NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, February 2008
A Laptop for the Holidays?
By Vinny La Bash, a regular columnist and
member of the Sarasota Personal Computer Users Group, Inc., Florida

vlabash(at)comcast.net (click to email author)

Obtained from APCUG with the author's permission for publication by APCUG member groups.

In June of 2005, monthly laptop sales exceeded desktop sales for the first time. Since then, the popularity of laptops has continued to gain. Improved battery life, manufacturing quality, larger disk drives, and enhanced video have all contributed to make laptops more attractive. Laptops are replacing desktops in homes and corporate offices.

Competitive pressures have lowered consumer prices. Unfortunately, these pressures have not always seen a corresponding increase in quality. Low prices are all too often directly related to cost cutting, and that means you stand a good chance of ending up with a dud if you buy a laptop off-the-shelf. Laptops should be manufactured for real world usage and applications. Hereís what to look for if and when you decide that a laptop is for you.

The chances are good that your new laptop will have some version of Vista installed. Unless you are a business professional with high security needs, Vista Home Premium will be your best choice. There are other operating systems such as Linux, but these generally require more expertise than Vista, and Vista handles more applications than all the others combined.

Some vendors proudly proclaim that their laptops come with one full gigabyte of RAM. Thatís about as desirable as a one bedroom apartment for a family of six. You can do it, but why bother when RAM is so cheap? Two gigabytes will suffice for most people who donít need video editing or other memory intense applications. If you think you need more memory, you probably do. Why not simply order their laptop with four gigabytes of RAM? You will never have to wonder if you have enough, and it wonít bust your budget.

A low priced laptop wonít come with a high powered CPU. Donít settle for a portable that takes ten minutes to boot up, and doesnít have the muscle for your applications. Look for Intelís Core 2 Duo CPU. Not only does it have excellent performance, it generates less heat, and uses less energy. You will have all the power you need to run multiple applications simultaneously, and youíll get longer battery life as a bonus.

Video has been a weak spot with laptops because most portables use video graphics integrated with the mother board. Integrated video robs main memory from the CPU, degrading performance. Insist on a laptop with at least 128 MB of onboard RAM. If your video requirements are high, 256 MB is even better.

If you use your portable for extensive travel, you may not want a 17Ē screen. Think about how you will cope with crowded and cramped airplanes. How often will you have to remove it from its protective case for baggage and customs inspectors? If you travel often, a 12Ē display may be best. If not, go for the big screen.

You want at least four USB 2.x ports. These are probably the most useful ports you can have on a machine, and you canít have too many of them. With them you can plug and unplug devices without having to turn your computer off and reboot. They reliably support ďplug and playĒ which means that after you connect a new device to your system through a USB port, Vista automatically detects and installs the device making it instantly available.

Apple developed Firewire to be a broadband connection for streaming data devices like camcorders, DVD players, and digital audio equipment. It became especially popular after it was standardized as IEEE-1394. Lower priced laptops usually are missing this port.

With broadband everywhere, a standard RJ-45 NIC 8 pin female connector should be standard equipment. It is used to connect LAN (local area network), broadband cable modems, DSL modems or routers. Standard RJ-11 jacks are still available for dialup modems, but if you have broadband, there is no need for this obsolete option.

Get at least 1 PCMCIA card slot. Once there is a newer and faster wireless standard, you can upgrade easily if you need the additional speed.

An IrDA port can be very useful for transmitting data between your laptop and various devices such as PDA phones. They are fast, convenient, and wireless. Their only drawback is that they are line-of-sight devices. Infrared doesnít transmit around corners or through walls. The devices have to see each other to work.

If you plan to hook up your laptop to a wide screen digital monitor projector you need a DVI (Digital Video Interface)port. Digital monitors are far superior to their analog counterparts. The DVI port allows a pure digital signal to flow from the laptop to the monitor. A superior image is displayed because there is no signal degradation due to digital to analog conversion.

Some laptops may have parallel, serial or standard VGA ports. Before buying your laptop examine the technical specifications to ensure it has the ports you consider essential.

802.11g capability should be required in every laptop. Since there is no such requirement you need to consult the technical specifications.

Donít make battery life a deal killer. It is undoubtedly important, but if the laptop youíre considering has everything else you want and need, consider buying a spare battery. Carrying multiple batteries can be a real hassle considering the extra weight involved. Ask if you can upgrade to a 12-cell battery. Most standard laptop batteries are either 6 cells or 9 cells. Larger batteries almost always last longer. If it makes sense, go for the big one.

Laptops are cheaper than ever, but that doesnít mean that the cheapest laptop is the one thatís best for you. Examine the specifications, test drive it if you can, then make your choice.

This article has been provided to APCUG by the author solely for publication by APCUG member groups. All other uses require the permission of the author (see e-mail address above).

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