NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, September 2010
Outside the Lines
By Carla S. Cawlfield, a long-time HAL-PC member and volunteer
June 2010 Issue, HAL-PC Magazine, newsletter of the Houston Area League of PC Users, Texas

Carla(at)hal-pc.org (click to email author)

SO! You Want a New Computer!
This article is intended as a guideline to how to select a computer, not specifically which computer to buy.

The Problem
After nine years, I decided to buy myself a notebook computer as a full-blown replacement for my desktop machine. For once in my lengthy computing life, there was almost nothing wrong with my old computer. The processor was still fast enough for all my applications; the main obsolescence was the 1.1 version of USB and the lack of a DVD burner. But the main reason was I want the portability of a notebook; I sometimes travel for several weeks at a time, and have tired of using public libraries and Internet cafés. Surfing and email are possible on my handheld device, but I can’t manage all of my affairs this way.

The Process(or)
I started researching my purchase looking under “laptop”, and quickly discovered the industry no longer likes that term; the size categories are now “notebooks” or “netbooks” (effective alliteration enhances advertising? maintaining marketing momentum? busily building buzzwords?).

This will be my sixteenth computer. It will be my fourth portable. I have learned you have to do your homework to make the best selection and purchase. After decades of buying computers, the place to start is with your specifications. The machine I want is primarily for writing articles, managing my large photo and video library, financial and accounting maintenance, Internet & email, and watching DVDs & online television. What I don’t need is a screamer of a gamester computer or video editing/movie-making platform. This means I don’t need the hottest, fastest processor or maximum amount of memory available in portables; my "don’t” list saved me about $1,000.

Herewith, therefore, are the steps I went through, in mostly chronological order:

Step #1--re-familiarize myself with the state of the technology. Educational sources included… * Printed advertisements, both Sunday newspaper and magazines * Internet surfing for reviews and manufacturer’s sites * Visiting the HAL-PC Build or Buy SIG on Wednesday afternoons * Talking with LPs (Learned Persons) at HAL-PC, another benefit of being a member

I attended a recent HAL-PC meeting wherein AMD gave a presentation comparing their current and upcoming lines of processors to Intel’s. The AMD speaker had a great chart, showing the different families of processors side by side. However, when I was researching online, I was very disappointed in the charts and lack thereof at the Intel site. (Intel, work on this; your site is enormous and maze-like. Give us a way to easily compare your products.)

The processor I ended up selecting, Intel’s i5-430m dual core, is a high mid-range mobile processor, released just a few weeks before I bought my computer. It is optimized for speed, power conservation, and heat minimization.

Step #2—develop my specifications. This became a huge spreadsheet, with much minutiae and running eight pages long when printed out. The taped- together pages ran the length of the kitchen door I used as a posting site. My gut told me I would probably have to spend around $800 to get a reasonable computer, but I was not hard-wired into a fixed budget. (In the end I spent $799 plus tax, but that was either a happy co-incidence OR, I have a really smart gut.) The purpose of setting an amount was to have a starting point at which to compare machines; stated another way, at $800 what is a great deal and what is a ripoff? This “wet finger in the air” analysis showed me the following computers were typically available:
* Processor = Intel Core i5-430M dual core; speed is 2.26GHz
* Memory = 4GB DDR3, expandable to 8GB
* Hard drive = 500 GB, 5400 to 7200 rpm
* Screen size = 15.6” to 17”, resolution = 1366 X 768 or 1600 X 900, all LED backlit, except for Toshiba, who still uses LCD technology in their larger notebooks (see note below)
* USB ports = 3 or 4; on some machines 1 port is also eSATA
* Optical drive = DVD dual layer burner; some have LightScribe or LabelFlash also. Those units that offered BluRay were about $100 more, even on sale
* Battery life = 2.5 to 3 hours with 6 LithiumIons; one unit had 5 to 6 hours with 12 LithiumIons. (Most notebooks can have larger battery packs retrofitted, but at an additional cost of $130 to $150.)
* Media reader = 5 in 1; accept various memory cards
* Webcam = standard & fairly lousy
* Keyboard = only full keyboards with separate number keypad will do
* Operating system = Windows 7 Home Premium, 64 bit version
* Other Software included = Microsoft Works, trial versions of Norton or other security programs, audio/video entertainment packages, etc. Basically, nothing worth having, so this was not a decision-influencing category. I have my own legal full-blown versions of applications, thank you very much.
* Miscellaneous goodies on various machines = Harmon Kardon speakers (Toshiba); Altec Lansing speakers (Hewlett Packard); non-integrated video processor (Toshiba); RJ11 jacks (handy for faxes); built-in Bluetooth; PCI Express slots; Touchpad on/off switch; dual headphone jacks.

