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.

When it comes to the laptop market, you've got almost no end of choice. But for many buyers, more choice equals more confusion. So which should you opt for?

From budget machines and netbooks to gaming and tablet PCs, there's a machine out there to suit every need. We've put together a guide to all the different types of laptop, which should help point you towards your ideal notebook. We consulted laptop designers, industry analysts and a few mobile mavens, then boiled down what's available into 11 different laptop types.

Arranged by size, weight and performance, these notebook categories range from minimalist ultramobiles to monstrous mobile engineering workstations. They're presented with key features, typical specifications and a range of prices you can expect to pay, as well as reasons to buy or not buy each. To bring this exercise down to earth, each category has a few example models.

The best entry point for buyers is to start by picking the category that makes the most sense for how you work and play. But don't get too caught up in the categories themselves - they should be treated as rough guides, not destinations.

For example, if you're interested in a mainstream system but can't find exactly what you're looking for, try considering if a budget laptop with a few options or maybe even a large netbook would do better to satisfy your needs.

For further laptop buying advice, why not check out the Ultimate guide to buying a netbook and Netbooks meet smartphones - the next big thing? which look solely that the netbook market.

NEXT PAGE: Ultramobile PCs

  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


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.

Ultramobile PCs (UMPCs)

Small and travel-ready, ultramobile PCs (UMPCs) are the Lilliputians of the laptop world. These small wonders are ideal for those who don't want to weigh themselves down when on the go.

The smallest of the small, many UMPCs often lack many of the amenities of mobile life we've become accustomed to, with minimal ports for connections, screens that are about half the size of traditional laptops and barely enough RAM to run Windows XP (and especially Vista) reliably. But it is their tiny keys that disappoint UMPC users the most. On some systems, even typing a web address is tough going.

While clamshell designs with hinged-lid displays still dominate the category, new formats are starting to appear. Take Samsung's Q1 Ultra, which has a tablet shape with a miniscule keyboard that's split on either side of the screen. Other new designs mimic mobile phones, with keyboards that slide out from the case.

These machines can handle the day-to-day routine of scheduling appointments, staying in touch and accessing corporate data. In other words, for many, the UMPC is a constant digital companion and career lifeline. Super-mobility is the operative concept here, and many UMPCs have optional GPS navigation receivers and can access 3G mobile phone networks for always-on data.

But all this miniaturisation comes at a high price. Despite being cramped and underpowered, UMPCs don't come cheap. At between £900 and £1,500, they sell for the price of three budget machines. Still, they're so small that they go places the others can't.

Ultramobile PCs at a glance

Target audience: This is the machine for those who absolutely must have a PC with them but need to travel extremely light, such as salespeople, traveling repair technicians and mobile data junkies.

Pros: UMPCs are tiny, weigh just over half a kilo and are extremely mobile.

Cons: They are so small that everything is undersized and underpowered; plus, these small wonders can be expensive.

Typical size/weight: 178x127x25mm/600g

Screen size: 5 to 7in

CPU/RAM: 600MHz to 1.6GHz Intel Ultra Mobile or Atom / 512MB to 1GB

Storage: 40 to 120GB HDD or 32GB to 64GB SSD

Ports and connections: 1 to 4 USB ports, VGA, audio, Ethernet and flash card slots

Price range: £900 and £1,500

Examples: HTC Shift, Samsung Q1 Ultra

Buying tips: Before you buy, try one out in person to see if your fingers can manage the tiny keyboard. Also, if available, GPS and 3G network data cards can come in very handy.

NEXT PAGE: Netbooks

  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


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.

Netbooks

The runaway sales hit of 2008 (and possibly 2009), netbooks are an entirely new species of the mobile ecosystem that do something once considered impossible. By providing minimal processing power and viewing space in an economical package, netbooks can be inexpensive without being thick and heavy.

Asus's Eee PC started it all off as the first commercial netbook, but was quickly joined by Acer's Aspire One, HP's Mini Note models, and Sony's Vaio P series. It seems that every time we look around there's another netbook on the market. In other words, shop carefully.

Netbooks, whose screens range from 7 to 10in, are perfect as a person's second or third computer for home, travel or student use. With downsized keyboards, screens and ambitions, netbooks often leave you waiting for apps to open or tasks to complete. They won't win any awards for performance, but some provide more than five hours of battery life.

To cut the price tag to the absolute minimum, some systems come with a small amount of flash memory storage and a Linux operating system by default rather than a larger hard drive and Windows.

