Choosing the best laptop, notebook and netbook PCs: Buyer’s Guide review

Choosing and buying the best portable computer for you
Photo of Choosing the best laptop, notebook and netbook PCs: Buyer’s Guide

Buying a new laptop can be a daunting experience. The market is filled with devices from ultra-portable netbooks to high-end desktop replacements that will likely snap you in half if you try to carry them around on a daily basis. What type of laptop you need very much depends on the way you plan to use your machine – but whichever you choose, ITReviews is here to help you through the process.

The good news is that with such a competitive market come competitive prices – and for the first time, it’s perfectly possible to get a general-use laptop for less than £300. And while those with very specific requirements will doubtless need to pay significantly more, laptops are still cheaper than they’ve ever been – and recent advances in technology mean they can even be an option for gamers, too.

The market is split into three main segments: ultra-portables, notebooks, and desktop replacements:

Ultra-portables are, as the name suggests, designed to be carried around and used on the go. Often weighing in at as little as 1kg, battery life competes with the need for a slim, lightweight design in these compact devices – meaning that processing performance is usually a lesser consideration in their design.

Ultra-portables also have a cousin in the form of the netbook – a tiny, shrunken device with a screen typically no larger than 10 inches, and a relatively underpowered processor. The down side to buying an ultra-portable is that size constraints mean they often lack an optical drive.

Notebook PCs
Notebooks are the more traditional laptops. They’re not terribly heavy, but you wouldn’t want to carry one around for a long period of time either. Despite the extra size available, battery life often suffers compared to higher-priced ultra-portables, due to their bigger displays and tendency to use more powerful components and dedicated graphics hardware. The additional space afforded in the chassis by the inclusion of a 15in or larger display does, however, mean that optical drives are the norm in this category.

Desktop replacements
Desktop replacement systems, which are available for both the professional and gaming – and professional gaming, for that matter – markets, are desktop computers in all but name. You can, technically, carry them from A to B, but you certainly wouldn’t want to do so often.

They’re large, heavy, and often have poor battery life. The flip side to that equation, however, is performance: fitted with high-end processors, large hard drives, and excellent dedicated graphics chips, desktop replacement systems are perfect if you need some serious power under the hood.

As with the current desktop market, the laptop market is dominated at all levels by Intel. The company’s Core-i3, Core-i5, and Core-i7 ranges of processors make up the vast majority of mainstream systems and performance systems, while cheaper processors based on the ageing Celeron and Pentium lines or the ultra-low power Atom design make up the budget market.

AMD, the other company currently producing major quantities of laptop chips, doesn’t have much to offer in its current designs. While you’ll find laptops with processors like the AMD Athlon II Neo X2, the performance traditionally lags behind a similarly-specified chip from Intel – and draws more power, too, with a predictable effect on battery life.

Solid-state disks
If you’re buying a device at the top-end of the market, you’ll be given one more choice to make: mechanical or solid-state storage. With increasing numbers of high-end laptops, such as Apple’s MacBook Air ultra-portable, opting for SSD as the main storage devices, the days of the mechanical drive are starting to look shaky. Be sure to have your requirements in mind, though: an SSD offers improved performance and a boost to battery life, but a mechanical drive is significantly cheaper and usually stores more data.

As with any purchasing decision like this, it’s important to decide where in the market you fit: a budget buy, a mainstream buyer, or a premium buyer.

If you’re buying on a budget and are looking for an ultra-portable, there’s one key area to start with: netbooks. Designed to offer a full computing experience in a device a fraction of the size of a traditional laptop, netbooks are extremely common – and often cheap.

A netbook is characterised by a small display – usually 10in or less – and an Intel Atom processor. The compact form factor makes them easy to carry around, although the keyboards are often too small to type comfortably for long periods of time.

NB520 Review

Most ultra-portables in the budget category are netbooks like Toshiba’s NB520.

The small display sizes and low-power nature of Intel’s Atom chip mean that modern netbooks come with impressive battery life: the best on the market can offer a full ten hours of usable computing from a single charge, which isn’t something you’ll find in the larger models at a similar price range.

Sadly, this excellent battery life comes at a cost: Intel’s Atom processor is designed for low power consumption rather than high performance, and can struggle on complicated tasks. And while many netbooks come with Windows as their installed operating system, many desktop applications struggle to run acceptably on an Atom-based netbook.

Budget notebooks
If performance is more important than portability and battery life, the majority of budget laptops are in the notebook category. At this price level, the overwhelming majority of devices feature single- or dual-core processors and a 15.6-inch display – although 13.3-inch and 14-inch models are becoming increasingly common.

At the budget level, you can expect between 2GB and 3GB of RAM, integrated Intel HD graphics – or, in some models, an Nvidia GeForce or AMD Radeon HD chip from a few generations ago – and a battery life of around two to three hours.

