Three simple rules for buying a new laptop

How much RAM do you need? How much storage? And how important is the processor, really?

This is the time of year when friends, family members, casual acquaintances, and people in the street stop me to ask about buying a new PC.

"What should I get?" they ask. "What do I need?" Also heard with increasing frequency: "Should I get a tablet instead of a laptop?"

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Loaded questions, to be sure, but not difficult ones. A tablet can take the place of a laptop if all you do is browse the Web and read e-mail. If you need to get any serious work done, whether for school or business or just everyday life, a laptop is still the smarter choice. It gives you a keyboard, a bigger screen, copious amounts of storage, and compatibility with all your favorite software.

So, what kind of laptop should you get, and with what specs and features? I can make this really simple:

1. Get at least 4GB of RAM.

That's "four gigabytes of memory" for those who don't speak PC. Anything less and your system will run like molasses--something to keep in mind as Black Friday deals roll around. Many "doorbuster" laptops will have only 2GB of RAM, and that's just not enough.

2. If you can afford it, get a system with an SSD.

That's short for "solid-state drive," which has no moving parts and therefore runs faster, generates less heat, and consumes less power than a traditional hard drive. You'll pay a premium for an SSD and end up with less storage space, but how much do you really need? Most folks I know rarely fill up more than 100GB.

Indeed, although a 128GB SSD may seem like a downgrade compared with, say, a 500GB hard drive, the speed benefits alone are worth the extra money.

3. Try before you buy.

Although brick-and-mortar tech stores are few and far between these days, there are still places where you can go and browse laptops in person. And that's something you should definitely do.

Sure, you can shop online based on specs and price, but you owe it to yourself to test-drive the keyboard. And the trackpad. Make sure they're comfortable and responsive. Likewise, check the screen: is it glossy and therefore heavy on the glare? Whenever possible, try to lay hands on a laptop before buying it.

One more "rule."

Notice that I didn't mention the procesor. Unless you're doing heavy-duty video editing or playing a lot of graphics-intensive games, the processor just isn't the big factor it used to be. They're all pretty fast nowadays.

As for brands, I have similar feelings: they're all pretty good nowadays. That said, it's always a good idea to do your homework, starting with PC World's Reliability and Satisfaction surveys.

What other advice would you give to someone shopping for a new laptop?

This story, "Three simple rules for buying a new laptop" was originally published by PCWorld.

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