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Notebook Shopping Essentials

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Notebook Shopping Essentials

Virtually any CPU sold these days is more than enough for any basic tasks. Don't fall for silly marketing claiming you need a "quad core CPU" for "multitasking" and such. In my experience any CPU faster or equal to the old Intel Core2Duo CPUs and any graphics better or equal to Intel 4500GMA HD will work fine for any regular use, including 1080p video decoding. If you don't intend to play games or do some 3D modeling (e.g. AutoCAD, 3D Studio) the dedicated graphics card will be useless to you and probably a waste of money. In fact, the most recent integrated graphics Intel 4000 HD can even handle some games fairly well.

Similarly, when choosing a notebook think about how the notebook is going to be used. If you do a lot of coding and spend lots of time running and compiling your code a decent CPU will matter. If you spend 99% of the time on notebook surfing the web, checking your Facebook, using MS Office and watching videos, any notebook will do great aside from older netbooks (someone still buying those?).

SSD (Solid State Drive). I can't stress this enough. For most Windows tasks, the fastest Intel Core i7 with tens of gigabytes of RAM and a mechanical hard drive will still feel much slower than an old Core2Duo with 4GB RAM and an SSD.

Lots of people don't look above CPU/RAM/HD when buying a notebook and then of course end up buying some overheating piece of junk that they throw away after a year. Since most laptops are being carried around you might want to get something (if the budget allows) that has a good build quality.

Aside from the build quality, the screen quality can vary extremely from one notebook to another. Higher resolution means better display (more pixels per unit area) but there are many other factors; for example maximum screen brightness (expressed in nits or cd/m^2), type of display used (IPS or TN displays with RGB LED backlighting are superior to classical TN), viewing angles, black levels, matte coating and such. Is the display glossy? If you use the notebook outside a lot... you're gonna have a bad time.

Here I tried to classify the notebooks into groups, for people who may feel a little lost due to large number of different notebooks sold by most big companies.

"El Cheapo" class

You really don't care about all the fancy stuff, and would rather spend that extra $500 on a nice present in the form of expensive jewelry for your significant other, rather than having a decent laptop. We hear you. Women don't come cheap, but unfortunatelly -- neither do good notebooks. These are the notebooks that will get the job done, but don't expect to be bedazzled by any of their features or components.

Examples: Dell Inspiron, HP Pavillion, most of the laptops advertised on big sales only by their CPU or something equally pointless

"Multimedia" class

Better quality but also more expensive than "El Cheapo" but still typically lack a good graphic card (and adequate cooling system) that would make them great gaming machines. They are typically used for "multimedia" according to manufacturers -- don't ask me what that means. They don't have enough horsepower to run the newest games, but are somewhat mid-ground between "El Cheapo" and "gaming". The main advantages I'd give the laptops in this range is better build quality, more features than "El Cheapo", better quality screen, etc. It may sound like a lot of small things, but they do add up.

Examples: Dell XPS, Apple Macbook Pro, HP Envy

Gaming class

These are aimed at gamers, and more expensive than multimedia notebooks. Higher end gaming laptops such as M18x will come with SLI or Crossfire graphics which should satify all your (gaming) needs. Often both the CPU and graphic cards can be upgraded. The downsides of these laptops are their weight (where an AC adapter alone can weigh as much as an iPad) and they aren't exactly quiet -- due to the limited space they have smaller fans working at higher RPM, producing more noise.

Examples: Clevo, Dell Alienware, ASUS Gxx series, Acer Ferrari

Business class

Notebooks in this category were originally mainly aimed at business users, but recently they started gain their share in the consumer market. Typically laptops sized 14" and smaller run on integrated graphics (Intel HD 4000 in the current Ivy Bridge generation) which can be decent for playing some less demanding games on lower details and lower resolutions and works perfectly fine for any other use that doesn't involve 3D processing such as playing videos, decoding DVD/BluRays, etc. The prices can vary but aren't as expensive as they used to be ~10 years ago. Their main pros are the best build quality, great user upgradeability and optional dock stations which makes them very convenient for office use.

Examples: Lenovo Thinkpad, Dell Latitude/Precision, HP Elitebook

Ultrabooks

Typically fairly thin and light laptops aimed at being as portable as possible. They use low-power (Ultra Low Voltage) CPUs, solid state drivers and often unibody-like chasis so they are not as upgradeable as laptops not classified as ultrabooks. The CPUs are fine for any common tasks. For more CPU intensive tasks better CPUs are obviously going to be better, but they are fine for any university uses I used them for (some MATLAB, Python programming and light Photoshop image processing).

Examples: ASUS Zenbook UX31A, Apple Macbook Air, Samsung Series 5

Tablet notebooks

Microsoft believes these are the future. I don't. And it took me only 10 times I cleaned the screen of all the fingerprints and hand grease on my tablet. They're still cool for stuff like taking notes, good quality screens and often some interesting features like multitouch. All this comes with a higher price, of course.

