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PC Advisor's ultimate guide to buying a laptop

From ultraportables to tablets - we've got them covered

There's a huge array of choice when it comes to laptops, but with everything from netbooks and ultraportables to machines suitable for gaming and those designed to withstand use in rural locations, which should you choose. We've put together the ultimate laptop guide to help you decide.

Mobile workstation

Let's say you have to do some CAD design work, analyse the data from an oil exploration project or simulate a complex scientific concept hundreds of miles from your office. Today's mobile engineering workstations can do all this in a hotel room, a construction trailer or a tent in the Amazon.

This class of laptop stretches the concept of portable, with cases that are wider and heavier than any other variety. They offer the best of everything, including the fastest Intel Core 2 Duo Extreme or Quad CPUs, and feature 64bit operations.

While 2 or 4GB will suffice for all other systems, these are RAM hogs with room for 16GB. These machines have plenty of storage potential with a pair of 500GB hard drives, either to offer a terabyte of file space or the ability to mirror everything so that nothing is ever lost to a dead drive.

Visualisation is what counts, but rather than pushing games, movies and TV, they excel in CAD, animation and graphing large data sets. Look for a graphics engine that can handle the rigours of workstation graphics, with at least 1GB of dedicated video memory.

Screens for this type of machine begin at 17in and have extra-high resolution, but that's just the start. Lenovo's ThinkPad W700ds has a second pull-out 10.6in screen that can either operate independently or extend the base display to create a 3200x1968 resolution composite screen, although there's an annoying black plastic strip between the displays.

If you have to ask how much, chances are these super-systems are out of reach. There are models that start at about £1,000, but with the right amount of video memory, RAM and hard drives, they can come close to £7,000 - about the price of 20 budget laptops.

Mobile workstations at a glance

Target audience: The ultimate power tool, a mobile workstation can help an engineer churn through complex tasks or an animation artist create detailed work.

Pros: Top performance and graphics are essential for CAD, scientific and other computationally heavy tasks; some add a second screen.

Cons: These mobile workstations are huge and can weigh over 5kg, and because they have the best of everything, their price tags are in the stratosphere.

Typical size / weight: 406x305x51mm/ 5kg

Screen size: 17in (one model with second 10.6in screen included).

CPU / RAM: 2.5 to 3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, Core 2 Duo Extreme or Core 2 Quad / 2 to 16GB

Storage: Single or dual hard drives with up to 1TB storage.

Ports and connections: 4 to 5 USB ports; VGA, DVI or DisplayPort; audio; Ethernet; and eSATA; sometimes FireWire.

Price range: £1,500 to £7,000.

Examples: Dell Precision M6400 Covet, Lenovo ThinkPad W700ds

Buying tips: Load it up with as much video memory as you can afford for superior screen action.

  1. From ultraportables to tablets - we've got them covered
  2. Ultramobile PCs
  3. Netbooks
  4. Ultraslim
  5. Thin and light
  6. Tablet PCs
  7. Rugged PCs
  8. Budget laptops
  9. Mainstream
  10. Entertainment machines
  11. Gaming machines
  12. Mobile workstations

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