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Computers

Computer buying guide

Last updated: May 2014

Getting started

Tablets have gotten so popular that even laptops and desktops are trying to emulate them. With Windows 8.1, Microsoft makes your computer more like a tablet by placing touch capabilities front and center. Meanwhile, Apple updated its newest desktop operating system, Mavericks, by adding more apps, such as a new version of iBooks that lets you read the same books on your computer as you've downloaded to your iPad or iPhone.

Laptops and even all-in-one desktops continue to get thinner and lighter. For example, as you're shopping around you'll find Ultrabooks, which are laptops with Intel-mandated standards for thinness, performance, and other features. You'll also find thinner and lighter laptops with AMD processors, such as HP's series of Sleekbooks. And with its latest all-in-one iMac, Apple offers a desktop computer that measures just under 0.2 inches thick at its edge.

Here are some of the new features you'll see in computers:

Touch screens. Touch screens have been available on all-in-one computers for some time. But with Windows 8.1's emphasis on touch, laptops are also getting touch screens. Even better, Microsoft mandated the use of multi-finger touch for Windows 8.1, providing a better touch experience than the prior-generation two-finger touch. Computers with touch screens do cost more, however. You don't need a touch screen to take advantage of Windows 8.1, although it does add to the experience.

Enhanced touchpads. Most Windows 8 laptops also have enhanced touchpads, which add multitouch gestures especially geared toward the new operating system. For example, swiping from the right on an enhanced touchpad will bring up a group of tools known as Charms. Having an enhanced touchpad on your laptop somewhat makes up for the lack of a touchscreen.

Gesture controls. You use gesture controls by waving your hands in various ways in front of the computer's webcam, to control volume, fast-forward or rewind videos, scroll through photos, and the like. Supplied by third-party software, this capability is also popping up on some desktop computers.

Hybrid drives. These combine a traditional hard drive with a small solid-state drive (SSD). The SSD stores start-up files for fast start-up or resume, while the hard drive provides plenty of storage space.

Do you need a new computer?

Before you replace a sluggish computer, try these steps to beef up its performance:

Delete programs you no longer use. If that isn't enough, and if the computer is no more than four years old, make sure you have at least 4GB of memory. Adding memory is an inexpensive and easy way to upgrade your computer.

If you're running out of hard drive space, burn your music, photos, and videos onto CDs or DVDs, or onto an external drive, and delete them from your hard drive. To gain storage space, consider adding a hard drive. (Adding an external drive is an upgrade even a novice can do.)

If you're running Windows, run its Disk Defragmenter utility. That will help your hard drive access files faster.

If none of that works, and the computer is more than four years old, it's probably time to replace it. Be sure to recycle your old computer, but don't forget to wipe your hard drive first. We recommend Eraser, available free at http://www.eraser.heidi.ie, for Windows-based computers. Apple computers have an erase feature built in.

Windows or Macintosh?

With Microsoft's recent release of Windows 8.1, Windows computers in a sense got two user interfaces rolled into one operating system. One is the familiar Windows desktop (without certain Windows 7 features, such as transparent windows). The other, a touch-friendly design, uses a mosaic of large, rectangular tiles for each app (or accessory). You can run each by touching its tile or clicking on the tile with a mouse. Many of the tiles are "live," meaning they are constantly updating, such as letting you know you just received a new message. There are two versions available: Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Pro.

The latest version of Apple's OS X operating system is Mavericks. The many new features added to the operating system, including new apps that appeared first on tablets--such as maps and notifications--make it an interesting upgrade, especially if you have more than one Apple computer (for personal use only) or have an iPad or iPhone in the family. Users of the two most recent prior versions of OS X can upgrade for free.

Types

Choices among computers can be confusing. New desktops can actually be as small and inconspicuous as some laptops. Some laptops offer features and capabilities that rival those of traditional desktops. And with the launch of Windows 8, there's a new category of computers that have a full computer operating system but with hardware that mimics or converts into a tablet. Here are some types of computers to consider.

Desktops


The desktop computer has become just another appliance you use every day. However, consider these pros and cons of desktop computers in general:

Pros:

Desktops deliver more performance for the money than laptops and are less costly to repair. They allow for a more ergonomically correct work environment, let you work on a larger screen, and typically come with better speakers. Desktops are available in various styles and configurations, all designed to appeal to different tastes--and uses.

