Buying a notebook

Posted by Benjamin Close on November 7, 2008 under Computers | Be the First to Comment

When buying a notebook there is a lot to consider. This page is designed to be a guide to choosing the right notebook for your situation.

Contents

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Use

Desktop Or Portable

The first and foremost question is:

Will the notebook be used as a portable or a destktop computer?

Whilst is seems strange, most people use a notebook as a desktop computer.

The distinction is important as if the notebook is predominatly a desktop computer, you are not as concerned with battery life and generally want better performance. Also the need for a long warrenty is reduced as the notebook is less likely to be moved and hence less physical stress, caused by movement, is placed on the laptop.

Games Or Office Applications

The next question to ask is:

Will the notebook be used for playing ANY games?

There is a lot of people who when purchasing a computer swear it will never be used for games. Only to find once they have the computer that they do use it for games, and the computer can’t handle them.
When talking about games, I don’t mean card games like solitare, but the really good looking games with lots of colours, fast moving and full of sound. If you even remotely thing you are going to play games, you should aim to get a better notebook.
When it comes to office applications, any notebook today is sufficient.

Components

With the above questions answered, it’s time to start thinking about the components. With so many different notebooks these days, its confusing as to what is what. This section details some of the differences.

Screen

Most people think a bigger screen is better. But this is not always the case. There is a trade off between larger screens and better resolution.

Resolution

Consider the follow images

1280x1024 Screen Shot 

1280×1024 Screen Shot

1024x768 Screen Shot 

1024×768 Screen Shot

Both are of the same document in word but with different resolutions. The 1280×1024 shows much more of the document than the 1024×768. So you might think of screen resolution as real estate space on the screen. The higher the resolution the more space you have to put things.

Due to this it’s not surprizing that the marketing people have hidden the fact behind a lot of acronyms.

  • XGA is a resolution of 1024×768
  • WXGA is Wide screen XGA with a resolution of 1280×720
  • SXGA is a resolution of 1280×1024
  • WSXGA is Wide screen SXGA with a resolution of 1440×960

In General the Wide screen formats are better as they give you more space. They are also perfect if you want to play a DVD as most DVD’s are wide screen.

LCD & Plasma TV’s also have different resolutions

Size

Most people refer to size as how many inches the screen is. Ie the notebook should have at least a 14″ screen.
The ideal is to have a screen big enough for the resolution. As a general guide:

  • 13″ is too small for anything!
  • 14″ is good for XGA & WXGA
  • 15″ is ok for XGA and good for SXGA & WSXGA
  • 16″ is too big for XGA and good for SXGA & WSXGA
  • 17″ is too big for a notebook – your notebook is too large!

My personal recommendation is a 15″ screen with a SXGA or WSXGA resolution.

CPU / Brains

There is a lot of confusion when it comes to the Central Processing Unit (CPU) or brains of the computer.
Much of this comes down to clever marketing to mislead consumers. Traditionally the speed of a computer was rated in Gigahertz (Ghz) and this was the only deciding factor. These days there is different models, speeds and types of cpu’s.

The table below gives a rough comparison:

BrandTypeComment
IntelCeleronOld standard not use much today
IntelPentium 4Old standard used lots of battery power – normally in the 2.2ghz range speed wise
IntelCeleron MNew Standard, uses lots less battery power than the old celeron. Not as quick as the Pentium M
IntelPentium MNew Standard, very power efficient, quicker than the Celeron M, often rated as 1.4Ghz or (but equivilant to a 2.2Gh Pentium 4)
IntelCentrinoThis isn’t really a CPU but a brand. The centrio is a Pentium M cpu, with intel graphics card and wireless networking all built in.

The Ghz rating isn’t that important. The difference between a 1.2Ghz machine and a 1.3Ghz machine is very minimal (less than 2%) in difference – Though the cost may be huge!

Memory

Memory is a very important feature in any computer. The general comment is:

You can never have enough memory!

Memory is temporary storage that the computer uses to do its work. As soon as the computer is turned off, everything in it is lost. The more memory you have the more applications you can have open at one. Quite often the more you have the faster things will run.

A minimum amount of memory I’d recommend for a windows XP machine is 512mb.

Hard Disk

The hard disk provides permanent storage space for you to store your files. If you intend to download music, games or movies, you will need a large drive. If you are simply using office applications you don’t need a huge drive.
Notebooks drives generally have less storage space than a desktop computer. This is due to the drives being physically smaller.

A general guide to what is a good size:

Storage SizeComment
40GbLess common these days, fine for someone only using office applications
60GbThe Average today, best value for money, Able to store about 10 movies, 300 songs, and any office applications
80Gb or largerLarger than average, capable of most things

In general notebook drives are fairly quiet. However, if your worried about noise, then try and get a laptop with a Samsung drive in it – they generally are quieter.

