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There are many features to choose from when you purchase a laptop, and it would be in the best interest of your bank account, as well as your frustration level, to choose wisely. To assist you in determining what you need and what you are willing to pay for, I will provide the following information. At first glance, you will see laptops that look almost exactly the same, yet have huge price differences. If you buy one "off the shelf," you may end up with one that is more computer than you need at a much higher cost. If you are not computer "savvy," a programmer or an information technology specialist (and, keeping it real, most of us are not), it can be overwhelming when you look at the specs for a computer and see this long list of giga bites, hard drives, processors, chips, CPUs, operating systems, etc.
Let me help you by breaking down the components of a laptop into simple, easy-to-understand parts. I will tell you the secret to finding the best quality and prices to meet your computer needs.
One little known secret about laptops is that they are all made in China by seven Chinese companies. The big retailers (Dell, Sony, Apple, HP, Toshiba) buy the components wholesale, put together "one size fits all" units, slap on their brand name logo, and jack up the price.
Only one Chinese company, Acer, sells laptops directly to consumers, but the quality of their laptops is quite low and I wouldn't recommend it. This is one situation in which it is better to pay more for quality. Even if you buy a less expensive laptop, a computer is still a relatively significant purchase, and our goal here is to get you the best quality for the best price.
When retailers buy laptops they can sell "off the shelf," they often have high end features that most computer users simply will not need. And for a dramatically lower price, you may want to start out with less and upgrade later if you find out that you need more. If you have a budget of up to $1,000, I will give you all the information you need to select a laptop that you will love.
Computer technology is changing rapidly and cost is largely influenced by "Economy of Scale" or "price point," which drives retail cost. The price of laptops and every other consumer product you own can be drastically affected by how many items are sold, and this marketing reality does not necessarily reflect the quality or even the complexity of an item.
For a CPU (central processing unit, the engine of your computer), it could cost $1 billion dollars to design a new chip and less than $10 to actually make it. If a manufacturer sells 20 million of these chips, the cost to the purchaser would be around $60 per chip. At 500 million, the cost would be reduced to $11 per chip.
This is one reason computer companies buy the components they can get a good price on in bulk, then make these "one size fits all" laptops that may have more CPU power than you will ever need. And too much processing speed at the cost of everything else will result in a slow computer.
A laptop system needs to a balance of these primary components:
* Operating System
* Central Processing Unit
* Hard Drive
Once you have made these important decisions, then you can add on the optical drive, video card, speakers, camera and other features you may desire.
OS (Operating System)
You have a choice of four Operating Systems:
* Mac OS X
* Windows Vista
* Windows XP
Your first big decision in purchasing a laptop will be which Operating System to choose. Let me just mention a word on the origins of PC versus Mac. The Windows PC was developed from a business application perspective. It started with the spreadsheet and because this became such an invaluable tool in the business world, a word processing application was written for the PC by a computer programmer in DOS, and software has evolved in this vein.
Do you remember when you would turn on your computer and the only display on the black screen was C:/? Oh, those were trying times, but PC software has evolved a lot since then. Nevertheless, because of its origins, most business application software is still written for the PC, with running it on an Apple Macintosh as an afterthought.
The Mac was designed as an educational tool, more interested in user friendly graphics and interactive tools, purposely developed to be more intuitive and helpful to the non-technical user. It is more compatible with videos, music and games. The business sectors tends to prefer Windows; the creative class tends to prefer Mac.
If you choose an Apple MacIntosh laptop, I would recommend Mac OS X Operating System. If you choose a Windows PC, I would recommend Windows Vista. I won't go into the pros and cons for each system here, since much has been written on the subject and you can learn more on the internet if you so desire.
CPU (Central Processing Unit)
Almost every laptop comes with Vista Home Premium. To run Vista efficiently, you really need at least 2GB of RAM. If you really need XP, you will need to look for an older out-of-production laptop, which would have been sold at a much higher price to the seller, and will thus cost you more for fewer new features. However, if you gotta have it . . . you gotta have it.
All the information on your computer, including program files, information files, photos, music, videos, etc. is stored on the hard drive for you to retrieve to your screen instantly by opening files in RAM. 250 GB hard drives are relatively new and 320 GB hard drives on laptops are pretty rare. The current standard hard drive is 160 GB.
Most business consumers use less than 40 GB of hard drive space, and every increment of larger hard drive can add $100-$200 dollars to the price of a laptop for just a little more capacity. It makes no sense to pay for more hard drive than you will probably ever use. If you don't know for sure, I would start out smaller. It's easy to add more storage capacity later by getting an external hard drive and much more cost effective than paying $100s more on the built-in components.