While you won't be able to use all the Windows-based applications you're accustomed to on these machines, you will be able to view, work on and save most of your files, such as images, videos and Microsoft Office documents, with included or downloadable Linux-based programs.

While early netbooks came with just 4 or 8GB of flash storage, newer models have larger capacities. The Sony Vaio P, for instance, includes a 128MB SSD or a 60GB hard drive.

The least expensive netbooks start at about £200, but newer 'premium' models can rise to over £500. Because they might have trouble standing up to daily use and abuse, you might consider getting an extended warranty for any netbook. However, that this can add 50 percent to the price tag, making it less of a bargain.

Netbooks at a glance

Target audience: Providing the bare minimum, netbooks are for those who need an extremely inexpensive mobile system without much power or screen real estate.

Pros: They're cheap, small and light.

Cons: Netbooks often have uninspiring performance and undersized everything.

Typical size / weight: 254x178x25mm/ 750g to 1.5Kg

Screen size: 7 to 10in

CPU / RAM: 1.3 to 1.6GHz Intel Atom / 1 to 2GB

Storage: 60 to 160GB HDD or 2 to 128GB SSD

Ports and connections: 2 to 3 USB ports, VGA, audio, Ethernet; some require an adapter for VGA or Ethernet

Price range: £250 to £500

Examples: Acer Aspire One, Asus Eee PC, HP Mini Note, Sony Vaio P Lifestyle PC

Buying tips: Some of the cheapest netbooks have a Linux operating system rather than Windows; be sure you know which you're getting.

NEXT PAGE: ultraslim

  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


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.

Ultraslim

It's funny, but ultraslim laptops are defined more by what they do without than by what's included. To thin the machines down to their positively anorexic profiles, some laptop designers have cut out as much bone and muscle as fat, potentially reducing the system's usefulness on the road.

Still, because of their razor-thin profiles, these are the executive status symbols of our time. When you're carrying a beauty like the Apple MacBook Air and the Dell Adamo, those making do with a lesser model can only look on with PC envy.

Rather than the tiny screens and cramped keyboards offered by UMPCs and netbooks, this class delivers grown-up displays of 12.1 to 13.4in and full-size (or close to it) keyboards. With low-voltage processors, which consume less energy than most CPUs, they have just enough power for most everyday tasks.

This type of machine is really meant for reviewing the work of others, doing some web work, pounding out hundreds of emails a day and occasionally giving a presentation.

With jaw-dropping looks and the fastest processor in its class, the MacBook Air is the laptop to beat in this category. But it offers less than meets the eye because some of its parts - like its battery and hard drive - can't be easily upgraded or swapped.

Plus, it lacks an optical drive and has just one USB port, and connecting to a wired network or an external monitor (other than Apple's own monitors that support the Mini DisplayPort connector) requires an adaptor. This makes it less than road-ready.

Rather than a hard drive, ultraslims can be fitted with a 32, 64, or 128GB SSD for saving files; models with a 256GB SSD should be available later this year. This solid state storage is much less fragile than a hard drive and can increase an ultraslim system's performance, but it can also add £500 or more to the system's already pricey bottom line.

Ultraslims at a glance

Target audience: Made for executives on the go, these systems are as thin as laptops get these days.

Pros: Thin is in with this class of system, which easily slips into and out of a bag.

Cons: No DVD drive on some; limited ports, storage space and RAM upgradeability may reduce their useful life; and they can be very expensive.

Typical size / weight: 300x228x1 0r 2mmin /1kg

Screen size: 12.1 to 13.4in

CPU / RAM: 1.2 to 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo / 1 to 4GB

Storage: 120GB HDD or 64 to 128GB SSD.

Ports and connections: 1 to 2 USB ports; VGA, DisplayPort or Mini DisplayPort; audio; sometimes Ethernet; some require an adaptor for Ethernet or VGA.

Price range: £1,300 to £2,400.

Examples: Apple MacBook Air, Dell Adamo.

Buying tips: An external DVD is a natural add-on for a super-slim system that lacks an internal one.

NEXT PAGE: thin and light

  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


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.

Thin and light

From the start, the thin-and-light category has suffered from something of an identity crisis. That's because there are many laptops on the market that are thinner and lighter, but the tag stuck. Today, it defines the minimum computer needed for the majority of mobile workers.

Smaller and significantly more mobile than traditional mainstream laptops, yet larger and more economical than the ultraslim class of laptop, each thin and light design has a different way of balancing size, weight, power and cost. Systems such as Toshiba's Satellite U405 weigh about 2Kg and have been designed to meet the needs of those who work on the road.

