Deciding to buy a laptop can be an overwhelming experience. Everyone around has advice. Some people will tell you things like “Don’t waste your money on a PC, buy a Mac.” Others will tell you “Intel is better than AMD”, then when you ask them why, they have no idea. HA! The truth is that what works for one person may not work for you. For example, listening to Apple fanboys and fangirls just might make you go broke, for no reason. And those that say that Intel is better than AMD usually have no good reason except that a gamer told them so. I have been buying, building, researching and testing PCs for years. I have used both PC and Mac for at least 15 years. I am typing on a Macbook right now, but I am no Apple fangirl. I am not going to tell you that you MUST have a Mac when the truth is that is not the case. I do love my Macbook, but I also love my PCs. And when it comes to the budget, PC is the way to go.

Here are a few random thoughts from me on buying a new laptop:

1. You do NOT have to buy a Mac: Yes, Macs are great. We all know it. However, if your budget does not allow you to spend $1100 or more on a new laptop, then you do not want to buy a Mac. And trust me… Macs do have issues too. Most Apple fanboys rave about how Macs have no issues. They can have fewer issues than PCs, but I have seen a couple of lemon Macs in my day.

2. Buy online if you can help it: When making a big ticket purchase like a laptop, you can pay a lot in taxes. Here in the Chicago area, taxes are as much as 9.25%. If making a $500 purchase, that means you pay an additional $46.25 in taxes. While some might argue that paying local taxes helps the economy, it does not help our pockets. If you have a strict budget of $500 or less for a laptop, you might not be able to afford that extra $46.25. There are a great range of laptops on sites like Amazon and for those of us in the US where you can purchase large ticket items tax-free, and sometimes even get free shipping.

3. Read online reviews: Sites like this one, other blogs, Amazon reviews, and big name tech sites like CNET will give you the low down on what you need to know about a computer before you purchase. We take pride in thoroughly testing machines and writing up what we find to help you make an informed purchase.

4. Talk to your friends (but beware): Yes you should ask your friends what they think of the laptop models that they use. However, beware that some friends may have bias opinions. You may hear things like “I will never buy an HP computer again”. This might be because they had trouble with one HP computer. Another friend may tell you that they will never buy a Dell. (True story… right after I typed this up someone said this exact thing to me). And yet another friend may have had trouble with an Acer. The truth is that problems can occur no matter which manufacturer you buy. The most important part is to buy from a reputable company with a good support reputation. If a problem arises within the warranty period, you want a company that will be there to help you get it fixed. I have had issues with Apple, Dell, HP, Gateway, and Toshiba both personally and professionally. It can happen to them all.

5. A tablet is not a laptop replacement: Yes, tablets are now very good. And tablets can do a lot these days.  And some can do a good job of filling in for a laptop if used along with a Bluetooth keyboard. With the new Windows 8 tablets you can even install *real* Windows programs. But the problem comes in when you need to install programs that you are used to using on a more powerful machine. For example programs like Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office, and video editing programs can take up a lot of hard drive space. Most tablets will only have 32 or 64gb of space. That can fill up quickly when installing programs and saving documents. Of course a tablet is awesome to have to take as a laptop alternative for quick trips, meetings, or conferences. But, do not rely on it INSTEAD of a laptop computer all the time.

6. Check the specs: This should probably be #1, but some people may not think too much about the specs if they do not know what to look for. Things like the processor speed, amount of RAM, hard drive space, and upgradeability can make or break how well a computer handles what you throw at it, and how long you keep it. If you work with photos or videos, you want at least a 500gb hard drive. Skip the models that come with a 320gb HD. It should come with at least 4gb of RAM and preferably be upgradeable to 8gb (2018 UPDATE: You need at least 8gb of RAM, 16gb is better). If you are not a gamer you do not have to worry too much about the type of video card, but do make sure that you look for one that at least says it is good for photo editing. The range of options is wide. There are many computers out there with great specs that are perfect for most users.

If you look in the right places, you can get an awesome laptop for  $400 – $650 or so depending on size, manufacturer, and specs. That is half what a comparable laptop cost only a few years ago. Do your research, plan your budget, and go shopping!