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Monday, August 08, 2005
  blackhole- What to look for in laptops.

An amazing thing has happened over the past decade: laptop computers, once expensive niche products, have become commonplace devices. By one estimate, they outsold desktops for the first time in the United States in the second quarter of this year.

Many people now buy laptops that will never leave a desk, just because they like having all os the computer in one unit.

But as laptops have reached this mainstream status, they have not become a simpler purchase to make. That is to say, they’re marketed just like most other electronic items: manufacturers routinely skimp on features and capabilities – to save themselves a few dollars or so they can “up sell” you other products and services – and its up to you to spot what got left out.

The biggest area of compromise these days is the batteries. It’s bad enough that many laptop vendors act as if a machine’s battery life is either a state secret or a mystery – there is no Energy Star certification for this sort of thing.

But several of these companies seem to have also adopted one of the worst habits of the digital camera business.

Just as some digicam manufacturers bundle “starter” memory cards that accommodate only a handful of photos, some laptop makers – including Dell and Hewlett-Packard – now ship computers with batteries that will expire before you can finish watching a movie.

If you want a longer run time, you’ll have to upgrade to a heavier and sometimes larger replacement battery.

If you don’t think to do these as you order the machine online, you wind up paying for two batteries, one of which will be doomed to collect dust in a closet somewhere.

Weighty problems

Laptop weights are another are where customers can be led astray. The problem isn’t with the many “desktop replacement” models that weight seven or more pounds and aren’t made to be taken anywhere (trust my shoulders, even six pounds is more than you want to lug around all day); the problem lies with laptops advertised as “thin and light”.

Once you set it up for any kind of portable computing, that featherweight may have bulked up. Those optional longer-life batteries can add half a pound by themselves, as can the AC adaptor – many tip the scales at almost a pound, even thought the adaptors included by more thoughtful manufacturers weigh less than half as much.

Laptop screens can have their own quirks to consider. A larger screen may not show any more detail than a smaller display with the same resolution; it will just make the text and icons on the screen look bigger and slightly duller.

Apple’s plus-sized 14in iBook is the prime example of this, with a screen that shows no more detail than the 12in LCD (liquid-crystal-display) on its smaller sibling.

Just as in desktops, it’s easy to buy “too much” processor in a laptop. For most uses, even the slowest processor available runs more than fast enough.

Do not let yourself get spooked by the relatively low clock speeds of many laptop processors, because these no longer effectively measure performance.
A Pentium M processor, for example, computes just as quickly as Pentium 4 with a much higher gigahertz figure.

Bulk up on memory

Memory is more important overall; spending US$50 to double a computer’s memory from 256MB to 512MB will usually yield a greater speed-up than dumping US$100 on a faster processor.
If you’re buying a Windows laptop, be wary of those with integrated graphics accelerators, which borrow memory from the system – often up to 128MB – to draw three-dimensional graphics when you play games.

Laptops now advertise hard drives of 60GB, 80GB or 100GB, but you always get less than that.

First, everybody in the industry uses a definition of “gigabyte” that artificially pads out the size of the drive by about 7%.

Second, many vendors of Windows laptops use some of the hard drive to hide a set of system-recovery programs, including a backup copy of Windows, instead of providing those on separate CDs or DVDs.

Third, a few Windows machines now include a separate, simpler software environment that you can run instead of Windows when you only want to watch a movie or listen to music. That eats up a little more disk space of its own.

CD burners long ago became standard on laptops as well as desktops – aside from the very cheapest models – but DVD burners are often an option. They are worth considering, if only to make it easier to back up your data.

Most non-Apple laptops include a slot for the Flash memory cards used in digital cameras, handheld organizers and handphones, but - unlike on desktops – these slot are rarely accommodate every card format.

If your portable gadgets use SD (Secure Digital) cards, the most popular type, you should be fine.

Otherwise, you’ll have to check the fineprint specifications for laptop to see what cards it does accept.

Communications and expansion

How you get data in and out of the machine is, by contrast, refreshingly straightforward to decipher.

The more USB ports, the more gadgets you’ll be able to plug in, from printers to a digital camera to a digital music player.

A Firewire port can accept an iPod or a camcorder, should you want to make some home movies on the laptop.

A modem, Ethernet jack (for a wired network) and Wi-Fi (for wireless kind) are all pretty much standard.

The only option to ponder here are Bluetooth, which can link a laptop wirelessly to some newer handphones and handheld organizers.

You can ignore the typical software bundle, as most (Apple’s excluded) leave out such essentials as spyware defenses, a decent photo album program and a modern web browser. Fortunately, those three items are available for free online.

Finally, there are the manufacturers’ service and support policies. Everybody offers a minimum period of warranty coverage when you can call for help and not be charged, but those periods vary – by default, Dell’s warranty runs only 90 days on some models. Afterward, how much you’ll pay can be all over the map.

Most companies charge a “per-issue” fee – you pay once to get a problem solved, no matter how long that takes.

As an option to these a la carte fees, vendors are pushing service contracts and warranty extensions.

It’s comforting to think that, by paying an additional US$300 or US$400, you’ve eliminated all risk form your computing purchase. But you’ll also wind up spending a large fraction of the computer’s value in the process.

And at some point, the laptop will outlive its usefulness anyway. Unless you think you’re going to abuse the laptop heavily, you’re better off setting that money aside for the next computer – of spending it to get whatever the vendor left out to your current machine. – LAT - WP

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