Cons:

With the exception of all-in-one or compact computers, most take up a lot of space, even with a thin monitor.

All-in-one

These computers incorporate all components, including the monitor, in one case. The components are tightly packed behind and underneath the display, making them difficult to upgrade or repair. Meant to be space-savers, they're also designed to look less stodgy than traditional computers. You'll pay a premium for these models.

Compact

At less than half the size of full-sized desktops, compacts or slim desktops are ideal if you lack the space under your desk or you plan to put the computer on your desk. Like their larger brethren, compact desktops tend to be inexpensive. But they may be more difficult to upgrade and repair.

Full-sized

Though they require a lot of room under or on top of your desk, full-sized desktops are the least expensive and the easiest to upgrade and repair. They also offer the most features and options.

Gaming

The sky's the limit for gaming systems. You get the fastest processors, the most sophisticated graphics cards, multiple large hard drives, and lots of RAM. Cases are usually large and offer room for expansion.

Laptops


Laptops let you use your computer away from your desk, but you pay for that mobility with a keyboard that's a little more cramped, a higher price, and sometimes, reduced performance. They're also more expensive to repair than desktops. Technological advances have lessened the performance compromises for the most part, however.

Some new Ultrabooks have solid-state or hybrid drives, for fast boot and resume-from-sleep speeds, and some have ambient light sensors that automatically adjust screen brightness. Intel specs battery life to be at least 6 hours when playing videos, and the models we've tested have hit the mark. Intel also wants computer makers to hold the price to less than $1,000. Although vendors are shooting for price points lower than you're used to seeing with thin-and-lights, some may find that number hard to reach. Still, you can expect to see more Ultrabooks with prices hovering around $700. Many Ultrabooks are also likely to incorporate touch screens, but that could add to the price.

Such thin-and-light laptops have long been available in the form of Apple's MacBook Air. Models with AMD chips are also available. Other features might include non-metal chassis for reduced cost, GPS (their small size makes them suitable for use in cars), and proximity sensors that automatically turn the unit on when you're at the keyboard.

Whether your main consideration is portability or power, screen size will be an essential factor in deciding which type of laptop is right for you:

Pros:

Laptops can travel. They can do most things desktops can do, and they take up less desk space. They're easily stowed after use.

Cons:

Laptops cost more than comparably equipped desktops, and they are more expensive to repair.

11- to 13-inch

If you're planning to carry the laptop around with you frequently, an 11- to 13-inch model is probably the right choice. In our tests of 13-inch laptops, we found you might have to sacrifice some speed. But you'll also lighten your load by 1 to 3 pounds, compared with 17-inch models. These laptops also have many of the same features as larger models, including webcams and memory-card readers. Most models shave a few ounces by leaving out the DVD drive.

14- to 16-inch

This size range generally offers the ideal balance of performance, portability, and price. At about 4 to 6 pounds, it's a good choice if you take a laptop along less frequently. Such a laptop can easily be configured as a desktop replacement. Until recently, only 17-inch-and-larger models had graphics processors with dedicated video memory, but now some 14- to 16-inch models have them, making them suitable for gaming. Laptops with AMD's new A-Series processors and Intel's latest core processors with Iris graphics, though they have integrated graphics and shared system memory, are also suitable for gaming. For photo editing, our tests of the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display ($2,200) reveal its screen has the best color accuracy we've seen, as well as being one of the crispest.

17-to-18-inch

For an entertainmentoriented desktop replacement, this model delivers better performance, a good-sized screen, and better speakers. It will cost more than a comparable desktop, but it's handy if you have space constraints or will use the computer in multiple areas of your home.

Convertibles and detachables

Windows 8's tablet-like features make convertible laptops a more appealing category. These look like a regular laptop, but the display either pulls out of the keyboard or twists around and lays flat so it can be used like a tablet. What distinguishes them from tablets is the keyboard dock that comes with them.

