Categorized | The Laptop Computer

Hardware and Software 3.3. The Laptop Computer

Laptops are portable computers that usually weigh less than eight pounds. For those of us old enough to remember “portable” computers, which were really big, heavy briefcase-sized beasts with tiny screens, the range of laptops currently available is truly staggering. They range from powerful, desktop replacement machines with seventeen-inch flat screens to miniature numbers about twice as large as a calculator and weighing only two pounds. Before buying a laptop, you should consider what “type” most suits your business needs and lifestyle:

The Standard or Mainstream Laptop

Standard laptops are designed for home use with some portability. They typically come with 15.4 inch screens and weigh from five to seven pounds. They are designed to strike a compromise between portability, power, endurance, and economy.

The Light /Thin Portable

Light and thin portables are designed to be as easy to carry around as possible―the very smallest weigh around four pounds and the heaviest around five pounds. As thin as 1.5 inches, they’re designed for people who primarily use their laptop in portable situations. They can be as powerful as a standard laptop, but they always sell at a very high premium.

The Ultra-portable

These tiny things weigh in between two and four pounds and are less than an inch thick. They sport small monitors (as small as 9”) and even smaller keyboards, so if you’re all left thumbs as a typist, you might want to consider lessons. The ultra-portables are for people who do all their computing on the road and want a computer that’s as easy to port around as, well, a calculator.

The Tablet

A tablet laptop allows you to interact with the computer and input data right on the monitor just like a PDA. These laptops are meant to combine the best features of a PDA and a notebook computer. Open the monitor and type on the keyboard, you’re working on a PC. Spin the monitor around and use a stylus right on the monitor, you’re working on a PDA! At one end, tablets are just larger PDA’s (called “slates”) with externally attached keyboards. At the other end, tablets are laptop computers that allow you to turn the monitor around so you can use it like a PDA.

The Business Laptop

No, it’s not just a clever way to charge business customers more money for a laptop. The business notebook comes in a range of sizes from ultra-light to standard laptop and is designed for business users who require safety and durability. These are computers designed to be dropped and jostled and thrown about in luggage. They also have a number of hardware and software security features to protect your investment in the computer.

The Desktop-Replacement Portable

It sounds like a contradiction, but these heavy (seven to thirteen pounds) and large (up to seventeen-inch screens) laptops are primarily designed for desktop use with an occasional excursion now and them. Because of their weight and size, you may not want to heave them around every day, but they are the near-equal of any desktop in terms of power, speed, and features. They tend to be much larger than standard portables―most of that extra size is to accommodate the larger screen, which can be seventeen inches wide. The good news is that you won’t need to hook up an extra monitor; the bad, of course, is that it’ll be a tight fit on that airplane tray table. If you’re considering buying one computer and a laptop at that, you should seriously consider a desktop-replacement portable.

The Multimedia Laptop

Typically weighing around seven pounds, the multimedia laptop comes enhanced with audio and video hardware so it can serve as a portable entertainment center.

The Gaming Laptop

The gaming laptop comes with souped-up processors and video adapters to allow for portable game-play.

Trade-offs

Laptops are designed for portability, so they come with flat LCD screens, miniaturized components, and use both rechargeable batteries and AC power.

Although manufacturers and others claim that laptops have all the capabilities and features of desktops, there are several differences. First off, because laptops use miniaturized components, they can reproduce the features of a desktop, but only at a higher price. Second, processor and memory configurations may mean certain applications run poorly or not at all on a laptop. My Toshiba laptop, for instance, which cost several hundred dollars more than my desktop, cannot run many of my desktop applications, such as Adobe Premiere, and can run others, such as Illlustrator or AfterEffects, slowly or unstably . . . or both. Finally, laptops are not designed to be upgraded; they’re designed to be replaced. While desktops contain enough room and slots to add all sorts of bells and whistles, laptops are pretty much “what you buy is what you get.” If your computing needs grow dramatically, your laptop may not be able to grow with them.

So let’s look at the trade-offs.

Screen

Probably the most obvious thing about your laptop is that the screen comes attached. Today’s laptops come equipped with very high quality active matrix LCD screens but also come with video adapters that can feed an external monitor or projector. That means, if you want to use your laptop more like a desktop computer by hooking it up to a CRT or LCD monitor, all you need to do is connect the monitor cable to your laptop. So you have a laptop for the road and a sort-of desktop computer for your office. Be warned, however: since you cannot replace the display adapter―or can at a high price, you’ll need to make sure that the adapter displays at the resolutions you need when hooked to an external display.

Screen resolutions and how to check them

What are screen resolutions and why do they matter to you? Well, to confuse things, there are actually two types of resolutions that a notebook or desktop video adapter can support: the screen resolution and the color resolution. The screen resolution is the amount of detail a computer can render on a screen and it’s measured in pixels per inch. The color resolution, on the other hand, are the number of colors that the adapter can display and is measured either by number of colors (256, thousands, or millions) or bit-size (8-bit, 24-bit, 32-bit). Typically, the color resolution goes down as the screen resolution goes up. Why? Because getting a high screen resolution takes lots of video processor power. Getting lots of colors also takes lots of video processor power. If you try to do both, your computer can’t keep up―it’s like asking your computer to shoulder press 200 pounds while sprinting a marathon.

