The holiday shopper's guide to laptops

How to find the right notebook at the right price

Looking to buy a laptop this holiday season? The choices can be mind-boggling, with countless models and configurations to choose from.

In fact, though, it's not that tough to figure out which laptop to buy, and then get a great deal on it. Follow our advice, and you won't go wrong.

The most basic decision you'll make, of course, is whether to go with a Mac or a PC. As with religion, this is a personal choice upon which we won't impinge. So we'll start off with advice for a PC, then provide information for buying a Mac laptop. We'll end our guide with tips for finding laptop bargains.

If you buy a Windows laptop

Let's start with the basics -- the processor. It's this simple: Buy a laptop with dual-core processor, such as Intel's Core Duo mobile or Core 2 Duo mobile (the Core 2 Duo is faster than the Core Duo), or the AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core processor or AMD Turion 64 X2 Dual Core processor (the Turion is faster than the Athlon).

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For most users, the speed of the processor itself doesn't matter too much as long as it's dual-core. Dual-core processors are faster than single cores -- particularly when multitasking -- and save power as well, so you'll get longer battery life with them.

You may also find laptops with the Intel Core 2 Extreme mobile processor, which has four cores instead of two. As a practical matter, four cores won't make a dramatic difference compared to two cores, considering that applications haven't yet been written to take advantage of four cores. So if a four-core laptop costs a good deal more than a two-core one, it's probably not worth the extra money.

For RAM, consider 1GB a minimum, and get more if you can afford it. A 2GB laptop will have sufficient power for just about anything a typical user will do, although you might want to opt for a 4GB laptop for a hardcore gamer.

Most people overlook one of the most important laptop specs -- graphics processing. Frequently, laptops use an integrated graphics controller rather than a separate graphics card, which can be problematic not only for gamers, but even for those running Windows Vista Home Premium.

Unless you know the recipient is going to stick to computing basics such as e-mail and word processing, it's a good idea to get a notebook with a dedicated graphics controller, which can enhance such activities as managing a photo library or watching videos online. Gamers need a higher-end card, such as the Nvidia GeForce 8700M GT. If your recipient doesn't play games, though, a card such as the Nvidia GeForce 8400M GS will be fine.

As for how much graphics memory you need, you might want 512MB for gamers, while for general computing 256MB or even 128MB will do.

If you expect that your gift recipient's graphics needs will grow and that he might ultimately want to have more than one graphics processor in his laptop, look for machines that have Scalable Link Interface (SLI), which allows the laptop to use multiple graphics chips.

The rest of the laptop specs are fairly straightforward. You'll want as big a hard disk as you can reasonably afford (your recipient can always add external storage later), a DVD burner and a minimum one-year warranty. As a general rule, the larger the screen, the heavier the laptop and the shorter the battery life, so keep that in mind when buying. If your laptop recipient is a road warrior who spends a lot of time on long airplane flights, consider upgrading to a longer-lasting battery.

If possible, look for a laptop with built-in 802.11n wireless capabilities rather than just 802.11g. That way, when the 802.11n standard becomes widely used, the laptop will be able to take advantage of its faster speeds. Similarly, if you can get a Gigabit Ethernet connection built in, opt for that rather than the more common, slower Ethernet connection.

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