Chromebooks

Chromebooks are computers based on Google's Chrome operating system. They're generally low-cost, with some starting at as little as $200. They're designed to favor doing and storing most of your work online. If you want to save money on a highly portable laptop, and you're already used to storing and sharing lots of docs in the cloud, say with a service like Google Drive, a Chromebook could be a useful tool.

Pros:

Chromebooks are quick to start up, partly because the operating system doesn't place the demands on the computer that a heavy-duty OS like Windows does, and partly because they use solid-state drives instead of hard drives.

Cons:

There's not a lot of storage space. You need access to the Internet to get the best work out of a Chromebook, because just about everything is in the cloud. Chromebooks aren't workhorse computers, though they are good enough for creating and sharing documents, and for other tasks that aren't too demanding.

Tablets

Lightweight and highly portable, tablets are made to be carried wherever you go. They're multifunctional, serving as Web browser, e-book reader, digital picture viewer, movie viewer, and music player. Most of our top picks are very easy to use, have a display with a wide viewing angle, and can download apps from a market approved by the maker of its operating system. They weigh from just under a pound to about 1.5 pounds and have 7- to 10-inch touch screens. Many have webcams. In our tests, battery life ranged from 4 hours to nearly 13 hours. (See our Tablets buying guide for more.)

Pros:

Small and light, these multifunction devices have touch screens. Their small size and weight make them highly portable. Battery life can be as long as 12 hours. A wide variety of inexpensive apps is available.

Cons:

Tablets are not ideal for office productivity tasks, such as those that require a lot of typing. But you can add a keyboard to many.

Features


Many components play a key role in how a computer performs, including the processor, memory, operating system, hard drive, video adapter, optical drive, and display (monitor). Laptops have additional features and considerations that are important. Where applicable, we've noted feature information that is important and distinctive to the type of computer.

Processor


Also known as the CPU (central processing unit) by Intel and CPU and APU (accelerated processor unit) by AMD, this is the computer's "brain," responsible for processing information. Performance is the most important factor, and is determined primarily by the number of cores it has and its clock speed.

Intel and AMD are the dominant processor manufacturers. Within each company's product lines are various processor families. Intel's include the Atom, Celeron, Pentium, and second-,third-, and fourth-generation Core; while AMD's include the Sempron, Athlon II, Phenom II, E-Series, A-Series, and FX. Intel's new CPUs are the third-generation Core i3, i5, and i7. They're setting a new standard in desktop performance by adding an automatic speed boost when needed and improved graphics and video capabilities. These processors are also available in laptops. AMD's new top processors are called A Series Elite. The A Series Elite integrates discrete graphics into the processor. As a result, you can play more challenging video games on these computers without needing separate graphics. They also add an automatic speed boost when needed and improved graphics and video capabilities.

Processors with multiple cores can process more data simultaneously. Check Intel's or AMD's website to determine how many cores a particular processor model has.

Clock speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz), determines how quickly a processor can process information. Generally within a processor family, the higher the clock speed, the faster the processor. Clock speeds typically start at around 1GHz for a mobile processor and can exceed 3GHz for a desktop processor. Processors can up the speed a bit for a brief time to get maximum performance.

Power consumption is another important factor when choosing a processor, especially for laptops--lower power consumption translates to longer battery life.

When buying a computer, make sure it has a processor that will be fast enough to handle your needs. Whether you're buying a desktop or a laptop, avoid computers that use the AMD Athlon Neo, Turion Neo, or Sempron processor, and the Intel Atom. For basic tasks such as browsing the Web and checking e-mail, opt for a low-end, lower-prcied processor such as the Intel Pentium, Celeron, or AMD A4 or A6. If you plan to use your desktop or laptop for entertainment, such as watching videos or playing games, get a faster processor such as the Intel Core i5 or AMD A8. If you're a gamer or plan to edit high-definition (HD) video, buy a computer with a high-end processor such as the Intel Core i7 or AMD A10 Series. For less-intensive uses such as productivity tasks, the Intel Core i3 should suffice.

Memory

The computer's memory, or RAM, is used to store data temporarily while the computer is on. The more memory a computer has the faster it is, up to a point. Memory is measured in gigabytes (GB). On desktops, 8GB is common; a few laptops include 8GB. We've found that for anything other than heavy multitasking or video editing, 4GB is plenty. Many store-bought desktops with the Intel Core i3, i5, and i7 processors have 8GB.