Why do they matter? If all you’re doing is word processing, spreadsheets, a little accounting, and a bit of scanning and eBay posting, not at all. If, on the other hand, you’re expecting your computer to handle high-level graphics, like print materials or video, you want the most powerful adapter possible. You will not need the higher color and screen resolutions, but having an adapter that can handle these higher resolutions means that you’ll get high performance at the resolutions you do need.

How do you check? Hook up the laptop you want to buy to an external display. In Windows XP, go to the control panel, select Display, and select the Settings tab. The slider at the left will show you the maximum screen resolution you can achieve and the color bar will show you the maximum color resolution. In Vista, you select Appearance and Personalization from the control panel, select Personalization, and select the Display Settings tab. The best―and largest―screens support up to 1600 x 1200.

The screen on all but the most expensive laptops is not as bright nor does it display color in the same way as desktop monitors. If you’re using your laptop for any kind of design or imaging work, you may be in for some rude surprises when you see your work on a desktop monitor or projector!

Since laptops now come with display adapters, you should hook up an external LCD or CRT monitor when using the laptop as a desktop computer, especially if you’re doing any kind of graphic or imaging work. However, you will need to learn how to activate the external monitor (Fn + F5 on most laptops) and lay the laptop LCD flat, an inconvenience which increases the distance between the keyboard and the external monitor.

Keyboard

On almost all laptops, the keyboard has been “economized,” so to speak. Aside from smaller keys, many features of a desktop keyboards are simply absent from a laptop, such as the number pad. If you’re doing a fair amount of spreadsheet work or other calculating, the absence of the number pad is pretty devastating (although you can purchase plug-in number pads if you’re desperate.) Other critical keys, such as Home or End, may be “shared” with other functions and require that you use the Fn Key to make them work. If you’re a keyboard power user, you may need to spend some time trying out the laptop before buying.

On most laptops, however, you can easily attach an external keyboard through the USB port. In other words, by hooking up a keyboard, external mouse, and external monitor, you can essentially turn your laptop into a “desktop,” albeit more expensive than a desktop in a box.

Pointing Device

The type of pointing device may make you a loyal fan of your laptop or wish you were never born. There are three main types of pointing devices: the touch pad, by far the most common, the small joystick, and the trackball, which is becoming increasingly less common because of all the moving parts that can go south.

The touchpad sits below the keyboard and you move the screen cursor by moving your finger around the pad. You click and double-click by either using the buttons below the pad or tapping the pad directly with your finger. It turns out that the touchpad is preferred by most laptop users. It’s the easiest to learn and the fastest to get some accuracy on. But scratching your finger around on the pad for any length of time might become a bit aggravating.

Some computers, such as Lenovo’s ThinkPad, come with small joysticks set right into the middle of the keyboard. You move the pointer around by pushing on the joystick; the more you push it off-center, the faster the pointer goes. It takes some getting used to, but power users swear by it.

If you’re not on the road too much―or even if you are―you can always attach a standard mouse through your USB port. I travel with a gaming mouse (because I like the precision) and only use my touchpad if I have no other choice.

Expansion

Laptops are not really designed for expansion―everything is miniaturized for minimum volume and weight, so there is not much room to add anything more than muffin crumbs and spilled coffee. However, all current laptops have PC Card (PCMCIA) slots and USB ports, giving them a limited amount of expandability through external devices. Some desktops include docking stations that add more USB, FireWire, and PCMCIA slots.

3.3.1 PC Mag.com: Laptops: The Essential Buying Guide 2007 (no longer available, except for laptop reviews)

http://www.pcmag.com

PC Magazine is one of the oldest and most respected personal computing magazines. They offer an array of free Web resources including invaluable guides to buying hardware and software. Their Laptop Essential Buying Guide has been around for a few years and the 2007 edition gives specific advice as to what you should look for in a standard, business, light, ultra-portable, or desktop laptops.

If you journey to their laptop section (http://www.pcmag.com/category2/0,1874,9,00.asp), you will find a cornucopia of product reviews and helpful articles.

3.3.2 C|Net

http://www.cnet.com

C|Net was the original Internet computer hardware, software, and Internet news source and still remains one of the most thorough and (relatively) unbiased sources of tech news. Before you choose a laptop, look over their laptop reviews very carefully. If you want a shortcut, they produce a regularly updated “Top Ten Laptops” section at http://www.cnet.com/Top_10_notebooks_laptops/4520-6022_1-102337-3.html. You should also read their short article on “How to Buy a Laptop for Your Business” at http://www.cnet.com/4520-7393_1-5630040-1.html.

C|Net devotes several sections to business and small business computing needs with rich resources and reviews to help you make all your technical buying decisions:

3.3.3 Laptop Magazine

http://www.laptop.com

Laptop Magazine is a print magazine solely devoted to laptop news and reviews; Laptop Magazine online contains all the rich resources they make available for free, including reviews, news, and articles. Since they are solely devoted to laptops, they offer the premier information about laptops. Useful information includes:

  • Laptop Buyer Guide
  • Top Ten Notebook Add-Ons
  • Ultimate Ultra-portables
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