If there is such a thing as the perfect Windows laptop, we haven't yet found it. There is always something that holds a product back from being flawless, whether it's the build quality or a missing feature.
As such, it helps to know what to look for and what things you should check when cruising the aisles of your local retailer. This is a key thing: where possible, you should get your hands on a product before buying it. Reading reviews like ours can give you an indication of a product's build quality and user comfort, but personal tastes vary. It’s important to be able to feel a product’s chassis, keyboard and touchpad, and to look at its screen quality, especially since you are likely to be using the device every day for at least a couple of years.
There is an added challenge to buying a new model these days, mainly due to the vast selection of not only normal laptops, but also a plethora of hybrid (2-in-1 laptop/tablet) products that have been released with Windows 8 touch functionality in mind. You really need to have a clear idea of the type of product you want to go for, and whether you actually want tablet functionality or just a normal, good old laptop. We’ll start off talking about these 2-in-1 products, and then delve into the features, specs and physical features you should check before buying a regular laptop.
Regular laptop, or 2-in-1?
This would hardly have been a consideration a few years ago, but nowadays there are all sorts of different 2-in-1 form factors available that allow you to use one device either as a laptop or as a tablet. Some have 'rip' designs in which the screen detaches from the base, while others have hinges that allow the screen to flip, rotate or tilt in such a way so that the product can be used as a slate.
What design you choose should depend on a few things: size, user comfort, performance, and, of course, price. Smaller devices in the 10-11.6in range are easier to handle when it comes to using them as a tablet, but there are devices up to 14in, which are much easier to type with due to having a bigger keyboard, though perhaps not as practical for typical tablet usage. Look for the design that's light enough, and easy enough for you to handle, especially if you want a tablet-first device.
Note that those products with screens that detach from the keyboard base (such as the Asus Transformer Book T100, or HP Envy X2, for example) are often not ideal for typing, and therefore, not great as notebook devices. This is mainly due to the keyboard being too small for comfortable typing, and the balance of the notebook being too top-heavy (they sometimes tend to fall back when used on your lap). The reason for the balance issue is that these types of products have the CPU and the rest of the configuration in the screen, rather than in the base. They are Windows tablets first, and laptops second.
Some of the first inexpensive hybrid 2-in-1 laptops released on the Australian market run on entry-level CPUs that aren't great for multi-tasking or video work. We recommend you look for products that use an Intel Atom Z3740 CPU, which will give you the best performance in that product category.
Newer models such as HP's Pavilion x360 use a Celeron processor that's good for basic tasks.
Our favourite product in this category is the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro, which can be used just as easily as a laptop or as a tablet (though it is quite large at 14 inches). The Dell XPS 12 convertible Ultrabook is also very good as a dual-purpose device.
For regular laptops, the common sizes that are available are 12.1in, 13.3in, 14in, 15.6in, and 17.3in. The last two are reserved for desktop replacement-style laptops, gaming laptops or workstation laptops, and these generally have the most processing grunt and highest internal storage capacity. They are a pain to carry around on a daily basis, not only because of the weight, but also because a larger bag is required to carry them.
If you want a laptop that will be used between the home and the office or class room, then consider 13.3in models as the sweet spot. These offer the best combination of weight, comfort and performance.
The ideal weight for a laptop that will be carried regularly is between 1-1.8kg, which is common with 13.3in Ultrabooks, with 1.4kg being close to the most common weight. You also have to factor in the power adapter, which adds another couple of hundred grams and space in a laptop bag.
The size of the laptop can affect how many ports and other features are found around the sides, so make sure that your desired model has all the USB 3.0, video, networking, and memory card features that you need.
Judging a laptop on its specs is all well and good, but should only be done if you absolutely need the fastest possible performance for your particular job, or if you want to play graphics-heavy games. For the rest of us, specifications are very much even across the board, with most laptops capable of performing as well as each other if they use similar components.
That said, what you should look for primarily in a laptop's specifications is a good CPU, plenty of RAM, and fast storage.
