Buying a laptop for your business doesn't need to be confusing. It's simply a matter of deciding how you need to use the laptop.

For example, if you travel a lot and use your computer primarily for e-mail, writing documents or analyzing spreadsheets, then you might want a lightweight model with decent battery life. A webmaster, however, needs a laptop with exceptional wireless performance, as they'll need to log on anytime and anywhere to check on their site or update it. A mobile CAD worker or game designer may need a high-end laptop with a blazingly-fast CPU and a ton of video RAM. But such a device will be expensive.

"Regardless of your business, a laptop computer can be an essential tool -- especially for mobile executives," says Ray Boggs, vice president of SMB Research at IDC, a technology market research firm. "The trick is to pick the one that suits your needs."

To help figure out which laptop is ideal for you and your business, here's a plain-English guide to key features and cautionary advice.

Portability

When you're shopping for a laptop, keep in mind that the bigger the screen (e.g. 17-inches opposed to 12-inches), the bigger the laptop will be. A larger monitor also tends to add more weight and drain the battery faster than smaller screens.

Those considerations, of course, presume that you're not using the laptop as a replacement for a desktop machine and plan to keep the device stationary and plugged into a wall's electrical outlet for its power.

"Go with a widescreen laptop," advises Boggs. "They offer greater visibility, which can help you with productivity, and hey, when you're stuck at the airport you can watch movies."

Tablet PCs, which let you write on the screen with a stylus pen, will also be smaller and lighter in design than a traditional laptop. Called "convertible" computers, some laptops double as a Tablet PC.

Wireless

Most laptops purchased today ship with integrated wireless networking features already installed. This means users can log onto the Net at broadband-like speeds when in range of a wireless network, such as one of the thousands of "hotspots" around the world in hotels, airport lounges, school campuses, cafés and so on.

Many U.S. homes and offices also have "Wi-Fi" service. Therefore, more than one PC can log onto the same high-speed Net connection. And wirelessly, too.

Those who own older laptops may be able to purchase a snap-in wireless networking card for as low as $30.

"Wireless capabilities are a very important consideration when buying a laptop," insists Boggs. "This is especially true for those who travel for business, as you need to keep in touch and stay productive wherever you go."

Alternatively, you may choose to invest in a cell phone PC Card so you can surf the Net using your cell provider's high-speed 3G network, such as EDGE or EV-DO. The advantage here is you don't need to hunt for a hotspot to log online. Similarly, some cell phones let you use them as a modem by plugging them into the laptop's USB port.

Power/Memory

A few years ago, there was no comparison between a desktop and laptop computer when it came to processing power. Desktops won hands-down for speed and performance. Today, this isn't necessarily the case. There is no longer a distinct trade-off between power and mobility because of advancements in processing technology and an increase in the amount of RAM for mobile video cards. Now, laptop computers can just about rival desktops in power.

Of course, a laptop that can run sophisticated programs, such as the latest PC games, are considerably more expensive than regular laptops, and are usually bigger, heavier and drain the battery faster.

Price vs. components

Be sure to choose a laptop to suit your needs -- and wallet.

Laptops are generally more expensive than desktop computers because the components are much smaller, which usually means they are more expensive (and take longer) to manufacture. For example, Dell's cheapest laptop is about $500, compared to about $279 for an entry-level desktop machine.

Depending on what you're using the laptop for, an Intel Pentium M-based processor or AMD Sempron 3500-based processor should suffice for most tasks. Look for at least 512MB of memory and a minimum of 60GB hard drive, or else you may run out of space for all your programs and files.

If you have the cash, invest in an Intel Core Duo-based laptop for extraordinary speed and performance.

Boggs says the processor you decide on should serve your needs throughout the life of the laptop, but try to buy more memory than you think you need as space is something computer users tend to outgrow.

Watching DVD movies on your laptop requires a DVD-ROM drive. But be sure the drive can also burn CDs. For example, a CD-RW/DVD combo drive is a good idea.

Gamers should look for a laptop video card with at least 128MB of RAM for fast and smooth performance; 25MB is even better.

Laptop buyers on a budget can opt for an Intel Celeron or AMD Turion 64 processor, which takes longer to process instructions, therefore resulting in slightly slower performance than most other chipsets. A Celeron-based laptop isn't ideal for PC gaming and video editing, but they should be just fine for most applications, including e-mail, word processing, Web surfing, and home finance, and educational software.

Peripherals

Unlike a desktop computer, all peripherals -- such as a mouse, keyboard, speakers and microphone -- are integrated into the computer. But external ones may be attached, if desired.

For comfort reasons, many laptop users prefer using a separate wireless mouse or a more ergonomic keyboard for less wrist strain. Prices for these optional accessories are about the same for both laptop and desktop PCs.

"And be sure to try out the laptop on your lap before you buy," suggests Boggs. "You must make sure it's comfortable and not too hot -- after all, you want a notebook, not a hot plate."