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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.

Rugged

There's no denying that laptops are fragile; normal daily use by an energetic traveler is often enough to trash even the best-made system. By contrast, rugged systems have been designed to be stronger, less prone to damage and more reliable even in the harshest conditions, including extreme heat, cold, moisture or dryness or during heavy vibrations.

That's why you see them in all kinds of demanding environments, from police cars to construction sites to soldiers' backpacks in Afghanistan.

Manufacturers of rugged laptops often put their systems through rigorous testing - including dropping the system 3 feet, spraying it with water, trying to shake it to pieces and other insults.

But not all rugged laptops are created equal. To begin with, there are fully rugged systems, such as the Panasonic ToughBook, that start with a stout magnesium frame for mounting components that can take the slings and arrows of outrageous abuse and come back for more.

The base and lid are often clad in super-strong magnesium, the ports have doors or rubber seals to keep out the elements, and sensitive components, such as the hard drive and screen, are shock mounted to take a beating.

All that armour adds up to a case that's an inch thicker and often heavier than comparable non-ruggedised systems. That's why many come with a handle that makes carrying the rugged notebook a little easier.

By contrast, semi-rugged notebooks, such as Dell's Latitude E6400, may have plastic screen lids and don't cover all their ports. They are also thinner, lighter and cheaper.

To maximise reliability, both fully and semi-rugged systems often use older and slower (but proven) components. Forget about getting the latest processors or high-speed hard drives; these machines are about reliably getting the job done, even if you have to wait.

Because these are rugged, outdoorsy types of laptops, their options go beyond what you can get on a normal system. Some have heaters for hard drives and screens so they'll work fine in subzero temperatures, and many have optional backlit keyboards so you can type in the dead of night. Others have a touch-sensitive screen for drawing a map of the countryside or marking up a repair manual with notes.

These laptops don't come cheap. Typically they cost between £2,000 and £3,000, depending on options, and semi-rugged go for about £700 less. But if reliability counts for everything, they're more than worth it.

Rugged laptops at a glance

Target audience: Rugged systems can survive drops, sand storms and even the odd spilt cup of coffee, so they're perfect for public safety, military and utility workers, as well as those who are very clumsy.

Pros: A rugged laptop will continue to work when others give up, reducing downtime and lost data.

Cons: The heavy-duty hardware makes them big, heavy and very expensive, costing several times more than non-rugged machines with comparable specs.

Typical size / weight: 304x279x76mm / 4kg

Screen size: 12.1 to 14.1in

CPU / RAM: 1.6 to 2.3GHz Intel Core 2 Duo / 1 to 4GB

Storage: 80 to 160GB HDD or up to 128GB SSD

Ports and connections: 2 to 3 USB ports, VGA, audio, Ethernet sometimes FireWire

Price range: £2,000 and £3,000 for rugged; £1,800 to £2,400 for semi-rugged.

Examples: Dell Latitude E6400 ATG (semi-rugged), Panasonic ToughBook 30 (rugged).

Buying tips: If your work takes you out into the night and cold, get a backlit keyboard and a heated hard drive.

NEXT PAGE: budget laptops

  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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