The perfect laptop: a beginner’s guide to buying a notebook computer

So, you’ve finally decided to get your own laptop. Buying a laptop is not simple, with the multitude of choices of brand, model, size, features, and even colors. A laptop is as personal as a computer can get. It’s not just a piece of hardware sitting on your home or office desk. A laptop tends to be part of your daily life. It’s like your wallet, watch or mobile phone. Your laptop should be characteristic of who you are–an extension of your personality.

Some laptops are meant to be carried around everywhere. If you’re like one of us, whose lives and livelihoods revolve around the Internet, you’d most likely carry aroud your computer anywhere you go. But some laptops are meant to be left at home or the office most of the time, serving as portable desktop replacements. Some people prefer the power of desktops but without the bulk.

So here are some factors I suggest you consider before taking the plunge and spend your hard-earned funds on a spanking new notebook computer.

 

Brand

Some are not brand conscious, but when it comes to laptops, brand is a big factor in your achieving a great computing experience. Some ODM–original design manufacturers, or companies that manufacture laptops for big-name brands–have recently come up with their own retail models, but they tend to lack good aftermarket support, and the designs don’t seem to be so good, in my opinion. So I still suggest you go for the better-known brands. The higher price you pay usually translates to better aftermarket support, in terms of warranty and availability of software/BIOS patches and generally better designs.

I personally prefer ThinkPads (branded IBM, now manufactured by Lenovo), and then HP next. Of course, if you’re an Apple buff, then by all means go for an Apple notebook–it sure is a world of difference from PC notebooks in terms of design.

Note that by design, I don’t only mean style, but also the general usability and built of the laptop, ergonomics and build quality.

Size and weight

Laptops come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Well, okay, they’re mostly rectangular, but some are wider than others. Size is one of the foremost considerations when purchasing a laptop, since this would dictate how portable your new computer would be. And this would also most likely have an effect on how powerful the laptop is.

Here are the more common laptop sizes, measured by the diagonal length (usually associated with screen size):

  • 12-inch
  • 14-inch
  • 15-inch

There are also several higher-end notebooks that come in 17 and 19 inches. And then there are the sub-notebooks that come in 10, and even 8 inches.

The standard size is 14 inches (my personal preference)–not too large, not too small. If you’d want something that fits a small backpack or briefcase, then go for a 12-incher. 14 and most 15-inch laptops can fit in standard-size backpacks and laptop-bags.

Models 17-inch and larger, and even some 15-inchers, are usually meant to be desktop replacements. These notebooks can be quite heavy and cumbersome to lug around everywhere. But the power and multimedia capabilities can match those of desktops, so these are good choices of you need power but don’t have room to spare (in your cramped apartment, perhaps?).

As for weight, 12-inchers usually come in four to five-pound packages. Ultra sleek notebooks can come in three pounds or even less for sub-notebooks. 14- and 15-inchers usually weigh six to eight pounds. The behemoth 17- and 19-inchers, and the thicker, more powerful 15-inchers can weigh upwards of 10 pounds–not something you’d want to carry around everywhere, but good enough for the desk if you don’t want to allocate space for a tower CPU, screen, keyboard, mouse and speakers.

Laptops also come in different aspect-ratios. The standard is 4:3, but manufacturers are coming up with wide-screen models that have aspect ratios of 16:10, meaning the laptop itself is longer lengthwise and shorter in height. Laptops also vary in depth–that is, how thick or thin they are. Standard-sized laptops are about an inch thick. Some brands boast of models half an inch thick or even thinner.

Keep in mind that the smaller the laptop size, the more cramped the screen and keyboard goes. So choose according to what’s comfortable to your eyes and hands. So this means your comfort level in using a notebook will generally decrease as the laptop gets smaller. On the other hand, your comfort level in carrying the computer around likewise decrases as the laptop gets bigger.

Battery Life

Your laptop is only as portable as the length of its battery life. You’re not exactly mobile when you have to keep constantly plugged in, right? Laptops have standard battery capabilities of about three hours.

Keep in mind that processor type and size have an effect on how long you can expect your computer to have juice. Centrino or Pentium-M based laptops can give you upwards of four to five hours of life on standard batteries. Celeron-M models, meanwhile, will give you only 2.5 to three hours.

You can purchase extended batteries as optional accessories, but these will add to the size and weight of your computer, and are not likely to stand in flush with the form factor, so be prepared to see some protrusion, if you opt for extended packs.

Processing Power

You don’t generally need that much speed and power with a laptop, since your primary concern is mobility. But if you intend to play higher-end games, then go for higher-end specs.

