Hardware

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.

Summary

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.

About

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...

75 comments
luvlieve
luvlieve

Thankx soo much for your input in regards to guidance for a new machine.. I am a nursing student and spilled H2o on my laptop. I was cramming and was running on coffee and no commen senst. It literally killed my laptop. Now, I am in the market for an new laptop.

rogerwhitt1
rogerwhitt1

too bad this reviewer made bias statements like ..."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." for this reason the title should have been "10 things to look for in a Windows PC laptop" too bad Erik Eckel is so biased in reporting ...oh well i see some of the commenters mentioned MAC Laptop ... My advise is sell Macs and service the PCs ...

vinamra2004
vinamra2004

in my laptop ubuntu doesnot work fine. i am having Dell XPS 1530. having problem in ubuntu mouse dows not work correctly grafic driver crashes. fir nvieda 8600gt. but work fine in vista. its cool Vinamra www.decentblogger.com

sonicsteve
sonicsteve

Perhaps a top priority for some. Not all notebooks are created equal in this regard. I have seen many toshiba notebooks with missing screws from the underside. If you need durability you need to go with a business class notebook not the average Futureshop or Bestbuy bargain notebook. I have an IBM p2 400mhz laptop at home in almost perfect condition, it's 10 years old and was used in a business environment. I also have toshiba notebook from futureshop etc. It is in pieces because it fell from a desk ONCE! It's corner is completely smashed along with the screen. If you need durability you have to do your homework, and you likely won't find it at the "big box" stores.

Eric.Talbot
Eric.Talbot

What about AMD Processors ? and battery life ? Perhaps model comparison would have been greatly appreciated ?

Lorax
Lorax

top 10 lists are for late night hosts. while my friends cry about blue screens of death, lost data and a constant barage of windoze security patches; i smile and shurg for my mac gives me blue skies, green fields and miles smiles. i broke the habit 10 years ago and have never ever looked back www.apple.com :-D

zbyte
zbyte

I see that you folks still live in a PC-centric world. Most of the recommendations listed here make sense and are good. However, in item #1 (OS), you don't even mention Mac OS X or Linux. Granted, you are not going to find many users with Linux on their laptops, but you will find many Mac users. In fact, in my neck of the woods, there converting like droves. The correct way to have presented this would have been to say: "Most PCs sold in office supply and major big box electronics stores come preloaded with Microsoft???s Windows XP or Vista; or Mac OS X. If you go with XP, make sure it is XP Pro....." That would have made sense. Specially since today's Mac will boot either Mac OS X or Windows. Capice?

Nodisalsi
Nodisalsi

In particular: fingerprint scanning. We can't always prevent theft but we can take steps to prevent the thieves gaining any kind of value from the stolen items. If a notebook cannot be used by someone who doesn't have matching fingerprints to you - then the value of the stolen item is considerably reduced. Because it cannot be sold intact. It would be crow-barred open to pull out the RAM, the HD (on which you will hopefully have encrypted your most sensitive data - and if you registered SW/OS with HW keys it may need to be reformatted) and the CPU. The display panel could only be used as a replacement - not an upgrade - and the motherboard is still locked with your credentials while the case is now useless. What I would like to see is powersupply elements and batteries which are locked so that they can only power up your notebook and none other. You would order replacement batteries from the supplier quoting your serial number.

lee
lee

I thought this article covered pretty much the good stuff - probably screen size converts to weight - but to me weight is very important as I donkey this thing through airports and motel lobbies.

mark.henderson
mark.henderson

How about a list of laptops that fit these specifications?

Ajax4Hire
Ajax4Hire

for microsoft. A good Laptop need good connectivity: Ethernet, Wireless and uuuuu telephone. Then it can Web, EMail and VPN to corporate network. After that, the laptop needs to be able to run the standard suite of Office software: Document, Spreadsheet, Presentation. THEN you can start to match up processor, memory, operating system, harddrive size and special ports for additional features. I miss the RS-232 serial ports on older laptops. Much of my work involves the slow UART to equipment for configuration and test. USB2Serial is ok, But why is a parallel port so important?!? I'm monologue-ing now; I'll stop.

