It’s not easy to choose a laptop, and part of the problem is that most people don’t seem to start from the use of the laptop. I believe that the following four categories cover the vast majority of the modern use of mobile computers.
- PDA  – can be held in one hand and generally uses a touch-screen. They generally do not resemble a laptop in shape or design.
- Subnotebook  AKA Netbook  – a very small laptop that is designed to be very portable. Typically weighing 1KG or less and having multiple design trade-offs to give light weight (such as a small screen and a slow CPU) while still being more powerful than a PDA. The EeePC  is a well known example.
- Laptop  – now apparently defined to mean a medium size portable computer, light enough to be carried around but with a big enough screen and keyboard that many people will be happy to use them for 8 hours a day. The word is also used to mean all portable computers that could possibly fit on someone’s lap.
- Desktop Replacement  – a big heavy laptop that is not carried much.
There is some disagreement about the exact number of categories and which category is most appropriate for each machine. There is a range of machines between the Subnotebook and Laptop categories. There is some amount of personal preference involved in determining which category a machine might fall in. For example I find a Thinkpad T series to fit into the “Laptop” category (and I expect that most people would agree with me). But when comparing the weight and height of an average 10yo child to an adult it seems that a 10yo would find an EeePC to be as much effort to carry as a T series Thinkpad is for an adult.
It seems to me that the first thing that you need to do when choosing a laptop is to decide which of the above categories is most appropriate. While the boundaries between the categories are blurry and to some extent are limited by personal preference it’s an easy second step to determine which machines fit the category you have selected (in your opinion) once you have made a firm decision on the category. It’s also possible to choose a half-way point, for example if you wanted something on the border of the “Laptop” and NetBook categories then a Thinkpad X series might do the job.
The next step of course is to determine which OSs and applications you want to run. There are some situations where the choice of OS and/or applications may force you to choose a category that has more powerful hardware (a CPU with more speed or features, more RAM, or more storage). For example a PDA generally won’t run a regular OS well (if at all) due to the limited options available for input devices and the very limited screen resolution. Even a NetBook has limitations as to what software runs well (for example many applications require a minimum resolution of 800×600 and don’t work well on an EeePC 701). Also Xen can not be used on the low-end CPUs used in some NetBooks which lack PAE.
Once you have chosen a category you have to look for features which make sense for that category. A major criteria for a PDA is how fast you can turn it on, it should be possible to go from standby to full use in less than one second. Another major criteria is how long the battery lasts, it should compare to a mobile phone (several days on standby and 8 hours of active use). A criteria that is important to some people is the ability to use both portrait and landscape views for different actions (I use portrait for editing and landscape for reading).
A NetBook is likely to be used in many places and needs to have a screen that will work well in adverse lighting conditions (a shiny reflective screen is a really bad thing), it also needs to be reasonably resilient as it is going to get bumped if it is transported a lot (a solid state disk is a good feature). It should also be as light as possible while having enough hardware to run a regular OS (an EeePC 701 with 512M of RAM and 4G of storage is about the minimum hardware for running a regular distribution of Linux).
A desktop replacement needs to have all the features, lots of RAM, a fast CPU and video hardware, and a big screen – it also needs a good keyboard (test by typing your name several times). The “Laptop” category is much the same as the desktop replacement, but a bit smaller, a lot lighter, and better battery life.
It seems very difficult to give any specific advice as to which laptop to buy when the person who wants the advice has not chosen a category (which is often the case).