology. Avoid Pentium/Celeron-type CPUs unless you have particularly light needs (but again, if you get one, make sure they’re Sandy/Ivy Bridge-based).

RAM is a necessity on every system. We’d want at least 4GB in any new system, but it’s possible to add more later. You can go as low as 2GB in a pinch, but anything less isn’t really up to the job of running modern operating systems, so don’t bother with it. Notably, RAM is helpful for multi-tasking and web-browsing, which are the type of thing you’re likely to do on a notebook PC, so you should really prioritise it to an extent.

As you may be aware, storage comes in one of two forms: mechanical hard drives, or a solid state. The latter will help with performance speeds, but HDDs can hold more data at a lower cost. Which quality you value more is the key to your decision, but don’t worry if a mechanical drive is quoted at 5400 RPM - the smaller 2.5” drives found in notebook systems typically run at that speed, rather than the quicker 7200 RPM of 3.5” drives. Optical drives are increasingly unnecessary for modern systems as cloud-based storage and online streaming become more prominent. Again, it’s your choice whether you go for with or without, but don’t automatically expect a system to contain one!

Displays are a tricky one. More than any other component, a good display can make or break a laptop. Size determines the cost to a certain extent, but pay attention to the resolution. If you want to use your laptop for gaming or viewing HD video, you’ll need one with a native resolution of 1920 x 1080. There’s no point having a powerful CPU if you can only use it to output low-resolution games and videos, after all. Lower resolutions can mean a substantially lower price, but remember you only get one chance at choosing a screen. If in doubt, go for the better-quality one. You’re unlikely to regret it.

Wi-fi is worth having if you’re interested in saving space, but it’s also easy to add after you’ve made the initial purchase of a system. Wireless adaptors are cheap – probably even cheaper than integrated Wi-Fi costs as an extra – so don’t be afraid to skip it. If your laptop hasn’t got wireless built-in, it’ll certainly have an Ethernet port instead, so networking won’t be hard to come by in a pinch.

In terms of laptop-specific extras, look for things like an integrated webcam and microphone (for video chatting), HDMI-out (for sending media to a TV), and card readers so that you can expand the machine’s storage or pull information directly from phone and digital camera memory cards. Some laptops will have their own 3G modem built-in, but remember you’ll need a SIM card to go in there, and you’ll probably incur a monthly cost to keep it running.

Finally, if you’re desperate for a tablet, be on the lookout for “convertible” laptops. These are notebook systems which come with detachable screens. Cheaper ones will just be a tablet with a keyboard stapled on, but true convertibles have a more powerful CPU which takes over when the tablet is docked.

Is now the right time to buy?

The average notebook PC is currently priced quite well, not least because of the creation of the high-end Ultrabook market, which has created a desirable, expensive line of laptops. This makes the non-Ultrabook models appear low-end, which in turn makes them into a cheaper budget line. The trendier tablet PCs eating into the portable computing market have also helped drop the price of laptops a little, but the market is finally correcting itself, so don’t expect any big price surprises in the near future.

Enough about price, though. There’s also a larger question to answer, and that’s about technology. Since laptops run on mobile versions of the latest platform, there are a number of ways you can look at when to buy one. If you’re interested in longetivity, then now is a good time to buy an Ivy Bridge-based notebook PC. The platform’s successor is still nearly a year away, so anything you buy now will remain top of the line for a while yet. A good investment.

If, however, you’re interested in getting a good price, now might be a good time to go for a slightly lower-range laptop that the appearance of Ivy Bridge systems has nudged down the ladder. Although you’re likely to get good prices around the time of Intel’s next platform update, that’s far enough away that we’re comfortable recommending that you buy a laptop now. Or rather, in the sales.

What are the technical constraints?

Notebook PCs don’t need much looking after, and in many ways the main constraints are financial. Perhaps the biggest concern is that notebooks simply aren’t user-serviceable. The majority of components are heavily integrated, so you’re more or less stuck with whatever specs it has when you buy it.

The upshot of this is that you need to be a little more careful when choosing what you pay for in a system. Although when buying most systems it’s a good idea to trade-off RAM for CPU, we’d actually suggest considering the opposite for notebook-style systems. One of the few ways the user can upgrade most notebooks themselves is to add more RAM. Hard drives also tend to be swappable, so if you can save money on one of those, do - unlike other components, there’ll be a chance to easily upgrade them in the future. Though even this can be difficult.

Battery life is an obvious concern with any portable system, but especially high-powered notebooks. You’ll get somewhere between 5-10 hours out of a notebook under normal use, but if you’re not connected to the mains be aware that it might go into low-power mode which could mean anything from a dimmer screen to reduced processing power. Batteries are also the one part of laptops which tend to wear out, so read up on how to treat them well and you could save yourself money in the long run. 

What’s the alternative?

Notebooks are good all-purpose PCs - powerful enough to use at home, but compact enough to carry with you (some of the time, at least). It also means that there are loads of alternatives, each of which depends on why you were looking for a notebook PC in the first place.

Tablet PCs are even more portable, but what you gain in convenience you lose in power – not to mention that most tablets don’t run Windows software, so you’re relegated to potentially unfamiliar alternatives. Tablet PCs cost more or less the same price as a notebook (especially if you want one with a similarly-sized screen) but even if you buy an external keyboard, you’ll struggle to use them for work - they’re designed for entertainment and casual use.

Desktops PCs, meanwhile, are good for situations where you need power and flexibility. The only situation a desktop system can’t adapt to is being used on public transport, although they’re best employed for high-end gaming and work. Notably, if you’re thinking of spending a lot on a notebook but aren’t planning to take it out of the house, a desktop will get you more power than the equivalent priced-laptop.

If it’s the all-round capabilities that you’re looking for, though, your best alternative might actually be a netbook or nettop. These miniature laptop-style systems tend to run a version of Windows (or at least, are compatible with Windows software), are almost as portable as tablets (and as powerful) and most importantly, are vastly cheaper than notebooks, making them more accessible to consumers. Their built-in hardware keyboards make them good for work, as well as entertainment and casual use (browsing/email) – the only thing they don’t do well is gaming. If you can’t afford a notebook, or find them that little bit too large to deal with, this is your best all-round option. They're not as trendy as a tablet, but just about a credible alternative to a full-size notebook.