CPU: Anything with a fourth-generation Intel Core CPU is a safe bet. A Core i5 CPU represents the sweet spot in terms of price versus performance, while a Core i3 CPU is more for budget laptops, and a Core i7 CPU is for high-end laptops that need the extra performance.
Most laptops use ultra-low voltage versions of these CPUs, which are denoted by a 'U' at the end of their model name. This means they are specifically designed for laptops, which allows them to use up battery power in the most efficient way.
An Intel Core i5-4300U is an example of a CPU that can be found in an Ultrabook or 2-in-1 hybrid device that costs up to $1500, and this CPU has a top speed of 2.9GHz (when it hits Turbo mode) and the ability to process four programs simultaneously without slowing down (via two cores and the use of Hyper-Threading technology).
An Intel Core i7-4500U is an example of a CPU that can be found in devices that cost over $1800. This CPU has a top speed of 3GHz (when it hits Turbo mode), and also has two cores and Hyper-Threading. Its slightly faster speed isn’t the only difference: it also has 4MB of cache memory built in, compared to 3MB for the Core i5 CPU. This gives it the ability to store more commonly used data, which will help speed up the tasks that you perform on a regular basis.
The difference in performance between a Core i5 and a Core i7 may not be noticeable if all you want is a laptop for Web browsing, social media, word processing, viewing and editing photos, and watching movies, and you can easily use a more inexpensive Core i5 model for these tasks. However, many vendors couple the faster CPU to better surrounding components, such as more RAM and storage space, which often means that if you want more memory or internal storage space, you often have to consider the Core i7 model instead of the Core i5.
In some low-cost 2-in-1 hybrid devices, the CPU of choice is an Intel Atom Z3740. This is the latest Intel Atom CPU available (as of the date of this writing), and it allows for Windows 8 tablet devices to be used easily for Web browsing, social media, and watching video. However, tablets with this CPU can struggle with streaming Internet video, especially if it’s of a high quality.
Graphics: All Intel Core CPUs also have built-in graphics (either Intel HD 4400 or Intel HD 5000 depending on the fourth-generation CPU model that’s installed), which do just fine for everyday computing, and even for running simple games — think card games, and many point-and-swipe type games from the Windows Store. If you want to play the latest games on your laptop, you'll need to invest in a big unit with an AMD Radeon or NVIDIA GeForce graphics adapter.
RAM: RAM (or memory) is the next spec to check. Generally, you should avoid anything with less than 4GB of RAM, and you should try to get something with at least 8GB if you can. This will give you headroom for things such as multitasking and loading plenty of images in an editing program.
Most regular laptops come with 4GB as standard, with 8GB reserved for more expensive models that also come with a Core i7 CPU. Some hybrid laptops that double as tablets only come with 2GB of RAM.
Storage: For Ultrabooks and other slimline, lightweight laptops, the storage device of choice is a solid state drive (SSD) rather than a mechanical hard drive. An SSD is preferred to a regular hard drive because it has no moving parts (data is stored on memory chips rather than a magnetic, spinning platter), consumes a little less power, doesn’t weigh as much, and also because it’s much faster. An SSD allows a Windows 8 device to boot up in mere seconds, and it also speeds up the loading of applications and the general access to data.
Ultrabooks up to $1500 generally include a 128GB SSD, with 256GB reserved for more expensive models that also use a Core i7 CPU. Up to 512GB can be selected in some performance-oriented models. Some models have a RAID 0 array, which entails two SSDs set up to perform as one drive to double the overall speed.
Mainstream, 15.6in laptops generally come with a 1TB hard drive, which is the minimum capacity that you should look for in a laptop with a regular hard drive. Some laptops have a regular hard drive that is supplemented by a small SSD of up to 32GB, which is used to bolster the overall performance of a laptop. This is known as hybrid storage (or Intel Smart Response Technology), and it’s used to speed up boot times and application load times. This is a good compromise if you need high capacity and performance.