Log-on security


Lenovo models now incorporate face-recognition technology. Lenovo's IdeaPad uses VeriFace technology when you log on: The laptop's webcam performs an initial scan of your face and then scans it every time you log on to make sure it matches the initial scan. We found facial recognition easier to use but less secure than a fingerprint scanner. It didn't work as well in low light and for some faces with glasses. In addition, we found at least one report of the software being fooled by photographs of people's faces.

Operating system

Windows PCs often cost less than Macs. Windows fans choose PCs because they are familiar with them because they use them at work, they have full compatibility with Windows apps, and there's a wide selection of games.

Windows 8 brings a more uniform interface across multiple platforms on a variety of devices like computers, tablets, Xbox, and smartphones. The OS uses different names for different devices--including Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro for computers, Windows RT for some tablets, and Windows Phone.

Macs can be more expensive, but they're stylish and less prone to most viruses and spyware, and Apple's support has been tops in the industry in our surveys. The company's phone support is free for only 90 days, but you can get unlimited technical support through the Genius Bar at an Apple Store. Apple's OS X Mavericks is the company's latest OS.

Graphics adapter and graphics memory

Also known as the video card, GPU, or graphics card, this is responsible for drawing what you see on your screen. The two types of graphics adapters are integrated and discrete. The vast majority of comput- ers sold have integrated graphics, which in some cases can be slower. But some new processors integrate discrete-class graphics. Those include AMD's new "Elite" A Series chips, as well as Intel third- and fourth-generation Core processors that use the HD Graphics 4000 series (and Iris) of integrated graphics. But integrated graphics do use up part of your system's memory, so make sure you have at least 4GB of memory in your computer. If you choose a system with discrete graphics, look for at least 256MB of graphics memory. Gamers should get 512MB or more.

Until recently, retailers rarely offered a graphics processor with dedicated graphics memory on a laptop smaller than 17 inches. Now, many 15-inch models have one, as do a few 13- and 14-inch models. These usually have powerful main processors and generous hard drives, making them appealing to gamers. Prices on these models have come down, too.

Built-in wireless video

If you have an Intel Wireless Display (WiDi)-enabled laptop, which has special Intel hardware and software built in, you can wirelessly stream content to a TV. This includes photos and videos, as well as movies and TV shows, whether from iTunes or Netflix. It requires you to purchase and connect an external box to your TV. Similar streaming media technologies include Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA), Wireless Home Digital Interface (WHDI), and Wireless HD. Other products, such as Roku and Apple TV, let you wirelessly stream Internet-based video directly to a TV without a computer.

3D capability

A few laptops and desktop monitors allow 3D viewing, using either passive or active glasses. We were impressed with the 3D images on those we tested, but it's an expensive add-on, especially when you factor in the cost of the glasses.

Video outputs

If you're buying a desktop, check to see which video outputs it has. Except for all-in-ones, almost all desktops have a VGA (analog) output, but most also have a digital output, either DVI (digital visual interface) or HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface). VGA is fine for most uses, but for a cleaner, crisper image on large displays, go with DVI or HDMI. You may have to buy a cable, which costs around $10. If you're buying a laptop, you can use a VGA output with a projector for delivering presentations. Most new desktops and laptops have an HDMI output to feed video to an external HDTV.

Hard drive/sold state drive

Also known as a hard disk,or SSD, this is where your programs, documents, music, photos, and videos are stored. Bigger is better. Hard drive sizes are measured in gigabytes and terabytes, and commonly range from 250GB to more than 1TB (terabyte). Though size matters, speed is equally important. Speed is measured in rpm (revolutions per minute). A slow hard drive will take longer to start up the OS and programs, and complete tasks (such as installing programs or scanning your hard drive for viruses). For best perfofrmance, get a desktop with at least a 7,200rpm hard drive and a laptop with a 5,400rpm hard drive.

Hard drives often fail after a while, so you must back up your data periodically to avoid losing it. The best option is an external hard drive, which connects to your computer through its USB, FireWire, or eSATA port.

