Laptops now outsell desktops

For years, I have focused my twice-a-year computer buyer's guides on desktop PCs, with less-frequent columns focusing on laptops. Now that the latter are outselling the former, though, I am going to center my main buying guides on laptops. Many of the specs I recommend will also apply to desktops.

As always, this is a general guide aimed at mainstream, nontechnical buyers who dwell on common tasks such as e-mail, instant messaging and surfing the Web; managing and lightly editing photos, videos and music; and using basic office applications. It is not intended for heavy gamers, video producers or corporate buyers.

There's a vast variety of laptop models, but this guide is meant to cover the most common types of laptops, those with screens from about 12 inches to 17 inches, and weights ranging from around 2.5 pounds to 7 pounds.

For this column, I'm not including the category of tiny machines now called netbooks, with screens under 10 inches. I am also ignoring the huge, heavy laptops with screens larger than 17 inches that are primarily aimed at gamers.

Even the remaining mainstream machines range wildly in price, from bargain-basement models at $350 to high-end ones that can top $3,000. In my experience, the top brands for technology and reliability are Apple and Lenovo's ThinkPad line, but various models from Sony, Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba and Dell are also worth investigating.

So, here is a quick guide to the key factors you should consider when buying a laptop.

Size: If you are a constant traveler, think about the subnotebook models, which generally weigh 3 pounds or less. There are two types of these. The classic subnotebook has a small screen, 12 inches or less, and a cramped keyboard. This year, a new type emerged, with a full keyboard and a normal 13.3-inch screen packed into a thin, light body. There are two of these: the MacBook Air from Apple and the Lenovo ThinkPad X300. All subnotebooks are relatively costly, typically ranging from $1,500 to over $3,000.

If your laptop will mostly stay at home, the office, or in class, a 5- t0 7-pound machine with a screen of either 13.3 inches or 15.4 inches is the best bet. A well-equipped model in this class is likely to run you between $800 and $1,200. Typical models in this class are the Dell Inspiron 1525, the HP dv6700 and the Apple MacBook.

Windows vs. Mac: This is the eternal question. In my view, Apple's Leopard operating system is faster, better and far less prone to malicious software than Microsoft's Vista operating system. And the Mac laptops also come with better built-in software. The $1,099 MacBook is a solid, fairly priced machine, and the $1,999 MacBook Pro is even better. Both also can run Windows.

But Windows laptops are often less expensive, tend to have a greater variety of ports and slots, and come in more styles and sizes.

Operating system: If you are buying a Windows laptop, be aware that Vista is slower than Windows XP, in my experience, and still has compatibility issues with add-on hardware and software. If you'd prefer to stick with XP, you will find that many fewer models are available with it. And Microsoft has decreed that after June 30, mainstream, name-brand laptops will no longer come pre-equipped with XP.

Video: I recommend getting an LED-powered screen, which is brighter and saves power. Also, if you are choosing Vista, or if you do a lot of converting video for use on portable devices, consider getting a laptop with a separate video card inside that has its own memory.

Memory: If you're buying an Apple laptop, two gigabytes of memory is plenty. If you're using Vista Home Premium, I'd consider three gigabytes for best performance.

Processor: Any dual-core processor will be fine. Don't pay a penny extra for faster processor speed.

Storage: In a mainstream laptop that will be your main computer, look for a 160-gigabyte hard disk or larger. A new kind of storage, called SSD, or solid state disk, is now available. But it is still way too costly for most users, and at the moment is available only in smaller capacities.

Battery life: Many laptops today rarely spend time away from an electrical outlet. But if yours will, look for a battery life of at least three hours between charges.

Wireless: Make sure your new laptop has the new, faster "N" version of Wi-Fi built in. Many cheaper laptops don't. You can also get a cell phone modem built in, but they are costly and carry a monthly fee. You can always add an external cell phone modem later.

Other features: A built-in camera and microphone can be quite useful, and so can a feature on some Windows machines that allows you to play music and videos without fully booting up the computer.

Don't let yourself be swayed by sales pitches, or by fanaticism for or against Windows or the Mac. Think hard about how you use your computer and what your budget will allow, and stick to those priorities.

© 2008, Dow Jones & Co. Inc.

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