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Shopping for a new laptop? I'll bet your head is swimming right about now. No doubt you've hit the Web in search of product reviews and killer deals (Savings.com is always a good place to start, ahem), but it's not always easy to determine which brand is best, what features are most important, or whether it's finally time to ditch Windows and just buy a Mac.
I get these kinds of questions all the time from friends and family members, so I've whipped up this handy guide to laptop shopping.
1. When possible, choose a solid-state drive.
Hard drives are old hat. If you want faster performance and longer battery life, get a laptop with a solid-state drive (SSD). These drives have no moving parts, so they produce less heat, consume less power, and access data more quickly.
There's a trade-off, though: SSDs cost more and come in lower capacities than traditional hard drives. You might end up paying a little more for a laptop with, say, a 128GB SSD than for one with a 320GB hard drive. But unless you're storing buckets of video, how much space do you really need? I'm actually getting by just fine with a 64GB SSD.
2. Avoid glossy screens.
A shiny screen may look sexy, but from a productivity perspective, it's terrible. And yet so many laptop manufacturers employ glossy, ultra-reflective LCDs, which show every smudge and fingerprint, reflect every overhead light, and mirror everything in front of them.
If at all possible, choose a laptop with a matte finish. Unless, of course, you're worried about people sneaking up behind you, in which case glossy is better.
3. All brands are about the same (except when they're not).
Acer, Asus, Dell, Gateway, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba. Which company makes the best laptops? I've tried them all (literally), and you know what? They're all good. Sure, some makes and models offer nicer styling and/or more bang for the buck, but in terms of baseline hardware--screen, keyboard, hard drive, expansion ports, etc.--they're all pretty similar. In most cases, it's hard to make a bad choice.
Now, when it comes to service and support, that's a different story. A 2010 PC World service and reliability survey found Apple and Asus to be the top brands, with Dell and HP at the bottom of the pack. Your mileage may vary, of course. My advice: ask friends, relatives, co-workers, etc. to relate their own experiences with individual brands. (Hint: Facebook is great for soliciting that kind of feedback.)
4. Processor speed just isn't that important.
The majority of computer users spend the majority of their time on three things: e-mail, Web browsing, and word processing. From a performance standpoint, these are lightweight tasks; they don't require a sky-high clock speed or multiple processor cores. So although processor speed used to be a major determining factor, it's no longer that big a deal. Virtually any computer you buy today will be "fast enough" for mainstream computing jobs.
That said, if you're planning to edit video or play a lot of graphics-intensive games, you'll definitely want to spend a little extra on a faster CPU--like, say, an AMD A4 or Intel Core i5 or i7. And while you're at it, look for a "discrete" graphics subsystem rather than an integrated one. Because when it comes to graphics and video, a fast processor alone isn't enough. (One exception: AMD's A4 chips have amped-up graphics capabilities built in.)
5. Skip the Blu-ray drive--and maybe even the DVD drive.
Before you splurge on a Blu-ray drive--a feature increasingly found in higher-end laptops--ask yourself this: do you plan on connecting that laptop to an HDTV and watching movies? If not, skip the Blu-ray. It's overkill for a laptop, even one with a 17-inch screen. At that size, a Blu-ray movie won't look noticeably better than an ordinary DVD. What's more, PC-based Blu-ray players are notoriously problematic, requiring extra software and frequent updates just to play the latest discs.
While you're at it, ask yourself if you need an optical drive at all. By dispensing with it, you open yourself up to a new class of thinner, lighter laptops: so-called ultrabooks. The only reason most people need a DVD drive is for watching movies (which you can download from Amazon or iTunes) and installing software (most of which can be downloaded instead).
With Windows 8 just around the corner, it may make sense to hold off buying your next laptop. Although the jury's still out on whether Windows 8 is actually better than Windows 7, there will undoubtedly be some nifty new laptops built to leverage the former's new features.
And what about Macs? I don't subscribe to the belief that they're problem-free machines, or that they're easier to use. There's definitely a learning curve, especially if you're already familiar with Windows. Plus, you'll pay a steep premium for Apple hardware. For some it might be worth it, but I've never seen enough benefit to make a switch.
Veteran technology writer Rick Broida is the author of numerous books, blogs, and features. He lends his money-saving expertise to CNET and Savings.com, and also writes for PC World and Wired.