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Quality raised, prices dropped for laptops

By Shakil Ahmed & Rob Kay

It's that time of the year again and with Island youngsters on their way to high school or college, a young person's thoughts turn to computers. But what is the best way to go? Laptop or desktop PC?

Over the years we've always thought that desktop models were the best way to go for students. The main reason was cost. Until very recently you'd have to pay nearly double the price for decent laptop. What a difference a year or two make. The price of a decent notebook has dropped precipitously and it's time to seriously consider a laptop for that budding Rhodes Scholar or MBA.

The whole technology surrounding laptops has evolved so that these once expensive items are lighter and cheaper than ever before. The new Intel PIII-M microprocessors and accompanying 830 chipset that has integrated graphics or the new Athlon 4 from Advanced Micro Devices are just as powerful as desktop computers. If your son or daughter is heading off to college on the mainland it just doesn't make sense to go the desktop route.

Here's where we think the trends are pointing to…

Price Point: Laptops still aren't as cheap as desktops. You can't get a Gigahertz + desktop machine for around $1000 and you can't quite get the same price/performance ratio from a laptop. However…. prices have come down so that there's an excellent selection of notebooks that cost between $1,000 to $2,000.

Nifty Screens: It used to be the less expensive laptops had junk screens. They were small (10- or 11-inch) in size and had crummy resolution. Fortunately that's changed and nowadays you can get excellent, active-matrix TFT technology on even the least expensive models. What's more most notebooks feature 13- or 14-inch displays which are clean crisp.

Communications Capabilities: In the past most laptops did not have built in modems much less network cards. You had to install your own communications cards, software and keep your fingers crossed that everything worked. Nowadays all the new machines have built in modems and some even have Ethernet jacks.

Raw Power: The bad news is that you're still going to have to pay through the nose for the type of raw power that a desktop box will have. Top of the line notebooks will go for between $3000 and $4000 with all the bells and whistles. The good news is that your young scholar is not going to need that kind of power to do homework or surf the net. The newer laptops will most likely have processors running at 750 MHz or more with 10 gig drives and 128 MB of RAM.

Other Features: Most of the new laptops also have built in DVD or CD-RW drives so you're not going to pay extra for these options. Perhaps the neatest new feature that you might want to consider is wireless capability. Some machines, like those from Apple, have wireless antennae even built in some of their units. Most manufacturers will also offer credit card size PCMCIA cards that will allow laptops to have wireless "Wi-Fi" or "802.11" capabilities. While this is still fairly exotic by Hawaii standards, it's possible that the mainland campus or dorm may already be utilizing this technology. Note that a wireless card will set you back another $100. The cool thing is that if you add wireless capabilities to a lightweight computer you're really in the realm of "mobile" computing. It really does justify the added expense of a laptop.

Home Office: If you're not a student it still might make sense to make your home computer a laptop. Here's why: With wireless capabilities you can use your notebook anywhere around the house and still surf the web. All you need is the aforementioned wireless card and a $250 "base station. So long as you don't go more than 150 feet from your base station you can use your laptop on the porch, in the yard, at the breakfast table or even in the bathroom!

Conclusion: Consider a laptop a slam-dunk decision for your college bound kid and a real possibility for the home office. If you can hold off another month or two, the new Intel PIII-M or Athlon 4 technologies will be readily available and less expensive. For review on laptops we suggest you go to www.cnet.com.

Shakil Ahmed is the founder of PDC Systems, a Honolulu networking and computer company established in 1991. Questions or comments should be addressed to askshak@pdcsystems.com Rob Kay is a Honolulu-based public relations practitioner who specializes in technology. He can be reached at rkay@pactechcom.com or 539-3627. Suggestions for column topics are welcomed.

Published Nov 9, 2001

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