How to buy a notebook computer

Question: I was thinking about buying a laptop computer. Any tips on which one to buy? —P.F.

Answer: Making a decision on which laptop—or notebook, as they are also called—to buy isn’t easy because of such issues as weight versus features and prices versus processing power. There’s also the sticky issue of battery life.

Mobile PCs have come a long way in a decade. Ten years ago, they were more like “luggables” than portables. Today, a notebook can weigh from four to nine pounds, without the carrying case. The trick is to balance the weight against the features you want. A bigger screen, long battery life and extras mean a heavier notebook.

One solution to reducing weight is to choose a model that has external drives that you can remove when you don’t need them. Try carrying the notebook you like around the store for 10 minutes and see how it feels.

You’ll also have to consider how much you want to spend. Processing power and price are usually synonymous. The higher the price, the higher the chip speed. Top dog in mobile processors is the Intel line of Mobile Pentium III processors. They feature a new technology called SpeedStep, which changes power requirements and chip response on the fly—so batteries don’t get consumed quite as quickly. AMD is also making an entry into the notebook market. AMD processors are reliable, with a lower cost than similar Intel products.

When it comes to screen technology, you’ll be looking at an active matrix screen versus a passive matrix screen. You’ll likely want an active matrix also known as TFT (Thin Film Transfer) displays, which provide a high quality display and can be viewed at an angle.

New technologies have given passive matrix displays a new lease on life. Originally, they limited the angle at which the display could be viewed. But Sharp’s CSTN (color super-twist nematic) and technology called DSTN (double-layer supertwist nematic) are making passive matrix more palatable. You may also see a technology called HPA (high-performance addressing) on low-end machines.

Don’t let all these acronyms confuse you. Look at the screen from straight on and from different angles. Then compare them against the other screens in the store. 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 choices in portable power are LiIon (lithium ion), NiMH (nickel metal hydride), and NiCad (nickel cadmium) batteries. If you plan to use your notebook regularly on long trips where plugging in won’t be possible for extended periods of time, choose a notebook that lets you take out the CD-ROM or floppy drive and insert a second battery.

Then there’s the issue of pointing devices. Using a mouse isn’t always possible if you don’t have a flat surface to work on. IBM ThinkPads and some Toshiba computers are equipped with a pencil-eraser-sized nub mounted in the middle of the keyboard. This is finicky for some and loved by others. Other technologies include built-in roller balls and touch pads.

You’ll want to connect your notebook to the Internet at some point, so a built-in modem is a nice feature. Some have modem plug-ins in the side of the unit, while others use the PC Card port to insert a credit-card-sized PC Card modem. Aim for a modem that supports a 56 kilobits-per-second transfer rate. A PC Card that doubles as a network card for the office is always a nice addition but they are also more expensive.

I like to divide notebook products into three categories. Budget PCs offer low prices and heavier weights. They often feature AMD processors called the K2-6 or a Cyrix chip. The budget Intel processor is called the Celeron chip.
The mid-level notebook is designed for the on-the-go professional. It’s usually wafer-thin with drives that plug in externally.

The third category is a high-end notebook. These computers have very fast processors—usually Pentium IIIs—with lots of memory and moderate weights. They will put a serious dent in your pocketbook.

A 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. But that too will be replaced by a cheaper, faster model the month after that. Buy the best you can afford at the time, or you’ll be waiting forever.