With the back-to-school rush in full swing, there's plenty of choice when it comes to purchasing a new laptop. We've looked at the different types of machine on the market to help decide exactly what suits your needs.

For the past five years or so, things have been relatively static on the desktop-PC front. Portable computing, meanwhile, has seen major innovation. With laptop specifications catching up with those of desktop systems to the extent that they no longer seem like scaled-down versions of 'proper' computers, the twin advantages of portability and compactness make portable PCs a clear choice for many people.

Lately, the remaining bugbear of laptop PCs – having to worry about a limited battery life – has been addressed too. The newly launched Intel Centrino 2 processor promises a battery life of up to 10 hours between charges if you use the slightly bulkier six-cell battery pack, which is available as an add-on with most laptops.

Even if you go for the standard battery, you can expect it to run for about six hours – and to be able to pick up such a model for little more than £500.

Better yet, the same low power consumption that enables it to operate for so long also means it will cost you less to power from the mains. What's more, the introduction of a new processor is great news for anyone looking to acquire a bargain machine: it means there's a glut of non-Centrino 2 laptops sitting in warehouses and on shop shelves waiting to be sold off so the retailers can get the shiny newcomers out on show.

Back-to-school bargains

Even without a replacement for the all-conquering Centrino processor to push, this would be a frenetic time for laptop retailers. The back-to-school rush gives notebook sales a boost every year.

Despite this increased demand, however, late summer can be a great time to pick up a bargain. Notebook manufacturers bank on being able to shift well above average numbers of machines as consumers kit themselves out for the new term, and target this time of year for their big sales push. With competition for your business stiffer than ever, you should be able to find a compelling deal.

With the new academic year approaching, we’ll help you find a notebook PC that’s ideal for study. However, there's also plenty of advice to help home or general users trade up to a new model without making sacrifices along the way.

NEXT PAGE: Choosing a machine to suit your needs

  1. The ultimate guide to choosing a laptop
  2. Choosing a machine to suit your lifestyle needs
  3. Justifying the expense
  4. Avoiding expensive software
  5. Storage space
  6. Interface issues

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

With the back-to-school rush in full swing, there's plenty of choice when it comes to purchasing a new laptop. We've looked at the different types of machine on the market to help decide exactly what suits your needs.

Lifestyle needs

We aim to help you choose a laptop that isn’t simply the right price, processor speed or screen size, but one that fits your lifestyle and portability needs too. That means everything from low-cost Vista laptops that we expect retailers to shift in their thousands, to the new breed of mini laptops based around Intel's Atom processors.

The latter are particularly suitable for home and business users who need a ultraportable secondary laptop to take out and about. These systems allow them to get online and stay productive but won't necessarily be called on to perform really intensive tasks or to store endless amounts of data.

For those who want a single machine that does everything – web, email, word processing, photo editing, gaming and high-octane entertainment – we've taken a look at fully loaded laptops too. Lastly, if you intend to base your computing experience around a laptop, there are a number of extras you’ll want to consider, from a bag to carry it in to a keyboard and mouse to give your fingers a break from the cramped keys on your mini machine.

We’ll cover useful accessories and software along the way.

Workhorses for courses

Let’s start by identifying what sort of laptop you're likely to need if you're going away to university or moving away from home for the first time. If you're going to have access to communal computing rooms at your college library or faculty, you may not need to lug a laptop around with you. Even so, it's worth finding out the ratio of web terminals to students and what sort of booking system exists before ruling it out entirely.

If you plan to have a laptop with you at all times, portability will be a top priority. Many of the cheaper models have perfectly decent specifications for general-purpose use, but aren’t particularly dainty. You'll probably find you end up with a 15.4in screen model since this seems to be the sweet spot for value – try to keep the laptop you choose around or below the 3kg mark. Any heavier and you'll soon feel the strain.

You certainly won’t want to take a gaming laptop with you, that's for sure. These models, with screen sizes of 17in, 19in or even 20in-plus, are designed for semi-permanent residence in a bedroom or lounge, not for dragging from pillar to post. Because of their screens, gaming laptops often weigh twice as much as a standard laptop too. And then there's the expense: they’re a pricey option. Should you drop one, you'll find it every bit as delicate as the cheapo systems your friends have got.

On the other hand, if you're thinking about using it as an entertainment setup for your student bedroom, rather than a constant companion at lectures, a laptop with a large screen is a sensible option. In that case, you'll need to spend perhaps £800 or more, but you should end up with a high-spec notebook with a DVD burner, a very fast processor and superb screen resolution and graphics support, along with a huge hard drive and some decent speakers.

