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Comparing Notebook PCs: A Holiday Shopping Guide

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If you’re in the market for a new notebook computer – either for yourself or a family member or friend – you have a lot of choices, from traditional notebooks to lightweight ultrabooks to the newest hybrid notebook/tablets. In this holiday shopping guide, author Michael Miller walks you through the different types of notebooks available, and helps you choose the best for your own personal needs.

The holidays are upon us, which means it’s time to put together your Christmas wish list – and receive wish lists from friends and family. Those tech-savvy among us will likely have eyes for a spiffy new notebook PC, and there are lots of interesting options available today.

All those options mean making some tough choices, of course. Should you opt for a traditional (and affordable) notebook or a lightweight (and more expensive) ultrabook? Windows or Mac? And what about those new touchscreen hybrid PCs that can function as either a tablet or a notebook?

Before you go shopping, you need to get informed about all the different models you’ll see on the shelves this season. There are a lot of choices.

Traditional Notebooks

The sweet spot of the notebook market, in terms of sales, consists of what we call traditional notebooks. A traditional notebook is defined both by price and features.

In terms of price, traditional notebooks tend to run from $300 up to $700 or so. That’s probably why they’re in the sweet spot of sales; that price range is affordable to the majority of notebook customers. A traditional notebook won’t break the bank, and in fact provides a lot of value for the money.

And just what do you get for the money? Look for screens in the 14” to 16”  range, with 15.6” widescreen models the most popular. You’ll get a decent-sized hard drive (anywhere from 200GB to 500GB), 4GB or so of memory, and a combo CD/DVD drive built in. Expect a bevy of useful connectors, including multiple USB jacks and maybe even an HDMI port for connecting to your living room TV.

Figure 1 A typical traditional notebook, a Lenovo IdeaPad with 15.6" screen, 4GB memory, and 320GB hard drive.

Here’s what you typically don’t get on a traditional notebook: a touchscreen display. While a touchscreen is certainly desirably for working the new Windows 8 operating system (which should come pre-installed on all new non-Apple notebooks), it adds $150 to $200 to the unit price. For that reason, manufacturers reserve them for higher-end models, such as the trendy new ultrabooks that we’ll discuss shortly.

If you’re in the market for a traditional notebook, look at screen size, hard disk capacity, and price. If you do a lot of typing, you should also check out the unit’s keyboard; some lower-end models have clunky Chiclet-style keyboards that don’t provide the tactile feedback that serious typists need.

Desktop Replacements

Let’s face it, most of us buy notebooks but then never carry them outside the house. If your notebook PC is likely to be deskbound, and if you want a little more power for selected operations, then consider what we call a desktop replacement notebook. You’ll pay a little more, and lose some portable functionality, but gain in added performance.

A desktop replacement is typically a larger notebook, with a screen in the 17” range, a larger hard drive (anywhere from 600GB to 1TB), and more onboard memory (up to 8GB). This type of notebook is not only bigger but also heavier, and the batteries don’t last as long as on a smaller unit. That last point is partly due to the inclusion of a more powerful processor, one that provides a lot more oomph but also uses more power.

Figure 2 A representative desktop replacement model, a Toshiba Satellite with 17.3" screen, 8GB memory, and 750GB hard drive.

All this means that these larger notebooks really aren’t designed for true portable use, but rather to replace traditional desktop PCs. You’ll want to go this route if you use a lot of powerful productivity applications, such as video and photo editing. This type of notebook also has the power that hard-core gamers need to play their favorite games.

Not surprisingly, a desktop replacement model typically costs a bit more than a traditional notebook. Lower-end models come in around $500, but higher-end models top out close to $1,400. Of course, you get a lot of performance for the price, but it may be more than you need.

Ultrabooks

Next up is the ultrabook, one of the trendiest new categories of notebooks today. Or at least it’s supposed to be a trendy category; sales, at least on the Windows side of things, have been somewhat disappointing.

First, the specs. An ultrabook is a smaller, thinner, and lighter notebook, modeled on the extremely popular MacBook Air. Most ultrabooks have screens in the 13” to 14” range (although some larger models exist) and  don’t include built-in CD/DVD drives. While some models use traditional (but thin) hard drives for internal storage, a true ultabook uses solid state flash storage instead.

Figure 3 The original ultrabook, the 13.3" MacBook Air with 4GB memory and 256GB solid-state flash storage.

All this makes an ultrabook very fast and very easy to carry around, without necessarily sacrificing computing power and functionality. Most ultrabooks weigh 3 pounds or less, and will run at least 5 hours (some considerably more) on a single battery charge. That makes for a nice package to slip into your briefcase for a business trip, or even just a jaunt down to your local coffeehouse.

Many new ultrabooks are coming with touchscreens, which is nice when you’re using the new touch-enabled Windows 8 operating system – which comes installed on just about all new PCs these days. With a touchscreen ultrabook you can type and use the trackpad with traditional desktop apps, then reach up and swipe the screen for newer Windows 8 apps. Spending a bit more for a touchscreen model is certainly worth considering when you move into the Windows 8 world.

However, all this new technology mans that an ultrabook will set you back a bit more than a more traditional notebook. Pricing for ultrabooks, Windows or Mac, runs in the $800 to $1200 range, with some fancier models priced even higher. Which is probably why sales aren’t near as strong as they are for lower-priced traditional notebooks.

