Learning Resources
 

Laptop Basics


Laptops are used for an amazing media experience, a mobile office, or just reliable, everyday home computing, your perfect laptop is out there. The trick is finding it—the possibilities can be overwhelming. Following details needs to be checked

Speed
A PC's processor (CPU) and system memory (RAM) determine how fast it is and how many programs it can run comfortably at once. More RAM—measured in gigabytes (GB)—means a faster and more responsive computer. A more powerful CPU has multiple cores (dual or quad instead of single) and greater speed—measured in gigahertz (GHz). A standard laptop these days might have 2 GB of RAM and a 1 GHz, dual-core processor. A more powerful PC might have 4 GB of RAM and a 2.8 GHz, quad-core processor.

Many laptops also come with mobile processors specially designed to use less power than the processors in desktop PCs—which can have a big impact on how long your laptop battery lasts.

One more thing to consider is whether you want a 32-bit or 64-bit CPU: 32-bit is fine for most people, but 64-bit systems can use larger amounts of memory—4 GB and up—which is good for things like serious gaming and professional video editing. Windows 7 comes in both 64-bit and 32-bit versions, but you'll need a 64-bit PC in order to run the 64-bit version.

This table shows the RAM and CPU specs you might find on different types of laptops:

PC type RAM CPU

Netbook
Super small, just the basics

1+ GB

1+ GHz single core

All around laptop
E-mail, Internet, photos

2+ GB

1+ GHz dual core

Work from anywhere
Portable but powerful

2+ GB

1+ GHz dual core

Mobile studio
Professional-grade video editing

3+ GB

2+ GHz dual core

Movies on the go
High definition and theater sound

2+ GB

2+ GHz dual core

Power gaming
Serious speed and graphics

4+ GB

2.8+ GHz dual core,
possibly 64-bit

Storage

Your hard drive is where you put all your stuff—from programs to photos. These days, most laptops have plenty of storage capacity, starting with a baseline of 60-100 gigabytes (GB), with some netbooks having less. This is fine for photos, music, documents, and a few movies.

This table shows how much storage you might need for various uses:

PC type Typical storage

Netbook
Super small, just the basics

32-100+ GB

All-around laptop
E-mail, Internet, photos

60+ GB

Work from anywhere
Portable but powerful

150+ GB

Mobile studio
Professional-grade video editing

350+ GB

Movies on the go
High definition and theater sound

250+ GB

Power gaming
Serious speed and graphics

350+ GB, 7200 RPM

Solid-state drives (SSDs) are a new type of hard drive that use flash memory to do away with all moving parts. They're faster, lighter, less power hungry, and more shock resistant, but also considerably more expensive than conventional spinning hard drives. All but the priciest SSDs remain smaller than typical laptop hard drives, though that might change in the future.

Screen

A big screen is great for watching movies or juggling a bunch of open windows. And usually a bigger screen—14 inches and up—means higher resolution (how many pixels are shown, which determines how detailed the image is). But if you and your laptop will be going mobile a lot, smaller might be better: screen size is a major factor in both a laptop's weight and its battery life.

Widescreen PCs have become more popular recently as more people use their laptops for movies and gaming. They also work well for comparing two documents side-by-side. But since taller standard screens provide more screen "real estate" relative to the size of the laptop, some still prefer them.

Finally, there's the great matte vs. glossy debate—some people like the brighter, glass-like look of a glossy screen, while others appreciate matte's glare-free quality.

Weight

How heavy should your laptop be? The answer depends on what you're planning to do with it, how much money you want to spend, and how much you plan to carry your laptop around.

High-performance gaming rigs can weigh up to 15 pounds—not so good for running through airports. The lightest netbooks weigh in at 3 pounds or less, but are also light on power and performance. So many people find their fit somewhere in the middle: a standard all-around laptop usually weighs between 5 and 7 pounds.

Some laptops achieve lightness with smaller screens and keyboards, while some high-end "thin and light" models are full sized (if you're looking for a featherweight netbook. Those thin, stylish laptops can cost a lot more, while generic-looking laptops with smaller screens and keyboards are among the least expensive.

Keyboard and pointer

Laptops generally come with either a track pad or pointing stick (that little nub in the middle of some keyboards, sometimes called an eraserhead), although a few have both. Which you choose is a matter of personal preference, but you can also add a mouse (wired or wireless) for greater pointing ease.

Keyboard size (and sometimes layout) varies with the size of the laptop. Some people find the smaller ones difficult to use, so this is a good thing to try before you buy. This will also give you the chance to see if you like the feel of the keyboard—things like the spacing of the keys and whether it feels solid or "clacky."

Battery

If you never take your laptop out of the house, no worries here. But if you plan to travel with it, check the specs before you buy (and make sure the stated battery life refers to the manufacturer's standard battery, not an extended-life version). Larger screens and faster processors drain batteries more quickly, as do certain uses, like gaming, watching movies, and accessing wireless networks.

During the purchasing process, you can often upgrade a laptop with a bigger battery. You can also get an extra, backup battery if you really need to go long stretches without plugging in. But keep in mind that larger and backup batteries can be heavy. 

Graphics

Video cards (also called graphics cards) create your computer's visuals. Laptops don't have room inside them for a video card like you'll find in most desktop PCs. They rely instead on a graphics processing unit (GPU) built into the computer. These built-in GPUs come in one of two flavors: integrated graphics or dedicated (discrete) graphics.

Integrated graphics cost less but are usually less powerful than dedicated graphics, which are a premium option on many laptops. Integrated graphics are fine for most uses, but dedicated graphics are best for gaming, editing high-definition video, and other graphics-intensive tasks 

Ports, cards, and wireless

Make sure you've got enough ports to connect all your devices and accessories, like a USB port for your keyboard or an HDMI port so you can see your HDTV screen in all its high-def glory. You'll also want to think about memory card slots and wireless connections like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and maybe even a TV tuner, so you can plug cable or a TV antenna into your PC and use it as a DVR. To find out how you can record TV shows onto your PC.

Most laptops come with rewritable DVD drives, although Blu-ray drives are becoming more common. Most netbooks don't include an optical drive at all, which is something to keep in mind if you're looking to go ultraportable.

Here's a list of some common connections and what they're for:

Port or connection What it's for

USB

Keyboards, phones, music players, external hard drives

Ethernet

Broadband modems, networks

VGA

External monitors (analog)

DVI

External monitors (digital)

HDMI

Sends HDTV/Blu-ray video to high-definition monitors. Transmits
both the video and audio signals.

Firewire

Fast transfer of information from a video camera or
external hard drive.

Memory card slots

Cards that store photos, video, and music—such
as SD and CompactFlash.

PC card and ExpressCard

USB ports have mostly replaced the PC card port. ExpressCard is a multitasking port that accepts a range of connections and is faster than a USB port.

Wi-Fi

Wireless network access: "B" is the slowest, "g" is faster,
"n" is the fastest.

Bluetooth

A type of wireless connection for Bluetooth enabled devices (such as headsets, mice, smartphones, printers, etc.).

WWAN

Uses your cell phone to connect to the Internet
(with a monthly charge).