Buying a notebook computer is a bit like buying a car – there are lots of traps for the unwary. Here's our top 10 things to avoid.
1. What do you need it for?
Consider what you’ll use your notebook for – basic Web and e-mail, or more heavy-duty tasks such as editing home movies? There are notebook categories for each major type of usage pattern. How small and light does the notebook need to be? Do you need a large screen? Is a few hours of battery life enough, or should it run all day without a recharge? The bottom line is no matter how good a deal the notebook may seem, it’s no bargain if it doesn’t do what you need and doubly so if you end up buying a replacement in a year’s time.
2. Netbook or notebook?
One of the most common mistakes which notebook buyers make today is choosing a netbook instead of a normal sized notebook. We can understand why. Netbooks are cute, compact and insanely affordable. However, netbooks don’t replace a more conventional notebook. They don’t have the processing power, the screen size or the features you need for everyday work.
Indeed, many people own both. They have a feature packed notebook with a 15in or17in screen as their main PC (usually in place of a desktop), plus a 10in netbook to use when they’re out and about. Netbooks are good for the most basic tasks such as Web browsing, email, Skype and basic photo editing. However, there’s plenty which a netbook simply can’t do. Most netbooks don’t have a CD/DVD drive, so there’s no way to convert your CDs into MP3 tracks or watch DVD movies.
Nor is a netbook up to the task of running several programs at once, playing games, doing more advanced photo editing (such as applying effects), editing home movies, watching HD videos downloaded from the Internet, or doing creative work with programs like Photoshop. Some may struggle with the demands of doing a Skype video chat at decent quality.
If you’re in doubt over the netbook versus notebook quandary, buy a notebook with a screen size of 11.6in to 14.1in. This is the ‘sweet spot’ between netbooks and normal sized notebooks. It’ll give you a high degree of portability but also the flexibility of a CD/DVD drive, plenty of features and full PC power.
3. Mismatching the Specs
Make sure you’re getting the right balance for your bucks. There’s no sense skimping on the processor in order to save a few dollars because you’ll have to put up with slow starts, lacklustre performance and even lose the ability to effortlessly run several programs at once.
Your productivity and your enjoyment of the notebook will suffer – and you’ll have to live with that for as many years as you have the notebook. In the same way, don’t place too much importance on the role of a meaty graphics card. Unless you’re into 3D gaming or demanding multimedia work in applications like Photoshop, you’ll be able to get by with the notebook’s integrated graphics. These are all you need for YouTube, watching downloaded videos and even basic home video editing.
It’s better to invest more money up front in the processor. Unlike RAM or a hard drive you, can’t upgrade the CPU down the track, and a powerful processor will leave you with plenty of headroom as your needs change during the life of your notebook.
4. Take Advantage of Options
While many notebooks are offered with a rigidly fixed set of specifications, a few vendors – with Dell at the forefront – let you customise almost every aspect of your notebook.
You can still choose one that’s preconfigured to meet broadly typical needs, but savvy customers can tweak the recipe to suit their exact needs. You want to beef up the memory or graphics card? Now’s your chance.
This is especially useful to ‘future proof’ the notebook. You want the notebook to last you as long as possible, so giving it a few choice upgrades will ensure it stays useful even several years after purchase.
5. Be Very Wary of Rebates
Some notebook companies rely on ‘cash rebates’ or similar refunds to bring down the official price and drives sales. It’s an especially common practice at large retail chains. However, buying a notebook because it comes with a rebate should be your last resort.
Firstly, it usually takes several months for the rebate to be issued – because it comes as a cheque from the notebook’s manufacturer (which makes the notion of a ‘cash rebate’ more than a bit misleading), and these cheques are often processed in one large batch after the rebate offer ends.
Secondly, there’s always a temptation to spend that ‘rebate’ on something else when you’re buying the notebook. After all, you’ve just ‘saved’ $100 or $200. The salespeople know this – they’ll encourage you to spend that money on an extended warranty, a carry case, a notebook mouse, some new software or anything else which puts your money back into their pocket.
Thirdly, some manufacturers unfortunately make a practice of applying very tough terms and conditions on rebates and will find umpteen small reasons to disqualify your rebate claim. You might also find that your rebate claim 'gets lost in the post' and will require repeated rounds of chasing up.
The industry secret behind rebates is that a great proportion of people forget to claim them, so manufacturers know they won't really have to pay them out in many cases. You could be one of those people who forgets – or can't be bothered hounding the manufacturer to honour their offer.
If you really want to make a saving, forget about factory rebates and just shop around – compare prices and then bargain down for the very best deal. If you can get the store offering the rebate to match that lowest price and still get the rebate thrown into the deal on top of that, then you’ll win both ways.
