December 06, 2012, 4:00 PM — Laptops used to be simple. Almost all of them had a clamshell design, with a display that folded onto the 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 laptopsgargantuan systems with 17-inch or larger screensoften 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 elseand 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.