Along with screens that measure up 14in, these systems have up-to-date - though not always the fastest - processors and midrange hard drives. Although most have webcams and Bluetooth, this class of laptop cuts corners on video.

A typical thin-and-light machine is fine for emails, web surfing and even a little video conferencing, but the graphics engine often lacks dedicated memory, which cuts into its visual abilities.

Lenovo's ThinkPad T400 may start a trend by packing two graphics accelerators into certain configurations. They let you toggle between maximum battery life with Intel graphics and system memory or peak performance with an ATI graphics chip that has 256MB of video RAM.

It is truly amazing how much can be stuffed into a thin and light's case. This genre has near-full-size keyboards, optical drives and a good assortment of ports, although some manufacturers exclude FireWire from the mix.

Happily for corporate buyers, it's also where security starts to enter the equation, with fingerprint scanners, smart cards and Trusted Platform Modules available on many models. This makes a thin-and-light notebook not only a lean machine but a secure one as well.

Thin and light laptops at a glance

Target audience: Thin and light systems are for mobile types who spend as much time reading documents as creating them, but aren't prepared to pay the 'ultraslim tax'.

Pros: A good balance for frequent travelers, these systems offer more power than UMPCs, netbooks or ultraslim notebooks in a slightly larger package.

Cons: Audio and graphics lack the punch of larger and more expensive systems.

Typical size / weight: 330x228x25mm / 2Kg

Screen size: 13.3 to 14.1in

CPU / RAM: 2.0 to 2.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo or AMD Turion X2 Dual-Core Mobile / 2 to 4GB

Storage: 160 to 320GB HDD

Ports and connections: 2 to 3 USB ports, VGA or MiniDisplayPort, audio, Ethernet, sometimes FireWire
Price range: £600 to £1,200.

Examples: Apple MacBook, Lenovo ThinkPad T400, Toshiba Satellite U405.

Buying tips: Get a docking station for expanded connections at home or the office.

NEXT PAGE: Tablet PCs

  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


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.

Tablet PCs

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but for decades the keyboard has ruled the laptop roost. The two try to get along in a tablet PC, which provides the best of both mobile worlds.

While there are slate tablet designs that do without the keyboard altogether, most tablets are convertibles. They replace the traditional laptop display with a touchscreen mounted on an articulated hinge that allows the panel to swivel and fold over the keyboard. This creates a space for viewing and writing.

Tablets are great for scribbling notes at a meeting, sketching your killer new product idea or drawing a map for a new factory, and then flipping the screen over and typing a memo about it. However, this genre has caught on only in niches, such as sales teams and schools.

The weak reception by most buyers has a lot to do with the £150 to £350 that tablets tack on for the extra engineering, hardware and software required. Look for the first generation of tablet netbooks later this year that will cut prices to the bone.

Most tablets require a special electromagnetic stylus with which to write. The stylus seems especially easy to lose and costs about £20; it's a good idea to get an extra one. Some manufacturers include ways to physically tether the pen to the unit, but that can look like a ball and chain.

Most have 12.1 to 14.1in screens powered by video engines that draw on system memory. These screens require an extra layer to make them sensitive to the stylus, which can make them appear fuzzy compared to standard displays.

There is an important option to consider when buying a tablet. Many manufacturers offer a special screen that doesn't get washed out in direct sunlight. This makes a tablet the perfect companion for outdoor workers, such as a phone installer or someone who surveys property.

Tablet PCs at a glance

Target audience: Just as good for those who need to sketch a map and sign a form as for those typing a memo, convertible tablets are for mobile types who need a computer with a split personality.

Pros: A tablet can fulfill two widely different usage scenarios with one machine, yet it folds up nicely to hit the road.

Cons: Because of the extra hardware, tablets are surprisingly thick, heavy and expensive, and the complex hinge required to convert between keyboard and stylus modes is easy to break.

Typical size / weight: 305x254x41mm / 2-2.5kg

Screen size: 12.1 to 14.1in

CPU / RAM: 1.2 to 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo / 1 to 4GB

Storage: 80 to 160GB HDD

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

Price range: £1,200 to £2,200.

Examples: Fujitsu LifeBook T5010, HP TouchSmart tx2z, Lenovo ThinkPad X200 Tablet, Toshiba Portege M750.

Buying tips: Get an extra stylus because they are easy to lose; if you plan on working in the sun, get the outdoor screen option.

NEXT PAGE: rugged PCs

  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


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


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.

Budget

There are three things that count when it comes to budget laptops: price, price and price.

