According to several surveys I've seen, PCs, and particularly laptops, are at the top of the list this year for things you want to buy. Prices start as low as $250 for a Zonbu Linux-based Everex machine with a nice spec list and go up to over $8K for gaming machines that I doubt anyone reading this would ever think of buying.
Let's break it down into price ranges: sub-$600; $600 to $1,200; $1,200 to $2,400; and over $2,400. I'll point to what to look for in each range. I won't be talking about Apple because it has distinct separations between price points and a simple line that most should be able to figure out. On the Windows side, this stuff is all over the map. I'm going to stick with Windows boxes for this run as the Linux stuff just confuses things but I'll talk about the very interesting new Zonbu beta in a later post after I've played with the product for a week or so.
Here you typically find older or slower notebooks, generally with good 14.1" to 15.4" screens, marginal battery life and slower processors. Watch memory configurations as some get to this price point by shorting memory and you want 2 GB of memory. Drives are typically the slower 5,400 RPM type and capacities start at 40 GB and range up to 160 GB on refurbished products. Generally these have built-in 802.11g wireless cards but few, if any, pre-n cards.
The products tend to be plain, boxy and heavy, typically weighing in at around six pounds. Best buys tend to be older manufacturing overruns or refurbished products. Typically, these products are loaded with Windows Vista Home; basic warranties are really short. This class is for those that aren't that mobile, do productivity work (word processing, spreadsheets, casual games), and aren't that interested in style. These are good basic performers.
$600 to $1,200
In this mainstream range, products tend to be more stylish and current, use mainstream processors, generally have better battery life, and can have up to a 17" screen in the luggable class. You can find color choices at Dell; Sony has color choices as well. Good refurbished and older product can be found in this range. Battery life is typically much better and overall performance comes up sharply; towards the high end, you'll see increasing use of discrete graphics. You'll see some higher-performing 7,200 and larger 200 MB capacity drives as well.
$1,200 to $2,400
Screen sizes can drop down to 12" in this range and the big change is that more of the products are very thin and light. (You can find notebooks that are decent for playing games in this range.) Towards the high end of the range, you'll find LED backlit screens, sub three pound carry weight, and premium service packages. Online buyers can find colors and even some custom painting options. This is often where a vendor will have as a flagship a highly mobile product that pushes the technology edge and has Solid State Storage options. You can find products that have extended batteries with over six hours of life and some very nice tablet computers. This range is for folks that either need performance or are road warriors and need the thinnest and lightest notebooks around.
I'll leave you with a few reference products you can use as guidelines. The HP Compaq provides one of the best values in the segment. The Gateway is a solid mid-range performer and the quietest product I've ever evaluated. The Dell XPS provides both high-level service and decent performance. The Toshiba is a dream to carry and the only notebook that actually works well outdoors.
HP Compaq Presario V6500Z: Windows Vista Home Basic, AMD Sempron 3600+ processor, 15.4" HD display, 1GB of memory, NVIDIA GeForce Go Graphics, b/g wireless networking, 80 GB 5,400 RPM SATA hard drive, DVD/CD R/RW optical drive, and 6 cell battery. It's actually surprisingly good looking. Approximately $550 as configured.
Gateway M-150X: Choice of three colors, auto quality paint and metal finishes, Windows Vista home premium, Intel Dual Core T2310 processor, 2 GB memory, integrated Intel graphics, b/g graphics, 15.4" ultra-bright display, Bluetooth support, 120 GB SATA 5,400 RPM drive, 6 cell battery, dead quiet. Approximately $1,100 as configured.
Sony CR Series: 14.1" screen, 200GB hard drive, camera, Intel T55250, Windows Vista Home Premium, five color choices, 80 GB hard drive, SuperMulti DVD, Intel X3100 mobile graphics, g/n wireless, extended battery, engraving option (free), 2 year service plan. Approximately $1,150 as configured.
Dell XPS M1530: Choice of three colors, paint and metal finishes, Windows Vista Home Premium, Intel Dual Core T5450 processor, Windows Vista Home Premium, 15.4" screen with built-in camera, 2 GB memory, 200 GB 7,200 RPM drive, slot load DVD R/W drive, 256MB NVIDIA GeForce 8600 GT, Intel Next Gen Wireless, 9 cell battery, and integrated Creative Labs Sound Blaster Audio. Approximately $1,649.
Toshiba R500: Sub three pound carry weight, transreflective 12.1" outdoor viewable screen, 120GB 5,400 RPM drive, super multi DVD drive, Intel 950 graphics, gigabit wired networking, g/n wireless networking, Bluetooth, fingerprint reader, six cell battery with eight-plus hours battery life, three year warranty. Lightest notebook in its class. Approximately $2,100.