NOTEBOOK BUYING TIPS


INTRODUCTION TO SELECTING YOUR  NOTEBOOK

Thinking about buying a new notebook, and confused by all the choices? Here you will find the answers.

As notebooks have become more varied, they've also become tougher to choose from. To get certain amenities, you may have to sacrifice others.

If you buy a 3-pound notebook, you'll have to give up a full-size keyboard, a built-in DVD drive, and a desktop-like screen. But if you buy a full-featured notebook that weighs 8 pounds, you may end up leaving it behind because it's too heavy. It's a sad truth, but there's no single perfect notebook -- only those with features that either suit or don't suit your needs. The trick is to prioritize your needs and find the notebook that best meets them.

The two most significant criteria are price and form factor. If you need a notebook that's either extremely lightweight or a true desktop equivalent, then you've eliminated a lot of available models. Most of us select notebooks that lie somewhere between these extremes. We don't want to spend so little that we sacrifice quality, and we don't want our notebooks to be so lightweight that we have to give up too much functionality. We want a balance of price, weight, and features that's skewed toward our particular needs.

WEIGHT 

Because choosing a notebook involves trade-offs, you should decide up front how much weight will be acceptable. A 3-pound notebook will likely require you to carry a bulky external CD-ROM (or DVD-ROM) drive. With a 5-pound notebook, the CD-ROM (or DVD-ROM) drive will probably be integrated, making it easier to listen to audio CDs or watch DVD movies while traveling. Need an extra battery to finish the movie? That 6-pound model might have an extra bay that can house a second battery, and it might also have a 15-inch screen for a theatre-like movie experience. Need an even larger screen and high-fidelity speakers for group presentations? Watch the weight creep up to 7 or even 8 pounds as you pile on these extras.

PRICE

Similar trade-offs apply when looking at price in relation to processors, hard drives, and graphics adapters. If you plan to use your notebook for word processing, Web browsing, and e-mail, you can easily get by with a low-end notebook featuring a 2GHz processor and a 60GB hard drive. But if you plan to play leading-edge games or edit large multimedia files on your notebook, you might want to splurge on one with over two GHz processor, a 100GB hard drive, and an AGP graphics display with 32MB or over of memory. Of course, you'll pay about two times more for the latter notebook, but it can also function as your primary computer.

PROCESSOR SPEED

Today's notebook processors are so fast, it's hard to make a bad selection. Even the entry-level 2GHz to 2.4GHz Mobile Celeron, Intel and AMD processors are impressive. They're as fast as the leading-edge PC desktop processors not long ago. With the Celeron on the low end and the Dual Core and Centrino on the high end.

How important is a fast processor in a notebook? It depends on the application. However, most processors available today can handle most applications. While processor speed isn't the be-all and end-all of notebook performance, it's difficult to separate the CPU from the other components. If you want a notebook with a 15-inch screen, or even the larger 17-inch, a 80GB hard drive, and fast AGP graphics with plenty of RAM, you might only be able to find configurations that include a fast processor.

SCREEN

Screen size is tightly intertwined with a portable's form factor. As a general rule, you want the largest screen possible for the size notebook that fits your needs. If you want a lightweight notebook, you'll have to accept a smaller screen, such as 12 inches. The screen resolutions (measured by pixels) are also very important. The lager numbers of pixels of a screen the clearer and can show more information. Some notebooks have SXGA resolution (1280x1024), compared to the SVGA resolution (800x600) for most subnotebooks. Sony has a subnotebook which has a modified XGA resolution (1024x480). Some manufactures also offer SXGA (1400x1050) and UXGA (1600x1200). Most notebooks that fall between the extreme form factors have an XGA resolution (1,024x768), with a 14-inch or 15-inch screen being fairly typical. 

You'll find active-matrix screens, also referred to as TFT (Thin Film Transistor) screens in almost every notebook.

Now a lot of notebooks also come with wide-screen display! These are sure good for playing DVD movies.

KEYBOARD

Keyboard size is also linked to the overall size of the notebook. Most subnotebook keyboards are 75 to 95 percent the size of a standard notebook keyboard, so they can be more difficult to type on, especially if you have large hands. The smaller keyboards often have less key travel, so the keys don't press down nearly as far as they do on a desktop keyboard. A key-travel distance of 3.5mm is considered standard, so you may want to avoid notebooks that significantly reduce that distance. You'll likely be spending a great deal of time at the keyboard, so insist on trying it before you buy. Most notebooks have either a pointing stick or touch pad. Be sure that you're comfortable with whichever option is offered with the notebook you're buying. Many seasoned road warriors have a strong preference for one or the other; only you can determine which works best for you. A few models offer both types of pointing devices in the same notebook.

