How to buy a laptop in 2005

Need a new Windows laptop? Yeah, they are fantastic machines and with wireless technology, they are fast becoming the tech enthusiast’s computer of choice. Still, making a decision on which one to buy isn’t easy.

You have to balance weight against features, and price against processing power. There’s also the sticky issue of battery life and now, to complicate matters further, wireless capability.

Mobile PCs have come a long way in a few years. Fifteen years ago, they were more “luggable” than portable. Today, a notebook can weigh from three to nine pounds – without the carrying case.

One solution to reducing weight is to choose a model that has external drives which you can remove when you don’t need them. Mobile geeks call these “ultra portables”. It’s a dumb term, but it was invented by marketers and not rocket scientists. Go figure.

All right, let’s get serious about making a choice!

Figure out where this device is going to go. Between home and the office? On flights? Will the device travel every day? Or once in a while?

Next, try carrying a notebook around the store for 10 minutes (if you don’t buy it online), and see how it feels. You’ll have to add the bag (heft the bag empty, to get an idea), any external drives, the power block, peripherals like wireless cards or a mouse, plus maybe an extra battery, to get a real sense of the weight you could be carrying around.

The rule of thumb is to aim for a four-pound notebook or lighter, if you anticipate frequent air travel. A 4-to-6 pound device is ideal for back-and-forth mobility with occasional airport travel. If you expect only occasional portability, it’s probably alright to choose a machine that weighs six pounds of more.

You’ll also have to consider how much you want to spend. Processing power and price usually go hand-in-hand – the higher the price, the higher the chip speed.

Top dog in mobile processors (as of summer 2003) is the Intel line of Pentium 4 processors for laptops. The Mobile Pentium 4 is a heavy duty processor that offers speeds similar to that of a desktop computer.

The Pentium M is a mobile computer processor that is easy on power consumption, but has no integrated wireless, and the Intel Centrino is the Pentium M processor with built-in wireless functions. Confused? Yeah, it’s daunting, but don’t sweat it. Think of it this way. If you want modest speeds, wireless, and a frugal battery eater, think Centrino. If you want a heavier, battery slurping, yet fast machine, think Mobile Pentium 4. You still have the option of a Pentium III, but these are bargain buys for light duty mobile work and are fast being phased out.

One notable exception is the Tablet PC, which is a laptop that you can write on like a notepad with an electronic pen. It’s light and wireless and typically has either a Pentium III or Centrino processor.

AMD is snapping (okay, nibbling tentatively) at Intel’s heels with the Athlon XP-M chip for mobile computers. While making a name for itself on the desktop, the Athlon has yet to be embraced by notebook lovers in any mass market kind of way.

Top-end notebooks have 2.4 to 3 GHz Intel Mobile Pentium 4 processors. The Pentium M (and Centrino) series offers between 1 and 1.7 GHz.

AMD tops out with a 2.8 GHz Athlon processor, but argues it’s faster than a 3 GHz Intel chip. It’s a lot of marketing nonsense if you ask me.

Middle-of-the-roaders should go for a 1.7 to 2.4 GHz processor which will give you a nice selection of machines that are or can be wireless and have reasonable weights.

Regardless of your decisions about speed and weight, you’ll want to max out the random access memory (RAM) because the Microsoft Windows XP operating system is memory-hungry.

Opt for a machine with at least 256MB of RAM and shoot for 512MB or more if your budget allows. Check to see what the maximum memory is, because you’ll want to add more in the coming years to extend the life of the laptop to handle future software and hardware add-ons. A gig of RAM? Yes, please!

When it comes to screen technology, you’ll be looking at an active matrix screen. You can get 17-inch screens on laptops these days. They are nice, but heavy, and very power-hungry. When shopping, look at the screen from straight on and from different angles. Then compare them against the other screens you’ve seen. If you like what you see, that’s all that matters.

Battery power continues to be one of the biggest problems on mobile computers. More battery means more weight but few batteries will get you through a full working session on a transcontinental flight.

Your choice in portable power is pretty much lithium ion (“Li-Ion”). You may be able to find nickel metal hydride (NiMH) and nickel cadmium (NiCad) batteries around still, but perhaps at the local antique store.

IBM has a reputation for long industry-beating batteries, up to 8 hours. If you choose a laptop with a Centrino or Pentium 4M chip, you’ll get better battery life (but less speed), as well.

If you plan to use your notebook regularly on long trips, where wall power won’t be possible for extended periods of time, choose a notebook that lets you insert a second (fresh) battery.

Next is the issue of pointing devices. Using a mouse isn’t always possible if you don’t have a flat surface to work on. Some computers are equipped with a pencil-eraser-sized nub mounted in the middle of the keyboard. This is anathema for some and prized by others. Another technology is the touch pad. Some machines have both. For example, I use an IBM ThinkPad T40, and it has both a touchpad and nub.

You’ll want to connect your notebook to the Internet at some point, so a wireless modem is ideal for this. Intel Centrino-powered laptops have Wi-Fi built in. But you can also upgrade a non-wireless laptop with a $50 US ($75 CDN) wireless PC Card that fits into a slot on the edge of the machine.

Tablet PCs all have built-in wireless capabilities. Note that the most common built-in wireless standard is 802.11b. In the future, you’ll see the 802.11a and 802.11g wireless standards built in (some already have “a” and “b”). The “a” and “g” standards offer connection speeds five times faster than 802.11b – up to 54 Mbps. Even with those, however, most coffee shops and airports only offer 802.11b. That will change over the next couple of years. Note that if you buy a laptop with 802.11b wireless technology, and you have an 802.11g wireless router at home or in the office, one will work with the other, just at the slower 11 Mbps speed.

Here’s the short figure-it-out speech: Wireless? Definitely get it. Which version? Built-in 802.11b is fine, unless you want a faster connection at home or work. In that case, buy without a wireless system and upgrade with a separate 802.11g (recommended) or 802.11a wireless PC Card.

You can buy a wireless network kit for your home or business, to work with high-speed cable or always-on phone line connections. These give you a wandering range of about 300 feet with your notebook. They cost $70 to $150.

As for brands? Well, IBM machines are great, but will kill your budget. Toshibas are decent, have a nice selection, and are affordable. I don’t recommend Sony at all, primarily because the company’s crappy customer service and mediocre technology. If you’re an Apple fan, then you know what to buy, no point in repeating it here. Yes, Apple is great and fantastic, and the PowerBooks are tasty. Yadda yadda yadda.

As for Dell? Take a look, they’re pretty affordable, and many people have been saying good things about them recently. Other brands to consider include: Fujitsu, Acer, Gateway and Sharp.

A final rule of thumb: If you find a notebook you like, and the price is within your budget, buy it. Yes, there will be a cheaper, faster model available next month, with more features and better technology. But that, too, will be replaced by a better model the month after that. Buy the best you can afford at the time, or wait forever.