(RAM) Random Access Memory
For the computer novice, RAM is not to be confused with hard drive storage capacity. RAM is the amount of information that your laptop can have open on your screen at any given time, including minimized files and Internet Explorer windows. If you open too many windows and exceed your RAM capacity, the computer will lock up, and you will have to reboot to clear the memory. This could result in losing any unsaved information.
You don't even need to grasp how processors work, just know that they are the speed at which your laptop operates. I would recommend a Turion processor unless I could get an Intel processor for the same price. Turion will typically cost at least $100 less for about the same speed.
If you are on the road with your laptop a lot and don't have access to a power outlet, bear in mind that the processor will impact the length of battery life. Newer technology gets better all the time about scaling back when you don't need full power, then jumping to life instantly when you do. The AMD Turion is the best AMD chip for this job, but Intel really dominates this concept with the Core 2 Duo and the entire Centrino line. If battery life is an important consideration for you, be willing to pay for it.
Optional Features & Add-Ons
Does size matter? It can definitely be an important feature in choosing a laptop. How heavy is it if you will be taking it with you everywhere? Will it fit into the available storage or work space if you will be traveling with it?
The cost for size is closely related to the "Economy of Scale" factor. Smaller, thinner parts cost more to make. Make it too small, and the resolution doesn't hold up to be visible or you can't see enough of the image or page on the screen and have to keep moving your mouse around. Because the computer market is so competitive, you can believe that manufacturers carefully weigh convenience vs. practicality.
Having considered all the "Economy of Scale" factors, laptop manufacturers seem to have settled on the 14.5 inch screen. And because they sell in huge numbers, they usually sell for the best price. If you go for a smaller screen, just know that you will be paying a premium for the same amount of computing power. Now and then a manufacturer will bet on a smaller size and produce gazillions. If you can get a super deal on a smaller one, grab one of these.
Cordless Optical Mouse
The first thing I would add to a laptop is a Microsoft Wireless Laser Optical Laptop Mouse. For under $25, they are a real bargain, and make it so much easier to navigate around the screen than the built-in mouse pad.
You will most likely be able to choose a black or silver laptop cover or outer shell. Some laptops are now offering more vanity colors. Definitely choose your favorite color if you can get the important internal components all the same. Don't sacrifice the quality of your hardware for fashionable chartreuse!
Video Card If you want to play high end games, upgrade to a high end video card. It could cost $100 or more, but you'll need the extra capacity to watch DVDs or stream videos online.
Speakers You may also want to purchase good external speakers since the built in speakers will likely not be of suitable entertainment quality.
Changing Computer Technology
We are all very much aware that technology changes rapidly. We see new models of cars, trucks, boats, appliances, retail clothing, etc. rolled out every year, so we expect and even anticipate change. The rapidity with which computer technology changes is a whole 'nother game.
Computer technology changes every two weeks. The reason it takes so long for this change to occur is that it takes approximately two weeks to complete a production run. By the time one production is completed, a better chip or CPU or something else has been developed or improved, and the "outdated" production that was cutting edge technology two weeks ago is never made again.
It takes another two weeks to ship a batch from China, so by the time the purchaser receives a shipment at its warehouse, it hopes to already have the entire shipment sold. Wal-Mart, Amazon, and retailers all over the US buy some at a previously agreed-upon price.
This is a very competitive business and the big companies are under a lot of pressure to order just the amount that they can pre-sell. If they miss their estimates and have computers left over, they will quickly unload them on the wholesalers at reduced prices while it is still state-of-the-art technology.
If another two weeks goes by, they are left with "outdated" computers they can't sell, so they may have leftover units they pre-sold to Wal-Mart for $700 and will now sell them for $500 just to move them. This is an area in which you can get a great deal on a laptop.
The big computer companies can't afford to go below "market value" because they have to keep the price of their brand name high. There are smaller reputable computer companies that specialize in this area of the market, however, and this is where you can get a premium quality laptop for a great price.
Remember that regardless of the "brandname" which is added to a unit once it reaches the reseller, the parts inside are all made by the same seven Chinese manufacturers and the quality is the same across the board, with the exception of Acer, which I have previously mentioned.
Desktop Computer Checklist
Operating System (OS)
Mac OS X _____
Windows Vista _____
Windows XP _____
Central Processing Unit (CPU)
160 GB _____
250 GB _____
320 GB _____
Random Access Memory (RAM)
1 GB _____
2 GB _____
15.4 inch _____
17 inch _____
Cordless Optical Mouse
Video Card Upgrade
So, armed with this information, make your checklist and go shopping.
About the Author
Basia Diamonde is an independent writer who reviews and evaluates products and services, then provides her evaluation in articles to provide helpful informtaion to consumers.