Some high-end desktops and laptops can be configured with a RAID (redundant array of independent disks) setup. These computers have two or more hard drives. There are several types of RAID, the most common being RAID 0 and RAID 1. RAID 0 distributes your data across multiple hard disks, which can greatly improve speed. But if one fails, you'll lose data on all your drives. RAID 1 automatically copies data from one drive to the other. If one crashes, all your data will be safe on the other.

A service that could ease the agony of a crash is cloud computing. With a backup solution such as Carbonite, all your data resides on the company's servers. Any documents, files, data, applications, and e-mail you put on Carbonite will be available to other computers, as well as iOS, Android, and Blackberry devices.

Solid-state drives (SSDs, also called flash drives) are a newer type of storage technology, letting your computer access data without the moving parts required by a traditional hard drive. SSDs don't have the spinning disk of a conventional hard drive, so they use less power, work quieter, and should be more resistant to damage from rugged use. And because there are no moving parts, they promise quicker access to data. But they still cost several times that of traditional hard drives and have smaller capacities. Lower-priced hybrid drives, which combine a hard drive with solid-state memory, represent a good compromise.

Optical drive

This lets you read and write to CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs. DVD burners are standard gear on today's desktop computers. They can read and write to CDs and DVDs so you can back up your home-video footage or digital photos, for example. Recordable CDs (CD-R) can hold up to 700MB of data. Recordable DVDs (DVD+R, DVD-R, or DVDRAM) can hold up to 4.7GB (single layer) or 8.5GB (dual layer) of data.

Blu-ray Disc (BD) drives are the newest standard. They're capable of playing Blu-ray movies and can store 25GB (single layer) or 50GB (dual layer) of data, respectively. Many of today's laptops come without an optical drive, saving weight and cost. With high-capacity flash drives available, extra storage isn't a problem on these models. But installing older software, typically distributed on a CD or DVD, could be a problem. Most of today's software is distributed via download, so there's little need for an optical drive.

Monitor (for desktops)

Screen sizes (measured diagonally) generally range from 15 to 24 inches, but you can find larger ones. The most common sizes are 19 and 20 inches.

Most are wide-screen, which fit widescreen movies better but give you less screen area per inch. Those who plan to edit photos or videos should note differences in color, viewing angle, contrast, and brightness. Monitors are often less expensive when bundled with a new computer.

Display (for laptops)

A 15- to 16-inch display should suit most people. Displays that are 13, 14, and 17 inches are also common, and some manufacturers are also offering 11-inch laptops. The screens on most laptops are glossy instead of matte. Glossy screens have more-saturated colors and deeper blacks but are also much more prone to glare. Like desktop monitors, most laptop displays are wide-screen to fit wide-screen movies better.

LED-backlit displays provide more efficient use of power, resulting in longer battery life. In most cases, color on LED-backlit screens is not significantly different than that on other types of displays.

Touchscreens

Borrowing from tablets, companies have begun including touchscreens on many laptops. These have custom, touch-enabled multimedia apps and include multi-touch capability, which lets you use your fingers to zoom, turn, and scroll. Windows 8 has a new "modern UI" that is easier to use if you have touchscreen.

Battery

When not plugged into a wall outlet, laptops use a rechargeable lithium-ion battery for power. Laptops go into sleep mode when used intermittently, extending the time between charges. You can lengthen battery life if you dim the display, turn off wireless when it's not needed, and use only basic applications. Playing a DVD movie uses more battery power than other activities, but most laptops should be able to play one through to the end. Many laptops can accept an extended battery, adding size and weight but giving as much as twice the battery life. Some laptops, most notably Apples, Ultrabooks, and other thin-and-light models have nonremovable batteries, which may be costly to replace when run-time starts decreasing. Some all-in-one desktops have a battery. Called "portable desktops," these models are meant to be moved around a home. They often fold flat to enable multiple users to interact with them simultaneously, such as when playing a game.

Case (for desktops)

Form factors for computers are varied. Mainstream computers usually come in towers, which fit on or under a desk. All-in-one computers, such as the Apple iMac and HP TouchSmart, pack all the components into the same enclosure as the LCD display, with only the keyboard and mouse separate. Toshiba, Asus, Dell, Acer, Lenovo, and many other manufacturers also offer all-in-one models. Mini cases include models such as Apple's Mac mini.

