Over the past decade the laptop has risen to become the dominant force in personal computing. But this is also the first time in a long while that mobile computing decisions aren't clear cut. Intel has been the champion of laptop processing since it launched Centrino, but early next year AMD will be making a serious play for that market with its Fusion APUs.
AMD has a CPU architecture that should beat Atom, while also having a much more advanced graphics engine than Intel. Add to this Apple's recent refresh of its Macbook air range and the small form factor laptop space is a highly dynamic one.
There are a few things to keep in mind when selecting a laptop. The first is whether you want performance or portability. To get both you will have to pay more than if you only need one or the other. Intel has several mobile processor ranges to choose from - at the bottom end is the Atom, which is used in netbooks and lacks the grunt needed for a lot of serious computing. Atom-based netbooks are 11in machines, with relatively small keyboards and rudimentary graphics.
Up from Atom comes the Core i3, i5 and i7 mobile range. Like desktop processors, these range in power from the dual core i3 to the quad core i7s. These CPUs have graphics chips built into them, which is sufficient for desktop use and media playback, but if you intend to play games or do heavy media work a discreet graphics processor is a good idea. NVIDIA has a technology called Optimus in its graphics chips that will dynamically swap between the ultra-low power Intel graphics and the discrete chip depending upon workload.
As for storage, laptop hard drives are generally quite limited. Expect your expansion options to revolve around external hard drives rather than internal upgrades.
If you really need portability then a lot of manufacturers will offer expanded battery packs. This is perhaps the easiest way to eke out more life from your notebook, but be warned that high performance laptops will always have lower battery life than mobility-focused models.
Which laptop user are you?
Best for a cheap workhorse
Dell Latitude 2110 - $589
Netbooks are under threat from tablet PCs, but they remain a cheap and easy way to go mobile with your computing. Dell's Latitude 2110 uses the Intel N450 Atom processor, has 2GB of RAM, 250GB HDD and an 11in screen. This is pretty standard spec - the real difference between models is in design and feel. Dell's offering comes with a 3G modem built-in and a robust rubberised coating.
Best for all-day computing
Acer TimelineX - $1383
Acer's Timeline series has been a perfect example of uncompromising focus on battery life. These laptops are designed to pack a moderate amount of power under the hood while maintaining a target of 12 hours between charges. The 4820TG has a Core i5-430M CPU, 14in HD display, Radeon mobility HD 5650 graphics, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB HDD. This is ample power for all but the most intensive computing tasks, and it comes in a design that manages to eke out a day's worth of use.
Best for the mobile media aficionado
Toshiba A660 - $2299
One of the surprising niches carved out by laptops in recent years has been as media devices. Thanks to the widespread adoption of HDMI and the rise of Blu-ray, a laptop can be easily integrated into your home entertainment setup. Toshiba's A660 takes this playback to the next level, with the inclusion of NVIDIA's 3D Vision technology. This isn't as useful as a 3D desktop or TV, but it does make for a truly comprehensive media focused laptop.
Best for the gamer on the go
Alienware M11x - $1339
Gamers' needs are particularly demanding on mobile computing. One of the pioneers of gaming laptops was Alienware, which is now part of Dell but still produces fantastic hardware. The M11x is a truly unique laptop, with an 11in screen making it incredibly portable but a Core i5 and NVIDIA graphics meaning that it can still pump out games at great framerates. If you don't need to be mobile with your gaming then there are more expensive models from other companies with larger screens, but the M11x really is the best of both worlds when it comes to gaming on the go.
Look for our guides to TVs, Blu-Ray players, desktop PCs, smartphones, tablets, DSLR and compact cameras, graphics cards, monitors and iPod docks in the January 2011 issue of PC & Tech Authority.