Examples: Lenovo Thinkpad X230T, Lenovo Thinkpad Twist, HP Elitebook 2760p

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I personally love tablet PCs (or what Lenovo calls convertibles). Not that iPad junk (which should be called slates since they have no dedicated keyboard), but ones with a nice digitizer pen like the Lenovo X230T. I prefer to hand write my notes and draw figures that you just can't do on a regular laptop. My ideal setup if I had the money would be a nice, portable 13.3" tablet PC (the X230T has excellent build quality on par with the top business laptops too) combined with a dock, large monitor, eGPU, and mechanical keyboard and a good gaming mouse. Unfortunately, tablet PCs are still fairly bulky and relatively heavy for their size. Hopefully with the higher focus on ultrabooks, we'll see some thinner and lighter models. Ideally, I'd like to keep that powerful CPU though, so I guess we'll see how they find a balance between the two.

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@sgogeta4 you are thinking exactly what I am for an ideal notebook except I'd want a true e-gpu made by a big company like nvidia that utilizes thunderbolt or some proprietary connection that takes full advantage of pci-express bandwidth.

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@sgogeta4 you are thinking exactly what I am for an ideal notebook except I'd want a true e-gpu made by a big company like nvidia that utilizes thunderbolt or some proprietary connection that takes full advantage of pci-express bandwidth.

We discovered in the eGPU area that current Thunderbolt is limited to x2 2.0 + 12.5%. The GPU itself negotiates a x4 2.0 link with the Thunderbolt controller on premium products like the Sonnet/Magma x4 2.0 TB enclosures, but there are two 10Gbps Thunderbolt transfer channels and one is reserved for Displayport traffic. Disappointed that we cannot make it a single 20Gbps channel instead. Maybe some reserved PCI registers could be hacked to do that if we got the TB datasheets from Intel? We know for sure that 20Gbps Thunderbolt that could transfer x4 2.0 bandwidth will come in 2014.

Summary then is, current Thunderbolt eGPUs have just over double the bandwidth of Sandy/Ivy Bridge expresscard versions. It's questionable value then to spend the extra $$ for the TB-to-pcie enclosure/adapter and then seek out a Thunderbolt-equipped notebook from the handful available.

I wish it wasn't so. Saying that . . .

I too want a tablet or touch-based ultrabook with matte LCD that's thin and equipped with a x4 2.0 Thunderbolt port for eGPU purposes. 11.6" Acer Iconia W700 is the closest match with it's i5, IPS-1080P touch LCD and Thunderbolt port: Acer Iconia W700 review | Tablets Reviews | TechRadar

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I have Asus G75VX. I really enjoy my laptop. I love the performance and the cooling system, but one thing bothers me is it's too heavy!!

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MSI GX70 is a very nice (and affordable) gaming notebook. If you are looking for raw graphics power then the R9 m290x is the answer.

On the other hand the CPU isn't quite upto the challenge of keeping up with the m290x.

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On the business class laptops something could be said about there docking stations as well.

I know my HP Probook station supports an additional expansion slot so I can store an additional HD or optic drive in the docking station. Also most Business class laptops have had for a very long time a multi use bay on the laptop. Basically the Optic drive can be changed out for additional storage or a battery on some models. While this won't supply the awesome graphic functions that most of the users here want. It does give you options if you need more storage but may not need that info when traveling. Or only need the Optic drive when docked.

Also SSHD (Solid State Hard Drives) have become very popular in laptops now. I found this to be sometimes a good thing and other times a horrible option. I think the technology needs to mature a little bit before I suggest them over getting SSD, but they are definitely and upgrade over the slow traditional HDs that come with laptops.

Also for the budget class there is the refurbished or off-lease market. Really good business class laptops can be found for dirt cheap. These laptops are designed to be rugged and can easily last though 2 or 3 customers. So if you don't mind some exterior scratches you can generally get a 2-3 year old model for 50-75% off.

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Notebook Shopping Essentials

Virtually any CPU sold these days is more than enough for any basic tasks. Don't fall for silly marketing claiming you need a "quad core CPU" for "multitasking" and such. In my experience any CPU faster or equal to the old Intel Core2Duo CPUs and any graphics better or equal to Intel 4500GMA HD will work fine for any regular use, including 1080p video decoding. If you don't intend to play games or do some 3D modeling (e.g. AutoCAD, 3D Studio) the dedicated graphics card will be useless to you and probably a waste of money. In fact, the most recent integrated graphics Intel 4000 HD can even handle some games fairly well.

Similarly, when choosing a notebook think about how the notebook is going to be used. If you do a lot of coding and spend lots of time running and compiling your code a decent CPU will matter. If you spend 99% of the time on notebook surfing the web, checking your Facebook, using MS Office and watching videos, any notebook will do great aside from older netbooks (someone still buying those?).

