Before You Buy: Essential tips for buying a new laptop

Laptops have come a long way from the bulky fold-ups that were first introduced in the 1970s. Buyers are now faced with a slew of features and specifications that the average Joe can’t even understand. This guide decodes the jargon to help you find the right laptop for your needs.

Two things make choosing a laptop different from choosing a desktop computer: one, it’s more expensive, so you want to be sure you get your money’s worth; and two, it’s impractical to upgrade, so you have to choose something you can live with for a while. Of course, not all of us know what makes one laptop better than another. For the non-techie, terms like dual-core processor, DDR2 memory, and 7000 rpm drive might as well be Cantonese.

So how do you know which laptop is right for you? One thing to keep in mind is that your needs always come first. Most laptop buyers fit into one of these categories:

Student. Budget is almost always the top concern for student buyers. If you’re on a tight budget, you want a laptop that gives you all the basics for less. Look for something that’s small and light, but rugged enough to carry around the campus. You can usually find a decent laptop for under $1,000, but don’t expect gaming-quality video or server-size memory.

Features to look for: wireless internet, at least 1GB of memory, and enough disk space for your mp3 collection

Home user. If you use your laptop mostly at home, a desktop replacement may be your best choice. A bit bulkier than most laptops, desktop replacements are perfect for those who do little more than room-to-room travel. They carry most of the features you’d get from a PC, but naturally this considerably pulls up the price. Desktop replacements usually start at $1,500.

Features to look for: a large hard drive for storing photos, videos and music, a large viewing screen if you’re into movies, and networking capabilities

Mobile entrepreneur. For yuppies on the go, a thin-and-light laptop may offer the best fit. Thin-and-lights pack in the features of a typical midrange computer in a lightweight, portable package. As with most gadgets, size comes at the expense of some features—expect only a midsize hard drive and limited media capabilities. Thin-and-lights start at $800; a fully loaded version may cost over $1,500.

Features to look for: 2GB memory (1GB will do for older operating systems), wireless networking, quick charging and spare batteries

Frequent traveler. Jet-setters who can work from anywhere will do well with an ultraportable laptop. Ultraportables are the smallest, lightest laptops on the market, designed to withstand the bumps and thumps of air travel. You’ll be giving up some features for size, but most new models aren’t much different from thin-and-light and midsize laptops. Expect to pay at least $1,100 for a basic ultraportable, or over $2,000 for a feature-packed model.

Features to look for: wireless connectivity, rugged design, multiple interfaces (USB, FireWire, etc) for peripherals

Movie buff/multimedia author. Multimedia laptops are designed for maximum video and sound quality, often matching home theater standards. They are a great choice for those who like to bring their entertainment on the road. It’s also the laptop of choice for multimedia authors such as filmmakers, video editors, CAD operators, photographers, and sound engineers. Laptops of this type are designed as high-end desktop replacements; the average price is around $1,300.

Features to look for: at least 160GB of disk space, 2GB of memory, large widescreen-capable display of 15” or more

Hardcore gamer. Desktop PCs remain the most practical choice for gamers, but gaming laptops still enjoy a steady place in the market. If you regularly spend more than four hours straight on computer games, you’ll need a high-end multimedia laptop that gives you the speed, graphics, and audio quality you need to get the most out of your game. You’d better have cash to burn, though: a good gaming laptop can cost well over $2,000.

Features to look for: at least 2GB of memory, an advanced graphics and sound card, lots of connections for game controllers, and a good cooling system