TechRepublic Tutorial: Use our guide to choose your next laptop

Criteria for choosing the correct laptop computer

If you’re a CIO or a CTO, there’s a good chance you’ll be spending part of your time on the road. And to stay connected to your office, you’ll be toting your laptop or notebook computer virtually everywhere.

The robust sale of laptop and notebook computers and the wide variety of manufacturers and models have made it an ideal time to trade up or, if you’ve been chained to desktop computers, find a laptop to suit your needs on the road. And if you work at a small or medium-size business, you may have a hands-on role in choosing a laptop for travel.

We’ve put together a quick guide to help you make the best selection for your needs.

As a traveler, this is perhaps the most important factor. When running through an airport, obviously the less weight, the better. The lightest laptops today weigh in at around five pounds.

Of course, to get that weight, a lot of extra features will be either left off or left behind. Fully modular systems allow the removal of components like extra-life batteries, CD-ROM drives, and floppy drives to reduce overall system weight.

You also pay more for less weight. Generally, heavier units have more capabilities. But because they can use more standard components, they cost less.

Screen size
If you intend to use your laptop for presentations or for any type of graphic work, you’ll obviously need a large, bright screen. The tradeoffs here are size, weight, and battery life. No matter what, insist on a TFT Active Matrix screen, as anything less will give you very low contrast and brightness, making the screen unusable in many situations.

A 14-inch screen is a good size, although models are available with screens as large as 15 inches. Thirteen-inch screens are fine for travel work, but should be augmented with an external monitor when used on your desktop.

Just as with a desktop machine, processor speed and the amount of memory both have a dramatic effect on the overall performance of your system. However, processor speed can have a significant impact on power utilization. Some processors can automatically “dial-down” performance to preserve battery power. In general, look to purchase the same processor you would choose if you were buying a desktop unit.

Storage capacity
Fortunately, there are few compromises to be made in the area of storage. In general, laptop hard drives have similar capacities as their desktop counterparts. And like desktops, the more storage, the higher the cost. Look for a minimum of 14 gigabytes of capacity to allow for maximum expansion.

Media drives
A number of media drives are available. While it’s wise to look for a standard floppy drive, the need for those is decreasing. Systems with removable floppy drives are the best, as you only have to install the drive when you need it, thus reducing weight and preserving battery power.

A CD-ROM drive is necessary for loading software, but again, the best option is a removable drive. Many systems are now available with DVD-ROM drives, which can also read CDs. This can be a real boon for travelers with a DVD library at home. With a good set of earphones, you can have your own personal in-flight movie any time you travel. However, both CD-ROM and DVD-ROM drives are major power drains, so you must either remove or disable them when not in use.

Other media drives available for laptops include CDRW and Zip drives. In some cases, these are designed to be installed in the laptop like the CD-ROM or floppy drive. You can also get drives connected via a PCMCIA controller. This has the added benefit of being compatible with any manufacturer’s laptop.

While some units have built-in modems, others require a PCMCIA modem. Built-in modems use less power, but they can’t be upgraded or replaced as new standards for dial-up and broadband connectivity come along.

PCMCIA ports
Almost all additional expansion capability on a laptop comes by plugging in PCMCIA or PC-Card devices. These devices range from network cards and backup devices to additional hard drive storage. I make it a habit to remove all PCMCIA cards from my laptop unless they are being used. The cards use power when plugged in even if they aren’t being used. Look for laptops that have two PCMCIA slots.

Power management
If you’ve sensed a theme in this list, it’s power management. Many laptops come with built-in power management systems that automatically shut down key systems when not in use. But even without those capabilities, with judicious use of peripherals, you can extend effective battery life tremendously.

In fact, I have purchased an extra battery that I keep charged. That way, if one goes down, I just pop the other one in and I’m back in business.

When deciding on a laptop, the manufacturer can make a difference in both the cost and functionality of the system. Some of the most popular manufacturers include Sony, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, and IBM. You’ll find a comprehensive list of manufacturers on CNET. (CNET also provides information to help you buy your notebook or laptop based on how you'll use it, the processor you’ll need, and how much you plan to spend.)

Obviously, the support package offered by the manufacturer can make a huge difference. For example, I had a laptop that failed on me just days before I had to travel to a key meeting. Fortunately, I had an immediate replacement warranty. When I called the manufacturer, they instructed me to remove my hard drive, and then they shipped an identical new laptop to me overnight. The next morning, I put the hard drive in the new box and shipped the broken one back to them.

Unfortunately, some warranties require you to send the laptop back for repairs, and they don’t guarantee any specific turnaround. Others will send you a replacement once the original is received. Still others offer no repair service at all. It pays to shop around and ask questions.

The more you’re willing to pay, the more you can get into a smaller package. In today’s market, you can buy an entry-level laptop for just over $1,000—but you can pay up to $3,500 for a fully loaded system complete with a docking station.

For example, Dell’s Inspiron 3800, which retails for $1,400, features an Intel Celeron processor, 64 MB of RAM, and a 5-GB hard drive. At the other end of the spectrum is the IBM ThinkPad A20p, which sports a 700-MHz Pentium III processor, 128 MB of RAM, and an 18-GB hard drive. It retails for $3,799.

If you can find the model you’re considering buying or leasing, be sure to give it a spin. How does the keyboard feel? Is the touch pad too sensitive? Do your wrists hurt after using it? None of the features I’ve mentioned will matter if the laptop you’ve chosen is awkward or uncomfortable to use.
If you’re an IT pro who travels frequently, how did you choose your laptop? Send us an e-mail or begin a discussion below.

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