Buyer’s Guide: How to Shop for a Notebook

Laptops used to be expensive status symbols as much as working tools. Today they’re a commodity item, an almost essential piece of business gear, even in small businesses.

Notebook sales have skyrocketed in recent years, growing significantly faster than desktop PC sales. Gartner recently reported Q3 2005 sales of laptops at 55 million units worldwide, up 17.2 percent over the same period last year. The NPD Group, meanwhile, reports that the average price of a notebook computer dropped from $1,422 in October 2004 to $1,081 in October 2005.

So how do you choose the right one? First, figure out what tasks your notebook needs to handle. Then set a budget. Notebook computers fall into three or four broad categories: ultra-portables, mainstream laptops, desktop replacements and Tablet PCs. “Mobility is the key,” says Gary Robinson, senior marketing manager at Lenovo. “How small a screen will you tolerate or how much weight are you willing to carry?” Prices range from well under $1,000 to over $3,000, with most clumped between $1,000 and $1,800

Let’s start by looking at the general characteristics of the four types. Then we’ll work through the needs analysis. And finally look at individual components and features.

Desktop Replacements
These are the biggest and heaviest notebooks — in some cases eight pounds or more. They also have the most powerful processors. Some models feature widescreen 17-inch screens (measured diagonally). You can configure Hewlett-Packard‘s HP Compaq Business Notebook nx9600 with a 3.6GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, 1GB of memory, 100GB hard drive and 17-inch wide screen — for $1,850. But it weighs 9.3 pounds.

HP Compaq Business Notebook nx9600

Ultraportables are the smallest and lightest. Several weigh less than three pounds, but most are between three and four pounds. Lenovo’s ThinkPad X Series computers (with base prices from $1,500 to $2,200) weigh in at 3.2 lbs.,. HP’s Compaq nc4200 series computers (starting at $1,600) weigh 3.9 lbs.

However, ultra-portables have smaller screens, typically 12 inches, with a few as small as 10 inches and less powerful processors. The ThinkPad X series computers have 1.1 or 1.5 GHz Intel Pentium 3 mobile processors. And many ultra-portables do not have integrated CD-ROM or DVD drives.

Mainstream Laptops
This group is the biggest and most popular category. “These laptops aren’t the lightest or most mobile, but they include a respectable set of features and offer a good balance between price and performance,” says Matt Wagner, manager of product marketing in the mobile global business unit at Hewlett-Packard.

Notebooks in this category include so-called “thin and light” models and range between five to seven pounds. The typical screen size is 15 inches. Processors range from 1.6 GHz Pentium 3 to 3+ GHz Pentium 4. Like desktop replacements, they invariably have integrated optical drives. Prices run the gamut from $700 to over $2,500.

Thinkpad X Series

“As the technology in the mainstream models improves, buyers have been migrating from desktop replacement models,” says Robinson. “You can get hard drives, memory and processor power now that definitely make them good enough to serve as an only computer. And you’ll see some very aggressive pricing. Some of our Z and R ThinkPad products cost less than $1,000.”

Tablet PCs
This is a relatively new format with niche applications. Dimensions, weight, screen size and processing power line up fairly closely with the ultra-portables. They run Microsoft’s Windows XP for Tablet PCs operating system and have touch sensitive screens. Pure tablets or slates have just a screen and integrated CPU. Convertibles include a keyboard so they can work like a conventional notebook, but the keyboard slides out of sight or detaches when the computer is used as a tablet.

How Do You Work?
The way you use a computer determines which type of laptop you should consider. First, how often do you travel? If you’re on a plane every other week, you’d ideally like the lightest computer you can find and afford.

If you mostly travel by car and only have to tote the laptop from car to home or customer’s office, ultra portability may not be a priority.

However, if all you need to do is collect e-mail, browse the Web and use a word processor or spreadsheet, any modern notebook has enough horsepower. But if you’re a graphics professional or engineer who routinely works on mammoth video, photo or computer aided design (CAD) files using compute-intensive functions, an ultra-portable isn’t going to cut it.