Networking

For connecting to the Internet, all desktops come with an Ethernet port that lets you run a cable between your desktop and your router. If it's not possible to run such a cable through your home, consider a Wi-Fi adapter. Some desktops have this built in. If not, you can buy one for about $40 and plug it into a USB port. You'll also need a wireless router. Laptops come with wireless built in, and most have a port for connecting an Ethernet cable.

Wireless adapters mostly use the newer 802.11n standard (which is backward-compatible with 802.11g). The latest use 802.11ac, a new standard that has not yet been ratified. We suggest using 802.11n until 802.11ac is ratified and tested.

Intel's WiDi capability is built into some new laptops that have an Intel Core i-series processor (with a four-digit processor number). WiDi lets you wirelessly stream video from your lap- top to a TV. As mentioned earlier, it requires an external box, which costs $60 from Netgear.

WiDi supports 1080p resolution. Similar streaming-media technologies include DLNA, WHDI, and WirelessHD. Other products, such as Roku and Apple TV, let you wirelessly stream video directly to a TV without a computer.

Mouse

Most of those that come bundled with desktops are optical, meaning light sensors on their undersides track movement. Apple offers its Magic Mouse, which has a touch-sensitive top surface that works like a multi-touch touchpad. Some mice are ergonomically contoured to match the shape of your palm, while others are designed to be stylish. They can also be either wired or wireless. If you have a wireless mouse, you won't have to deal with a cord, but you will have to recharge or replace the batteries every few months.

Touchpad


Most laptops use a touchpad in place of a mouse; you slide your finger across it to move the cursor. You can also program the pad to respond to a "tap" as a "click," or scroll as you sweep your finger along the pad's right edge. Touchpads come in various sizes; the larger ones let you move the cursor farther across the screen without lifting your finger. Some let you use multifingered gestures for zooming and rotating images. An alternative pointing system uses a stick the size of a pencil eraser in the middle of the keyboard. If you prefer, you can attach a mouse or trackball.

Keyboard

Most computers come with a standard wired keyboard. Some keyboards have CD (or DVD) controls that let you pause, play back, change tracks, and change the volume. Some also have additional keys to expedite getting online, starting a search, launching programs, or retrieving e-mail. Like mice, keyboards can also be wireless.

Sound system

On most desktops, except for all-in-ones, speakers are optional. Computers with three-piece speakers include a woofer, which delivers deeper, more powerful bass. If you plan to turn your computer into a home theater or action gaming cen- ter, consider a six-piece speaker set, 5.1, adding two rear and a front, center speaker for surround sound. You'll also find connections for audio input and headphones.

The small speakers built into laptops often sound tinny. And a familiar brand name like Altec Lansing doesn't mean they'll sound good. Headphones or external speakers deliver much better sound. Some larger laptops include better speakers and even a woofer.

Ports


The ports to look for include USB (including the new USB 3.0), FireWire, Ethernet, eSATA, and S-video or HDMI. USB ports let you connect a variety of add-on devices, such as digital cameras or external hard drives, as well as flash drives for copying files to and from the hard drive. Having these ports at the front of the case makes connecting devices more convenient. An Ethernet port or wireless network card lets you link several computers in the household to share files, a printer, or a broadband Internet connection. FireWire or IEEE 1394 ports are used to capture video from digital camcorders and connect to other peripheral devices.

Apple desktops and laptops now have a port called Thunderbolt, by far the fastest data-transfer port. However, there are fewer compatible devices available for it than there are for USB, eSATA, or FireWire. Current models include Thunderbolt 2, a faster form of Thunderbolt.

An eSATA port lets you connect an external hard drive for faster file transfer than with USB 2.0. USB 3.0 matches the speed of eSATA-connected hard drives. Some combo ports can serve as either eSATA or USB ports. An S-video or HDMI output jack lets you run a video cable from the computer to a TV so you can use the computer's DVD drive to view a movie, or stream from an online service such as Netflix, on a TV instead of the computer monitor.

