Important Features: Laptops  

Posted by Laptop Tips

One of the most important decisions you'll face when choosing a laptop is the size and type of screen. The issue quickly becomes confusing given the variety of display technologies available. The first consideration, size, is more straightforward. Experts and laptop owners agree that larger screens of 15 and 17 inches are easier to use for hours at a time. In a home or office, you can connect a laptop to an external monitor.

Manufacturers offer several choices of displays for most of the models covered in this report. In most model lines, display sizes are fixed, but you can choose among several levels of quality and resolution. Sometimes you can choose between a coated screen (brighter and sharper) or uncoated screen (which some people prefer for work applications because they are less susceptible to glare and reflections). Backlit LED displays are the newest improvement.

Experts say to look for the following in a notebook computer:

  • Get a Core 2 Duo processor with Santa Rosa or Penryn technology. Most laptops use Intel's Core 2 Duo CPUs. Budget models have older Intel processors or AMD processors. The Core 2 Duo supports 64-bit processing, which has an advantage for video editing and working with large amounts of data, such as databases, when software exists that can take advantage of it. Models with the new Intel Penryn processors are especially recommended, but they are just now reaching the market.
  • Make sure to get at least 1GB of RAM. Typically, high-end notebooks have 2GB of RAM, which can help applications run more quickly and smoothly. It will also allow you to run more applications at once without system drag. Despite Microsoft's recommendations, reviewers say a minimum of 1GB of RAM is needed for running Windows Vista, and 2GB or more is better. Laptops rarely have internal expandability, so maximizing your RAM at the time of purchase is the best course. Unless the laptop has an open RAM slot, you will need to replace your existing RAM if you decide to upgrade in the future.
  • Consider the display coating. Reflective screen coatings are still popular, since they make graphics and movies look more saturated. However, these screen coatings can be problematic in an office, where lighting and movement can create glare. If you plan mainly on office work, consider choosing a notebook without a glossy coating or pay more for a backlit LED display. Manufacturers let you choose with many models.
  • Most laptops come with at least 80GB hard drives. Photo, music and video files take up a lot of space. Adding a larger hard drive when you configure a system is a worthwhile upgrade if you collect media files (music, photos or videos). You cannot add an additional internal hard drive to most laptops, so allowing room for growth can be a good investment. However, if the manufacturer gives you a choice of a bigger hard drive or a faster one (which we found is often the case), faster is better for most people.
  • Think about wireless connectivity. Almost all laptops now come with integrated Wi-Fi. Some also come with an antenna for the Verizon and Sprint EV-DO or Cingular's EDGE Wide Area LAN (WAN), which lets you connect to the Internet anywhere in range of the provider's data network (mostly major cities). A variety of new wireless technologies is usually an option.
  • Take note of service/support and warranty. Warranties range from one to three years. A one-year warranty is the norm for entertainment and gaming laptops, but three years is common for business laptops. All manufacturers offer warranty upgrades, and prices can vary by model (as is true of Dell laptops). Tech support is generally free during the warranty period, but not thereafter. Because all laptops are proprietary and have few user-replaceable parts, ExtremeTech and other experts recommend, "Get the best warranty you can afford. Unlike desktop computers, laptop PCs' parts cannot be swapped out if something fails." Manufacturers such as Dell and HP are adding extras such as theft insurance to warranty upgrades to make them more attractive.
  • Consider software. Consumer laptops are bundled with software; unfortunately, it's usually not the software you really want or need. For example, you won't get Microsoft Office without specifically paying extra for it. Instead, you get bloatware that consists of expiring trial versions of programs, crippled software (unless you pay to unlock full functionality) and adware. Usually you get a temporary version of an antivirus program. Reviewers say that software manufacturers pay to have the junky software loaded, so it lowers the price of your computer. Smaller brands include less bloatware. Dell will allow you to order some models without all the extra software.

Multimedia and gaming laptops typically come with the Vista Home Premium operating, and business laptops most often come with Vista Business. You can still opt for Windows XP on some models, but only through June. Business users should consider checking with their employer as to Vista compatibility of company software. Critics of Vista are uniform in their complaints that Vista was rushed to market, and compatibility with a large percentage of hardware and software is still unresolved. Microsoft is beta testing SP1 for Vista, which should make it to the public in late 2008. This revision will hopefully fix some of these criticisms.

The Vista operating systems include voice-recognition software, parental controls and a comprehensive system search function. The security upgrades have received much attention, but do not reduce the need for third-party antivirus and anti-spyware programs. However, Vista does include a two-way firewall (XP only has a one-way firewall).

Windows Vista Basic Home replaces Windows XP Home, and experts say it is fine for most purposes. One feature that Vista Basic Home does lack is the Windows Mobility Center, which Microsoft is promoting for laptops. The Windows Mobility Center includes battery-conservation software, fast resumption from hibernation, an improved battery meter, support for a second display, presentation features and a HotStart button that lets you access media controls without fully booting to Windows. (For example, you can play a CD with the laptop closed.)

Windows XP Media Center Edition is replaced by Windows Vista Home Premium, which includes the Macintosh-like Aero interface. Reviewers love the look and feel of Aero, but it needs lot of memory to run smoothly, making 2GB of RAM almost essential. Vista Home Premium's lineup of features includes Windows Movie Maker and Movie Maker HD, DVD and CD recording software, Xbox 360 compatibility, Windows Photo Gallery and tools for organizing and locating media.

Vista Business lacks multimedia features, but adds backup and restore software and remote access, as well as faxing and scanning software. It also includes Aero.

Vista Ultimate combines all the features of the Home Premium and Business versions, and adds an encryption feature that lets users lock their hard drive. Check the Windows website for more details on all of the versions of Windows Vista.


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