10 things to look for in a laptop

Laptops are all the rage. Once reserved for mobile professionals and elite executives, notebook PCs are replacing desktop computers in many organizations and homes. Driven by changing habits and the ease of locating and joining wireless networks, sales of laptop computers began exceeding those for desktop models in mid-year 2005. The trend shows no signs of easing.However, just buying a laptop doesn't ensure you automatically become an effective mobile computer user. In fact, the odds are you'll end up with a subpar PC if you purchase a model directly from many retailers' shelves.

Due to competitive pressures, many office supply and electronics chains aggressively market very low prices for laptop computers. The problem is, because of cost constraints, many of those PCs aren't well-equipped for most real-world computing. Here are 10 things to look for in your next laptop to help you choose a model that readily meets your needs.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download

#1: Operating system

Most PCs sold in office supply and major big box electronics stores come preloaded with Microsoft's consumer operating system. Deploying PCs powered by Windows XP Home or Vista Home Basic might not appear problematic, at least at first. In many cases, it may even appear beneficial. Why pay for the more expensive business edition if all you really need to do is write documents, crunch spreadsheets, send and receive e-mail, and use the Internet?

As so many organizations and users have discovered in the real world, the business versions of Microsoft's operating system offer many features that may well become necessities down the road. Many a client has found the migration from a workgroup environment to a client-server system complicated by the need to purchase new Windows XP Professional or Vista Business licenses (not too mention the time and cost associated with upgrading each user computer).

Microsoft's consumer operating systems typically don't support joining server domains. Nor have they readily enabled hosting remote desktop connections. For this reason, when purchasing a laptop PC, be sure it comes preloaded with the Microsoft operating system that will meet all your professional computing requirements.

#2: CPU

Laptop models advertised at attractive price points often don't have potent CPUs. When selecting a portable computer, buy a model with a CPU tailored to the rigors of mobile computing. Fail to do so, and you could end up with a PC that takes seven to eight minutes to fully boot into Windows, provides minimal battery life, and can't reasonably power the applications you use.

Intel's new Core 2 Duo CPUs (Figure A) perform exceptionally well. In addition to packing considerable processing power, these chips use less energy (resulting in improved battery life) and generate less heat than previous Pentium CPUs. Laptops featuring these chips (2.0 GHz and higher) should meet most users' computing needs for the next three or four years (the timeframe in which accountants amortize information technology assets). Figure A

Intel's Core 2 Duo CPU is a potent CPU that's the favorite of many road warriors.

#3: RAM

Many Windows Vista laptops are marketed as having a full 1 GB of RAM. While 1 GB of RAM works well for most Windows XP installations, it typically isn't enough to enable a Vista system to work smoothly. Any users planning to run multiple applications simultaneously on a Windows Vista laptop should consider loading the notebook with 2 GB of RAM.

While most users don't think of themselves as power users, 2 GB of RAM should be the norm for individuals planning to maintain multiple Office application windows while surfing the Internet and checking e-mail. Anyone planning to edit digital photographs or play more advanced games on a Vista system should also upgrade to 2 GB of RAM.

#4: Video card

Video performance is notoriously shortchanged on laptop computers. This is especially true for $500 notebooks frequently featured on the front covers of electronics and office supply store circulars.

Windows Vista operating systems, in particular, require potent video cards to maximize the system's many new features (including its resource-demanding Aero interface, translucent menus, and Flip 3D technologies). Windows XP computers that must power three-dimensional engineering and drafting programs also require strong video cards, as do gaming systems, regardless of OS.

When preparing to purchase a laptop computer, consider selecting a model with at least 128 MB of onboard RAM. If you plan to run drafting and engineering applications, video production software, or games, you should upgrade to video adapters with 256 MB of RAM.

#5: Ports

Many users assume that any modern laptop computer has numerous USB ports, as well as VGA, DVI, serial, and parallel ports. Those same users may learn a painful lesson; increasingly, in another effort at managing costs, laptop manufacturers are reducing the number of ports found on their PCs.