InvisibleBoss
InvisibleBoss

We all might have various demands and wishes for a laptop. "Needs" should be seen whether u need "all" as "on the move", or at office(/home). Re. #5: The "old" serial and parallell ports seem to be gone at most models today. So also for the PS/2 ports. Normally, this is what u might need "stationairy", and not when traveling around (as you normally would not bring the "gadgets" with you). Which opens for a separate point in the list...-> #11 Docking posibilities Laptops with docking connectors can have a easy "snap on" access to separate monitor, wired network, the external USB/FW backup disk, printer, ext. (full size) kb/mouse and shared resourses at a network ++ Even though there are docking stations that can be connected to an USB port, - these are often offering less ports for "external gadgets and resourses. And they also get power from the laptop. As a "fully equiped" docking unit have "all types" of ports, even "duplicates", and they can have a separate power supply, which are nice, when you forgot ur laptop's supply at a customer. (Laptop getting power from the docking unit). Anyway, when back to (home) office, you connect ONE cable/port. Not a "million gadgets". Re. #9: Pads/numeric keyboard Today there are many alternatives, that are easy portable, to extend woth a numeric KB. A small unit (USB powered or battery), often combined with a calculator (switch), that easilly goes in ur pocket (calculator available), or in the laptop's bag pocket. These are both cabled and wireless. Check ur supplier! Re. #4/10 Be carefull before demanding high video perfomance. This is critical for battery time. High demand gives less time, or need of extra/bigger batteries. When runing laptop on battery, switch off the Bluetooth (and WiFi) function if you dont use it (on a plane), to save considerably time from battery. Also avoid CD/DVD in the tray if not in use, as browsing/opening files/folders always trigger the drive spin. MY NEXT BIG WISH in the computing world, is the invention of "wireless power"!!! Have a delirious week!

manjesh_2j
manjesh_2j

Its better to go for a 7200 RPM high performace harddisks ... the moment u switch on the laptop, 3 things perform like a heart, they are PROCESSOR, RAM, HARDDISK.. Even though the Processor and RAMis good..the performance might take a hit due to the poor performance of harddisk...better go for 7200 RPM disk or SSD Harddisk ...

jeezmah
jeezmah

Glad to see that the basic requirements of a laptop hasn't changed these 10 years despite the evolution of the multimedia appplications that people play on them now.

triniweb
triniweb

also it should be noted that the weight of the machine will affect the portability for many users, the largest variable affecting the weight will be the display size and the battery. The accessory options being non-integrated and swappable external components should be considered carefully because they may increase the bulk that needs to be carried around or as a benefit if they could be left behind when not needed. As an example you my find that many users with subcompact units 12.1 displays and such still need to carry a bag with *non-integrated component options that is the same size as another user with a 15.4 with integrated components *larger battery, optical drive, port adapters, expansion cards, portable mouse (just cause they hate that stick/knob thing), extra hdd for backup or expanded space since the cheaper stock hdd size was quickly outgrown. --- nevermind smaller machines tend to have more costly "upgrade" options, stock options on a bargain unit have a tendency to be just as meager, it becomes a series of tradeoffs between functionality and necessity. to me a laptop should be considered firstly on it's merit as a computer (cpu,memory,hdd,display, connectivity,useability) then the additional factor of mobility, since that is why it costs more than a desktop, (size, weight,battery life)

OldER Mycroft
OldER Mycroft

My lighter usually runs out of gas before my laptop battery expires. If you can use a USB port to keep your coffee warm, why not a cigarette lighter?

Canuckster
Canuckster

Maybe those accountants would find it easier to amortize the IT assets if they had number pads that they could use. How many laptops have those?

baldwinleo
baldwinleo

I am glad I didn't see "optical drive". The last thing I need to lug around is a built-in optical drive. What is nice is a bay that can take either an optical drive or a 2nd battery. An optical drive in the bay is great for watching movies on an airplane, and when the movie is over and you want to work just pop in that drive bay battery. Not essential, but if you are looking for things like extra ports or a docking station, then you might as well add device bay to your list.

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