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The Way of the Road Warrior --
Buying a Laptop Computer

By Rob Kay

Laptop computers have become an essential part of the Road Warrior's accoutrements. When you're on the road, your laptop computer becomes your office and a communications lifeline between some lonely hotel room and your home and office. Nowadays with a decent (and not necessarily expensive) laptop computer you can retrieve your email, write memos and even do research on the Internet when you're on the road. In other words, you can pretty much do any activity you'd normally do at the office with with a decent portable computer.

So how do you go about choosing a laptop? Let's begin by looking at the various components of the machine.

Processor: Processor speeds for laptops range from 75MHz to 266MHz. However, you don't have to own the baddest, fastest laptop to fill your needs. If you're mostly doing word processing, checking you're email and doing some web surfing, a 166 Mhz laptop (which are priced as low as $1200) will work just fine. Try to get a machine that has a "Mobile processor" which is designed specifically for laptops. They differ from desktop processors because they consume significantly less power, run cooler and help improve battery life.

Memory: Be sure and get at least 32 megs of RAM. Note that if your budget is tight, you can improve the performance of a slower chip by adding more memory to the system.

Storage: When it comes to the size of your hard drive, bigger is better. The majority of portables now come with at least a 2GB hard drive. By the way, don't purchase a machine that doesn't have a CD ROM. It will come in very handy when you're loading in software.

Screen: A majority of portables have 11.3-inch or 12.1-inch screens. Screens as large as 14 inches are available but they tend to make the machine heavier and more expensive. (Most weigh between 7 and 9 pounds). Be sure and go for an active matrix screen that tends be crisper and easier to read than the passive matrix models. The bottom line is to scrutinize the screen carefully before you buy.

Price: Laptops computer prices range from very inexpensive (around $1200 or less for a Windows 95 machine), to a $7000 multimedia model that is equivalent to a top of the line desktop. You can pick up a very nice laptop with an excellent screen for in the neighborhood of $2000. However you can already see notebook PCs for $1,000. (For example I saw a nice looking 133 Mhz Fujitsu machine at Costco in Hawaii Kai for around $1000.)

Wired and on the Road

Perhaps the most essential item that a road warrior will purchase for his or her laptop is a special modem designed for a laptop. This credit-card sized device which fits into a special slot on a laptop is known as a PCMCIA card. There are numerous companies that manufacture this type of hardware including IBM, 3Com, and numerous others. After doing some research on the Internet and testing at home we found a little known California company called ActionTec that produces an excellent 56kflex modem designed specifically for laptops. Priced at $130 it is not only the least expensive on the market and for the price performed admirably.

If you are in that category you won't be disappointed with the brand new IBM 56k PC Card Modem Kit priced at $229 and the Megahertz 56k PC Card Modem (manufactured by 3 COM) which runs $225. Though more expensive theses card hung on to a bad line for dear life. These modems (as well as the ActionTec) also have options that allow you to plug your modem into your cell phone. This nifty feature permits one to send and receive faxes or email over the airwaves. Pretty cool stuff indeed.

Road warriors who travel overseas (where the problems with bad phone lines are even more numerous) might want to spend a bit more money to get cards such as the IBM or the Megahertz. These cards can accommodate bad telephone lines and worked very well on a recent mainland trip. In this case you get what you pay for and both the IBM and 3COM cards are well worth the extra money. They also connect at much higher speeds (up to 48 kps) than the less expensive cards.

Which Laptop to Purchase?

We suggest you go down to one of the larger retailers like CompUSA or Computer City and check out the merchandise. Take a look a the screen and play with the keyboard to get an idea of the feel. Check the Internet out for product reviews in publications such as PC Magazine, PC World or CNET to see what the editors say. If you know what you want you can try ordering a machine from the mainland from Dell which has terrific technology or some of the other manufacturers.

Pacific Business News - Monday August 24, 1998

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