How to buy the right laptop PC for your needs

Lori Jantulovich stands in the middle of Best Buy's computer section, flagging down a sales clerk. She's trying to buy a laptop for her nephew. "I have no clue," she says.

Jantulovich, 51, is surrounded by displays touting the merits of dozens of similar-looking PCs. "Superior performance with 3 GB of system memory," one says. "Powerful discrete graphics," another advertises. "Blazing fast performance with a next-generation Intel Core 2 Duo Processor." "On-the-go multi-tasking." "Limitless performance and response."

"For the average person, this is a lot to dissect," she says.

Computer buying used to be relatively easy. Shoppers generally bought the PC with the fastest processor, or computer "brain," they could afford. That wasn't tough, since most were numbered. (A 486 was faster than a 386.)

Now, "The story has changed," says tech analyst Richard Shim at researcher IDC. Processors aren't numbered like that, and other components, such as memory and graphics cards, have become far more important. "It's definitely hard now" for non-technologists to identify the desktop or laptop that best meets their needs, says Glenn Jystad, a senior manager at PC maker Gateway.

That's a big problem for the PC industry, which faces stagnating growth in its core, mature markets. U.S. PC sales rose a paltry 3% in the first quarter of the year compared with the previous year, says researcher Gartner. Most American families already have at least one PC, so computer makers must entice shoppers to upgrade — a tough prospect if they're too confused to understand the merits of doing so.

The industry is aware of the problem. Hewlett-Packard just overhauled its website to identify PCs by their most likely use, such as "mobility" or "entertainment." It plans to roll out the change in retail stores in the next few months. Gateway is working on a similar initiative. Chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) this month created a logo to help shoppers identify PCs that have the right components for video gaming.

But there's a lot of confusion to overcome. "The PC industry is going to have to get simplified in order to be able to sell more," says Leslie Sobon, a marketing director at AMD.

Desktop or laptop?

The first thing PC buyers must decide is whether they want an Apple or a Microsoft Windows-based computer. Apple is still in the minority — it had about 7% of the U.S. PC market in the first quarter, says Gartner — but the brand is popular with graphic artists, students and others who enjoy its unique software and design.

Selecting an Apple PC is relatively easy, because only Apple makes them. There are only three main laptop models to choose from, for example. Buying a Windows machine is trickier because there are more options.

Most shoppers know whether they want a desktop or a laptop when they walk in the door of a computer store, Sobon says.

They also know about how much they want to spend, says Gartner tech analyst Martin Reynolds. "For most people, because they don't understand the technology, it's a price-point decision," he says. "People don't understand performance, so they buy in the middle of the price range."

But that can be a big mistake. Processors have gotten so fast that speed is often no longer an issue. "There's way more computing capacity in the average PC than a consumer needs," Shim says.

PC makers now have the freedom to spend more on other components and be more creative with the ways PCs are designed.

Take a video-game-focused desktop designed by Gateway that sells for $1,099 instead of the $2,000 or more that they usually cost. Gateway lowered its price by eliminating the next-generation Blu-ray DVD drive found in most high-end PCs. And it put in an above-average processor instead of the top-of-the-line one typical of gaming computers. To make up for that, Gateway spent big on a high-end graphics chip that can crunch fast-moving video.

The result is an affordable computer great for playing the game Crysis. But it is a poor investment for someone who wants to watch a high-definition movie or create elaborate spreadsheets, which require a lot of processing power.

"It gets complicated, I'm afraid," says Nick Knupffer, a spokesman for chipmaker Intel.

Shopping checklist

A little bit of research can help shoppers make a wise choice. Things to consider:

•Processor speed. Processors are still usually the most expensive — and often the most important — component in a PC. But nearly all entry-level computers are more than fast enough to handle e-mail and Web surfing, says Gartner's Reynolds. Casual users should "look for the lowest-priced machine and see if there's any reason why it doesn't meet their needs," he says.

People who use their computers for photos, video, music or games probably need a bit more oomph. A more powerful processor is still the simplest way to get it, but identifying one isn't easy.

Chipmakers found in recent years that they could no longer just keep making processors faster. (Superfast chips would overheat.) So, to improve speed, they squished several processors together onto a single chip. A "dual-core" chip has two brains, a "tri-core" has three, and so on.

However, a dual-core is not quite twice as speedy as two single processors, because some efficiency gets lost when the computer switches from one brain to another. But as a general rule, "The more cores, the better," especially for multitasking, says Gateway's Jystad.

Don't get confused by marketing, such as Intel's Centrino designation for laptops. A laptop with a Centrino sticker has several chips from Intel, including one used to power wireless Internet, or Wi-Fi. It doesn't necessarily mean that it has a fast processor. (Some Centrino laptops are more powerful than others.)

•Other speed boosters. Separate graphics chips, sometimes called "discrete graphics," can vastly improve a PC's performance by crunching images separately, instead of relying on the main processor to do it. Discrete graphics are a must-have for video games, says Brian Bruning, director of handheld content for graphics chipmaker Nvidia. But they can also speed up tasks such as dragging a photo across the screen, he says.

Another way to increase performance is to add memory, sometimes called random access memory, or RAM, says John New, a product manager at Dell. Memory is where a PC temporarily stores information while it processes it. Sufficient memory is the difference between "a computer that keeps grinding and grinding and one that feels really smooth," Reynolds says. Microsoft's Vista operating system alone requires 512 megabytes (MB) of memory.

Memory also has the benefit of being relatively inexpensive. Look for computers with at least 2 gigabytes (GB), Knupffer says.

•Storage. Thanks to the soaring popularity of digital music, photos and video, it's surprisingly easy to fill even a large computer's hard drive. Anyone with a digital camera should have at least 300 GB of storage on their primary computer, says IDC's Shim.

And don't forget a way to back it up. "It isn't obvious, but the $1,200 (someone spends on a PC) can quickly be exceeded by the value of the digital music and movie library they store on it," says Dell's New. Simple external hard drives, which plug into a computer's universal serial bus (USB) port, start at about $80 for 160 GB. They're great for backing up everything on your computer — and for extra storage, too.

•Size and style. Speedy PCs no longer need to be huge desktops. Although desktops are usually more powerful and less expensive than laptops, "The gap is very small" today, says Giovanni Sena, a product manager at HP. A laptop will work fine for most common uses, he says.

Travelers who plan to use their laptops on the road should consider weight and battery life. The tiniest laptops weigh about 2 pounds, while bigger models can break backs at 15 pounds or more.

Laptop shoppers should also look at battery life, to make sure the PC won't die in the middle of a long flight. And they should make sure they have the right wireless abilities. Most laptops have Wi-Fi Internet access, although many desktops do not. Some mid- and high-end laptops also include Bluetooth for wireless accessories such as mice and headphones, and cellular wireless for areas where Wi-Fi isn't available.

Video editors and gamers who don't want to go cross-eyed should buy a monitor that's at least 17 inches, says Sena. External monitors, a necessity for desktops and a nice add-on for laptops, can top 24 inches. (Monitors are measured diagonally, from the upper left corner to the lower right.)

Still having trouble deciding between two similar computers? PC makers are trying to make it easier. "The first thing we ask consumers is: 'What do you want to do with your computer?' " says Dell's New.

In the meantime, if you're really stuck, price can be one way of breaking a tie. Although some brand-name computers cost more than those from lesser-known companies, in general the market is so competitive that a pricier PC will typically be better than a similar, lower-cost one, says Jystad.

And don't be ashamed to ask a salesclerk for help. "In the past, (buying a PC) was very easy," says HP's Sena. "Today, it is more complicated. … It's a huge change."