If the price sounds steep, remember it'll save you having to shell out for a separate TV or DVD player. Depending on the quality of the speakers, it could even double up as a stereo system. With all the main TV channels now offering catch-up TV over broadband, you may well end up watching a lot of programmes and even films on your laptop, so you may as well choose one that's up to the job. You'll need to ensure you've got a TV licence, of course – the authorities are adamant that any PC capable of receiving such broadcasts must be licensed.

NEXT PAGE: Justifying the expense

  1. The ultimate guide to choosing a laptop
  2. Choosing a machine to suit your lifestyle needs
  3. Justifying the expense
  4. Avoiding expensive software
  5. Storage space
  6. Interface issues

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

With the back-to-school rush in full swing, there's plenty of choice when it comes to purchasing a new laptop. We've looked at the different types of machine on the market to help decide exactly what suits your needs.

Justifying the expense

We like the idea of Toshiba's latest Qosmio range, which forsakes costly Blu-ray high-definition support and instead upscales standard-definition DVDs and video footage to look sharper and glossier without giving your wallet such a hammering.

Such a capable laptop will also be a worthwhile investment if you're likely to need processor-intensive programs for editing video footage or rendering engineering or architectural designs – at least, that's one way of justifying choosing one of the £1,500 laptops Alienware makes for hardcore gaming fans.

At this level you should expect 500GB or more of storage, 2GB of DDR RAM, a DVD burner, 5.1 audio and a DirectX 10.0-compatible graphics card with at least 512MB of onboard RAM. In addition, you'll need at least four USB 2.0 ports and one or two FireWire ports if video-editing and large file backups are on the curriculum.

We strongly advise you invest in an external USB 2.0/eSATA or FireWire drive too – it's an easy way of transporting huge graphics and video files and saves heartache should anything happen to your laptop or its hard disk.

If you are going to be using creative design and 3D-editing programs, you'll also want to investigate student software deals. Maya and Maxon 3D programs have free versions that will cover your needs.

Be wary of second-hand software from eBay and similar sites, though. Adobe's wares are fraudulently traded more than any others – customers are routinely left with a useless disc and a deactivated install code.

Microsoft offers a £100 student edition of its Office suite and Encarta Encyclopedia. But we advise you give the 60-day trial version of the main Office 2007 suite a go before deciding whether you need all that it offers. This is available as
a download from the Microsoft website and is commonly preinstalled on new machines.

NEXT PAGE: Avoiding expensive software

  1. The ultimate guide to choosing a laptop
  2. Choosing a machine to suit your lifestyle needs
  3. Justifying the expense
  4. Avoiding expensive software
  5. Storage space
  6. Interface issues

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

With the back-to-school rush in full swing, there's plenty of choice when it comes to purchasing a new laptop. We've looked at the different types of machine on the market to help decide exactly what suits your needs.

Office alternatives

One option for students and parents is to invest in low-cost education licences of big-name software titles such as Microsoft and Adobe. You can buy these direct, or try browsing specialist online retailers such as Software4students.

But there are plenty of Microsoft Office alternatives, including the pre-packaged Ability, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer versions and free downloads such as OpenOffice and StarOffice.

These cheap (or free) alternatives don't include everything Microsoft offers, but cover the vast majority of features. Crucially, documents created using them are compatible with Office and other word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation programs – just make sure you don’t save to their proprietary file formats if you want to keep your lecturers sweet when sending in your dissertation a little later than planned.

Alternative software is a particularly important consideration if you decide to plump for a mini laptop. While there are Windows XP versions of these very lightweight and long-lasting machines, you'll pay more for them than for the really low-cost Linux models.

However, as long as you're happy to make extensive use of free, open-source and web-based programs, becoming a Linux laptop owner shouldn't prove too much of a hardship as much of your day-to-day business can be conducted and managed on the internet.

This applies equally whether you need to supplement your highly portable laptop with organisational and collaborative tools for work or ones for coping with (semi-) regular lecture attendance.

Head to either LinuxAppFinder or the app section of Linux's website to populate your mini laptop with Linux-compatible programs. You'll be pleasantly surprised by the lack of bulk of these inexpensive and lightweight mini laptops. Most weigh around the 1kg mark and are made to be casually flung into a backpack without much thought for their hardened plastic exteriors.

NEXT PAGE: Storage space

  1. The ultimate guide to choosing a laptop
  2. Choosing a machine to suit your lifestyle needs
  3. Justifying the expense
  4. Avoiding expensive software
  5. Storage space
  6. Interface issues

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

With the back-to-school rush in full swing, there's plenty of choice when it comes to purchasing a new laptop. We've looked at the different types of machine on the market to help decide exactly what suits your needs.