Budget notebook computers often ship with only a pair of USB ports, with no serial, parallel, or DVI ports and only a single VGA port (if a video port is even included). When purchasing a laptop, review the model's technical specifications and make sure that the chassis includes the ports you require. While most PCs now include integrated wired NICs, they don't always have PC Card slots, so that's an additional factor to consider before purchasing a new unit.

#6: Screen size

Carefully review your monitor needs before ordering a new notebook. You may think that a 17-inch widescreen display is just what you need. Ultimately, that may prove to be too big.

How's that?

Think about how you'll be using the laptop. If the computer will truly be used most often on the road, placing the notebook in a protective case, lugging it onto a cramped airplane, removing it for baggage inspectors, carrying it into a meeting room, and transporting it wherever else you go is made exponentially more difficult for each inch of display size beyond 12 inches.

Models with 12-inch displays are much easier to carry through doorways, into tight airline seats, and in coffee shops. They're also much lighter.

If your laptop will see only occasional travel, a larger model may be just what you need. But if not, consider purchasing a 12-inch model. You can always mate it to a 22-inch widescreen on your desk. Just be sure the laptop offers the correct ports to do so, as described in item #5.

#7: Integrated wireless

There should almost be a rule that any laptop sold today include an integrated 802.11g wireless (WiFi) adapter. But of course there is no rule, and not all models include one.

Make sure that the laptop you're considering includes the WiFi technology you use. For many, that will soon mean that the laptop includes integrated 802.11n compatibility. Read specifications closely to verify that the model you're buying provides the wireless connectivity you require.

#8: Integrated Bluetooth

Integrated Bluetooth technology used to be a luxury in laptops. Most users associate Bluetooth now with the wireless hands-free headsets used with cellular telephones, but Bluetooth is also growing in importance when it comes to connecting handheld devices to laptops.

Bluetooth technology enables synchronizing cell phone contacts, e-mail, calendars, and tasks lists wirelessly with a laptop. The same Bluetooth technology can also be used to add a wireless mouse to a notebook.

#9: Track pad

Most every laptop now comes equipped with a track pad mouse and corresponding click buttons. Some models include a simple track pad, while others include a track pad and an integrated pointer (usually nestled between the G and H keys). These so-called pencil-eraser pointers (Figure B) have long been popular, gracing everything from older Toshiba models to newer ThinkPads. Figure B

The "pencil-eraser" pointer (shown here in blue) is the favorite of many mobile users.

It's not important to choose a laptop computer that includes a sophisticated track pad and pencil-eraser pointer. Just make sure you select a notebook PC that features the pointing device you prefer.

Some models permit scrolling pages when two fingers are used versus scrolling within the currently displayed page when a single finger is used (such as with Apple laptops). Other laptops feature track pads that contain two separate tracking areas, such as are found on Compaq Presarios, for scrolling entire pages versus the contents of those pages.

Review the model you're preparing to buy to confirm you find its track pad agreeable. Even if you plan to use an external mouse, there are times when you'll be without it and the track pad is all you'll have.

#10: Battery life

Battery life is a critical consideration but not a deal breaker. When purchasing a laptop, if the only battery option doesn't provide the lifespan you require, you can always buy a second battery.

Many users, however, don't want the hassle that comes with carrying multiple batteries. In such cases, upgrade laptop orders to include 12-cell batteries (if available) instead of a standard six- or nine-cell battery. Bigger batteries almost always last longer, which is usually a key factor for mobile professionals traveling by air.

Just be aware that the larger cell batteries often have a greater footprint. In other words, they could violate a notebook's aesthetic look. But no one ever said functionality doesn't come at a price.


Laptops, increasingly, are decreasing in price. But a cheap laptop isn't necessarily a good laptop. Ensure that the laptop you buy meets your computing needs by carefully considering these 10 factors before making a purchase.


Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

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