Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tips for selecting a laptop

Buying a laptop is not the easiest purchase. And it's a pricey one. Chances are you'll be bombarded by a salesperson intent on selling you a huge machine, with flashy features, using jargon like "WLAN", "DDR2-667 SO-Dimm Memory", SATA, plus they'll no doubt promise the notebook will even make you coffee. There's one consideration more important than any other when considering what to buy: simply think what you'll be using the laptop for.

If you're going to be typing documents, updating spreadsheets and checking e-mail, you're not going to need a R20 000 machine. However, if you want your laptop to replace your desktop, you're probably going to want to look at a high-end machine with lots of multimedia functionality.

Having used four different laptops in the past few years, here are ten important considerations when choosing a machine:

1. Battery-life

This is the number one specification to consider. Simple. No matter how fast your machine is, what it can do, how many buttons it has, it's useless if you can't use it without a power source. Having had the experience of using a monster of a laptop while travelling, it becomes incredibly impractical when the battery life of your computer is less than an hour. The higher the battery life, the better. Find out what the battery life for a machine is specified at before you buy it, and then quiz sales staff about the actual battery life. The dimmer your screen, the longer your battery will last. Also check your "power options" configuration, and you may be able to squeeze as much as five hours of productivity out of your laptop.

2. Weight and size

The bigger the laptop, the more of an effort it's going to be to lug it around. Having stumbled across a "portable" machine bigger than two normal-sized laptops at a computer store last weekend, bigger is definitely not better. It doesn't matter how huge your screen is or how many extra features it has, it's not worth it; unless you only intend to be semi-portable.

3. PC or Mac

This is becoming a more important consideration, especially with Apple's move across to machines powered by Intel processors. This allows you to run both Apple's Mac OS X (Leopard) operating system as well as Windows XP or Vista. This is particularly useful as you get the benefits (and cool factor) of using a Mac, but can actually do things like connect to your office network, play PC-based games, etc. Bear in mind that the pricing of MacBooks starts at around R11 000 (for the "plain" MacBook) and extends to way over R20 000 for the top-of-the-range MacBook Pros. Mac's traditionally need different software, but are incredibly easy to use, especially for multimedia-related tasks (editing video, pictures, etc,).

4. Hard drive capacity, CPU and memory

While you might be satisfied with your massive 320GB hard drive in your home PC, the level of storage offered on laptops will be far less (expect around 60GB). In terms of speed, your central processing unit (CPU) together with your RAM (random access memory) will determine how fast your laptop is.

For memory, 1GB of RAM is considered the bare minimum these days; don't fall into the trap of buying a machine with anything less than that. The new Windows (Vista) requires at least 1GB to run, but most experts suggest you have at least 2GB. You'll also want a CD/DVD writer to allow you to write important files to disc and perhaps make copies of some of your music CDs, etc(for personal use only of course!). New top-of-the-range notebooks come with built-in Blu-ray DVD players. This is the step up from the standard DVD format: it stores double the data, plus is backwards compatible (it plays normal DVDs and CDs).

5. Connectivity

Two connectivity features come standard on laptops these days: an Ethernet port (commonly called a network port) which allows you to connect to a home or office network, and USB slots which offer a way to connect peripherals or extras to your machine, like a mouse, camera, memory stick, printer, etc. (MacBooks offer Firewire slots, which are a much faster type of USB connection). Some notebooks offer a WLAN (wireless network "port") or a Bluetooth connection. Built-in wireless would allow you to connect to an access point in an office, for example, without tethering yourself to your network port. The more connectivity options the better.

6. Navigation device

Most laptops come with a built-in touch pad; however Lenovo (the old IBM) notebooks offer a pointing stick (the little red button in the middle of the keyboard). The pointing stick needs getting used to, but it's more efficient than a usual touch pad. Mac calls its navigation device "trackpad", and this differs from a standard touch pad because you're able to scroll with two fingers on the pad. You can tap and drag, pinch windows and drag items around on screen using this.

7. Operating system

If possible (this is a long stretch), get your laptop to be preinstalled with Windows XP. Even though Windows Vista is newer, and Microsoft hate people saying this, there are no massive upgrades or changes in Vista. In addition, a lot of tasks have become that much more difficult (and buggy) to do. Windows XP is robust, stable and just works.

8. Software

Microsoft Office 2007 is a big jump from any previous version of Office. The menus and functions have changed completely, but apparently the changes are intuitive and well-worth the upgrade. Depending on what you use your laptop for you may need other specialist software.

9. Warranty

Try get your warranty extended by as long as possible. Warranty extensions are available on most notebooks, and the pricing structure is tiered accordingly. It won't be worth it to upgrade beyond 30 months, as you'll most likely buy a new machine before three years are up.

10. Bells and whistles

There are a number of flashy additions available on notebooks, from an integrated near-cinema quality speaker system to external video connections, built-in webcams or remote controls for watching DVDs. Make the call on this; you might find something like a remote control useful?

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