The holiday shopper's guide to laptops

How to find the right notebook at the right price

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Finally, look for a laptop with as many slots as possible. If you care about expandability, you'll want a PC Card slot, and ideally, an ExpressCard slot as well. Both slots let you connect a wide variety of peripherals. You want not only USB 2.0 ports, but also FireWire (IEEE 1394) if you can get it. And look for card slots for removable media, such as CompactFlash, Secure Digital, SmartMedia, MultiMediaCard and Memory Stick, if you think your recipient will want to transfer photos or other media files to the laptop.

Inspiron 1501, courtesy of Dell.

Inspiron 1501, courtesy of Dell.

The price range on Windows laptops is considerable, depending on whether you want a low-end model with only the basics or a high-end screamer capable of playing the latest games. Prices do fluctuate, but you can usually find a laptop with a 15-in. screen, no separate graphics processor, an AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core CPU, 1GB of RAM and an 80GB hard drive for around $550 -- a Dell Inspiron 1501, for example.

On the higher end, you can usually get a laptop such as the HP Pavilion dv6675us with a 2-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Mobile T7200 CPU, 4GB of RAM, an Nvidia GeForce 8400M GS graphics controller with 128MB of memory, a 250GB hard drive and 802.11n wireless for between $1,500 and $1,700.

Area-51 m9750, courtesy of Alienware.

Area-51 m9750, courtesy of Alienware.

And if you need a full-bore machine capable of speedy high-end gaming, you'll have to spend a bundle. For example, an Alienware Area-51 m9750 with dual 512MB Nvidia GeForce Go 8700M GT chips with SLI, a 2.3-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7600 processor, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive, 802.11n wireless and a 17-in. monitor will set you back a whopping $3,600.

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Going with a Mac

If you go for a Mac, your choices are much simpler than if you go the PC route, simply because there are far fewer Macs, with fewer variations. However, our recommendations for specs to look out for remain the same as with Windows laptops.

You'll choose between two lines: the MacBook Pro, available with 15- or 17-in. screen in a brushed aluminum case, and the smaller, lighter MacBook, which has a 13-in. screen in a white or black plastic case.

Both lines come standard with several of the items in our must-have list for laptop purchases:

  • An Intel Core 2 Duo processor
  • At least 1GB of RAM (MacBook Pros come with 2GB and all models can accommodate up to 4GB)
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • 802.11n Wi-Fi
  • FireWire and USB 2.0 ports (MacBook Pros also have ExpressCard/34 slots)
  • A one-year warranty
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