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Tech 101 | PC Focus

Which Laptop? Ask First How You'll Use It

October 26, 2000|LAWRENCE J. MAGID |

Before you plop down a credit card for a new notebook computer, ask yourself some tough questions about how you'll use it. And make sure to answer honestly.

Your first question should be whether it's a replacement for your desktop PC or a supplemental machine to use on the go. If you decide you want the notebook PC to be your main machine--for use at home or at the office as well as on the road--you might not want to skimp when it comes to performance, disk storage or memory. But if you plan to keep using a desktop machine for most of your work, start thinking about what compromises you're willing to make.

Personally, I like to travel light, and I'm willing to give up some computing power to accomplish that. So the most important factors for me are size and weight. Performance isn't an issue because all of today's notebook PCs are fast enough for the type of work I do on the road--typically word processing, Web surfing and e-mail. If I were using the machine for graphic design or playing games, I'd probably opt for as much power as I could find.

The Toshiba T7200, which I'm using to write this article from a hotel room in Florida, isn't cheap, but it's very light. The machine, which weighs 3.1 pounds, starts at $2,700. But unlike some notebook PCs that typically weigh 5 or more pounds, it's easy on the back and shoulders. Its 13.3-inch active matrix screen is a bit smaller than some notebook PCs, but I find it big enough for what I do.

One reason I like an ultralight machine is that I often carry it around with me at trade shows. If you're simply lugging it between home and office or plan to leave it in your hotel room when you travel, you can save some money by opting for a heavier machine.

If your back is stronger than your wallet, you can save a lot of money by purchasing a heavier machine such as the 6.4-pound Dell Inspiron 3800, which starts at $1,099 for a system with a 12.1-inch screen, 32 megabytes of memory and a 5-gigabyte hard disk. In fact, at this price, you're not paying an enormous premium over the mid-range desktop machine, so it's not a bad choice as a second computer to use at home as well.

For some people, their notebook PC is their only PC, so they want something powerful as well as portable. This makes sense for people who want to have their entire computing environment with them when they travel. A notebook PC also makes sense if you have a limited amount of space at home or in your office cubicle. If you fit into this category, you may want a "desktop replacement" machine that has most of the bells and whistles of a standard PC.

A full-featured machine, such as the Compaq Presario 18XL390, sets you back more than $3,000 and weighs nearly 8 pounds. It's too expensive and heavy for my taste, but if you plan to use it as your only PC, you'll have just about all the power you're likely to need with its Pentium III 850 processor, 128mb of system RAM, 20gb hard drive, a JBL sound system and 15-inch screen. There's also a DVD-ROM drive so you can watch movies. The 3D graphics card has 8mb of video RAM, which is impressive for a portable but still below the standards of heavy-duty gamers.

Whatever laptop you buy, make sure you're happy with the keyboard, especially if you buy an ultralight, some of which have smaller keyboards. For example, IBM's ThinkPad 240 Mini-Notebook ($1899 and up) packs a lot of punch for a 3-pound package, but its keyboard is 5% smaller than standard. That might not bother some people, but it can be annoying for some touch typists.

Also, check out the pointing device. IBM and Toshiba use pointing sticks that look like an eraser sticking up between the G, H and B keys. Compaq and other vendors generally use an electronic touch pad that tracks your finger as you move it over the pad. Personally, I prefer the pointing stick, but I know people who hate the stick and love the pad.


Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour.

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