So you’ve decided that a new laptop computer is what you want, great, now what do you do next? How can you make sure that you get the right laptop for you and not the one on special this week? Read on…

As with any technology, recommendations are date-specific. This article was originally written on Feb. 23, 2008 and is accurate as of that date.

The Category

Laptops come in three basic categories: Desktop replacement, mainstream, and light & mobile. There are specific break-downs, but those are the basics.

The Desktop Replacement

They’re powerful, full-featured, and have the largest displays, keyboards, and hard drives in laptops — and they typically weigh a ton. As the name suggests, a “desktop replacement” laptop is big and powerful, and meant to be used on a desk, or maybe in your lap, but not on the road, in an airplane, or on battery power.

Desktop replacement notebooks typically have huge 17in LCD displays, which leaves alot of room for keyboards and touch-pads. This means these notebooks typically have comfortable keyboards and a numeric keypad on the side (a feature usually omitted from laptops).

The person who needs a desktop replacement…

  • …should not be planning on using the laptop on an airplane or in the car
  • …should expect to be at a desk, table, or other surface most of the time
  • …should not be looking to use the laptop on battery power

If you’re looking to save space on your desk at home, you may want to consider a desktop replacement. If you’re wanting a notebook to hold on your lap, you need to move on to the mainstream category.


Currently I recommend the Dell Inspiron 1720 and HP dv9700t in this category.

Look for the Intel Core 2 Duo processor (typically badged under the Centrino name), 2.0GB (gigabytes) or more RAM, Windows Vista Home Premium (or Windows XP Home Edition if you prefer), a DVD+-RW drive, 802.11g wireless card, and the 17in LCD display.

Mainstream Notebooks

The mainstream notebook is typically equipped with a 15.4in or 14.1in widescreen display, is between 1.0 and 1.6 inches thick, has a built-in DVD drive, and a medium to high capacity hard drive (about 120gb).

Mainstream notebooks typically….

  • …have good desk and lap qualities
  • …have enough power for most people
  • …weigh between 5 and 9 pounds
  • …have about 2.5 hours of battery life
  • …are the least-expensive laptops on the market

Mainstream notebooks come from many manufacturers, and are available in a wide variety of specifications. If you’re looking to stay on a tight budget ($1,200 or less), you need to look for something like the Lenovo ThinkPad R series or the Dell Inspiron 1525. Both offer good configurations for less than $1,200. I would recommend the Lenovo if you’re looking for a business platform or the Dell if you’re looking for a personal laptop.

If you’re looking for a laptop that will spend most of its time actually in your lap, I would recommend looking at the Apple MacBook, a 13.3 inch unit that is only 1.1 inches thick. On the Windows side, the Lenovo T series 14in is lighter than the R series and thinner. Both options maintain good performance and very good battery life.

On the powerful side of the mainstream are the workhorse laptops, typically 15.4 inch screen units built for power, but without being heavy and sacrificing battery life. Examples of these that I recommend are the Lenovo ThinkPad T Series 15in (I happen to own one of these), the Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch, or the Dell XPS M1530.

Thin & Light

If you’re planning on using your laptop on the road as its primary job, I would recommend a model that qualifies as “Thin & Light.” There is a new movement into this category to make very small, very light notebooks — dubbed ultralights or ultra-mobiles — but I still say they’re the same category.

My choice for a thin and light notebook is the Apple MacBook, its right on the edge of the big side of thin and light, but with a 13.3 inch screen, only 1.1 inches thick, and a good battery life of 3.5 hours, it’s very comfortable to hold in your lap and browse the ‘net or type a paper. The MacBook has all the features of a mainstream notebook, DVD burner, removable battery, full-size keyboard, and the Intel Core 2 Duo processor. I use my MacBook for everything from an Internet terminal to a development machine with an external 22-inch monitor and it performs flawlessly.

If you’re looking for a Windows machine in the thin & light category, I would recommend the Lenovo ThinkPad X Series notebook. The X series is available in a standard configuration as well as a tablet PC. The X series has no DVD drive, but offers an optional base that includes one. The X series is designed for ultimate mobility and features the lower-performance “low-voltage” version of the Intel Core 2 Duo processor. You can save some money by using an external USB DVD burner rather than the Lenovo docking station.

These notebooks are available with battery lives up to 8 hours (under perfect conditions). They are designed for use on the road, so they’re lighter — between 3 and 5 pounds, have smaller screens — anything from 10 to 13.3 inches, and with and without DVD drives built-in.

If you’ve decided the thin and light category is for you, you must decide which features are key for you and go from there.

Making the Purchase

My company is a Lenovo dealer, and I’m happy to provide one-on-one help, just email me. You’ll notice I’ve not recommended any notebook from Acer, Toshiba, Gateway, eMachines, or Sony — I do this on purpose, I believe they are not up to the level produced by Apple, Lenovo, and Dell. The 17 inch HP unit I mentioned above is the only HP I currently like.

I look for fit and finish in laptops I recommend, Lenovo and Apple are excellent at this. Apple’s designs are beautiful and usually quite functional. Lenovo ignores looks completely and focuses on comfort, power, and performance, which gets my seal of approval every time.

How to Buy a Laptop Computer

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