We've provided numerous Buyers' Guides over the years at AnandTech (Ed: yes, we know we need to provide some updates) to help readers determine what sort of hardware should go into their next computer. Depending on what you're after, settling on the platform, chipset, and processor - not to mention video card, memory, hard drive, etc. - can be a painstaking process. Once we switch over to the mobile world, many of the above considerations take a backseat to things like size, battery life, and usability. Opinions about which areas are the most important differ greatly, and quantifying "usability" is at best a difficult prospect. Nevertheless, we felt it was time to address the booming mobile sector by putting together a guide for purchasing your next laptop.
We've said it before in our laptop reviews, but it bears repeating. Before you even jump on the mobile bandwagon, you need to ask yourself a couple important questions: why do you need/want a laptop, what do you plan to do with your laptop, and how much are you willing to spend? The answer to the first question is usually pretty simple, almost to the point where it really doesn't need to be asked. If you want a laptop bad enough, go ahead and get one. The third question will help you determine what types of notebooks you can actually afford. It's that second question that's really critical and that causes confusion among consumers. Let's dissect it a little more.
Some users think they want to get a laptop just because of all the advertising a shows up on TV. There's no doubt that the MacBook Air is sexy, and certainly there are Air owners that purchased one for that reason. (This also applies to similar models from other vendors, so substitute in Lenovo or some other brand as you see fit.) Equally likely is that some of those owners are now disappointed in their purchasing decision, because they got taken in by the hype and didn't think clearly about what they need in their laptop. An ultra thin, lightweight notebook might be the perfect fit for someone running between classes, traveling frequently, or trudging around a tradeshow floor; what you sacrifice usually involves performance, upgradability, and other features. What most people want out of a laptop is mobility/portability - the ability to carry your work with you on a plane or between work and home can be very useful (even if it's not very fun). All laptops provide that to a certain degree, so it's important to keep in mind the other factors such as size, weight, performance, features, etc.
When you get right down to it, all notebooks involve compromise. You will pay more money and you will get less performance than if you were to go out and purchase a desktop computer. The trade-off is that you get mobility. If we were to put a rough estimate on the price/performance compromise, you can think of it thus: you will pay roughly twice as much for the same amount of power, or alternately you will get half as much performance for the same price. Also keep in mind that there are certain areas where a notebook will never be as fast as a desktop system, no matter how much money you spend. The good news is that performance requirements for most applications have largely plateaued; outside of a few computationally intensive areas (i.e. gaming and multimedia), even notebooks from several years ago continue to provide sufficient performance.
Given the above statements regarding pricing of notebooks, what we end up with is roughly five market segments. At the bottom of the price range are the absolute budget laptops; price is the biggest factor, with a goal of keeping the price under $500. There will be some major compromises in this market, so these systems are best for users that don't demand a lot from their computers. Next up are the entry-level laptops, which still have quite a few performance compromises, but they offer more features and options than the budget offerings. Our target price is going to be around $1000. At the midrange price point of $1500-$1750, things become interesting; we finally have the option to purchase a notebook that can run all currently available software without any serious problems. High-end notebooks will cost anywhere from $2250 to over $3000, with the primary concern being your available budget. An extension of the high-end category is the "dream" category where price is no object; even with an unlimited budget, however, you will have to consider certain compromises. These categories are obviously somewhat flexible, so there's some overlap for example between the top of the "budget" and the bottom of the "entry level" offerings.
Before we get to the actual notebook categories and basic recommendations, there's one final area to address. Unlike desktops, where you can mix and match from a large variety of components, notebooks generally require you to purchase a prebuilt system. There are companies that allow a reasonable degree of customization, and you can even find "barebones notebooks" where you buy the chassis and add in your own memory, CPU, and hard drive. Regardless of what route you take, however, performance will essentially be equal where the components are equal. What this means is that technical support, warranties, features, and pricing will play a bigger role in your purchasing decision than performance or brand (except where the brand determines those other features). In other words, take two laptops from different manufacturers and if they have the same chipset, processor, graphics card, hard drive, battery, and memory then you should end up with nearly identical performance.