Our advice for storage in a laptop is that you should opt for a model with an SSD. This will give you the absolute best performance. If you need lots of storage capacity, you can supplement this by using an external USB 3.0 hard drive (a portable one if you want to take your data with you), or a network attached storage (NAS) device, which can act as a central repository for your data on your network and allow you to access it from anywhere.
For some tablet-first products (such as the ASUS Transformer Book T100), the storage type is SSD, but the capacity is often only 32GB. This can usually be supplemented by adding an SD or microSD memory card. Make sure the device you want has one of those slots so that you can add to the storage by plugging in a memory card.
Other 2-in-1 hybrid laptop products that are between $500-700 (such as HP’s Pavilion x360 might rely on a 320GB or 500GB hard drive.
Some gaming laptops have RAID 0 arrays that consist of two SSDs, and they may also have a regular hard drive to bolster the capacity.
Wireless: Some laptop makers try to skimp on this feature to cut costs, but we think it’s important that you get a laptop with versatile inbuilt Wi-Fi. You can plug in external Wi-Fi adapters if you want, but these add to the bulkiness of a laptop, and we’ve also found that, in general, they don’t perform as fast as a similar, integrated Wi-Fi adapter.
A dual-band, 802.11n Wi-Fi adapter should be the minimum spec that you look for. This will allow your laptop to connect to either the 2.4GHz frequency band or the 5GHz frequency band of a dual-band router. All laptops have 2.4GHz Wi-Fi capability, but not all have 5GHz. Connecting to a 5GHz network is advantageous in environments such as high-density apartment buildings where there are many 2.4GHz networks running on similar channels. The 5GHz band is less congested and provides much better speed, especially over close and mid-range distances.
For the best Wi-Fi performance, look for a laptop that has an 802.11ac wireless module. The 802.11ac standard is the latest for wireless routers, and when you eventually upgrade your router to support this speed (if you don't already have one), your laptop will be able to give you much faster transfer rates than you are used to (up to 40 megabytes per second when transferring movie files, in some cases).
For optimal performance, look for a laptop with an Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 adapter, which is an adapter that supports 802.11ac speeds up to 867 megabits per second (Mbps). Some hybrid tablets also have dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi.
Bluetooth: Practically all laptops and hybrid devices come with Bluetooth, with the latest version being Bluetooth 4.0. This is a low-energy version of Bluetooth that will help prolong your laptop’s battery life. You can use Bluetooth for many things, including wireless mice and keyboards, but we find it most useful for streaming music from a laptop to a Bluetooth-equipped stereo system, or Bluetooth speakers and headsets.
Ports and slots: Look for at least two USB 3.0 ports in a laptop, and at least one full-sized USB port on a hybrid device (actually on the device and not on the keyboard base — the base will often have another one or two ports). Ideally, you should look for a laptop that has three USB 3.0 ports, which gives you the most flexibility for when you want to use the laptop at home to attach wired input peripherals at the same time as storage devices.
A full-sized HDMI port should be present on your laptop so that you can easily connect it to an external monitor or TV, but note that some laptops (and also hybrid devices) use mini or micro HDMI ports for which an adapter is required to use them (you can’t just plug in a regular, full-sized HDMI cable). If your laptop is for business (or maybe a BYOD — bring your own device — then you might need a VGA port or DisplayPort to be present on your laptop).
A Gigabit Ethernet port might also be needed for a business product, but in general, unless you want to use your laptop for gaming at home, fast Wi-Fi networking should suffice.
If you’re a photographer, then you need to look for a full-sized SD card slot, because this will make it easy to transfer photos from your camera to your laptop. Some products — especially hybrid devices — have microSD card slots, which are convenient for adding more storage to your device.
All laptops and hybrids come with a headphone port, and often one that doubles as a headset port so that you can use an external microphone. All laptops also come with a webcam, with the common resolution being 1280x720 pixels.
Next page: Screen, input devices, and the perfect laptop wishlist.