Laptops

What to look for in a notebook computer

If you haven't bought a notebook computer in a while, you'll be surprised by all the cool features that are now available. Brien Posey lists the factors you need to consider when you start your shopping.

Recently, I was faced with the daunting task of picking out a new notebook computer. It had been a few years since I’d bought my last notebook, and I was surprised to see just how far notebooks had come. With all the cool features available, picking one was no easy task. However, I eventually narrowed the field by examining features and prices to find the best deal.

Test-driving
As computers go, notebooks are probably the most personal piece of hardware you’ll ever buy. Therefore, it’s important to carefully consider which notebook is right for you. Most people who buy notebooks end up spending a lot of time with them, so what’s under the hood is important. It’s also important to take the time to try out each notebook.

Your notebook should have a touch that feels right. The keyboard should be easy for you to type on, and the mouse control should be easy to use. I learned this lesson the hard way. Many times in the past, I’ve had to upgrade or do repair work on clients’ notebooks. By working with so many notebooks, I learned that not all touch pads are created equal. Some are much more sensitive than others, and the slightest variation in touch is interpreted as a double mouse click. This can be extremely frustrating—not to mention destructive to your data. I tend to be a big believer in ordering from the Internet. However, before I ordered my notebook, I visited several computer stores to take each model for a test-drive.

Performance and features count
Although the feel of the machine is important, it’s always the machine’s performance that really counts. When buying a notebook, you should consider such factors as processor type, memory, and hard disk size. Once you know what’s available within your price range, you can begin comparing the various models.

While performance is critical, you shouldn’t stop there—you need to compare other features as well. One such feature is battery life. I didn’t take battery life into account when making my decision, because most of my computing is done from the recliner in my living room, where an outlet is close by. However, if you’re constantly on the go, then battery life is a big issue. Some notebooks contain a slot for adding an extra battery, but the second battery is almost never included. And attaching one often means sacrificing another component, such as a CD-ROM drive.

The CD-ROM drive is another factor to consider. These days, CD-ROM drives are so common that many of us never give them a second thought. However, your CD-ROM drive isn’t an issue to be taken lightly when shopping for a notebook. Many of the smaller sized or less expensive notebooks require an external CD-ROM drive, which must often be purchased separately. At the other end of the spectrum, you can order many notebooks with DVD-ROM drives or with CDR/CDRW drives. Even with these high-end drives, you need to take a few factors into account.

If you get a CDR/CDRW drive, don’t even think about burning a CD unless your notebook is plugged in to a power outlet. Burning CDs requires lots of power and will suck most batteries dry in minutes.

Also, keep in mind that DVD-ROM drives require a little more power than the average CD-ROM drive. This isn’t usually much of an issue unless you’re trying to watch a movie. If you like the idea of being able to watch movies on your computer, be sure the machine has a DVD decoder. Some less expensive notebooks contain DVD-ROM drives that are suitable for data purposes only.

Another issue to consider is speed. When it comes to reading data, DVD-ROM drives are slower than CD-ROM drives. Like CD-ROM drives, however, DVD-ROM drives contain speed ratings. For example, an 8x drive is faster than a 6x drive.

Yet another issue to consider is the notebook’s screen. These days, TFT (also known as active matrix) screens are the standard, but every once in a while, mail order companies will try to sell notebooks with the cheaper and lower quality DSTN (also known as Dual Scan) screens. TFT screens are usually the most expensive component in a notebook computer. I’ve seen systems that were virtually identical with a $150 difference in cost. This difference in cost was almost always due to a one-inch difference in the size of the screen.

One more consideration is the expansion ports offered. Before shelling out thousands of dollars for a notebook, check to see whether the notebook has USB and/or FireWire ports. Although you can always add them through expansion cards, you should also check to see whether the system contains a built-in network or modem port.

One final issue to consider is warranty. When I buy computer equipment, I hardly ever glance at the warranty, because I’m in the habit of doing my own repairs. But since there’s very little that the average computer guru can repair on a notebook, the warranty can be important.

Brien M. Posey is an MCSE who works as a freelance technical writer and as a network engineer for the Department of Defense. If you’d like to contact Brien, send him an e-mail. (Because of the large volume of e-mail he receives, it's impossible for him to respond to every message. However, he does read them all.)

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.
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