NOTE: About LCD and LED backlit display technology—my research led me to believe that the newer LED backlit technology is better for 2 reasons—1) LED uses less power, so battery usage is longer, and 2) it is brighter in outdoor-type environments, so the screen does not become as washed out.

TIP: One of my favorite Learned Persons at HAL-PC clued me in to the Windows Experience Index, available in Windows 7. This benchmarks any given machine in these categories—Processor, Memory (RAM), Graphics, Gaming graphics, and Hard Disk (data transfer rate). Each category is given its own score and is graded Olympics-style, with the maximum possible score being a 7.9. No mobile computer I looked at ever scored anything higher than a 6.7 in any category. Most notebooks have puny graphics processors when compared to desktop models, and thusly, notebooks also have puny graphics scores of about 4.6. To use the Windows Experience Index feature, select Start > Control Panel > All Control Panel Items > Performance Information and Tools.

Shoeleather vs. Let Your Finger do the Shopping Step #3—start shopping. I was pretty disappointed in the available online notebook reviews. None really got detailed about the pros and cons of various machines. They did varying degrees of shallow information about such things as the quality of the LCD display, realistic length of battery life, ease-of-use of keyboards, etc. When I went through a similar drill two years ago before buying a new digital camera, I found much more useful material in the camera review sites. The best site for comparison charts = CompUSA.

So I went to the local stores, several times, with advertisements and legal pad in hand, to gather my own empirical data. Then back to the various manufacturers’ websites to fill in my comparison-shopping spreadsheet with yet more data.

A sales/marketing pattern seemed to emerge. It looks like the major computer makers have partnered with the major retailers to “customize” notebooks for exclusive marketing rights. An example—a computer model catches your eye at Office Depot, Fry’s, or CompUSA, just to pick on a few random stores. You wish to compare prices.

That same computer may not be available anywhere else, only at that one retail chain, even if you websurf the world for online deals. This computer may be almost identical to a unit available at a competitor, but it will have one tiny little detail different, and also a different SKU number. I found this to be true on several machines by different computer makers, so it must be common and customary for the industry. So much for price guarantees, you say. It didn’t really make that much difference in the end, because I tracked the sales and rebates for a couple of months, and good deals are available if you are observant and patient.

I am an avid online shopper; but in this case, I did not find any price advantages online, even with free shipping and no sales tax. So I bought at a sticks ‘n bricks locale (in the event anything was broken on my new computer, being able to exchange it at a store is SOOO much easier than dealing with online returns).

Because I was not buying a computer on an emergency basis, I took advantage of rock bottom sales and rebates. I ended up actually bringing home 3 different machines during a 2 week time period; at one time I had $2300 worth of notebooks on my credit card and living room floor, while I weighed the pros and cons of each, waiting for better sales and deals to emerge. Example—Fry’s ads come out each Friday, and they have a 15 day return period on notebooks. So if you buy your desired computer on Thursday night at the end of a sale cycle, you then have 2 more weeks of opportunity for Fry’s or another retailer to offer an even better deal. I also made sure all returns were made before the cutoff of my credit card billing cycle. As per my plan, I was successfully able to return 2 out of the 3 computers I brought home, and ended up with the unit I wanted at a good deal.

