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What are your recommendations for a laptop?

Posted By : Ken Colburn of Data Doctors on May 17, 1999

Question

When you get a chance can you provide me with your minimum recommendation for a laptop? My main usage will be on-site income tax preparation and I want a long life battery. Also, do you feel that with the introduction of the Pentium III there will be a drop in prices of laptops this summer or early fall?

-D. Martin

Answer

This question was answered on May 17, 1999. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.


There are a number of questions that you should ask yourself before making the decision to purchase any laptop/notebook The primary question is “Do I truly need a portable computer?” In most cases you can buy two desktop computers for the same price as a comparably equipped laptop Many people want a laptop because they travel between two locations such as a vacation home or the office and home If your needs are for two locations, the purchase of two desktop computers may be smarter then a single laptop Laptop computers are a lot more expensive to service, are proprietary in some way and generally don’t allow you to upgrade the processor I call them “disposable” computers because they generally cost as much to repair as to replace after the warranty runs out and within a couple of years it is generally too slow The keyboards, motherboards and screens are proprietary to the manufacturer so you have no choice but to pay their rates for replacement parts I have seen some companies charge as much as $300 for a replacement keyboard! On a desktop computer, a replacement keyboard ranges from $9 to $50 About the only users that can generally justify the expense and potential grief that comes with owning a laptop computer is the business user that makes money as a result of having it

Since you seem to meet that criterion, lets move on to what to look for in a new laptop Without question the biggest complaint I hear from laptop users is that the battery does not last long enough There are 3 main battery technologies used in laptops that you should know about; Nickel Cadmium (NiCd), Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) and Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) The oldest laptop battery technology is NiCd These are the batteries that most of us have had to deal with in the past in laptops, camcorders, razors, etc They are prone to what is called the “memory effect” When you don’t completely discharge a NiCd battery before recharging, it can often retain a memory of the amount of power you actually used For example, if you use your laptop for 20 minutes on battery, then plug in the re-charger, then use it for 20 minutes, then recharge, you will create a “cyclical memory” in the battery that allows for about 20 minutes of usage If a laptop that you are looking at uses a NiCd battery, you can bet the entire laptop is using older technology or is an older generation system The NiMH battery system has more density and is less prone to the memory effect The benefit to density is the ability to provide more power in a smaller package Since keeping the weight of the laptop to a minimum is important, higher density batteries will benefit your shoulder as you carry the unit around NiMH replacement batteries are generally comparable in price to NiCd batteries and probably provide the best value of the three types Since most avid laptop users eventually purchase a second battery, be sure to factor in the cost of the second battery to the overall purchase The Li-Ion batteries provide the greatest density and the lowest self-discharge of all of the battery types This means that they will weigh the least and typically will hold their charge longer than the others when not being used The actual use time of the Li-Ion is typically not much better then the NiMH but because the density is higher the overall time can be longer Most manufacturers that choose the Li-Ion battery are doing so to save space and weight of the overall package Li-Ion batteries can be considerably higher in price (sometimes double) to replace, so once again factor in the cost of the second battery to the overall cost of the unit Another tip that will help extend battery life is more RAM The hard drive is one of the biggest drains on your battery and more RAM will reduce disk access in most every operating system.

Some of the other issues that I feel are more important then technical specifications is the warranty and service plans that come with the unit Check with the retailer or salesperson for the exact steps that will need to be taken should your system need service Will you or they have to send the unit out-of-state for service or is it done in-house? What is the typical turn around time for service? Do they have a limited time exchange policy for factory defects or will it have to go to the service department even though it’s only 2 weeks old? You need to know before buying “What happens when it breaks”? Most people that make their living on a laptop can not afford to be without it for 10 days to 2 weeks or in some cases even longer If you have to pay more for a laptop that has less performance but better service coverage, you most likely will be better off in the long run

A basic list of specs that I would recommend (as of 5/17/99!) would include:

An Intel based processor (Celeron, Pentium II, Pentium III)

A bare minimum of 32Mb of RAM (64Mb recommended)

At least 4 GB of Hard Disk storage

A second battery

A good carry case

Stick to a name brand computer that has real technical support people that speak English!

As far as a price drop because of the Pentium III, technology changes and improves so rapidly that you will always get more for your money if you are willing to wait 3 to 6 months! No matter what you buy, if you go back to the store 3 months later, you will always make the statement “I should have waited”!

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Posted by Ken Colburn of Data Doctors on May 17, 1999

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