After last week's column about new desktop computers, several readers contacted me with questions — about buying laptops. Then a neighbor asked...

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After last week’s column about new desktop computers, several readers contacted me with questions — about buying laptops.

Then a neighbor asked me over to chat about laptops. She had printed Costco listings of four different machines that seemed nearly the same, yet ranged in price from $700 to $1,000.

She asked the universal questions about computer buying — what’s the difference and what should you look for?

Here are 10 tips and tricks for those of you who are looking for a good laptop at a reasonable price:

1. Core confusion. The trickiest thing nowadays is deciphering the brands and lingo used to describe processors.

Intel really muddled things with its “dual-core” offerings. You’ll see Pentium brand “dual-core” systems, but I’d stick with its “Core 2 Duo” brand to be sure you’re getting the latest hardware.

Misleading labels are partly why Windows Vista was a disappointment early on — a lot of people bought Vista PCs that used underpowered hardware from the Windows XP era.

A simple reference point is Apple. It uses newer chips from Intel, so you can refer to the specifications of a Mac when you’re trying to sift through options in the Windows world.

The latest laptop processors from AMD are branded Turion X2 Ultra, with “Ultra” being the key word for new chips that debuted in June.

2. Check the paper. This may sound self-serving, but ads in the Sunday paper really are the best place to get a quick overview of the latest computer deals. That’s where the big stores will push their best deals, especially during the back-to-school season.

The paper won’t list every available system. Go to the stores or online for an exhaustive search. But it’s the easiest and most efficient way to compare and peruse what’s on sale — the perfect starting point for a computer hunt.

3. Touch the machines. Unless you’re buying from a place that has no-questions-asked returns, I’d be sure to check out a laptop before you buy it. There are big differences in how they look and feel. If you haven’t shopped for a computer in a few years, you’ll be surprised by the different colors, textures and graphic designs available now. Even Dell machines are in stores, so you can look even if you plan to buy online.

4. Check the cache. In the specifications, watch for “L2 memory cache.” This is fast memory used to store frequently used information. A simple trick for finding newer, better processors is to look for ones that have at least 1 megabyte of L2 cache.

5. Don’t forget memory. With Windows Vista, the amount of random access memory, or RAM, is critical. You need at least 2 gigabytes. In the $700 to $900 range, you can now find systems with 3 or 4 gigs of RAM. (As for hard-drive space, most midrange laptops have plenty — 120 gigs or more — and it’s risky to use a laptop as your only data-storage location anyway.)

6. Do you want a mini? Bargain hunters will be tempted by a new category of small, cheap laptops emerging this summer in the $300 to $500 range. Sometimes called “netbooks” or “nettops,” they have smaller screens — 10-inches or less in diameter — and generally use Intel’s “Atom” processor, which was designed for mobile devices. They’re based on Linux or Windows XP, partly to keep costs down and also because they don’t have enough oomph for Vista.

These are fun and great entry-level computers if that’s what you can afford. Others may buy them as secondary computers. How about one for the car or suitcase?

They’re fine for e-mail, browsing and basic applications, but their limited power may be frustrating when you try manipulating photos or video or transcoding media files. Look at them in person, too. It’s hard to gauge their scale when shopping online.

7. A bargain tip. If you are a student or educator, check out the current offer from Apple. If you buy a Mac before Sept. 15, the company will throw in a free iPod, even a pricey Touch model.

Two caveats: Macs are more expensive than comparably equipped Windows PCs.

If you don’t care about the brands, you can find a Windows laptop and an iPod for less than a Mac. Also, if you want Apple’s latest and greatest, you may want to hold off.

Apple is expected to update its iPods and announce new and possibly cheaper Macs this fall.

8. Another bargain tip. There are great deals now on the education and home version of Office 2007. It used to cost $150 but Microsoft dropped its list price to $110. Lots of stores have it for $80 or $90; Hewlett-Packard is offering it for $49 with a new PC. Microsoft must want to get the software into college kids’ hands, before they’re tempted by Google Apps at school.

9. Vista vs. XP? That’s not really an option anymore. Microsoft mostly stopped selling XP in June and it has improved Vista since its release. You’ll be fine with Vista if you buy a laptop with a newer processor and plenty of RAM.

10. What’s next? I always worry that I’ll buy a computer just before something better comes along. So, what will you miss if you buy a $700 laptop this summer?

One is dedicated graphics processors, which are starting to appear on sub-$1,000 laptops. These provide more horsepower for games and high-definition video, but they’re not must-haves for average laptop users.

You’ll also miss Blu-ray disc drives. They’re getting cheaper and will be on more laptops soon. They hold up to 50 gigabytes; so far they’re used mostly for high-definition movies.

Don’t worry about Blu-ray unless you’re using the laptop in a home theater. More exciting is the prospect of read-write Blu-ray drives that can back up an entire music collection on a single disc, but it will be a while before they’re on affordable laptops.

Another thing coming to midrange laptops in the next year or so will be solid-state drives. They use less power and are more durable because they don’t have moving parts, but they’re still expensive.

After that, laptop fuel cells may be available, offering days of power without a recharge.

But by then, the bigger question for PC buyers will be whether to stick with Windows Vista or take a chance on a $600 touch-screen model running Windows 7.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.