As powerful as they are portable, notebooks are also as different as they are the same. Nathan Taylor explains the varieties on offer, and how to choose the right model for your needs.

It’s a tricky business, buying a new notebook. Sure, it’s easy enough to decide on a colour you like, and weight and screen size is something that everybody understands. But what about all those arcane specs? What is the difference between a Core 2 Duo T9300 and AMD Turion RM-80? What effect does adding an extra gigabyte of memory make? Which version of Vista works for me?

We’ve got you covered.

Types of notebooks

Probably the biggest issue you’ll be facing when buying a notebook is the trade-off between portability and screen size. Quite simply, a notebook can’t be petite and have a big screen at the same time. Some manufacturers such as Apple and Sony have done some wonderful work lightening up their notebooks (often by removing things such as the hard disk and optical drive), but there’s still that fundamental trade-off between screen size and portability.

The basic decision comes down to whether you’re going to be carrying around the notebook a lot or whether it’s going to sit on a desk somewhere most of the time. If the former is the case, then a lighter, slimmer notebook is your best bet. If the latter, get something with a big screen.

Notebook manufacturers tend to categorise their notebooks into different segments to suit these different kinds of users. There’s no hard rules about what a different category means, but as a guide, here are some examples:

Standard notebook: Not really a category so much as a balance between elements. A typical mainstream notebook has a screen in the 13 to 15.4 inch range and weighs between 2 kg and 3.5 kg.

NEC S9100 notebook computer

Desktop replacement: Usually refers to a notebook with a very large screen size (usually 17 to 18.4 inch), a powerful graphics processor and the fastest processor going. These have all the top specs for a notebook, but frequently weigh 4 kg or more, meaning you’re never going to want to have to carry one around.

Toshiba_QosmioX300_open.j...

Subnotebook: Typically a small screen (13 inch or less) and a processor designed for power saving rather than performance. They tend to weigh less than 2 kg.

Ultraportable/mobile internet device/Netbook: A new category of notebook, really created when Asus introduced the Eee PC. They’re often very light (1.5 kg or less), but have small screens (as little as 4-5 inches, but more commonly 7 to 10 inches) and power-efficient processors such as Intel’s Atom. The original Eee PC 700, for example, was about the size of a paperback novel.

ASUS_EeePC-hand.jpg

Tablet: They’re not very common, but if you search hard enough you can find a few around. The signature feature of a tablet PC is a touchscreen that lies flush with the body of the notebook and is always visible, kind of like an extra-large iPod touch. Some tablet PCs don’t have standard keyboards, though some other designs have a screen that can pivot or slide to switch between a regular notebook and tablet PC.

Ruggedised: A rare breed of notebook designed to stand the rigors of outdoor life. They tend to be very expensive, but are also likely to be waterproof, dust proof and capable of withstanding a certain amount of jarring. The NEC ShieldPRO is an example of a ruggedised notebook.

NEC_ShieldPRO-water.jpg

Business and consumer notebooks: Manufacturers also build different notebooks for different market segments as well. There is a difference between a business notebook and a consumer notebook – although sometimes those differences can be quite subtle.

Business notebooks tend to focus on security, and often come with fingerprint scanners, hard drive encryption software and sometimes smart card readers. They’ll usually have Windows Vista Business or Enterprise installed. They rarely have powerful graphics capabilities or consumer features such as web cams.

Consumer notebooks cover the gamut of possibilities, ranging from ultraportables to desktop replacements. They usually don’t have the security features of business notebooks, but often have better graphics capabilities and extra features such as web cams, TV output sockets and games. They typically have Windows Vista Home Basic or Home Premium installed.