Many users — college students among them — still need laptops that survive away from desks and power outlets. Neither heavy "desktop replacements" nor ultralight netbooks with tiny screens and cramped keyboards work in that scenario.
Laptop computers have taken over the market from desktops, but along the way many of them have become the functional equivalent of their deskbound cousins.
Laptop users tote them no farther than from one room to another, not really minding their heft or short battery life.
But many users — college students among them — still need laptops that survive away from desks and power outlets. Neither heavy “desktop replacements” nor ultralight netbooks with tiny screens and cramped keyboards work in that scenario.
This piece is for those shoppers. What should they consider when looking for a new laptop?
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Mac or Windows: There’s no getting around two issues. One, Windows computers have gotten a lot cheaper than Apple’s Macs — a PC is easily found for as little as $300 with the cutdown Home Basic edition of Windows Vista, while Apple’s cheapest laptop sells for $999. Two, Mac OS X is better than Windows Vista. OS X boots up faster, uses less memory, needs less maintenance and faces far fewer security risks than Vista (and still lets you run Windows alongside OS X).
In other words, you’ll pay one way or another.
Both Apple and Microsoft will ship new operating systems this fall, with free or nearly free upgrades for anybody buying a laptop now.
Apple says its OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard will include numerous performance improvements. Microsoft’s Windows 7 should also run more efficiently than its predecessor and brings some interface refinements to the Windows desktop.
Both releases look promising, but history suggests that Apple’s upgrade will be easier than Microsoft’s.
Weight and screen size: If the computer will be hanging from your shoulder, don’t get one weighing more than 5 pounds (the power brick will add from half a pound to more than a pound, depending on how much care was taken with its design). That would probably limit you to a 13- or 14-inch screen — almost always with a webcam mounted above it. If you can accept a 12-inch display, it’s easier to keep the laptop’s weight below 4 pounds.
Battery life: Many manufacturers won’t cite a number here, but you can bet those computers won’t run for more than three hours untethered. On some Windows laptops, you can buy higher-capacity batteries, a worthwhile upgrade if they don’t add more than half a pound.
Apple is switching to sealed-in-the-case batteries that run much longer: a 13-inch MacBook Pro played a collection of MP3s for just over five hours.
Processor speed: Unless you’ll be editing video most of the time, this doesn’t matter.
Memory: On a Mac, the standard 2 gigabytes of RAM should suffice for general use. In Windows Vista, 2 GB can also be fine, but many vendors now ship 3 or 4 GB.
More is not necessarily better: Laptops with 4 GB almost always run the 64-bit version of Windows Vista, which can have problems with older software and hardware.
Storage: This has become another non-factor, as even cheap laptops have more disk space than typical users may know what to do with.
Graphics: If you enjoy computer games, get a laptop with a separate, “discrete” graphics card instead of “integrated” graphics support, which may not be able to handle fast-paced games.
Optical drives: Any machine you buy should be able to read and write CDs and DVDs. Some can also play Blu-ray discs, but that capability isn’t worth the extra cash. The same goes for LabelFlash and LightScribe disc labeling, which can etch a title on a CD or DVD.
Expansion: Those connectors and ports on the side of the laptop aren’t all equally useful. You can never have too many USB ports, but esoteric inputs such as eSATA and, to a lesser extent, FireWire, may go unused.
Memory-card slots are handy (Apple, finally, put an SD Card slot on its new MacBook Pro laptops), but ExpressCard slots usually accommodate only data cards for wireless carriers’ mobile-broadband services.
Wireless: Nearly all laptops have Wi-Fi. Some also include Bluetooth, which is helpful for connecting external mice and sending files to and from other computers and mobile phones.
You may have the option of adding a mobile-broadband receiver, but that will add $60 or so a month to the machine’s operating costs. (Many laptops don’t include dial-up modems, which aren’t missed.)
Software bundles: The third-party software preinstalled by most vendors only shows how desperate they are to auction off space on the hard drive and the desktop
What else can you conclude from garbage like desktop links to eBay or Amazon.com (do these manufacturers think we just fell off the turnip truck?) or shortcuts for the NetZero and Juno online services on a modem-less HP (does HP even know its own hardware?).
Dell, however, ships its laptops with hardly any third-party bundled junk, and Apple doesn’t include any.
Support: The only meaningful difference readers tell me about is the in-person support Apple users can get at the company’s stores.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Microsoft apparently is adding a similar sort of help desk to stores it plans to open.
Two will open this fall in Arizona and California.