Also think twice about an ultra-portable if you spend hours a day staring at the screen. Eye strain is a real concern when you’re looking at the smaller characters on a 10- or 12-inch screen. Plus you’ll constantly have to scroll up and down files and pages to see your work or to reveal links and buttons. And keep in mind that you’ll pay a significant premium for all this ultra portability.

Tablet PCs are probably not the best choice for most people. They’re underpowered for compute-intensive applications, and you still pay a significant premium for the tablet features and ultra portability. However, tablets have found a market among health professionals and survey-takers who need a lightweight computer for filling out forms while interacting with patients or respondents. “The big advantage,” says Wagner, “is that you can take notes right on the display and interact with the PC in ways that are more natural.”

Nuts and Bolts, Speeds and Feeds
Now that you’ve figured out the type of notebook computer you need, it’s time to think about individual specifications. How much memory, how fast a processor, how big a hard drive?

Most bricks-and-mortar retailers sell only pre-configured models. But most laptop vendors can custom configure certain components if you’re ordering online or buying through a value added reseller (VAR).

Thinkpad X41 Tablet

Processing Power
This used to be the first thing most computer buyers considered, it’s no longer as important a consideration because even the slowest laptops now have enough horsepower to run standard productivity applications “We hear less and less about Gigahertz,” says Lenovo’s Robinson. “Whether you go with a 2GHz or a 1.8 GHz processor doesn’t really matter because you know either is good enough to run the applications you need.”

However, people running data-intensive apps should consider spending more to upgrade the processor. If you’re buying a ThinkPad, for example, the incremental cost to upgrade from a 1.6 to a 2GHz Pentium M processor is only about $150.

Memory may actually have a bigger impact on overall performance than processor speed. “If you’re running XP Home edition, you’ll probably need at least 512 MB of memory for it to run smoothly,” Robinson says. Upgrading memory from 512 MB to 1 GB produces an overall boost in performance in many applications, he says. Wagner, however, argues that the default memory configuration in most models is adequate for the majority of people.

Bumping up from 256 to 512 MB typically adds about $75 to the price of a laptop, from 512 MB to 1 GB about $150, and from 1 to 1.5 GB about $150.

Hard Drive
The price of hard disk storage has plummeted to the point where it’s rarely a concern anymore. Forty gigabytes is almost the minimum configuration now and many people may not even need that much. If you need to store hours of music and video on your laptop hard drive, you may want to go larger. Upgrading from a 40 to a 60 GB drive adds about $40 to the price of the computer. Going from 60 to 80 GB adds $30.

Hard disk speed — ranging from 4,200 to 7,200 revolutions per minute — may be a more important Robinson says, than processor speed. A faster hard disk can reduce boot-up and display time for graphics files and improve quality of video playback.

LCD Screen
For many people, screen size and shape take priority, and shoppers are trending toward notebooks with wide screens. The most obvious benefit is that they display widescreen DVD video better. This shouldn’t be an important consideration for business folks, but road warriors need entertainment for down times. And Wagner argues wide screens are also a boon for many business applications.

“For financial analysts, for example, and graphic designers, the more information they can see on the screen the better,” he says. “For a financial analyst, the ability to see more columns across a spreadsheet can be a huge productivity boost.”

Optical Drive Options
These options include CD-ROM, CD-RW (which lets you burn CDs), DVD/CD-RW (watch DVDs and burn CDs) and multi-burners that let you view and burn DVDs. Upgrading from a CD-ROM drive to a DVD/CD-RW adds about $60 to the price of a laptop, upgrading to a multi-burner adds about $140.

Reliability and security are also important, if less tangible, considerations. Brand name makers such as HP and Lenovo boast that their products come with value-added security and reliability features. ThinkPads include Active Protection System (APS) technology that senses motion and can temporarily shuts the hard drive down to protect it. Some ThinkPads also have specially reinforced frames around the screens to protect them.

Many HP models feature a patented shock absorption system to protect hard drives, and a hardened surface coating that resists scratches.

Our final advice: think carefully about the needs analysis, set a budget, then do your homework and find the best deal you can for a laptop that fulfills your needs and fits in your price range.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here’s How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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