DRIVES

Whether you choose a lightweight, a heavyweight, or something in between will also help determine the expansion capabilities of your notebook. Recent developments in drive design have made it possible to squeeze a floppy drive and a CD-ROM drive into the space formerly required for a single drive. Now a combo drive with CD-RW and DVD (or even DVD+/-RW and with dual layer capability) is also available. So it's much less common now to have to deal with external drives or swapping out drives, except with lightweight models (there is still exception such as a 2.5 lb and 12.1 inch notebook has a DVD writer drive included) . In a few notebooks, you can attach a module that includes an extra drive. This arrangement works well only if you rarely need the extra features, because the combined weight of the notebook and module is usually more than the weight of a notebook that has all the features built in. With the heavier desktop-replacement notebooks, you often have multiple expansion bays for the simultaneous use of two or more add-ons. These add-ons might include a second battery, a second hard drive, or a CD-RW drive. You might use one configuration when traveling by plane and another when using the notebook in your office.

Most people do not notice the importance of hard disk drive speed. Since the CPU and RAM speeds are so fast now, the hard disk drive speed becomes the bottleneck of the system. For desktop PC, you can normally find 3 types of hard drive speed: 5400 rpm, 7200 rpm, and 10000 rpm. The faster the better. For notebook, you normally can see 5400 or 7200 rpm. You need to pay more for drive with speed of 7200 rpm. Now drive speed for server has reached 15000 rpm. Get a drive with speed as fast as possible.

MODEM/NETWORK CARD

Most notebooks include either a built-in modem or a PC Card modem. Built-in modems tend to draw less power because it's easier to shut down the modem completely when it's not being used. PC Card modems usually take up one of your two PC Card slots, which could limit your ability to add PC Card peripherals. On the other hand, some built-in modems use proprietary DSP chips and are not as reliable or as fast as a PC Card modem.

A more elegant solution for modem and network interface cards is the new Mini PCI slot. Functionally equivalent to a standard PCI expansion card, internal Mini PCI cards are roughly two-thirds the size of a credit card. Even though they are extremely small, a single card can be used for both modem and network connections. Dell, HP, Gateway, Hitachi, IBM, Micron, NEC, and Toshiba are supporting the Mini PCI standard.

Many notebooks now come with integrated wireless network card. Bluetooth technology is starting to gear up in notebooks too.

RAM MEMORY

As a rule of thumb, get as much as you can afford. For computers running Windows Vista (32bit), you must have at least 1 GB RAM and can expand up to 3 GB.

BATTERY

Talking about battery, now Lithium Ion is the mainstream. However, a newer type called Lithium Ion Polymer is available. Lithium Ion Polymer differs from Lithium Ion battery in that it can be made in different and smaller shapes while the latter must be in rectangular shape. Lithium Ion Polymer is therefore suitable for ultra-light notebooks or sub-notebooks. Now there are notebooks equipped with internal Lithium Ion Polymer battery and external Lithium Ion battery.

You may want to get an extra battery if you'll be on the road all the time and you don't want to carry that AC adapter. 

I/O PORTS

If you have some external peripherals and gadgets such as PDA, digital cameras, and USB driven peripherals, then you should pay some attention to the I/O ports that are available. Look for ports such as Firewire IEEE 1394 for fast transfer of digital images, IrDA for your PDA, USB (1.0) or USB 2.0 for your USB driven peripherals. USB 2.0 is hundred times faster than USB (1.0). Some notebooks even have ports of S-video, TV-out, and S/PDIF for AC-3 digital audio.

DURABILITY

Durability is also a consideration especially if you are a careless user. Dropping the notebook while in transit or in use, spilling liquids on it, and striking the unit with another object are the leading causes of notebook damage. Notebook vendors are thus trying to make laptops tougher by using magnesium alloy cases (the material is 20 times stronger than plastic, but still light) or titanium cases applying special gels to secure hard drives, and protecting the circuits with spill-resistant keyboards. Look for the name Tough Notebook (they are very expensive) as some manufacturers produce notebooks which can stand a one-foot to two-foot drop.

