Laptop buying guide: Making sense of the specifications


Laptop buying guide Making sense of the specifications - Laptop buying guide: Making sense of the specifications

Once you’ve determined which category of laptop best suits your needs, it’s time to check the specs. You have to choose from a variety of options for processor, RAM, graphics, display and other features. It’s difficult to decide what you need and what you can live without, but it’s important to choose a laptop you love at a price you can afford. If you don’t understand the specs, you could be saving money but missing out on the features and performance you need, or you could be overspending on things you don’t really need.


The CPU is the heart of every computer and is responsible for running the operating system and all the applications you use. A faster CPU means faster-running programs, but usually also means less battery life and a more expensive laptop. Almost every laptop has a CPU from AMD or Intel.

When you buy a netbook you will find that it uses an Intel Atom processor. You won’t see a particularly noticeable difference in performance between the Atom chips you’ll find on modern systems, but the newer N450 Atom processors offer slightly better battery life.

Ultraportable PCs generally use low-voltage AMD or Intel processors. These chips are typically dual-core CPUs, which are quite similar to the regular notebook CPUs found in larger laptops, but run at much lower clock speeds (e.g. 1.2GHz instead of 2.1GHz). Many processors — too many to list here — are available in this group, but when shopping, you can follow a few general rules: More cache is preferable, and higher clock speeds are better, but drain the battery a little faster. AMD’s CPUs are a bit slower than Intel’s, but flexible in price. Also note that some ultraportables don’t use low-voltage CPUs and are significantly faster (but have shorter battery life) than those that do.

General purpose and desktop replacement laptops offer both dual-core and quad-core CPUs at various speeds. Intel’s Core i3 and Core i5 CPUs are excellent for most users; Only people who really need a quad-core CPU (e.g. to encode videos, play games or run technical applications) need to look for a Core i7 quad-core processor. Again, more cache and higher clock speeds are better, but any CPU above 2.0 GHz is fast enough to handle all the basics, like playing music, browsing the web and playing web games, viewing online videos, and managing email.

You will still find many laptops on sale with Core 2 Duo CPUs, which are Intel’s previous generation of dual-core chips. These models are perfectly fine for most tasks – just avoid the ones with low clock speeds and small caches (1MB or 2MB) if you can. Be wary of cheap laptops with Intel Celeron or Pentium CPUs, or those with AMD Sempron CPUs. These processors help laptop manufacturers keep prices down, but they do so at the expense of performance.


The GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) in a computer is not only useful for playing games. This piece of silicon is ultimately responsible for everything you see on the screen, from 3D games to the simple desktop. Perhaps more importantly for some people, many GPUs can speed up video decoding: With the latest version of Adobe Flash and the right GPU, web videos from Hulu or YouTube will run smoother and look better (especially if you have a netbook or ultraportable laptop). with weaker CPU).

Most laptops come with a choice of either integrated graphics (from Intel or AMD) or a discrete GPU (from nVidia or ATI, AMD’s graphics division). Integrated graphics are either built into the system chipset (the “traffic cop” that controls the flow of data in the system) or, in newer systems, into the CPU itself. They share main system memory with the CPU. Discrete GPUs are individual chips dedicated solely to graphics and have their own pool of memory, resulting in far better performance.

Intel integrated GPUs are generally pretty bad: they don’t run 3D games well and their video decoding is lackluster. The GPUs built into the new Core i5 CPUs are much better than previous integrated graphics, but still not as good as dedicated ATI or nVidia graphics. If you plan to play games other than the occasional web-based distraction, you probably want discrete graphics. You will find many graphics chips to choose from, but in general the ATI 5000 series is faster than the comparable 4000 series models and the nVidia 300 series is faster than the comparable 200 series. Within each series, the more expensive models are faster: ATI’s Mobility Radeon HD 5850 is faster than the Mobility Radeon 5650, and nVidia’s GeForce 330M is faster than the GeForce 310M, for example.

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