Storage space

Some mini laptops use a solid-state disk (SSD), using Flash memory instead of a spinning hard drive so there are no moving internal parts to get broken. The down side is parsimonious storage capacity. Nand flash memory is still expensive, but you can now expect to find more than the 2GB of the original Eee PC.

This needn't necessarily be a huge problem, however. You should be diligent about backing up your work files in any case – a minuscule hard drive may be just the prompt you need. None of the mini laptops here come with a DVD writer – for fairly obvious weight, size and cost reasons.

They do, however, come with both internet access capabilities and USB 2.0 ports. Choosing an external hard drive for backups is a great option and may cost you as little as £50 for a 250GB hard drive. For modest backups, you can upload your files to a secure online archive. BT Total Broadband customers get a Digital Vault, while Carbonite and Diino are other options for storing important files where you can get at them whenever you're online. At most sites you can store a couple of gigabytes of data for free and pay for any extra capacity necessary.

Since the software on these mini laptops takes up so few resources, the typical 512MB or 1GB of RAM and 800-900MHz processors should be sufficient for email, web surfing and writing documents.

NEXT PAGE: Interface issues

  1. The ultimate guide to choosing a laptop
  2. Choosing a machine to suit your lifestyle needs
  3. Justifying the expense
  4. Avoiding expensive software
  5. Storage space
  6. Interface issues

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

With the back-to-school rush in full swing, there's plenty of choice when it comes to purchasing a new laptop. We've looked at the different types of machine on the market to help decide exactly what suits your needs.

Try it for size

Arguably a more important issue with the likes of the Asus Eee PC and the Elonex Webbook is how practical they are to use. Their keyboards can feel very plasticky to type on, as well as being smaller than the keyboards you’re probably accustomed to.

If possible, try one out in the shop before handing over your money. If you're going to be using this laptop routinely – especially for taking notes in lectures – you need to be sure doing so is comfortable and you can type almost as rapidly and accurately as you would on any other keyboard.

If you’ll only be using your laptop occasionally – and particularly for desk-based use – you may find it more efficient to plug in a full-size USB keyboard. Logitech and Microsoft make the best known keyboard and mouse kits. Look for a curvy model with a comfortable, ergonomic design, intended to place less strain on wrists and fingers. You’ll pay £40 to £60 for such a quality setup, but a proper keyboard is a must if most of your reports and essays are to be typed up.

The other 'interface' issue is your screen. You’ll be staring at it for long periods, so satisfy yourself that the relatively restricted resolution your mini laptop offers is going to suffice. As with the keyboard, it may be worth investing in a separate flat-panel screen that you plug in only when faced with a long night’s essay writing or research.

An outlay of just £150 will get you a basic 19in flat-panel. This should be ideal for viewing BBC iPlayer or iTunes programmes over your internet connection, although you'll probably still be stuck with fairly limited resolutions from a laptop without a dedicated graphics card.

Yet another useful and inexpensive add-on is a webcam. Three of our mini laptops come with poor-quality 1.3Mp cameras. But if you need to add one then Hercules' DualPix Exchange or one of the 2Mp webcams from Philips will up the ante.

Laptop bags

A laptop bag designed to accommodate a laptop will almost certainly be part of your essential going-away kit. While they don't look quite as fashionable as messenger bags, laptop rucksacks are the most practical option. As well as not placing all the strain across one side of your neck and on one shoulder, they’re a much better bet if you’re a cyclist or scooter rider, as they balance the weight evenly.

You’ll want a well-padded bag, too. Adjustable, padded straps that feel sturdy enough to take a few extras – gym kit, PSP or Nintendo DS, portable hard drive and iPod as well as college books and stationery – are a must. Many have useful pouches in their straps for your mobile phone or MP3 player.

The interior of the bag itself should have a separate, padded section to cocoon the laptop itself and should be designed so that, even if it's the only item you’re carrying, it's firmly held and won’t bang all over the place, doing damage to itself and to you. Don't choose a huge laptop bag if you’re going to be using it to transport a fairly small machine. If yo'’re replacing an existing laptop with a smaller, sleeker one and don't want to fork out for a new bag, buy a foam-rubber laptop sleeve to offer that little bit more protection.

Finally, check that the underside of the bag is padded as your laptop is most likely to be damaged if it slips out of your hands or you put it down a bit too quickly, bumping the underside of the bag and one edge of your laptop. Oh, and if you really must use the same bag to carry your lunch and a bottle of water, stash them in a separate, waterproof compartment and never let them near your laptop.

  1. The ultimate guide to choosing a laptop
  2. Choosing a machine to suit your lifestyle needs
  3. Justifying the expense
  4. Avoiding expensive software
  5. Storage space
  6. Interface issues

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs