Walt Mossberg

A Guide for PC Buyers Not Looking for a Tablet

If you’re shopping for a laptop this autumn, you’ll find most of the capabilities and prices in the sluggish market unchanged. You’ll still likely be considering whether it’s time to get a tablet instead of a new laptop.

But if you’re focused on a Windows machine, and you look carefully, you’ll see that a new class of portable PC is beginning to appear. It’s called the “ultrabook,” and is essentially the Windows version of Apple’s popular, nearly four-year old MacBook Air—an ultraskinny, light, speedy, versatile laptop with long battery life.

The arrival of the ultrabook is a welcome development, not only because it spices up the market, but because I consider the MacBook Air the best all-around consumer laptop available, and anything that emulates it is a good idea, if done well.

There are only a few ultrabooks available this season and they aren’t for everybody. Most have limited storage and, like the MacBook Air, are priced near the $1,000 range—rich territory in a tight economy where Apple buyers seem comfortable, though not many others. Still, this new class of Windows laptop is the only fundamentally fresh choice in the laptop market.

If the price is too high, you should be able to get a capable major-brand laptop for between $500 and $800, with plenty of storage and memory.

My annual fall laptop buyers’ guide today offers tips for wading through the technobabble in computer ads, and in online and physical stores. As always, these tips are for average consumers doing common tasks, such as email, Web browsing, social networking, general office productivity, photos, music, videos and simple games. This guide isn’t meant for corporate buyers, or for hard-core gamers or serious media producers.

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The recently unveiled Asus Zenbook

The tablet question: Tablets like Apple’s iPad 2 and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 can perform many, though not all, of the functions of a laptop. Most tablet lovers find themselves reaching for their laptops less often to do things like email. If your budget is limited and you’re thinking of shelling out $500 for a full-size tablet, consider whether you can put off getting a new laptop this year instead of buying both.

Future Windows: If you’re shopping for a Windows laptop, be aware that in 2012, Microsoft will offer a new version of Windows, called Windows 8, with a radical new multitouch interface that makes use of a touch screen. The software giant stresses that Windows 8 won’t require such a screen, and will still work with a mouse or touch pad. But unless you have a laptop with a multi-touch screen, you won’t be able to take advantage of the Windows 8 touch-screen features.

Ultrabooks: Four companies make this class of laptop: Acer, Lenovo, Asus and, shortly, Toshiba. These machines are under 0.8 inch thick, weigh less than three pounds, and generally claim long battery life and almost-instant startup times. All run Windows 7; none has a touch screen. Like the MacBook Air, they use solid-state drives (though some combine these with standard hard disks) and have screens of either 11 inches or 13 inches. Prices generally run from around $900 to $1,100.

Windows vs. Mac: Mac laptops cost more and offer less variety than Windows laptops. The least expensive Mac laptop is $999, while a few stripped-down Windows portables can be had for under $300. Well-equipped Windows laptops start at $500 to $600. But Apple laptops combine beauty, ruggedness and long battery life with good customer service. Macs also come with better built-in software, including the new Lion operating system, which includes some tablet-like features. And they can run Windows, at extra cost.

Finally, Mac users don’t fear viruses and other malicious software, because virtually none work on the Mac.

Memory: Get at least 4 gigabytes of memory, or RAM, on a new Windows computer. On a Mac, most consumers can get away with 2 gigabytes.

Processors: Intel’s latest chips are the i3, i5, and i7 Core models. But a laptop with chips from rival AMD, or older Intel dual-core chips, also is OK.

Graphics: Usually less expensive machines have wimpier graphics hardware, and costlier ones have more powerful graphics. Better graphics can make your whole machine faster, because more and more software is designed to offload general processing tasks onto the graphics chips.

Hard disks: A 320-gigabyte hard disk should be the minimum on most PCs. Solid-state disks, like those in the new ultrabooks or the MacBook Air, generally come in sizes of 128 GB or 256 GB. They omit moving parts and use flash memory to store your files, as on a smartphone or tablet. They are costlier, but faster, and use less power.

Ports: Many PCs now come with a port called HDMI, which makes linking to a high-definition TV easy. There is a new, much faster USB port, called USB 3.0, but few peripheral devices can use it. And Apple has introduced yet another high-speed connector that has little practical use so far, called Thunderbolt.

As always, be wary of sales pitches and don’t buy more laptop than you need.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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