CAUTIONARY NOTE—Do NOT open the computer box unless you really are in love with that unit, as you either cannot return it at all, OR, you can return for about a 15% restocking fee, which is >$100. Make sure you have the exact details of a given store’s return policy BEFORE you make your purchase. WARNING—go back and reread this paragraph.

The Probables
About 12 similar computers seemed to fit my specs and were in stock in local stores. I took my own copy of a DVD movie in and test drove 11 of these units in the stores; the 12th did not have a demo model available, and the store was not willing to open a box for me. I ran the Windows Experience Index on all 11 machines; I was not able to find this info any other way. It is not part of the online data available. Winnowing down through the dozen yielded the three machines I brought home. These 3 computers all have the specifications as stated up in Step #2, so I will only mention the differences.

Computer  #1 = Toshiba A505-S6020, MSRP of $899, net price of $699. Reasonable WinExpIndex scores.
Pros =
1. killer Harman Kardon speakers
2.  nVidia graphics card, which led to a graphics score of 5.0, the highest in the bunch
Cons =
1. Display = LCD, not LED
2. Only 2.0 to 2.5 hour battery life
3. No built-in Bluetooth
4. Tons of extra software goodies. Note that I list this as a “con”, as these are stripped versions of programs, often with time bombs. Mostly they just crap up your Windows registry and machine.

Computer #2 = Gateway NV5935u; MSRP of $699, net price of $649. Reasonable WinExpIndex scores. Pros =
1. 1600 X 900 LED display
2. Fingerprint resistant keyboard
3. RJ 11 jack
4. 4 hour battery life
Cons =
1. No built-in Bluetooth
2. No PCI Express slot
3. This was the only machine I was not able to play with in the store, no demo unit available.

Computer #3 = Hewlett Packard Pavilion dv6-2170us. MSRP of $899, net price of $749. Highest WinExpIndex scores.
Pros =
1. Superbright LED display
2. The 500 GB hard drive has the fastest speed at 7200 rpm
3. Entertainment engineering, including dual headphone jacks (tested—no loss of volume with both jacks in use.)
4. Altec Lansing speakers (although they sound puny to me)
5. Built-in Bluetooth
6. PCI Express slot
7. And lastly, but most importantly, 6 hour battery life!!!! DEAL MAKER!!!!
Cons =
1. No RJ 11 jack, so no built-in fax capability. (This can be remedied with a cheapo USB add-on.)
2. No BluRay.
3. Weight = about 7 lbs. This is due to #7 above, the lovely longer battery life. I am not a road warrior anymore, so I don’t really care how much it weighs. I can easily carry 7 lbs. around my house.
4. Interfering HP software that wants to hold my hand all the time with pop-ups and assistance.

Added surprise bonus inside—as mentioned in #3 under Pros, this is an Entertainment unit, so it comes with its own teensy little DVD and music remote control. This is actually important to me—remember part of my original requirements was for a machine to watch DVDs and online television. Mission accomplished!

In the end, I took back the #1 Toshiba unit because of the lack of LED screen. Otherwise, it is a good unit with great speakers. My real choice was between the #2 Gateway and the #3 HP for $100 more. I opted for the HP because of the enhanced battery life, built-in Bluetooth, and dual headphone jacks.

NOTE: Kudos to Hewlett Packard for using ALL recyclable packing materials—all recycled cardboard inside and out, and not a scrap of Styrofoam to be found.  

The Procedures
Now that I had finally made a decision and taken all extra computers back to the store, I was ready to open the box and get going. I have learned that putting a new computer in service is just about as painful and laborious as giving birth, and I am NOT kidding. You have to go slow and methodically.

