Our notebook computer used to be our second machine -- the one we'd take with us on the road, then stick in our desk drawer under our "real" computer when we got home. But now, they're our primary workhorses.
"Thin and light" -- the guiding principle of mobile electronics makers as long as we can remember -- is currently driving all the innovation in the notebook PC market. The white hot category at the center is the so-called "ultrabook," amazingly light, super-slim laptops with features like new Intel processors, integrated graphics, and solid-state storage drives. Price-wise, most are right in the middle of the laptop field: between $900 and $1,500. They're scarce, though -- not everyone makes an Ultrabook, and those who do only have a few configurations to pick from.
Netbooks are small, light and basic laptops with cheaper components. They have integrated graphics and slower processors, so they aren't great for gaming or for serious video work. But netbooks are a great choice for those who want to save some cash, or for kids and students who really just need something to send e-mail, write papers and surf the web. Budget travelers also like them -- at $400 or $500, they won't cause as much of a headache if they get banged up or lost.
Nestled between ultrabooks and netbooks are regular old full-featured laptops. They're pricier ($1,200 to $2,300), and, of course, heavier. But they have more muscle in almost every department. People who need a portable machine that's as powerful as their desktop should look at this category. Every PC manufacturer makes a laptop in this class, so there are dozens of options, but their popularity is fading as more slimmed-down models take over.
If a web browser is really all you need, check out a Chromebook. The notebooks in this budding category are powered by Google's ChromeOS. There's no Windows OS, and no native apps, just a web browser. All your apps and data live in the cloud. Chromebooks are only $400 or $500, as they're bare-bones and don't have much power or storage space. But if your Chromebook breaks or gets stolen, you don't lose any data -- it's all saved up there in the cloud, where you can access it from any other computer.
Ultrabooks really are the best choice for almost everyone. Sure, you lose some performance when you join the "thin and light" party. Ultrabooks also have fewer expandability options, some are missing DVD drives, and battery life can vary. But the truth is, most Ultrabooks have everything 90 percent of the people out there need, so we'd recommend almost start there.
Bottom line, go for a computer that's comfortable to carry and comfortable to type on, and with the screen you like the best. Don't fret too much over the interior specs -- unless the machine is intended for serious production work, the feel of the keyboard and the quality of the screen almost always have more of an impact on your overall satisfaction than the speed of the processor or the number of USB ports. Netbooks can sometimes fit the bill, but their smaller keyboards can feel cramped, making them less comfortable to work on. Choose a netbook only if cost is your main concern.
Photo by Ariel Zambelich/Wired