Netbooks and Chromebooks

If all you need is something to carry on business trips to check email and browse the web, consider going with a smaller, lighter, and less expensive netbook. This is the smallest type of notebook available, with screens in the 10” to 12” range.

Netbooks, like ultrabooks, don’t have CD/DVD drives, and many don’t even have traditional hard drives, opting for solid state flash storage instead. These little PCs aren’t the most powerful puppies around, however, typically using slower and less powerful microprocessors. This makes for a lighter package with longer battery life, but delivers less oomph to do more sophisticated operations.

Figure 4 ASUS' Eee Netbook, with 10" display, 1GB memory, and 320GB hard drive.

Because there’s less inside, a netbook typically costs considerably less than a more traditional notebook. You can find some models priced as low as $200, with most coming in under $400.

Oh, and while we’re on the topic of netbooks, there’s one special subset you may want to consider. Samsung sells Chromebooks, which are netbooks that use the Google Chrome web-based operating system instead of Microsoft Windows. These little computers don’t have much in the way of onboard storage and need to be connected to the Internet to work, but aren’t burdened by the needs of a traditional software-based operating system. As such, a Chromebook is a lot faster than a traditional netbook – even if it won’t run Microsoft Office and other traditional desktop software. The latest Chromebook model offers an 11.6” screen for $250, competitive with similar netbooks.

Figure 5 Samsung's 11.6" Chromebook with 2GB memory.

Hybrid Tablet/Notebooks

The newest thing on the market is what we call a hybrid PC. This type of device combines the best features of a notebook PC and a tablet computer; it blends the ultrabook and tablet form factors into a single, versatile unit. Think of a hybrid PC as an ultrabook you can use like a tablet, or a tablet with an optional keyboard.

A hybrid PC is likely to have a screen that flips or folds in a way that hides the keyboard and makes the unit look like and function as a tablet. (It may be the keyboard doing the flipping, on some models.) Hybrid PCs have touchscreen displays, so which you can operate with your fingers in either notebook or tablet mode. This type of device is perfect for using the new Windows 8 operating system; you can tap or touch, depending on what you’re doing.

For example, the HP Envy x2 is an 11.6” Windows 8 ultrabook with removable keyboard. Remove the keyboard and you have a touchscreen tablet.

Similarly, Lenovo’s IdeaPad Yoga 13 is a 13.3” Windows 8 ultrabook with a fully foldable keyboard. Position the keyboard normally and it functions as a notebook; fold the keyboard back and against the back of the screen and you have a touchscreen tablet.

Figure 7 The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga hybrid; fold the keyboard back for tablet use.

Most consumers will use a hybrid PC like a touchscreen tablet when watching movies or browsing the Web, and like a notebook PC when there’s office work to do. It’s the best of both worlds – if you need both worlds.

Of course, you’ll pay for this versatility. Hybrid PCs are at the high end of the notebook price range, anywhere from $800 to $1,200 or more. That price premium is probably going to limit their appeal, at least until the prices come down – which probably won’t be this holiday season.

By the way, you can get most of the functionality of a hybrid PC from some new-breed tablets that come with optional attachable keyboards. These tablets, such as the Microsoft Surface and the ASUS Transformer Pad Utility, cost around $650 or so with keyboard, and run a tablet version of Windows 8 called Windows RT. The only drawback to going the tablet route is that Windows RT devices won’t run traditional desktop software – even though the Surface comes with a special tablet version of Microsoft Office. Given the price differential over the more expensive hybrid PCs, you may want to check these out.

What Type of Notebook is Best for You?

Which type of notebook you choose depends primarily on how you intend to use it. Here are my suggestions:

  • If all you plan to do is check your Facebook feed, view some photos and movies, and maybe send the occasional email, then you don’t need a more powerful machine and can make do with a netbook. (Although a traditional notebook won’t cost that much more.)
  • If you need to do more serious work, such as using Microsoft Word or Excel, then a traditional notebook PC makes sense.
  • If your work includes using more demanding applications, such as photo or video editing, and you don’t need your notebook to be particularly portable, then choose a desktop replacement model.
  • If you need to combine serious work with lightweight portability, and price isn’t a big factor, invest in an ultrabook. (And consider choosing a model with a touchscreen, if you’re using Windows 8.)
  • If you like to mix work and play, and see the advantages of both tablet and keyboard operation, then consider one of the new hybrid tablet/notebook PCs.
  • If you’re on a budget, forget all the fancy features and go with a traditional notebook, which delivers the best bang for the buck.

As you can see, there are lots of choices, and even within these general types, more specific considerations to make. The price you’ll pay depends a lot on the amount of hard disk or solid state storage you get, the size of the display, the amount of internal memory, the speed of the microprocessor, and other technical details. And don’t forget the design; make sure you choose a model you can personally live with, in terms of both style and functionality.

Finally, we have the eternal question of Windows vs. Mac. Windows computers are typically less expensive than comparable Mac models, and in most cases they deliver similar performance. There’s a bit of cachet about Macs, however, especially in the notebook space; fervent Apple users seemingly have no qualms about spending a few more books to get a hip and trendy Mac notebook, like the MacBook Air. I’ll leave this decision up to you; as both Mac and Windows notebooks are good machines, it really is a personal choice.

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