Laptop Buying Guide: How to Choose a New Notebook

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How to Buy a Desktop-Replacement Laptop

You've got game. Lots of games, in fact. Maybe you want a true surround-sound, 1080p home-theater experience in your lap. Or if you're on the creative side, maybe you plan to edit video and enhance images in Photoshop.

Whatever the case, you constantly crave high-performance computers and you don't care how much they cost--or how much desktop real estate they commandeer. Laptops that fall into this category are often referred to as desktop replacements because they can be just about as big as a desktop PC.

CPU

Considering the Death Star size of some desktop replacements, you'll find a wide variety of CPUs inside. Eurocom's D901C Phantom-X, for example, sports a 3GHz Xeon Quad Core X3370 (the kind of chip you'd normally find in a server), while Asus's W90 packs a 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9600 CPU, which offers good--if not great--performance.

System Memory

Since 64-bit versions of Vista can support larger amounts of RAM than 32-bit versions can, you'll see desktop replacements rising to the challenge. Eurocom's monster machine boasts 8GB, but 4GB will do you just fine.

Graphics Board (aka GPU)

Top-flight gaming relies on discrete video chipsets from nVidia or AMD holding at least 512MB of dedicated graphics memory. Many laptops make do with a single graphics card. The HP HDX 18, for instance, uses nVidia's 512MB GeForce 9600M GT. The highest of high-end laptops, such as Asus's W90, put two cards together. The W90 relies on dual ATI Radeon HD 4870 GPUs; other machines have two nVidia cards working in tandem. In the end, it's a matter of how much speed you're willing to pay for in a portable. You might also keep an eye out for laptops offering the nVidia GeForce GTX 260 or 280.

Screen Size and Native Resolution

Most gaming notebooks have roomy screens with high resolutions to match. While more-modest gaming laptops with 15-inch screens are entering the market, high-end systems still offer 17- or 18.4-inch screens that support resolutions up to 1920 by 1200 (the resolution I prefer). Be wary of any desktop replacement that has a native resolution of 1650 by 1080 or less--that's a surefire sign that the laptop is underpowered.

Keyboard and Pointing Device

Notebooks in the gaming category typically have a keyboard that is almost full-size, as well as a large touchpad. Sounds good, right? Well, for ergonomics' sake, consider springing for a real mouse to go alongside the keyboard wherever you park your laptop. The frequent, rapid motions required for intensive gaming simply aren't suited for touchpads--they'll leave you with a gnarled hand.

Optical Drive

Since high-end laptops offer 1080p resolution, you can expect to see them include a Blu-ray Disc drive too.

Dimensions/Weight

These machines can weigh as much as 15 pounds--they're called "desktop replacements" for a reason.

Connectivity

Expect a desktop replacement to have five or six USB ports, HDMI-out, eSATA...you name it, it's in there.

Extra Features

Thanks to their girth, some high-end laptops promise awesome audio. In reality, many mail it in and others offer merely decent sound; only a few nail it. Toshiba Qosmio models, for instance, continually deliver audio dynamite through their Harman/Kardon speakers. We've found that some laptops configured with Altec-Lansing audio fare nicely as well.

Our Desktop-Replacement Laptop Picks

Asus W90
The $2200 Asus W90 produced terrific scores in our benchmark suite and our gaming tests.
When looking at our reviews, don't go just by the WorldBench 6 score. The frame rates we obtained in games are the truest indicator of how good a power laptop will be for you. If money is no object, by all means spend $4500 on the benchmark-busting Eurocom D901C Phantom-X; but for a good combination of price and performance, look to the well-balanced Asus W90. The W90 garnered a fairly impressive WorldBench 6 score of 105 and did a great job running Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and Unreal Tournament III (at 80 and 88 frames per second, respectively). And at $2200, the W90 sells for less than half the price of the killer Phantom-X.

Illustrations by Joe Ciardielo.

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