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Comparing Notebook PCs: A 2013 Holiday Shopping Guide

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It's that time of year again, which means a lot of folks are out shopping for notebook PCs — either for themselves or for family members for Christmas. There are lots of bargains to be had, and a lot of different types of notebook to choose from. 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.
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Do you have a notebook PC on your Christmas wish list? Or do you need to buy a new notebook for a particularly nice (definitely not naughty) family member?

Whether you're shopping for yourself or for someone else, there are a lot of different options available in the notebook PC market today. All of these options can result in some tough choices, however. Should you opt for a traditional (and affordable) notebook or a lightweight (and more expensive) ultrabook? Windows or Mac? Do you need a touchscreen? Or a model that transforms from a traditional notebook to a lighter tablet?

Before you whip out your credit card, you need the straight poop about what's available this holiday season. Read on to become a more informed notebook shopper.

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 are affordable; they tend to run from $300 up to $700 or so. And you get a lot of bang for your buck, too. We're talking screens in the 14” to 16”  range, with 15.6” widescreen models the most popular. You’ll get a decent-sized hard drive, typically 500GB to 750GB, 4GB to 6GB 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 Toshiba Satellite with 15.6” touchscreen display, 4GB memory, and 750GB hard drive

The lowest-priced notebooks have a traditional LED screen, but the higher priced ones (starting at $400 or so) add a touchscreen display. A touchscreen makes it a lot easier to work with Windows 8.1, which is the operating system you're stuck with, so if you can spend a few bucks extra, it's probably worth it.

If you’re in the market for a traditional notebook, look at screen size, hard disk capacity, and price. (And consider a touchscreen, of course.) If you do a lot of typing, you should also check out the unit’s keyboard; most of these models have clunky Chiclet-style keyboards, although some of the higher-end models have more traditional keyboards that serious typists prefer.

Desktop Replacements

If you never use your notebook outside the house, you don't need to worry about portability and battery life. Deskbound notebooks – let's call them desktop replacements – can offer more power for selected operations and a bigger screen.

As you might suspect, a desktop replacement model is typically a larger notebook, with a screen in the 17” range, a larger hard drive (up to 1TB or so), 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, an ASUS model with 17.3” screen, 8GB memory, and 1TB hard drive

Why would you choose a desktop replacement model? This type of notebook is appealing if you run a lot of powerful productivity programs, such as video and photo editing. You also get enough to run demanding PC games, which make these types of notebook particularly appealing to hard-core gamers.

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 well above the $1,000 mark. 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, which is particularly appealing to business travelers. 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 ultrabook 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 touchscreen displays, which is nice when you’re using the new touch-enabled Windows 8.1 operating system – which is what you get with all non-Mac PCs today. With a touchscreen ultrabook you can type and use the trackpad with traditional desktop apps, then reach up and swipe the screen for newer Modern-style apps.

Naturally, you pay extra for all these trendy features. Ultrabooks are priced somewhat higher than similar traditional notebooks, typically in the $800 to $1200 range for Windows models. Apple's MacBook Air starts at $999 and goes up – way up – from there.

Chromebooks

If all you need is something to check email and browse the web – that is, something to supplement your main PC – then consider going with a smaller, lighter, and less expensive Chromebook. A Chromebook is a smallish (11"-12" screen) notebook sans hard disk and CD/DVD drive that runs Google's Chrome OS instead of Windows.

Because there's no internal storage to speak of, a Chromebook is dependent on the Internet to connect to cloud-based apps and storage. That's not much of a problem these days, where most of us are within spitting distance of a strong Wi-Fi hotspot – even on a long plane trip.

What you get with a Chromebook is blazing-fast speed and extra-long battery life, all in a small and lightweight package. Chromebooks are also very low priced, which accounts for at least part of their appeal. The best-selling models (from Acer, Samsung, and HP) run between $200-$250. It's tough to beat that price.

Figure 4 Samsung's Chromebook, with 11.6" display, 2GB memory, and 16GB solid state storage

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.) Some models, like the Microsoft Surface 2, are actually tablets to which you can add external keyboards or docking stations.

Figure 5 Microsoft's Surface 2 – add a keyboard and the tablet turns into a hybrid PC

All hybrid PCs have touchscreen displays, which you can operate with your fingers in either notebook or tablet mode. This type of device is perfect for using the Windows 8.1 operating system; you can tap or touch, depending on what you’re doing.

For example, Lenovo’s IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro is a 13.3” Windows 8.1 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 6 The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro 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. For that price, you can buy a traditional notebook and a mini tablet, and have two devices for the price of one – instead of one device for the price (and function) of two.

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 you have a main PC and plan to use your notebook primarily to watch movies, browse Facebook, and check your email, then consider a low-priced Chromebook.
  • If your notebook is your main PC but you don't plan to do anything too strenuous (like game-playing or video editing), go with a traditional notebook. This type of notebook is equally good for light-weight stuff like watching movies and tweeting, as well as day-to-day productivity work in Microsoft Office.
  • If your work includes using more demanding applications, such as photo or video editing, or if you're a hardcore gamer, then choose a desktop replacement model. Just don't expect it to be extremely portable.
  • If you need to combine serious work with lightweight portability, and price isn’t a big factor, invest in an ultrabook.
  • If you need 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.
  • Finally, 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.

Whether you're browsing the physical aisles of your local big-box retailer or the virtual aisles of an online reseller, you'll find lots of choices in the notebook PC department. Try to get the best bang for your buck, especially when it comes to the amount of hard disk or solid state storage included, 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 or MacBook Pro. I’ll leave this decision up to you; both Mac and Windows notebooks are good machines, so it really is a personal choice.

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