A friend of mine has repeated for years that “you’re only buying a given amount of technology for a given amount of money at any point in time. There will always be a cheaper, faster gizmo along next week.”
Translation: if you wait for the best gizmo there is, then you will never buy any of them…
You have a choice of processors. At the bottom end, there’s a family of Atom processors. At the top end, the second generation of Core-i processors, “Sandy Bridge” is now with us, albeit after a delay of more than two months for a product recall.
Sandy Bridge processors run 5-10% faster than the previous generation, use less energy and run cooler. The on-board graphics processor (GPU) is getting a lot of praise for an integrated solution.
This means machines carrying the first generation Core-i processors are now on special offer, so you can now get a lot of bang for your buck either way.
The traditional electro-mechanical disk with it’s spinning platters and flying read-heads is not dying out any time soon. Low price and high capacity will ensure that. You can now buy a laptop with one or two terrabytes of on-board storage. Just have a good backup strategy. However, for the dedicated road-warrior, Solid State Drives (SSDs) are becoming more common. If you can live with the lower capacity and price premium, you get a faster drive, with no spin-up time, lower latency, the robustness of having no moving parts and silent operation.
Screens are often the let-down on laptops, even expensive ones. You need to check that HD resolution means full 1080P, not 720P. Good colour means RGB LED back-lighting, so confirm full specifications before buying. Try to see a sample in person rather than buying blind. Like soap power, the difference is in the whites. RGB LED screens have pure whites and strong green/blue hues. It is often difficult to spot under shop lighting.
Chiclet Keyboards are the current vogue (sometimes referred to as ‘island keys’). Looking like scrabble tiles, these are individually framed by the keyboard surround. You are less likely to mash two keys together and the keyboard should gather less lint and crumbs to eventually stop it working. All the samples I have tried have excellent, firm typing action. However, every manufacturer is different and there are some cheap keyboards attached to expensive machines. Backlit keyboards are available for the poseurs, as well as the working journalist hammering away in darkened events.
USB 3.0 is beginning to appear. At practical transfer speeds of 3.2 Gigabits (or 400Mb) per second, compared to 480 Megabits (or 60Mb) per second for USB 2.0, this is a big jump. External drives are almost de rigour, so going USB 3.0 will be a big boost but only if you can find devices that use it. It is early days, so you will need to think future-proofing rather than instant gratification.
Build Quality is a perennial problem with laptops. Everyone envies Apple kit with their aluminium chassis and a number of manufacturers are producing the equivalent (HP, Sony) at a premium price. You can still find bluff traditionalists like Lenovo producing bland but bomb-proof machines. As always, check for flex in the chassis and lid, also the firmness of the screen hinges, the robustness of external buttons, catches and covers. The noise of the fans and the heat from the vents can reveal a lot about the build inside; the newer the machine, the less you should have of both.
You may need a bank loan to pay for a machine with everything on this list. If you have the cash, then good luck. For the rest of us it is a case of compromising price, performance, features and quality. Just remember, there will be a better deal along next week. AJS