The most popular processing sets for laptops these days are the Pentium-M and the Celeron-M. (the Centrino is actually a combination of the Pentium M, an Intel graphics chipset and Intel WiFi card). For all intents and purposes, you’re likely to get as good a performance with Celeron-M as with Pentium-M, the main difference being the speed in undertaking processor-intensive applications, such as number crunching (say, you have thousands of columns and rows in Excel), multimedia processing, and gaming. The primary difference between Celeron-M and Pentium-M is the cache size, or the built-in memory of the processor–the Pentium-M usually has twice to four times the Celeron-M’s cache, so it can process large amounts of data faster. But with simple tasks like Internet surfing an word processing, performance is usually the same.

Another difference between the Pentium-M and the Celeron-M is the battery life. The Pentium-M chip has a power-saving feature that lets it change consumption according to need, to extend battery life. Celeron-M doesn’t have this, so the consumption is constant, hence limiting you to two to three hours of life per charge on standard battery packs.

Newer laptops may feature Intel Core Duo chips, which essentially means you have two processors in the same chip. This is great for high-end gaming and multimedia processing, but if you would just be using your laptop for email, Web browsing and document handling, this is overkill. Your system doesn’t really utilize the added processing power unless you’re into high-end processing or running a LOT of applications at the same time (otherwise, Windows will just utilize one of the processors, and not two).

Some manufacturers offer AMD chips as alternatives to Intel. AMD actually performs better in terms of raw processing power, especially in desktop computers. However, while the notebook chips are reduced in size, they don’t have a mobile-equivalent comparable to the Pentium-M, which is great at staying cool and power-efficient. However, an AMD processor would be great for a higher-end notebook meant for gaming. And AMD laptops are generally less expensive than comparable Intel ones.

If price is a concern, then a Celeron-M is perfectly acceptable if you don’t need to stay mobile for extended periods of time, or if you just intend to use your laptop for simple document handling, email and Web browsing, the occasional photo retouching, and some simple gaming. Likewise, you can go for AMD.

Connectivity

We live in a connected world, and a computer is worth less (though not necessarily worthless) if it is unable to connect to the outside world. Hence, connectivity is an important factor in your choice of laptops. Virtually all new laptops have internal modems and wired-network cards, so you can simply plug in to the telephone socket or the ethernet network (in an office LAN, for instance) and you’re good to go. But with the popularity of public-access wireless hotspots, and dropping broadband and WiFi router prices, it would be great to have wireless capability on your laptop.

As earlier mentioned, the Centrino system combines the power of the Pentium-M with an Intel graphics card and wireless networking. So you’re sure to have WiFi with a Centrino. Many Celeron-M models likewise have WiFi built-in. Otherwise, you’d have to purchase a WiFi PC Card (or USB stick) separately.

Input devices

Unlike desktops, a laptop’s keyboard and pointing device is built-in. Yes, you can always plug in a mouse, but it’s against the very concept of having a mobile computer you can just whip out of your bag and place on your lap when you’re on the go.

One caveat when purchasing subnotebooks and most 12-inchers: the keyboard size is not standard. So don’t expect the keys to be as large or comfortable as a regular keyboard–it tends to be cramped when your laptop is small.

Also, the placement of the extra keys (such as the arrow, function and pagination keys) varies. They may be same across different models within the same laptop brand, but once you shift to a different brand, and you might get confused. Some brands even have different placements of some punctuation and Windows keys.

As for the pointing device, most laptops use a touchpad, which is a flat, smooth surface you run your finger across to move the pointer–it’s powered by the static electricity being exchange with your finger. Some others have trackpoints, a rubber-eraser like protrusion from the keyboard that works like a joystick. Some notebooks, notably those that convert into tablet PCs, have touch-screen interfaces. Most people prefer touchpads, but some regard trackpoints as more accurate and intuitive.

Some laptop models have scrollers and middle mouse buttons–these are very useful for navigation. On the other hand, Apple notebooks (iBooks, PowerBooks, and the new MacBook Pro) only have one mouse button!

Built-in devices and ports

A laptop is an all-in-one device, so you can’t just swap out devices in exchange for others. Some smaller laptops have these extended devices in the docking stations. And some have interchangable devices, such as CD/DVD drives and diskette drives. But for the most part, other devices are built-in, so you better choose well.