For laptops: Most laptops have at least two USB ports, with many new models including USB 3.0, for easy hookup of a printer, digital camera, or scanner. Some new laptops have a USB port that maintains power for charging, say, a smart phone while the laptop is off. Also common are a wired network (Ethernet) port and an internal wireless-network (Wi-Fi) adapter. Though rare, Firewire ports are still included on some laptops. Some laptops also have an internal Bluetooth wire- less adapter to link to a Bluetooth-capable cell phone, camera, or another laptop.

Card slots


A laptop's ExpressCard slot lets you add a cellular modem.

Docking station

Some laptops offer a connection for a docking station, a $100 to $200 base with connections for a monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, network, and power. By fitting your laptop into this base you can connect to all these devices at once.

Brands

Acer arrow  |  Apple arrow  |  Asus arrow  |  Dell arrow  |  Gateway arrow  |  Google arrow  |  HP arrow  |  Lenovo arrow  |  Microsoft arrow  |  Samsung arrow  |  Sony arrow  |  Toshiba arrow

This list characterizes the major computer brands. In choosing a brand, also consider the manufacturer's technical support and reliability as shown in our surveys. For the most current list of outlets where a computer brand is available, use a shopping search engine.  Also take a look at our Ratings of computer stores.

Acer

Acer Aspire laptops and desktops run the gamut of computers from budget to high end, including a full line of ultrabooks.  Acer also produces Chromebooks that run Google's Chrome operating system. Gateway is also owned by Acer. The companies do not sell their products direct to consumers, unlike most other computer makers. 

Apple

Apple computers usually cost more than similarly configured Windows-based systems. Apple computers use Mac OS X as their operating system, which had fewer problems with viruses and other malware. Macs can also run Windows in a virtual setting. The company primarily offers several consumer lines, the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air (laptops), the iMac (all-in-one desktops), and the Mac mini (a small, budget desktop). The Mac Pro desktop is its professional line. Apple's free telephone tech support is limited to three months, but you can get unlimited free support at the Genius Bar in Apple stores.

Asus

Laptops range from budget to high end.  Asus' laptop lines include the VivoBook, ZenBook, and Transformer Book (detachable).  The company also offers a dual-screen laptop, the TaiChi, and Chromebooks.  Its line of all-in-one computers includes the ET and Transfomer Series. Desktops include the M Series.  The ROG series is for gamers. Asus does not sell its lines direct to consumers, unlike many other computer makers.

Dell

Inspiron is Dell's mass-market line of laptops, desktops, and all-in-ones. For higher performance and gaming systems, Dell offers the XPS convertible line. For hard-core gamers, Dell offers Alienware systems. Inspiron One and XPS are its all-in-one brands, including touch screens on some models. There's also a Chromebook geared toward students.

Gateway

Gateway is owned by Acer. The  NE and NV series encompass Gateway's budget and mainstream laptops. DX and SX are the mainstream desktop lines. FX is Gateway's high-end desktop, and One ZX is its all-in-one. LT series is its netbook line.  The companies do not sell their products direct to consumers, unlike many other computer makers.

Google

Google, the designer of the Chrome Operating System, offers just one Chromebook, the Pixel.

HP

HP is the No. 1 seller of desktops and laptops in the United States. For laptops it offers the mainstream Pavillion line, which includes the G, NE, NV, the Envy high performance models, and convertible & detachable models in the Split and Slatebook line.  Desktop lines include the Pavillion and Envy models, and all-in-one Pavillion line.  HP also offers a line of Chromebooks.

Lenovo

IdeaPad is Lenovo's consumer laptop line that encompasses mainstream and premium models. Yoga is the convertible series. The Essential series is Lenovo's budget line of desktops. It also offers Android-based all-in-ones. Lenovo ThinkPads are its business notebooks; ThinkCentre are business desktops. IdeaCentre is Lenovo's brand of midrange consumer desktops and all-in-ones. Erazer is its gaming line.

Microsoft

Microsoft offers the Surface PC, a series of detachable computers.

Samsung

Samsung offers a variety of laptops ranging from slim & light to detachable to desktop replacements.  The line is known as the ATIV Books—with a numbered series.  Its all-in-ones are the ATIV One series. Samsung also produces a Chromebook, which runs Google's Chrome operating system. It does not sell its lines direct to consumers, unlike many other computer makers.