Start with a processor such as an AMD Turion X2 or a Celeron, Pentium Dual Core or slower Core 2 Duo from Intel; don't expect a high-speed chip. Mix in 2GB of system memory, a 14 or 15in screen and a 160 to 250GB 5,400rpm hard drive. The problem is that there is little to separate the laptops in this category.

Because they have roughly the same hardware, they all end up weighing in around 2.5kg. That's because cutting weight costs money.

There are a few happy surprises when it comes to configuration, though. Just about every budget machine these days has a good assortment of ports and a DVD-burning optical drive, although some can't handle the latest double-layer media.

Don't expect stellar performance or full-day battery life, but this class of system can easily handle daily tasks such as email, web surfing and tapping out memos and reports. They stutter with computationally intense tasks like video editing or heavy-duty database work.

What's missing from a budget notebook? A lot of the things that we've become accustomed to, such as a high-resolution screen, Bluetooth, a fingerprint scanner and sometimes a webcam. In some cases you can order them as options, but the money adds up quickly - if you want any of these items, it might be a better deal to get a stripped-down mainstream system instead.

Budget laptops at a glance

Target audience: These are great for individuals and companies that can't afford mainstream systems but need reliable computers.

Pros: Price is key here, and these systems deliver just enough performance and battery life to get the job done.

Cons: They're on the large side and miss some nice-to-have features.

Typical size/weight: 381x254x41mm / 2.5kg

Screen size: 14.1 to 15.6in

CPU / RAM: 1.8 to 2.2GHz AMD Turion X2 or Intel Celeron, Pentium Dual Core or Core 2 Duo / 2 to 4GB

Storage: 160 to 250GB HDD

Ports and connections: 3 to 5 USB ports, VGA, audio, Ethernet, sometimes FireWire.

Price range: £300 to £450

Examples: Dell Inspiron 15, Lenovo G530.

Buying tips: Watch out for what's missing, like Bluetooth. Also consider upgrading to a larger or faster hard drive.

NEXT PAGE: mainstream

  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


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.

Mainstream

As the name implies, the mainstream market is dominated by the systems that companies buy to outfit the majority of their mobile workers. They're more expensive than budget systems, while being bigger and heavier than thin and light systems. They are all about performance and reliability with solid components.

Rather than changing quickly as new components come out, the designs of these laptops tend to be locked in for a few years, and their accessories can be used by several generations. This makes it easier and less expensive for businesses to deploy and maintain mainstream laptops, but it also makes them a bit less exciting for consumers.

Mainstream machines are for those who create complex documents, crunch numbers, perform online research and - above all - communicate. In other words, a mainstream laptop is a mobile stand-in for a desktop PC.

With fast Intel Core 2 Duo processors, at least 2GB of RAM and large hard drives, this class of laptop offers excellent performance, although it can be at the expense of battery life.

Video may not be top shelf, but it's a step up from budget systems, with a 14 or 15in screen and a powerful graphics engine that uses either system memory or at least 256MB of its own video memory.

Better yet, these machines often have all the ports of a desktop PC, with four or more USB outlets, FireWire and sometimes HDMI for plugging into a big-screen TV.

Mainstream laptops also offer a great selection of upgrades, add-ons and options, from high-performance 7,200rpm hard drives or integrated Turbo memory to SSD storage or a high-resolution display. Watch out, though - the costs add up quickly.

The down side is that all these goodies add up to a bulky machine that weighs 3kg or more. Before you buy, imagine sprinting between airport gates with one of these mobile monsters inside your shoulder bag.

Mainstream laptops at a glance

Target audience: Mainstream systems are the corporate gold standard for mobile workers, balancing power and abilities with size and weight.

Pros: Dependable, these systems have the latest hardware and security.

Cons: This genre of laptop can be surprisingly heavy and expensive.

Typical size / weight: 356x254x36mm / 3kg

Screen size: 14.1 to 15.6in

CPU / RAM: 2.0 to 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo / 1 to 2GB

Storage: 120 to 500GB HDD or 128 to 256GB SSD.

Ports and connections: 2 to 5 USB ports; FireWire; VGA, HDMI or Mini DisplayPort; audio; Ethernet.

Price range: £1,700 to £2,500.

Examples: Apple MacBook Pro 15, Dell Latitude D630, Lenovo ThinkPad R500.

Buying tips: Worthwhile options: a high-performance 7,200rpm drive, extra RAM and a high-capacity battery.

NEXT PAGE: entertainment machines

  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


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.

