The holiday shopper's guide to laptops

How to find the right notebook at the right price

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They also include several "nice to haves," such as FireWire ports, built-in webcams, and Bluetooth connectivity, that you might pay extra for with PCs. (On the other hand, you could argue that you're paying for these features on Macs whether you want them or not.)

As general rule, the MacBook Pros tend to have higher-end specs than the MacBooks. For example, the MacBooks come with an integrated Intel GMA X3100 graphics processor with 144MB of RAM. To get a better graphics processor, you'll need to go with a MacBook Pro, which includes a slick Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT graphics processor with dual-link DVI support and either 128MB or 256MB of RAM.

MacBook, courtesy of Apple.

MacBook, courtesy of Apple.

That said, however, even the MacBooks offer a fair number of customization options including processor speed, hard drive size, amount of RAM and so on.

MacBooks range from $1,100 to $1,500 before configuration, while MacBook Pros range from $2,000 to $2,800. As with Windows laptops, opting for more memory, a faster processor and/or a bigger hard drive can raise prices considerably.

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Where to buy

Now that you've decided what to buy, it's time to put your money down. As a general rule, you'll get your best deals online rather than in a retail store, and you'll have more choice as well.

But if you shop online, you won't actually get to put your hands on the laptops, and with laptops -- even more so than with desktops -- hands-on experience is important. So after you've narrowed down your choices, visit some retail stores and try out the laptops.

Next it's buying time. There are plenty of great deals to be had online, but often they only last for a day or so and then vanish. To find them, you need to go to bargain-hunting sites that scour the Internet for special deals and offers.

The best of the bargain-hunting sites is slickdeals.net, which every day lists about a half-dozen new deals. Every once in a while, you'll find a great steal here. Dell laptops, in particular, often show up. Recently, for example, I found a Dell Inspiron E1405 Core 2 Duo laptop for $445 less than its normal price.

Keep in mind, though, that often these deals mean that you can't configure a laptop -- they're take-it-as-is-or-leave-it propositions. Other good bargain sites to try include Woot, DealCatcher and Ben's Bargains.

If you're shopping for a specific model rather than looking for a one-time deal at a bargain site, you should check out manufacturer sites as well as online retailers like Buy.com and Newegg.com, because prices can vary considerably among them.

(This is less true of Macs, by the way, since Apple tends to enforce price uniformity. You can sometimes find rebates or add-ons like a free printer if you buy a Mac online, but you're unlikely to save hundreds of dollars.)

Also make sure to check out a price comparison site like PriceGrabber, which compares prices from multiple online retailers. Happy hunting!

And for more great gift ideas, don't miss Computerworld's 2007 Holiday Gift Guide.

Preston Gralla is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of Windows Vista in a Nutshell, from O'Reilly Media.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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