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.

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