Battery Life

If your aiming to use your notebook as a portable device, battery life should be high on your priority life. The average laptop runs for just under 2 hours before it needs recharging. All laptops can be used whilst they are recharging.

There is lots of things that impact how long a laptop will run on battery power. The hungriest component is the screen. A larger sized screen (as in inches not resolution) uses more battery life. A faster processer can use more battery life. I say can as most processers these day slow down when not in full use. Using office applications they are not in full use most the time.
The average battery will only last 3 years before it starts to lose its charging ability. So around the 2 & 1/2 -> 3 year mark you will notice it won’t last 2 hours any more.

CD/DVD Drive

Pretty much anything that can burn to a DVD is fine these days. This includes DVD/Dual Layer combo drives.

Modem

Modems are an old technology that is dying very quickly. They are being replaced by ADSL and wireless networks. If you think you need a Modem, consider how much you spend on phone calls and internet charges a month.

Lets say you have a $9.95 plan a month. Say you check your email every day. Now we have:

Monthly Plan1x9.95
Phone Calls30x.257.50
Total 17.45

For $20 a month you can get an ADSL plan. ADSL is at least 5 time faster than modem speeds and you can use your phone at the same time! Thinking about switching? Have a look at: http://www.broadbandchoice.com.au

Networking

Networking is the way of the future. Already there is places that you can go to a cafe and use your notebook without having to connect any cables. This is know as wireless networking. At present there is lots of options. I’d suggest you get a notebook capable of 802.11g/b wireless networking and if possible bluetooth. Many mobile phones use bluetooth so you might be able to synchronise your mobile file’s address book with your PC and vice versa – no cables attached!

I’d also recommend a laptop with 10/100 network support. This is the blue cable most people plug into their computer at their work. This is much quicker than wireless networking. The newer standard is 10/100/1000 which is even faster. If your notebook supports that – all the better.

Warranty

May people over look the warranty of notebook when purchasing one. The cheaper notebook all have one year warranty. The more expensive ones generally have a 3 year warranty. If you are using the notebook as a portable device, considering the more expensive notebooks is definiately worth it.

There is statistics that show within 3 years a notebook used as a portable computer will need something fixed or replaced. My personal experiance supports this. The reasons are both obvious and not so obvious. The obvious ones are:

  • People drop them (quite a common occurrance)
  • The shift in transit and bang up against something (even in there cases)
  • They get stolen
  • Someone knocks the screen and cracks it
  • Clips break / Plastic breaks

The not so obvious ones are:

  • The constant shifting of the notebook causes too much shock for the internal drive and it needs replacing
  • The notebook is put into a bag as it is shutting down, it fails to shutdown and overheats
  • People cover the air holes due to noise or accidentally (ie using it on carpet)
  • The screen flexes in transit breaking a connector
  • A USB device/power cord is left plugged in to the laptop when it is packed up and that pushes on the plug breaking it

My personal laptop (A Dell) has been used as both a desktop computer and a portable device. In it’s time it’s had the internal drive fail twice in 3 years. Once due to wear and tear. Once due to shock. My laptop has never been dropped and is always put in a case during transit. Each time the drive was replaced under warranty. The cost of replacements zero. However, purchasing the drives separately would have cost ~ $400 each.

Choosing The Right Laptop

So your down to chosing a laptop, hopefully you’ve read all the information above and now know a litte more about makes up a good laptop.

When choosing a notebook I personally rate the following as the importance list:

  1. Screen 
    I’d recommend a minimum 15″ screen with a WXGA resolution
  2. Warranty 
    For a notebook acting as a desktop, 1 year should be ok. For a notebook acting as a portable computer, I recommend 3 years minimum
  3. Battery Life
    The longer the better
  4. Memory
    512mb minimum
  5. Networking
    Must have 10/100 network (10/100/1000 is fine) and preferably 802.11g/b wireless networking. Bluetooth is optional
  6. Hard Disk
    Minimum 60GB Disk
  7. CPU/Brains
  8. CD/DVD 
    Some type of dvd burner
  9. Modem
    Optional, these things are old technology that won’t be around for much longer

So now I know what I want, how do I choose? At this point you have to use some of your own judgement. Your spending a lot of money on a laptop, ask to have a look at the notebook. See if the screen is clear, listen if the laptop is quiet and enquire about the warranty. Ask how old the model is. If they can’t answer how old it is, don’t buy it – they know how old it is.

Look at price lists to see what is current. Lots of stores have online price lists:



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