Editor's Note (Mar. 14, 2012)
It's been three months since our last update to the Laptop Buying Guide. While various new models have been released since, we are waiting for Ivy Bridge processors to hit the market and bring with them the next major wave of notebook releases. If you are looking for a new laptop and can wait just a bit longer, you should definitely hold off your purchase to benefit from the lower power draw and performance optimizations that'll come with Intel's latest microarchitecture -- you can read all about it here.

With the holiday shopping season in full swing it's time we give our Laptop Buying Guide one last pass before the year is over to make sure it's packing enough punch. For the most part, the market has remained stagnant in the past few months. Netbooks have lost their lure to simply become smaller, entry-level notebooks, while other categories are only seeing minor spec bumps -- and in some cases slight price hikes as the ongoing HDD shortage takes its toll on PC makers.

But if you are looking into the ultraportable market, a new breed of devices has emerged. Intel is pushing the Ultrabooks as thin and light systems with plenty of power, fast SSD storage, long battery life, and a price that won't break the bank. They're essentially the Windows version of Apple's MacBook Air and they're supposed to take over the notebook market in the coming years. For now we're seeing a first generation of devices, with plenty more to come.

But as trendy as Ultrabooks may be right now, when choosing the right laptop it all comes down to what you are willing to spend and what you plan to use it for. This guide will help you navigate through the countless options out there. As usual, we've narrowed down our favorite notebooks and grouped them into different categories: ultraportables, business and workstations, desktop replacements, gaming, and budget-oriented machines.

Thin and light laptops offer a smooth blend of performance, portability and battery life. The typical thin and light sports an 11-, 12- or 13-inch display, Intel's second-generation Core i processors, 6+ hours of battery life, some pack SSDs and most drop the optical drive for the sake of portability.

Business notebooks offer a combination of mid- to high-end components, but with an emphasis on extra durability and longer battery life. Many of them also come with increased security features that aren't normally found in mainstream consumer laptops.

Desktop replacements usually offer large screens 15 inches and up and comfortable full-sized keyboards. The average desktop replacement weighs 6 pounds or more, sports a Core i7 quad-core chip, at least 6GB of RAM, around 750GB of storage, and tons of connectivity.

If mobility is a priority, there are some solid choices for gaming on the go. Intel's Core i7 processors are recommended for gaming, as well as a top-of-the-line discrete GPU from ATI or Nvidia, at least 6GB of RAM, and up to a terabyte worth of storage.

Budget notebooks offer a good blend of price and features, but slim form factors are not necessarily a priority. These commonly equip 14 or 15-inch displays -- or 10- to 11-inch for netbooks -- integrated graphics, full-sized keyboards, and essential connectivity options.