  • Spindles – these are what optical disc and diskette drives are called (because they spin). Most new laptops no longer have diskette drives (mom, what’s a diskette?). But most have at least a CD-ROM drive. Many mid- to higher-end laptops have what’s called a Combo drive, or a combination of DVD-ROM reader and CD-burner (recordable or rewriteable media).
  • Card readers – some laptops have built-in media card readers, such as SD/MM and memory stick (notably Sony models). This is very useful if you have a digital camera–you just insert your camera’s memory card and the laptop will read it like a removable drive. You may want to invest in compatible models–for instance, Sony devices use memory sticks, and are usually compatible across gadgets.
  • USB ports – USB ports are standard, but the number varies. Most modern laptops have at least three USB ports. Make sure your laptop supports USB version 2.0, which is faster than the older 1 or 1.1.
  • PC Card slots – These are used for external devices intended specifically for laptops. Most laptops have two, and the smaller ones have only one. Apple iBooks don’t have them, but the larger Powerbooks do (Apple uses its own Express cards). Most laptops nowadays have everything built-in, so you wou’d rarely have the need to insert PC Card devices, but they’re a great thing to have, at any rate.
  • Firewire – this is useful if you intend to import videos from a video camera, or you are to use external devices based on the Firewire technology, usually faster than USB. Virtually all Apple notebooks have Firewire (but the new MacBook Pro lacks the faster Firewire 800 port).
  • Video – the analog video-out port is standard across all laptops. But some higher-end ones have digital video out, while many also have TV-out. These let you plug in your system to either a high-definition television (the digital video) or into any ordinary television set.

Most newer laptops no longer have regular COM and Printer ports, since new devices are shifting to use of USB. In case you would be needing these later on, some docking stations do have these legacy ports built-in; or you also can purchase aftermarket conversion accssories that let you plug in older devices in as USB or even into your PC card slot.

Storage and memory

Most standards come with standard 40-gigabyte hard drives and 256 megabytes of RAM. The hard drive would probably be enough for your applications and documents, but if you plan to save a lot of photos, videos and music on your laptop, bump it up to 80 Gb or even 120 GB–it only costs less than a hundred dollars to upgrade your laptop’s hard drive. As for the memory, I strongly recommend you get at least 512 MB of RAM or even 1 GB. Your programs will tend to run faster with more memory, since your OS won’t have to keep on saving data to virtual memory. Note that memory upgrades can easily be done by opening a slot at the bottom (or under the keyboard) of your notebook, so you can upgrade as needed. Hard drives can also be upgraded this way, with most notebook brands, but it’s more complicated to change hard drives than to add memory, since you’ll have to reinstall your applications and transfer all your data!

Software

Most laptops come pre-installed with an operating system, usually either Windows XP for PC-based models or Mac OS X for Apple notebooks. It’s generally also a personal choice whether to use Windows or Mac, but do base your decision on your current usage. If you’re connecting to an office environment, or if you’d like your computers to seamlessly connect, then do choose a notebook that runs the same operating system. If you plan to play games, then choose Windows, which has wider support for software titles. If you plan to use your laptop for some multimeedia editing, then go for Mac.

There are hundreds of arguments for going with one or the other, and we can go on and on; I prefer to dedicate a separate posting for this one. But do consider that if you opt for Mac, you’re effectively limiting yourself to only a handful of iBook, PowerBook an MacBookPro models. However, in the near future, you’re likely to be able to use Windows on a Mac, or Mac OS on a PC (the operative word being might).

Ergonomics and general feel

Combine all above factors, and you get the ergonomics and general feel of a laptop, and this is probably the most important aspect you should consider. That’s why I personally prefer going to a retail store and checking out a laptop model myself, rather than online. I can probably get one online afterwards, but I’d rather see the exact unit I’m buying first.

First, do check the build quality of a laptop. Some brands and models are built tougher than others. Some have metallic hinge supports. Some have plastic composite bodies, while some are built with aluminum, titanium, or other light metal alloy.

Then, do see if the keyboard and pointing device suit you well. Some brands are known to have tactile keyboards (such as the ThinkPad), while some have soft ones. Some have both trackpoints and touchpads. And some even have different mouse-button layouts.

Then try to carry the laptop, both with cover closed and opened. You’ll probably spend much time carrying the computer around, so you might as well see if it suits you well.

Finally, try to run the computer for several minutes. Do check out the responsiveness of the system. Is the screen bright and readable enough? Does the computer get too hot with use? Is the laptop easy to use?

Price

Of course, this is yet another major factor in choosing a laptop. Perhaps this is the first thing most people consider when looking for a notebook computer, as your choices would effectively be limited by how much you can spend. However, I tend to think that you should first try to find your ideal laptop, regardless of price, and then if you can’t afford it, you can work your way down to what you think is affordable enough but still has the features you want and need.

Laptop prices usually range from US$ 600 for the basic, low-end models to $2,500 or more for the more advanced ones. One could usually get rebates when purchasing online (but I’m not really into buying laptops online) and you can even get big discounts if you’re a student.

Here’s a rule of thumb for pricing I find quite intriguing: for PC laptops, smaller laptops tend to be more expensive than bigger ones. But for Mac notebooks, the bigger you go, the higher the price!

Conclusion

A laptop should be something you’re comfortable using and carrying. If you’re using a company-issued notebook, then you most likely didn’t have a choice of brand and model, and sometimes you’d have to live with it, even if you hate the size or the keyboard, or the lack of peripherals. But if you’re fortunate enough to be able to get your own, then I hope my simple tips would prove useful in your hunt for that perfect laptop.

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