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High-Tech Times Article 013

Choosing a Laptop Computer

I just went through one of the most harrowing experiences of my career, and decided to share it with you: I just bought a new laptop computer.


As most of you know, my company is a computer systems integrator that specializes in designing and specifying high-end computer systems for our clients in Hawaii, Australia, Malaysia, and Indonesia.  So, you may ask, why is it so hard to buy just one little laptop for myself?  Well, maybe because it's a machine that many of you may see, or maybe it's because I'd like the best value for my money - but the real reason is because it's going to be mine!


As you can tell from my past dozen columns, there's a lot of technology out there, and more showing up every day.  The big difference between laptop and desktop computers is that you can quickly add, upgrade, and change out components in a desktop, while you're pretty well stuck with what you've chosen in a laptop.  So I'm going to walk you through my rather involved train of decisions on choosing a high-end laptop so you can minimize the potential for a bad choice.


Last April, Intel released its most powerful processor for the laptop: the Mobile Pentium II running at 266 MHz.  With Intel's 440BX mainboard, this choice for sheer power and flexibility is a no-brainer.  And with this combination, you should be able to upgrade to Intel's forthcoming 300-MHz Pentium II without using the factory.  Unfortunately, this is about the last easy choice you'll have.


Memory is next, and, as usual, more is better.  Although you can operate most Windows 9X applications with 32 MB, go with 64 MB instead, especially with today's RAM prices 75 percent lower than just two years ago.  Interestingly enough, government studies show that adding more than 64 MB of RAM actually may slow down a Mobile Pentium II system.  Also, the power user should specify Synchronous DRAM instead of the 20 percent slower EDO RAM.


Cache RAM is Level-1 and -2 memory that act as an intelligent buffer to store data (actually metadata) to speed up most computations.  The Pentium II processor comes with 32 KB of integrated Level-1 cache, and be sure that your laptop comes with at least 512 KB of Level-2 cache RAM.  Future processors are expected to come with up to a megabyte of Level-2 cache.


The video display can be a "gotcha" if you're not careful.  There are two main types of liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) available: Thin-Film Transistor (TFT), which may also be called "active matrix," and everything else.  The problem is that manufacturers often have very sexy names for their LCDs, like "High-Performance," "Dual Super-Twisted Nematic," HPA, DS, and HPA, just to pick a few from our local newspapers and catalogs.  Do NOT settle for anything less than a TFT screen for power usage!  While non-TFT screens may be fine for word-processing, they are a huge data bottleneck for graphics, multimedia, and video.

You must also choose your TFT screen size, which varies from 6.1 to over 15 inches diagonally.  The price difference between a 13.3-inch and a 15.1-inch laptop may be as much as $2,500, with all other components being the same, so be prepared to open your wallet really wide for the largest screens.  One word of advice: a 13.3-inch TFT screen is nearly equivalent to a 16-inch desktop monitor, as there is no bezel or other wasted display space.


As always, if high-resolution plays a large part in your daily work, you may need the newest 1280 X 1024 screens, but even most power users can settle for 1024 X 768 resolution on a laptop.  Remember that you can always plug your laptop into your 21-inch 1600 X 1200 desktop monitor if you need more screen space and resolution.  Be sure that the integrated video board has at least 4 MB of video RAM to drive your screen at a 24-bit (16.8 million) color-depth, and it doesn't hurt if the manufacturer has also included 128-bit graphics acceleration.


Once you get past your screen decisions, you're on to the hard-drive.  You'll want the largest, fastest drive you can afford, of course, and look for Ultra Direct Memory Access (UDMA, also called Ultra-IDE) drives for nearly twice the data throughput.  An important factor is removability: if your laptop's hard-drive fails, or if you just want to swap in another drive for a special project, a modular, swappable drive is a real life-saver.


A simple component like the floppy-drive can also offer some interesting opportunities.  Some companies offer the new LS-120 drive, which handles the new 120 MB diskette, as well as reading and writing to standard 1.44 MB diskettes.  Try to avoid laptops that force you to swap out your floppy-drive with a CD-ROM drive; even when these are hot-swappable (you can switch them without turning off the laptop), I have yet to see a system that doesn't come with at least some problems caused by loose connections, shorts, and other malfunctions.


Most laptops come with 20- to 24X CD-ROM drives.  More speed doesn't make as much difference as data-transfer increases are attained by optical compression techniques.  High-end laptops are offered with new technologies that include optical-phase-change storage up to 5.2 GB and Digital Versatile Disks (DVD-ROM) capable of reading up to 17 GB.  I think DVD is here to stay, and suggest you take a good look at including it in your laptop.


Tied in with CD-ROM and DVD are multimedia-capable system that can deliver full-screen, full-color, 30 frame/second video and audio that is often better than your TV at home.  These systems incorporate MPEG (Motion Picture Experts Group) compression technologies, and represent state-of-the-art in presentation delivery systems.  But they may add another $1000 to your invoice, too.


Laptops come with slots for PC Cards, and the integrated circuitry should include a 16-bit data-bus and a 32-bit CardBus that complies with the PC Card standard.  Most laptops will handle two Type II (5 mm) cards or one Type III (10.5 mm) card.  Modems and LAN cards usually use the Type II slot, while RAM, Zoomed Video, and hard-disk cards use the Type III slot.


Input devices are offered in many shapes and sizes on laptops.  I've seen touch-pads, eraser tips, J-keys, and trackballs, but nothing works as well as a mouse, in my opinion.  Plug in an external PS/2 mouse if you're doing lots of work.  Ditto for the keyboard; my fingers just weren't made for some of the configurations I've seen on laptops!  However, some of the larger systems do have separate number pads and arrow keys, which make typing an almost-pleasant task.  A 3D audio board with wavetable should be considered a minimum, and integrated stereo speakers are a must.  A docking station is a very cost-effective way to add more ports, boards, and capability, and it minimizes wear-and-tear on your port connectors.


Batteries are usually the limiting factor when you use your laptop where there's no AC power available.  The new lithium-ion (Li-Ion) batteries provide up to double the capacity of nickel-cadmium (NiCad) and metal-hydride (MH) batteries, which is essential for power-hungry Pentium II processors.  The Li-Ion batteries can also be recharged nearly twice as many times as the older batteries and have no "charge memory," so you can recharge them without draining all the power first.  The ideal laptop has an option for a second battery or a "battery slice" that couples to the bottom of the system.


Last, but not least, take a good look at the number of ports available on the back of your laptop.  A minimum set of ports should include high-speed serial and parallel, PS/2 for mouse and keyboard, external monitor, audio in/out, infrared (IR), and Universal Serial Bus (USB).  A standard 120-pin docking station bus should round out this set.  Higher-end laptops should offer digital video in/out, Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP), and even FireWire (IEEE-1394).


Oh, one last little item: if you can't lift the laptop with all your goodies connected, you may want to go back and reconsider your real needs.  Or at least start visiting your local gym more often....