While some models may come with an integrated Blu-ray reader, the majority will instead feature a DVD-RW drive along with a hard drive of around 250GB. Increasingly common is the memory card reader, which costs manufacturers little to include and makes it significantly easier to take photos off a digital camera.

When buying a laptop on a budget, expect to pay around £300. Any more than that, and you’re edging into mainstream territory.

While ultra-portables that aren’t netbooks were exclusive to the premium market for years, recent advances in low-power processors mean that it’s increasingly common to find slimline laptops in the mid-range market – and that’s good news for anyone looking to upgrade from a weedy netbook.

Mid-range ultra-portables
While the thinnest of the thin, like Dell’s Adamo XPS or Apple’s MacBook Air, still fetch extremely high prices, cheaper alternatives are still available. In the last couple of years, there’s been an explosion in mid-range models featuring 12in, 13.3in, and 14in displays that don’t cost the earth.

The majority of these devices feature Intel’s Core 2 Duo or Core i3 ULV – or Ultra-Low Voltage – processors, chips specifically designed to draw a bare minimum of power while still providing decent levels of performance. While they offer significantly more grunt than even the best Atom chip, they do draw more power.

The battery life of a mainstream ultra-portable is usually pretty good. You won’t match the ten hours of a premium ultra-portable or a netbook, but you should find that between five and seven hours is achievable without breaking the budget.

Mid-range notebooks
If portability and battery life aren’t your concern, the choices widen. As with the budget market, the majority of machines around use a 15.6in display – meaning they’re portable, but perhaps a little uncomfortable for long journeys on foot.

Acer - Aspire AS5750G

Mid-range15.6in laptops such as Acer’s Aspire AS5750G offer a good mix of performance and portability.

The good news is that by adding a bit of cash to the budget, it’s possible to get a seriously powerful machine. Widescreen displays and Dolby-certified sound systems are readily available, as are models with Blu-ray readers integrated for high-definition films on the go.

Gamers should be able to play most older titles on a mainstream system, too. Many mid-range notebooks include a dedicated graphics chip from AMD or Nvidia’s last-generation ranges, and while they lack the power of their desktop counterparts they perform remarkably well with the graphics settings turned down to the minimum.

Whether you’re buying an ultra-portable or a larger notebook, you can expect to spend around £600 at this level. If you’ve got a bigger budget, or you need gaming performance, you’re probably in the premium category.

As a premium buyer, money is – almost – no object. You want top performance, and you want it now. When you start spending this kind of cash, the market splits into two clear divisions: ultra-portables and desktop replacements.

Premium ultra-portables
As a premium buyer, you’ll be disappointed to hear that spending more on your ultra-portable doesn’t necessarily get you increased performance over the cheaper mainstream models. Instead, you get a complete physical redesign into a chassis designed to evoke awe and wonder in all who see it.

The premium ultra-portable market is currently dominated by two models – Dell’s Adamo XPS and Apple’s MacBook Air – though the recently reviewed Samsung 900X3A gives them a run for thei money. Both market leaders are thin enough to almost disappear when viewed side-on, and both will set you back a significant amount of money.

Samsung 900X3A

Samsung’s 900X3A is a new entrant to the premium ultra-portable class.

The overwhelming majority of premium ultra-portables ditch mechanical hard drives and integrated optical drives for reasons of space, using optional USB-connected optical drives and solid-state storage devices instead. SSDs bring major improvements, including silent operation, lower power draw, and faster load times, but generally offer significantly less capacity than mechanical hard drives – you can expect to get 256GB as an absolute maximum from a laptop with an SSD, and you’ll be paying a serious premium for that.

Desktop replacements
If portability isn’t your major requirement, the other end of the premium market is in desktop replacements. Featuring large displays – 17in or even 19in – and powerful processors, they offer the ultimate in performance for high-end professional or gaming use.

The large chassis of desktop replacements enable them to pack in impressive sound systems, usually with Dolby and sometimes even THX certification, and couple it with impressively powerful graphics chips from AMD or Nvidia. Some even allow two graphics chips to be added to a single laptop, using CrossFireX or SLI to boost performance still further.

Performance, however, still lags behind that of true desktop systems: it’s just not possible create a mobile graphics chip that can have the same bulky cooling system as a desktop graphics card, meaning the specifications have to be toned down. Laptops are also difficult – if not near-impossible in some cases – to upgrade, so be careful if you’re buying a desktop replacement as a gaming machine.

Dell XPS 17 L702X

Desktop replacement laptops like Dell’s XPS 17 offer high performance, but are still no match for the fastest desktop systems.

Whichever you buy, you can expect to spend £1,300 and upwards – with features such as large SSDs and multiple graphics chips causing the price to increase rapidly.