I’ve done two of these for co-workers in the last few weeks, so I figured it might be of some use to someone out there.
Note, this is meant for a non-technical audience on a budget. YMMV
Make: I personally have the most experience with Dells, but they do seem to have had a up-and-down couple of years. I’m still pretty comfortable recommending them though. One of the factors I use when buying a notebook is driver support 2-3 years down the line, and in this metric I like Dell. If you go with Dell, consider going to the “small business” section and choosing a Latitude model. These are the ones they sell to big companies in large batches and I think they tend to be more reliable and feature less bloated software standard. IBM/Lenovo clearly has great build quality and are big in the corporate world. As for Sony, my brother has one of the carbon-fiber SZ models and is happy with it.
CPU: The top choice here is the just released, brand-new Core Duo 2, but the Core Duo is a fine choice, although it draws slightly more power which means lower battery life. Don’t mess around with anything else here. The speed of the actual chip doesn’t matter as much as the type, just pick the one in the middle, so if they offer 1.66, 1.88, 2.0, get the 1.88. And remember these don’t compare to desktop chip speeds at all.
Memory: 1GB minimum. More is always better, just try to find the price point where it makes sense.
Hard drive: I don’t personally think you need much more than 60 Gig on the main drive. If you are doing a lot with movies or music or something, get an external USB drive. The key factor is speed. Don’t buy something unless you can confirm the drive is at least 5400 RPM. 7200 is best, but anything lower than 5400 is unacceptable.
Operating System: XP Home should be fine. The only differences for Professional are a couple of things like ability to remote desktop into it, join a corporate domain. If possible see if you can get a coupon for Vista when it is released.
Screen: I would look for screen resolution at around 1280×1024, every manufacturer calls these different things like WXGA+, but skip that and look for the numbers. Size makes a big difference in the total size and weight of the laptop. If you aren’t ever going to travel with it, go big, but otherwise, 14.1 seems to be a decent compromise between size and portability. Remember you don’t compare LCDs and CRT (the old kind) directly – a 19” CRT = 17” LCD (take off about two inches).
Video card: Notebooks come with two types, motherboard based Intel chips or add-in Nvidia or ATI cards. While this isn’t a big concern today (if you aren’t playing games), it will matter when Vista is released because Vista uses the graphics card to render the screen. I would choose a model with the ATI or Nvidia chips.
Optical drive: DVDRW drives are pretty standard these days, but I don’t make many DVDs, I do make CDRs though so if it were me, I’d probably go with the CD-RW/DVD.
Wireless LAN (802.11): Get the basic choice, you just need 802.11 b/g.
Mobile broadband: This is different than Wifi and requires a contract from a cell phone company, usually in the $80 a month range. Obviously this is really cool, but just know what it involves.
Bluetooth: This is a short range wireless protocol you can use to connect things like printers, headsets, etc. I don’t have any Bluetooth devices so I wouldn’t need this. If you don’t, you probably don’t either.
I just priced a Dell Latitude D620 with roughly these specs online and it came out to be $1459, which sounds about right.