In fact, though, it's not that tough to figure out which laptop to buy, and then get a great deal on it. Follow our advice, and you won't go wrong.
The most basic decision you'll make, of course, is whether to go with a Mac or a PC. As with religion, this is a personal choice upon which we won't impinge. So we'll start off with advice for a PC, then provide information for buying a Mac laptop. We'll end our guide with tips for finding laptop bargains.
If you buy a Windows laptopLet's start with the basics -- the processor. It's this simple: Buy a laptop with dual-core processor, such as Intel's Core Duo mobile or Core 2 Duo mobile (the Core 2 Duo is faster than the Core Duo), or the AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core processor or AMD Turion 64 X2 Dual Core processor (the Turion is faster than the Athlon).
For most users, the speed of the processor itself doesn't matter too much as long as it's dual-core. Dual-core processors are faster than single cores -- particularly when multitasking -- and save power as well, so you'll get longer battery life with them.
You may also find laptops with the Intel Core 2 Extreme mobile processor, which has four cores instead of two. As a practical matter, four cores won't make a dramatic difference compared to two cores, considering that applications haven't yet been written to take advantage of four cores. So if a four-core laptop costs a good deal more than a two-core one, it's probably not worth the extra money.
For RAM, consider 1GB a minimum, and get more if you can afford it. A 2GB laptop will have sufficient power for just about anything a typical user will do, although you might want to opt for a 4GB laptop for a hardcore gamer.
Most people overlook one of the most important laptop specs -- graphics processing. Frequently, laptops use an integrated graphics controller rather than a separate graphics card, which can be problematic not only for gamers, but even for those running Windows Vista Home Premium.
Unless you know the recipient is going to stick to computing basics such as e-mail and word processing, it's a good idea to get a notebook with a dedicated graphics controller, which can enhance such activities as managing a photo library or watching videos online. Gamers need a higher-end card, such as the Nvidia GeForce 8700M GT. If your recipient doesn't play games, though, a card such as the Nvidia GeForce 8400M GS will be fine.
As for how much graphics memory you need, you might want 512MB for gamers, while for general computing 256MB or even 128MB will do.
If you expect that your gift recipient's graphics needs will grow and that he might ultimately want to have more than one graphics processor in his laptop, look for machines that have Scalable Link Interface (SLI), which allows the laptop to use multiple graphics chips.
The rest of the laptop specs are fairly straightforward. You'll want as big a hard disk as you can reasonably afford (your recipient can always add external storage later), a DVD burner and a minimum one-year warranty. As a general rule, the larger the screen, the heavier the laptop and the shorter the battery life, so keep that in mind when buying. If your laptop recipient is a road warrior who spends a lot of time on long airplane flights, consider upgrading to a longer-lasting battery.
If possible, look for a laptop with built-in 802.11n wireless capabilities rather than just 802.11g. That way, when the 802.11n standard becomes widely used, the laptop will be able to take advantage of its faster speeds. Similarly, if you can get a Gigabit Ethernet connection built in, opt for that rather than the more common, slower Ethernet connection.
Finally, look for a laptop with as many slots as possible. If you care about expandability, you'll want a PC Card slot, and ideally, an ExpressCard slot as well. Both slots let you connect a wide variety of peripherals. You want not only USB 2.0 ports, but also FireWire (IEEE 1394) if you can get it. And look for card slots for removable media, such as CompactFlash, Secure Digital, SmartMedia, MultiMediaCard and Memory Stick, if you think your recipient will want to transfer photos or other media files to the laptop.
The price range on Windows laptops is considerable, depending on whether you want a low-end model with only the basics or a high-end screamer capable of playing the latest games. Prices do fluctuate, but you can usually find a laptop with a 15-in. screen, no separate graphics processor, an AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core CPU, 1GB of RAM and an 80GB hard drive for around $550 -- a Dell Inspiron 1501, for example. On the higher end, you can usually get a laptop such as the HP Pavilion dv6675us with a 2-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Mobile T7200 CPU, 4GB of RAM, an Nvidia GeForce 8400M GS graphics controller with 128MB of memory, a 250GB hard drive and 802.11n wireless for between $1,500 and $1,700.
And if you need a full-bore machine capable of speedy high-end gaming, you'll have to spend a bundle. For example, an Alienware Area-51 m9750 with dual 512MB Nvidia GeForce Go 8700M GT chips with SLI, a 2.3-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7600 processor, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive, 802.11n wireless and a 17-in. monitor will set you back a whopping $3,600.
Going with a MacIf you go for a Mac, your choices are much simpler than if you go the PC route, simply because there are far fewer Macs, with fewer variations. However, our recommendations for specs to look out for remain the same as with Windows laptops.
You'll choose between two lines: the MacBook Pro, available with 15- or 17-in. screen in a brushed aluminum case, and the smaller, lighter MacBook, which has a 13-in. screen in a white or black plastic case.
Both lines come standard with several of the items in our must-have list for laptop purchases:
- An Intel Core 2 Duo processor
- At least 1GB of RAM (MacBook Pros come with 2GB and all models can accommodate up to 4GB)
- Gigabit Ethernet
- 802.11n Wi-Fi
- FireWire and USB 2.0 ports (MacBook Pros also have ExpressCard/34 slots)
- A one-year warranty
They also include several "nice to haves," such as FireWire ports, built-in webcams, and Bluetooth connectivity, that you might pay extra for with PCs. (On the other hand, you could argue that you're paying for these features on Macs whether you want them or not.)
As general rule, the MacBook Pros tend to have higher-end specs than the MacBooks. For example, the MacBooks come with an integrated Intel GMA X3100 graphics processor with 144MB of RAM. To get a better graphics processor, you'll need to go with a MacBook Pro, which includes a slick Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT graphics processor with dual-link DVI support and either 128MB or 256MB of RAM.
That said, however, even the MacBooks offer a fair number of customization options including processor speed, hard drive size, amount of RAM and so on. MacBooks range from $1,100 to $1,500 before configuration, while MacBook Pros range from $2,000 to $2,800. As with Windows laptops, opting for more memory, a faster processor and/or a bigger hard drive can raise prices considerably.
Where to buyNow that you've decided what to buy, it's time to put your money down. As a general rule, you'll get your best deals online rather than in a retail store, and you'll have more choice as well.But if you shop online, you won't actually get to put your hands on the laptops, and with laptops -- even more so than with desktops -- hands-on experience is important. So after you've narrowed down your choices, visit some retail stores and try out the laptops.
Next it's buying time. There are plenty of great deals to be had online, but often they only last for a day or so and then vanish. To find them, you need to go to bargain-hunting sites that scour the Internet for special deals and offers.
The best of the bargain-hunting sites is slickdeals.net, which every day lists about a half-dozen new deals. Every once in a while, you'll find a great steal here. Dell laptops, in particular, often show up. Recently, for example, I found a Dell Inspiron E1405 Core 2 Duo laptop for $445 less than its normal price.
Keep in mind, though, that often these deals mean that you can't configure a laptop -- they're take-it-as-is-or-leave-it propositions. Other good bargain sites to try include Woot, DealCatcher and Ben's Bargains.
If you're shopping for a specific model rather than looking for a one-time deal at a bargain site, you should check out manufacturer sites as well as online retailers like Buy.com and Newegg.com, because prices can vary considerably among them.
(This is less true of Macs, by the way, since Apple tends to enforce price uniformity. You can sometimes find rebates or add-ons like a free printer if you buy a Mac online, but you're unlikely to save hundreds of dollars.)
Also make sure to check out a price comparison site like PriceGrabber, which compares prices from multiple online retailers. Happy hunting!