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Buying A Laptop

By Shakil Ahmed

I’ve written extensively over the last several months on the ins and outs of buying a desktop computer.  However I thought it would also be appropriate to address the nuances of buying a laptop as well. I recently got an email from a reader who was about to purchase one needed some advice. She is certainly not alone. Many local people travel to the mainland or the neighbor islands on a regular basis and a laptop becomes their remote office.  Still others have kids that are about to enter college and need to know what type of machine to buy.

Obviously laptops and desktops share many characteristics but they really are different animals.  Whereas the differences between desktop computers get blurry laptops are in a sense more idiosyncratic.   The machines come in a variety of styles, weights and sizes, the keyboards have different feels and the screens vary more in quality.

From the get go laptops are quite a bit more expensive.  Thus the specifications that one would look for in a reasonably priced desktop machine wouldn’t be found in anything but the most expensive laptops.   Whereas I suggested you get a 12 or even 20 gigabyte drive on a desktop, getting the same sized drive on a laptop would be prohibitively expensive. It’s better to shoot for an 8 or even six gig drive on a laptop.

Likewise instead of going for 128 megs of memory, settle for 64. Depending on the type of machine you purchase, you may not be able to get an internal floppy drive and a CD-ROM drive.   Don’t even think about getting a CD-RW drive—they are very rare on laptops.  (A CD-RW or “read/write” drive allows you to record data on a CD ROM and they are becoming more common on desktop machines).

Issues To Consider

As I mentioned before, choosing a laptop is quite different that shopping for a desktop PC and you’ll really want to scrutinize every aspect to make sure you’re happy.  These include: feel of the keyboard, the size/weight of the machine, the screen size and variety, the battery life and the price.

Keyboards have their own characteristics and everyone has their preference as to what feels right. Prior to purchasing your laptop check out the keyboard and play with the touchpad, pointer, wheel or whatever the pointing device is. If you’re not comfortable with the feel, hele on and try tapping away at another machine until you find what you like.

Size/Weight is a real issue with many people—especially those that travel a lot.   Some people (like me) don’t mind carting around a large box with plenty of features--others find it a hassle.  There are some really neat lightweight laptops designed for great mobility out there like the Sony Vaio so it’s just a matter of choosing the unit that has the features you want.  Some machines weigh up to seven pounds but you can also find good ones in the three to five pound category.

Screen Size & Type is just as important as the feel of the keyboard.  Check out the size of the screen and see if it’s easy on your eyes. Don’t be too intimidated by names such as VGA, SVGA, XGA, TFT, DSTN, HPA and the like. The first three abbreviations refer to various degrees of resolution.   The higher the resolution, the more stuff you can get on your screen. I’d go for a box with XGA, or 1024 x 768. The last three abbreviations pertain to the type of technology used to create the laptop’s display and govern brightness, intensity and other video characteristics. The best screens utilize TFT, or Thin Film Transistor, technology aka "Active Matrix" and that’s what I’d suggest going for.  Remember that they are the most expensive. The other abbreviations, DSTN, HPA, refer to "passive matrix" screens. They are less expensive but simply don’t look as good.

Battery life also varies quite a bit. Look for a machine that will run at the minimum of three hours if you travel a lot.  This will come in handy on airplanes.  I fly often to the Mainland and it’s really nice to have a laptop that will run the most part of the flight.

Prices vary.  You can get fully loaded machines that pretty much replace your desktop machine for $3000 or more.   Or you can go for a less expensive ($2000-2500) box that weighs three to five pounds. Weighing more but costing less are the six or seven pound machines that usually cost under $2000.

As to the question of what type of laptop to purchase for your college-bound child I’d say think carefully about whether it even makes sense to buy a laptop in the first place.  A desktop machine may make a lot more sense.  Not only are you going to get more bang for the buck, it’s a lot easier to work on. Your child might think it makes more sense to have the possibility of taking notes in class but this may not really be that feasible.  A Palm held computer might actually make more sense in that department.

The bottom line with choosing a laptop is to make sure that it looks and feels right to you. The best way to ascertain that is to play with as many as you can.  I would go down to CompUSA or one of the larger stores and play with the keyboards. To do your homework you might want to check out CNET’s site (www.cnet.com) for product reviews.  Happy hunting.

Shakil Ahmed is the founder of PDC Systems, a Honolulu computer and networking company established in 1991. Questions or comments should be addressed to askshak@pdcsystems.com

Pacific Business News - June 2, 2000

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