Step #4. Never, ever hook a virgin computer up to the Internet without verifying that anti-virus software and a firewall are current and completely installed. You may need access to another broken-in computer to download security files. Here is where your membership in HAL-PC will save you. Go to the Friday morning PC Upgrade and Troubleshooting SIG for assistance in these security matters. I have used this group and other gurus at HAL-PC for many of my sixteen computers over the years. Can’t live without them. Best $50 per year I ever spent.

TIP:  As this computer unit is WiFi capable, I also took my router down to the Friday morning SIG. We were able to configure both the computer and the router and get them connected wirelessly. This was a huge help, as my router had previously been “fixed” by the kids who came to visit my house; they had it totally fouled up and unusable.

Step #5—Start loading my software packages. This includes the usuals—Microsoft Office Suite, Quicken, Palm Desktop for my handheld device. Then load the 20 or so icons that I use frequently onto the desktop.

TIP: If you like a lot of icons on your desktop, for your background wallpaper, choose a picture that has a lot of blank space around the edges, sort of like a frame. The photo I use is a family group portrait with an uncluttered background. The icons are arranged along the sides and top.

Step #6—let ‘er rip. I began methodically checking out the various ports and devices. This includes such areas as all USB ports, external monitor, WiFi, Bluetooth, DVD burner, webcam & mic, both headphone ports, touchpad on/off switch, etc. My checkout list included testing the battery life; I got up to about 5.5 hours before I plugged back into external electricity. Even with the beautiful screen on this notebook, my old external desktop monitor still delivers a superior resolution, and external speakers are a must.

Step #7—transfer data from old computer to new. This would have been super slow using the USB 1.1 on my old desktop computer. Plus, I wanted to harvest the two perfectly good desktop hard drives and use them as my new backup drives. So I used a handy little peripheral device, an external hard drive box. Specifically, it is a Sabrent SATA/IDE Hard Drive Aluminum Enclosure, High Speed USB 2.0 & eSATA Interface, Plug ‘n Play, hot swappable, Item # ECS – STU35K, sku = 88218 00070 5, street price about $27. The beauty of this device is you can temporarily swap in whatever 3.5” hard drive you desire.

What I actually did was carefully take my D: data drive out of my old desktop computer, load it into the Sabrent, plug it into a USB 2.0 port on my new computer and Voila! All my data directories and files were visible and available for installing. I moved 33 gigabytes of data in a little more than 30 minutes.

TIP: Use your old working hard drives as backup drives using an external device like the Sabrent. Store them away from your computer, and preferably in a water- and fire-proof safe or safe deposit box at a bank. This accomplishes two things—1) in the event your computer is stolen, the thieves won’t have taken your only copy of your data; and 2) in the event of a flood or fire, you won’t have lost your only copy of your data. (If you think this sounds like overkill, your house just hasn’t flooded yet.)

I had two goals in mind when purchasing a new laptop—I want to sit in bed and write stories, and I want to sit in bed and watch movies and online television. Considering that I wrote this lengthy article while sitting in bed, and considering that I got caught up on some recently-missed television shows online I have achieved success! I am very happy with my choice of notebook computer.

TIP:  Thanks to the HAL-PC homepage, I learned that on Earth Day the local Toshiba plant was accepting electronics for responsible recycling. I had a lot of old hard drives and non-working computers lying around that I did not want to throw into a landfill. A friend and I filled the bed of a large pickup truck with junk computers, broken VCRs, rusted stereo components, & one flooded boombox and delivered all this trash to Toshiba. I estimate the original purchase value of all this junk was about $15K. We did get a reusable cloth grocery bag in exchange. Thank you, HAL-PC, for this tip. Keep ‘em coming!

Carla Cawlfield is a long-term HAL-PC member and volunteer. Since her car was flooded under 7 feet of water in April 2009, she has “gone green” and is experimenting with living in Houston with no car. You may email her at carla@hal-pc.org © 2010 by Carla S. Cawlfield

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