SSD (Solid State Drive). I can't stress this enough. For most Windows tasks, the fastest Intel Core i7 with tens of gigabytes of RAM and a mechanical hard drive will still feel much slower than an old Core2Duo with 4GB RAM and an SSD.

Lots of people don't look above CPU/RAM/HD when buying a notebook and then of course end up buying some overheating piece of junk that they throw away after a year. Since most laptops are being carried around you might want to get something (if the budget allows) that has a good build quality.

Aside from the build quality, the screen quality can vary extremely from one notebook to another. Higher resolution means better display (more pixels per unit area) but there are many other factors; for example maximum screen brightness (expressed in nits or cd/m^2), type of display used (IPS or TN displays with RGB LED backlighting are superior to classical TN), viewing angles, black levels, matte coating and such. Is the display glossy? If you use the notebook outside a lot... you're gonna have a bad time.

Here I tried to classify the notebooks into groups, for people who may feel a little lost due to large number of different notebooks sold by most big companies.

"El Cheapo" class

You really don't care about all the fancy stuff, and would rather spend that extra $500 on a nice present in the form of expensive jewelry for your significant other, rather than having a decent laptop. We hear you. Women don't come cheap, but unfortunatelly -- neither do good notebooks. These are the notebooks that will get the job done, but don't expect to be bedazzled by any of their features or components.

Examples: Dell Inspiron, HP Pavillion, most of the laptops advertised on big sales only by their CPU or something equally pointless

"Multimedia" class

Better quality but also more expensive than "El Cheapo" but still typically lack a good graphic card (and adequate cooling system) that would make them great gaming machines. They are typically used for "multimedia" according to manufacturers -- don't ask me what that means. They don't have enough horsepower to run the newest games, but are somewhat mid-ground between "El Cheapo" and "gaming". The main advantages I'd give the laptops in this range is better build quality, more features than "El Cheapo", better quality screen, etc. It may sound like a lot of small things, but they do add up.

Examples: Dell XPS, Apple Macbook Pro, HP Envy

Gaming class

These are aimed at gamers, and more expensive than multimedia notebooks. Higher end gaming laptops such as M18x will come with SLI or Crossfire graphics which should satify all your (gaming) needs. Often both the CPU and graphic cards can be upgraded. The downsides of these laptops are their weight (where an AC adapter alone can weigh as much as an iPad) and they aren't exactly quiet -- due to the limited space they have smaller fans working at higher RPM, producing more noise.

Examples: Clevo, Dell Alienware, ASUS Gxx series, Acer Ferrari

Business class

Notebooks in this category were originally mainly aimed at business users, but recently they started gain their share in the consumer market. Typically laptops sized 14" and smaller run on integrated graphics (Intel HD 4000 in the current Ivy Bridge generation) which can be decent for playing some less demanding games on lower details and lower resolutions and works perfectly fine for any other use that doesn't involve 3D processing such as playing videos, decoding DVD/BluRays, etc. The prices can vary but aren't as expensive as they used to be ~10 years ago. Their main pros are the best build quality, great user upgradeability and optional dock stations which makes them very convenient for office use.

Examples: Lenovo Thinkpad, Dell Latitude/Precision, HP Elitebook

Ultrabooks

Typically fairly thin and light laptops aimed at being as portable as possible. They use low-power (Ultra Low Voltage) CPUs, solid state drivers and often unibody-like chasis so they are not as upgradeable as laptops not classified as ultrabooks. The CPUs are fine for any common tasks. For more CPU intensive tasks better CPUs are obviously going to be better, but they are fine for any university uses I used them for (some MATLAB, Python programming and light Photoshop image processing).

Examples: ASUS Zenbook UX31A, Apple Macbook Air, Samsung Series 5

Tablet notebooks

Microsoft believes these are the future. I don't. And it took me only 10 times I cleaned the screen of all the fingerprints and hand grease on my tablet. They're still cool for stuff like taking notes, good quality screens and often some interesting features like multitouch. All this comes with a higher price, of course.

Examples: Lenovo Thinkpad X230T, Lenovo Thinkpad Twist, HP Elitebook 2760p

I always look for performance on each component,so i don't care about the money.when i know that product will satisfied my need.

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Tablet notebooks

Microsoft believes these are the future. I don't. And it took me only 10 times I cleaned the screen of all the fingerprints and hand grease on my tablet. They're still cool for stuff like taking notes, good quality screens and often some interesting features like multitouch. All this comes with a higher price, of course.

Examples: Lenovo Thinkpad X230T, Lenovo Thinkpad Twist, HP Elitebook 2760p

 

I totally agree, I don't think it can replace desk/laptops, yes it is handy and that is what I love about it but it is still limited in terms of applications.

 

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There are also "mobile workstations" to consider. Laptop with Quadro etc.

Expensive but necessary for everyone who needs to work with 3D rendering et similar

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