What should I look for when buying a laptop?
Answer: The first thing you need to consider when buying a new laptop is whether to get a Mac or a Windows computer. That is a whole other discussion, so I'll let you do your own research for that decision.
If you choose a Windows system, you'll have a lot more choices of laptops since there are only a handful of Macintosh models available. Additionally, entry-level Windows laptops start around $300, while entry-level Macs are more than half the price, around $1,000.
Once you decide on a hardware platform, you need to decide what model is best for you. It is usually best to get a laptop that has slightly more power and storage than what you need so that it will last you for a few years. While netbooks can be tempting because of their price, I would stay away from them since I have never been happy with any netbook I've used and they are always annoyingly slow.
I also would avoid the cheapest full-featured laptops, since they often have the slowest processors available and have cheap screens and cases as well. Remember, you get what you pay for. Spending an extra $100-$200 on a laptop that you are going to use every day may be well worth it.
As of late 2012, you can get a decent mid-range Windows laptop for around $500. For this price, it should at least have 4 GB of memory, a 500 GB hard drive, and hopefully a 15" screen. Unless you have more than 10,000 songs or 20,000 photos, a 500 GB hard drive should be ample storage space. 4 GB of RAM is enough for everyday use, but professional photographers and video editors should look for models with 6 GB of RAM or more.
Unlike higher-priced laptops, however, entry-level machines typically have slower processors like an Intel Celeron or i3 processor. If performance is important to you, it is probably worth getting a laptop with an Intel i5 or i7 processor. Computers with these processors will load webpages faster and just feel more snappy with everything you do. You should be able to get a laptop with an i5 processor for $600-$700. An i7 processor will probably cost you upwards of $1,000.
If your budget allows, laptops above $1,000 often have significantly better graphics chips than the low and mid-range models. Better graphics will allow you to play the latest 3D games, which may not run on entry-level machines. More expensive laptops often include SSD storage rather than a hard drive. This provides much faster data access and improves the overall speed of the computer.
If portability is your main concern, you should consider buying an "utrabook." Ultrabooks are thin, lightweight laptops that have long battery lives. Keep in mind, however, that you often pay a premium for portability. An ultrabook may cost several hundred dollars more than a bulkier laptop with similar specifications.
Finally, before you spend your money on a new computer, it is always good to see and touch it so you know exactly what you're getting. I find the hands-on evaluation can provide helpful information that no tech sheet will tell you. For example, you can see if the screen is sharp and viewable from many angles. You can test the keyboard to see how responsive it is and try the trackpad to see how natural it feels. I also suggest picking up the laptop and seeing how heavy it feels and if the case is smooth or has rough edges. These little details can become big ones if you use your laptop every day.
While you should never spend more than you need to on a laptop, it's also important to get a computer that meets your needs. Therefore, it's worth taking the time to evaluate several different models at multiple price points before making your final decision.