Entertainment

The sooner we face up to the fact that we're all media junkies, the sooner we can satisfy our needs with an entertainment laptop. As good at turning an office or small apartment into a media lounge as they are for taking TV on the road, entertainment systems contain the equivalent of a high-powered media machine. But be warned: they can weigh more than 5kg.

Look for a premium Intel processor, like the Core 2 Duo Extreme or Core 2 Quad, along with 4GB of system memory. A large hard drive is de rigueur because an entertainment laptop is not only for watching TV shows but recording them with a built-in digital video recorder. Most also have double-layer or Blu-ray optical drives for putting your favourites on to discs.

The centre of attention is the built-in TV tuner. At the moment, however, no mobile entertainment system on the market has two tuners for watching one show while recording another. We suspect it's just a matter of time.

Video is key, with a high-definition display of at least 17in; in fact, 18.4in panels are becoming the sweet spot. Look for a high-end graphics engine with between 512MB and 1GB of its own video memory.

Sound is just as important, with high-end audio chips and elaborate control panels. Some models, such as the Acer Aspire 8920, include up to five integrated stereo speakers, a bass booster and Dolby Home Theater sound effects.

These systems have room for an incredible array of connection possibilities, with four or five USB ports, HDMI (for connecting to an even bigger screen), eSATA (for an external hard drive) and often SPDIF (to drive digital speakers).

Entertainment laptops at a glance

Target audience: Get this laptops for mobile types who need to edit video on the road or just watch TV, wherever.

Pros: They can be used to replace a desktop PC, not to mention a TV and stereo for those who are tight on space.

Cons: No double tuner setups for watching one show while recording another; plus these are huge laptops that stretch the definition of portable and they'll stretch your wallet as well.

Typical size / weight: 432x304x64mm / 5kg

Screen size: 17 to 21in

CPU / RAM: 2.2 to 3GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Extreme or Core 2 Quad / 4 to 8GB

Storage: 500GB HDD or 128GB SSD

Ports and connections: 4 to 5 USB ports; VGA, HDMI, composite or S-Video; audio or SPDIF, Ethernet, sometimes FireWire, sometimes eSATA.

Price range: £800 to £1,500.

Examples: Acer Aspire 8920.

Buying tips: Have travel plans? Look for a big bag for this bad boy.

NEXT PAGE: gaming machines

  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


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.

Power gaming

It's a cruel and dangerous world out there, filled with all sorts of aliens, car thieves and assassins out to get you. And that's just in video games. To play for keeps, you need a powerful gaming laptop that puts an emphasis on speed and graphics.

You can't defend yourself without seeing the enemy, so having a big, high-resolution screen with the latest graphics is a matter of digital survival. The top gaming machines today start with a high-end graphics card, such as Nvidia's SLI Dual GeForce 8800M GTX or ATI's CrossFireX. Both have a pair of video processing chips that share the load for superior performance.

Whichever you choose, get it with 1GB of video memory. That way, the system can deliver realistic virtual worlds with the subtle lighting, textures and shadows that show up the way the game designer meant them to.

The rest of a gaming laptop is similarly top shelf, with a premium Intel processor, such as the Core 2 Duo Extreme or Core 2 Quad, and 4GB of system memory. On top of a Blu-ray optical drive, gaming systems like Toshiba's Qosmio X305 have the ability to hold a pair of hard drives with a capacity of up to 1TB of data. This will let you load hundreds of your favourite games.

Other than for connecting your gaming mouse, keyboard and headset, the variety of ports is a secondary issue. One thing you will want is the intimidation factor, so top it all off with an imposing laptop case.

Gaming notebooks at a glance

Target audience: Got aliens or snipers after you? A gaming laptop can help raise your chances of survival.

Pros: Super speed and the ability to adjust graphics performance make these great gaming machines on the go.

Cons: With a big screen and every hardware option, the cost and weight add up quickly. For most users they're too much machine for too much money.

Typical size / weight: 406x279x251mm / 4.5kg

Screen size: 15 to 17in

CPU / RAM: 2.5 to 3.1GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, Core 2 Duo Extreme or Core 2 Quad / 4 or more GB

Storage: 320GB to 1TB

Ports and connections: 3 to 4 USB ports; VGA, HDMI or DisplayPort; audio; Ethernet; eSATA and sometimes FireWire.

Price range: £900 to £2,000.

Examples: Alienware M17, Toshiba Qosmio X305.

Buying tips: If it's offered, get a second hard drive so you can load all your favourite games.

NEXT PAGE: mobile workstations

  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


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