When money is tight, a $350 laptop is a seductive alternative to a beastly $1,000 machine. But will that budget system provide everything you need, or will it fall short soon after purchase? It depends on what you're looking for.
On a daily basis, dealnews lists the beefed up specifications that make those $1,000 machines premium purchases, but even tech-minded folks might be lost as to what difference a quad-core processor, for example, actually makes. So we've put together a guide that explains what these features provide and why you might want to super size your configuration. Moreover, we dug into our deal archives and discovered that, with the holidays fast approaching, that blinged out, deluxe laptop might be more affordable than you think.
So what exactly can you expect from a premium laptop?
A Refined Machine for Entertainment Needs
For starters, you'll get more screen real estate. Today's premium laptop features a 16" or 17" LED-backlit display, although larger 18" displays (with 1080p resolution) are becoming more common. The bigger and more refined the screen, the more satisfied you'll be with watching media on your laptop.
In addition to the super-sized screen, these laptops also offer much better audio quality than their 11" and 15" counterparts. Many premium systems feature Harman Kardon speakers or built-in Dolby Sound, which delivers a noticeable improvement from the standardized tinny speakers found in most laptops. In the case of HP, its premium laptops have top-of-the-line Beats Audio built in. Combined with the higher-grade screens, a premium laptop offers a better aural media experience.
A Muscle Machine with Processor Power
Intel's Sandy Bridge processors — in particular the Core i7 processor — is considered by many to be the CPU of choice for premium laptops, dusting anything and everything AMD throws its way (as seen in these benchmarks). This CPU is the first mainstream Intel chip to integrate graphics silicon directly onto the processor, and it's also the first chip line based fully on Intel's 32-nanometer manufacturing process. When it comes to competition, there simply is none.
With a Sandy Bridge processor, your system is open to a whole new world of multimedia and gaming capabilities. And because the Core i7 is available mainly in quad-core models (a dual-core version or two also slip in, so be sure to check the configuration carefully), it means increased overall system responsiveness as each core is like adding an additional processor to your system. For gamers this means new titles will run smoothly with no delays or lag. For movie fans, it means full-screen HD video will look crisp and run jutter-free. And for everyday use, it means you'll be able to run multiple programs simultaneously without experiencing any system hiccups. Another benefit of the Sandy Bridge Core i7 is that it sips less power than previous CPUs, giving your laptop additional battery life.
But premium laptops aren't just about raw horsepower. Accompanying the souped-up processor, you'll typically find up to 8GB of RAM and hard drives that boast 7200rpm speeds with storage capacities of up to 750GB. Adding more RAM will increase your system's speed. It will also keep memory-hungry apps, such as Adobe Photoshop, from clogging up your system and causing it to run slow. Meanwhile, a larger hard drive simply gives you more room to store files such MP3 or HD video libraries. Combo Blu-ray / DVD burners are also common, making for an extremely powerful, well-rounded, purposeful laptop.
A Speedy System with Better Graphics
A dedicated graphics card is one that has its own memory onboard. While today's integrated graphics are steps ahead of the graphics found on older laptops, there are still some instances where you'll want dedicated graphics. Heavy gamers and video editors benefit the most from these cards as they provide extra power for graphics intensive tasks. For the HD video junkie, this can mean the difference between watching an HD video that stutters versus one that runs smoothly.
As far as video card options, systems come with either AMD or NVIDIA graphics. High-end users will want to look at NVIDIA's GeForce GTX series or AMD's Radeon HD 6000M series chips. Both series are each company's top of the line offerings. Non-gamers can benefit from a more mid-range card like NVIDIA's GTS/GT series or AMD's 5000 series.
When looking at memory capacities, it's always best to buy with the future in mind. Although 1GB might sound like overkill for today, a few years down the line it might be the bare minimum you need to run 3D-intensive tasks.
Special Pricing for Black Friday
So let's say all these fancy features appeal to you, but the price tag still makes you do a double take. Luckily, we just so happen to be approaching the best time of the year to buy such a fully-loaded computer.
Machines like the Alienware M17x — with its dedicated AMD Radeon HD 6870M GPU 1GB video card, 8GB RAM, 750GB hard drive, and Core i7 CPU — far surpass the average computer (as this Laptop review explains), hence its premium pricing. But since we first posted this laptop in November of 2010, we have seen its price drop by as much as 35%, or $700. (It's now currently $1,499 with free shipping.) And as we approach Black Friday, we expect this machine to do even more significant price shedding.
That's because, in general, many of these premium systems will fall under that $1,000 mark, making them a more reasonable purchase. To find out just how far south prices will go, we went straight to the source of all things laptop — our dealnews archives.
In August of 2011 the average price of a premium laptop dropped 45% from its price point in August 2010. And with Black Friday around the corner, we predict prices on these laptops will drop to as low as $720 — one of the greatest values you'll see during the shopping season. Black Friday is always the best time to get substantial discounts on high end system with today's most deluxe features, so next month should be an ideal time to trade up your dusty notebook.
A premium laptop is a great investment for any portable computer user, so long as you're not constantly traveling with your notebook — these diamond machines will suffer wear and tear like their cheaper cousins. If you consider these laptops prohibitively expensive, now's the best time to keep an eye on them because this November they will be at their least expensive price point of the year, making many of these systems an especially great bargain.