Sony

Sony will be exiting the laptop and desktop market in late 2014 but will continue to sell its Vaio products until then.  The company has promised to continue product support for seven years.

Toshiba

Toshiba sells laptops and all-in-one desktops. Its consumer laptops include the Satellite line; its premium line is Kira. The Qosmio line is for high-end gaming. Tecra and Portege are its business laptop lines.  Toshiba's desktop products include its DX line of all-in-ones. The company also offers a Chomebook, which runs on Google's Chrome operating system.

Shopping tips

Shop smart.

Shop at an online retailer. Our subscriber surveys have found them generally superior to walk-in stores for selection and price. You can also save money by using coupons and forum sites such as Techbargains, FatWallet.com, and Ebates, which tend to provide information on rebates.

Or buy a la carte.

If you have special needs, order from the manufacturer's website. Menus show you all the options and let you see how a change affects the overall price. Configure-to-order will often give you choices you won't get if you buy an off-theshelf model. But be sure to double-check your choices before ordering, and look for unwanted items some manufacturers include by default.

Shop at the right time

January, July, and October are good times to shop; new models show up in stores at those times, meaning older inventory must be cleared out to make room. If a computer you like isn't on sale, ask for a better price. Apple often offers free iPods and educational discounts to students buying computers during the back-to-school season. Macs aren't discounted that often, so take advantage of the price cuts that usually occur around the time Apple announces new models. That's when other retailers, such as Amazon.com, MacConnection, and MacMall, tend to clear out older stock. Models from other brands may also be discounted when their successors arrive.

Models from other PC brands may also be discounted when their successors arrive.

Ergonomics can make or break a laptop

Especially when you're buying a laptop, try it before you buy it, if you can. The keyboard shouldn't bend under continuous tapping, the touchpad should be large enough so that your finger can cover the span of the screen without repeatedly lifting it, and touchpad buttons should be easy to find and press. Carry the laptop around for a few minutes and make sure it isn't too heavy or too big. If it's been on for a while, feel the bottom. A laptop shouldn't get uncomfortably hot during use, and it should run quietly. Glossy screens are now standard on most laptops. Several manufacturers have added antireflective coatings, with mixed results. Finally, manufacturers are emphasizing design as much as substance; find a laptop that suits your style.

Think green when you buy

Some computers meet the new Energy Star standard for efficient power use. Energy-use guidelines cover three operating modes--standby, sleep, and running--with systems entering sleep mode within 30 minutes of inactivity. Power supplies also need to operate more efficiently. You probably won't notice much difference in the operation of your computer, but your electricity bill might go down a bit. Look for the Energy Star label on qualified computers. Prices won't increase because of the new standard, according to a representative for the Energy Star program. Another standard is EPEAT, which offers guidelines on what materials can be used in a computer. Depending on how well each computer meets the criteria, it is rated bronze, silver, or gold. A list of EPEAT-compliant systems can be found at www.epeat.net.

Before you toss, try recycling

Most manufacturers have recycling programs that help you to dispose of your old computer, but the programs vary considerably by company.

Consider tech support

At some point in its life your computer will probably break down, or you'll run into some technical difficulty installing or removing software. So it helps to know which companies offer the after-sale support that matches your needs.

Who's tops for manufacturer tech support? Don't expect it to be any company on the Windows side, according to our latest surveys on computer tech support (available to subscribers). The two surveys, one for manufacturer tech support and one for in-store support, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, is based on our readers' personal experiences with more than 7,571 desktop, laptop, and netbook computers. Apple owners are far more likely to have a positive tech-support experience than those with Windows computers. Apple solved Mac problems 82 percent of the time, according to those surveyed who used its support.

Overall, the news isn't stellar when it comes to using tech support to fix annoying computer problems. According to those surveyed, problems were solved for only 64 percent of those who had to contact tech support, regardless of manufacturer. And many computer makers' free technical-support policies end after a year or less. One notable exception is, again, Apple, which offers unlimited free support at Apple Stores after the 90-day free phone support runs out.

Sales staff often pitch an extra-cost "extended" service plan. Our advice is to skip such pricey extended service warranties unless you really need the handholding or you travel everywhere with your laptop.

   

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