FUTURE UPGRADE

Thinking about upgrade in the future? Notebooks will never be as easy to upgrade as desktop systems, but they're getting closer. RAM upgrades are so simple nowadays that many users buy and install the memory themselves. Hard disk upgrades are becoming almost as effortless; removing the drives (either via a snap-out assembly or by twisting out a few screws). Usually users will tend to upgrade RAM more often than hard disk. If you can only afford 1 GB RAM now, make sure it only uses one of the two RAM slots available in the notebook. When you are ready to upgrade it to 2 GB RAM, you can just buy a 1 GB RAM module and insert it in the empty slot. Not so lucky for upgrading to a bigger size hard disk as most of the time you have to trade off your existing hard disk.

WARRANTY

Finally, carefully scrutinize the manufacturer's warranty and support policies. If you depend on your notebook while traveling, ask if the manufacturer can guarantee a repair within one or two business days. Will the company send a replacement overnight if needed? Are you covered by the same policies when traveling outside the country? You might have to pay extra for full protection, but it could be worth it for the peace of mind. Most notebooks have either a one-year or three-year warranty. Consider a model with a three-year warranty -- it often indicates that the notebook is designed for mobile professionals. If the notebook you are looking at just comes with a one-year warranty, upgrade it to a three-year warranty by all means - as most repairs are done by the manufacturer which usually charges more than you can imagine and the LCD display is very expensive to replace too.

SOFTWARE

If you are going to buy an Apple notebook, then you don't have much choice. However, for Windows notebooks operating system, you can choose from Windows Vista Home Basic or Premium Edition, Windows Vista Business, Windows Vista Media Centre, and Windows Vista Ultimate. For business use, you should get either Windows XP Professional or Windows Vista Business. You only consider the Windows 2000 Professional if your company has some applications which could not be run in Windows XP. Computers with Windows XP Home or Vista Home Editions can not connect to Windows server. So Windows Vista Home Editions are really for home use.

For office applications, Microsoft Office suites being the most common. But Microsoft has given you many choices in selecting the one that best suites your needs. Microsoft Office 2003 or 2007 SBE (Small Business Edition) is usually offered by brand name manufacturers such as Dell when you buy a computer from them. MS Office 2003 or 2007 SBE has Word, Excel, Outlook, Power Point, and Publisher. While in retail stores you can usually get MS Office 2003 or 2007 Standard which bundles with Word, Excel, Outlook and Power Point. But this version is more expensive. If you need database program Access, then go for MS Office 2003 or 2007 Professional which has Word, Excel, Outlook, Power Point, Publisher, and Access. But this version is very expensive. If you don't want to spend few hundreds dollars for office applications, you can consider MS Works Suite which has Word, Works Spreadsheet (not Excel), and some other applications such as Map, Encyclopaedia, etc. It doesn't have Outlook, but the suite costs a lot less.

CONCLUSION

Because notebooks are available in such a wide variety of shapes and sizes, choosing one can be a more subjective experience than choosing a desktop. Just as your choice of a car can indicate whether you're thrifty or extravagant, outgoing or reclusive, your choice of notebook can indicate whether you prefer performance to practicality, or raw speed to mobility. With desktops, it's easy to pack in additional features as long as you're willing to accept a higher price. With notebooks, of the three most desired qualities -- low price, low weight, and high speed -- you probably can have only two with any particular model.

PORTABLE PROFILES

Type of User Optimal Notebook Key Features Often-Overlooked Features
Frequent flyer Thin and light Rugged construction; provision for second battery Security lock; reliability of suspend mode
PowerPoint presenter Desktop replacement Large screen Dual-screen options; IEEE 1394 and S-Video ports
Employee without a desktop Desktop replacement Expansion bays and modules Option to increase hard drive size
Movie buff Mid-size notebook Built-in DVD drive; long battery life Hardware MPEG-2 decoder; Dolby Digital output
Game fan Desktop replacement Fast AGP graphics Wavetable MIDI; USB port for joystick
Student Budget Rugged construction Quality of the built-in speakers

STILL CAN'T DECIDE?

Okay, after reading all these, you are now ready to find that make and model you want. If you want a notebook running MAC OS, then you can just go to Apple's web site or retailers and find that model which best suits you. However, if you want a Windows notebook, and most people do, then you have to spend much more time to find that particular one you like. Here are those brand name notebook manufacturers: Acer, Dell, Fujitsu, Gateway, HP, Hitachi, IBM, Micron, NEC, Sony, and Toshiba. Selecting one is a process of selecting the features that you like most or that fit the way you work best. To do that, you'll have to get hands-on with the machines.
 

Last modified on August 2, 2007.