6. Don’t Buy Overseas
You’re on holidays in Asia, the US or even Europe. You spy a cool notebook or netbook at a very keen price. You do a quick conversion and yes, it’s quite a bit cheaper than what you’d usually pay in Australia. However, unless you know exactly what you’re buying and what warranty you’re getting, you could end up doing your dough.
Not all notebooks come with an international warranty. If anything goes wrong in the first 12 months you’ll have to send the machine back to the country of purchase for repair – or more likely, face a massive repair bill through the manufacturer’s Australian office.
If the specific model you bought isn’t available in Australia, the wait for replacement parts such as a main circuit board – and the subsequent repair bill – can easily wipe out any ‘savings’ you made in the first place. In a worst case scenario, the Australian subsidiary may simply refuse to service your notebook – at any price – because they don't have access to the right parts to repair it.
There are plenty of ways to get a notebook or netbook in Australia at much less than the manufacturer’s RRP – so buy your notebook here and save your holiday spending money for restaurants, shopping and sight-seeing.
7. Don’t Buy Second-Hand
Maybe you’re stuck with a really tight budget. Perhaps you’re just a sucker for a bargain. But we reckon there’s still no reason to buy through online auctions or clearance houses such as eBay or Grays Online, or any of the stores which sell second-hand laptops. If the laptop’s been extensively used the battery life on a pre-owned notebook could be less than half what it should be.
There could be niggling problem you won’t discover until it’s too late – such as an excessively noisy fan, rattly hard drive or thigh-searing heat from the notebook’s underside. Notebooks are fragile devices which will last well if handled carefully, but there's no knowing how the previous owner handled it.
Many notebooks sold cheaply online through auctions or retail shop 'fire sales' are actually notebooks that have been returned to the manufacturer, been repaired/refurbished and put back out for sale. Although they come with a full 12 month warranty, there's a very real possibility that the manufacturer won't have repaired them properly, as intermittent faults can often be very hard to reproduce and track down properly. So you could be left with a notebook that spends many weeks in at the manufacturer's service centre in repeated visits.
And besides which: with new brand-name notebooks now selling for well under $1,000 and netbooks for less than $400, why would you even risk a second-hand system?
8. Do Your Research
Once you’ve got a few notebooks on your shortlist, why not spend an hour searching out reviews of them online? Start with trusted brands such as established magazines like APC and websites like APCMag.com or Notebook Hunter, but don’t overlook customer reviews on the largest online retailers like Amazon.com – you’ll find these posted on the same page as the product which Amazon sells.
In customer comments, you’ll find plenty of detailed real-world feedback from people who’ve lived with the laptop for weeks or even months. Bear in mind that customer reviews on Amazon.com will be of notebooks and netbooks offered on the US market, so they could have different specifications to the local models.
9. Try Before You Buy
We can’t stress this enough. Spend a little bit of time with the notebook or netbook you’ve got your eye on. Tap out an email, visit a few of your favourite Web pages, even play some MP3 music or a video clip. Any store which is eager for your sale will indulge you those couple of minutes – you could even bring along a USB memory key containing some music and video tracks to play.
How does the keyboard feel – is it too soft, too springy or too ‘clicky’? You’ll be using the keyboard all day, so make sure you’re comfortable with it. Ditto for the trackpad – a trackpad that is too small, inconveniently placed, or has irritating buttons could make or break your relationship with your new notebook.
Is the screen large enough and bright enough? Is there ample volume from the speakers? Check the location of the USB ports – are they in a sensible and convenient position? Is the headphone port in a place that will be convenient no matter what position you're working in? We highly recommend avoiding notebooks with headphone ports on the front because they are terrible on planes, or if you're using the notebook on the sofa, propped up on your legs.
These are things which no spec sheet can tell you that you still really need to know.
10. Check the Return and Exchange Policy
No matter how much research you out into buying your notebook, there’s always a chance – no matter how slim – that you’ll need to return it. It could be because it’s simply not right for your needs: buying a netbook instead of a notebook is a common example of this.
Perhaps the notebook has a slight flaw such as a dead pixel smack in the middle of the screen. It should be noted that some brands have specific 'dead pixel' policies that are separate from the main warranty, and dictate how many dead pixels must be present before the manufacturer will accept that the screen is faulty. It pays to check this online before buying.
Maybe it’s a gift but the recipient confesses they’d much rather have an iPhone. Whatever the reason, if you don’t check the store’s policy on returns, refunds and exchanges the story of your notebook could have an unhappy ending. It’s a simple precaution so that you’ll know exactly where you stand.