Touch screen or no touch screen? Many laptops now have touch-screen displays to make the most of Windows 8's interface, but they'll cost more than non-touch models. You can certainly use Windows 8 without a touch screen, and some very good laptops omit the touch screen to lower the price. For those who want to forgo learning a new interface, some laptops -- especially business-centric choices -- are still available with Windows 7 either standard or as an option.
Do you want a glossy or matte display? Many new laptops have a glossy display, which makes graphics and movies look saturated but can give off glare, especially outside or in an office environment. Most business-focused laptops offer an anti-glare or matte display, but that's not as common an option as it used to be.
How big a hard drive should you get? The short answer is to get the biggest hard drive you can afford. Photo, music and video files take up a lot of space. Adding a larger hard drive when you configure a system is a worthwhile upgrade if you collect media files. You can't put an additional internal hard drive into most laptops, so allowing room for growth can be a good investment.
Many ultraportable laptops have only a very small solid-state drive. SSDs open applications and boot up Windows much faster than mechanical hard drives, but cost much more than traditional drives and often offer less storage capacity. Some laptops offer an SSD for fast boot-up and access to most-used files and programs, plus a high-capacity mechanical hard drive for holding larger files and deep storage. With laptops that include only an SSD, options to store files "to the cloud" can be valuable.
What about wireless connectivity? Just about all laptops come with integrated Wi-Fi. Some also provide built-in or optional access to cell phone carrier wireless networks, but you'll need a separate data plan to take advantage of that. Some laptops include technology such as WirelessHD, Miracast or Intel's WiDi to stream content in HD to a compatible TV or one equipped with a third-party adapter or receiver. Bluetooth is another common feature.
What should you expect in terms of service, support and warranty policies? Warranties range from one to three years. All manufacturers offer warranty upgrades, and prices can vary by model. Tech support is generally free during the warranty period, but not thereafter. Some manufacturers such as Dell and HP are adding extras such as theft insurance to warranty upgrades to make them more attractive. However, some makers are easier to deal with than others if problems arise. Look to the reviews of the individual laptops covered in this report for guidance.
What is bloatware, and how can you deal with it? Consumer laptops are bundled with software that's often not what you want or need. For example, you won't get Microsoft Office -- including Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint -- without paying extra for it. Instead, you'll get limited-time trial versions of programs, adware and crippled software, unless you pay to unlock full functionality. Many find this so-called bloatware to be a minor nuisance, but sometimes it slows down boot-up times and performance until offending programs are uninstalled.
If you end up with a laptop that has a lot of bloatware, PC Decrapifier can help you clean it up quickly and with minimum hassle. Just don't accidentally delete any critical programs! The tool is free for personal users.