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Tech Tip 182

By Bryan Lambert - Sunday, August 24, 2008

PullQuote 182In 2005, here at Tech Tips we published an article “5 Things To Consider When Buying A Laptop Computer We have decided to blow the dust off the article, update, and present to you a ‘made for today’ version:


4 Things to Consider When Buying A Laptop

With laptops now well established, and having a commanding share of the computer parts market, it is only fair to consider a few points when purchasing your new laptop computer.  When we are talking “laptops”, (or as some prefer to call them, notebooks), buyers today have a virtual cornucopia of extras and features to choose from. 


1) Primary Functionality

A favorite mantra of mine to any who are considering which laptop to purchase (really, this would apply to desktops computers as well) is asking yourself: What are you planning to use the computer for?  The answer to this question in many ways dictates the direction to focus your computer buying attention.  Are you planning on gaming or just tooling around the Internet? Is it for the kids' homework, or is it something that needs a bit more power to do some video editing?  A computer bought for the kids' homework may only need a low end (basic) processor, while something for gaming would call for a far more powerful processor.  For many people, it is a delicate balance of performance and pocketbook. 


2) Who Made What?

Most of the laptops sold today are actually made by a handful of Taiwanese companies.  The top five companies (Quanta, Compal, Wistron, Inventec, and Asus) actually manufacturer over 85% of all laptops sold worldwide.  All the top tier computer “manufacturers” (for example: Acer, Apple, Dell, HP/Compaq, Gateway, Fujitsu, Lenovo, Sony, Toshiba, etc. etc) generally are not really “manufacturing” laptops per se, but rather contracting one or more of these companies to manufacturer their laptops for them.  Because such a small number of companies make the majority of laptops today, the modern laptop is essentially a commodity product, differentiated by its features and casing – the internal components are pretty much the same. The good news in all of this is that top tier manufacturers’ laptops pretty much have the same reliability – the bad news if when an “oops” occurs, (such as the recent issue with nVidia video chipsets it tends to affect more than just one computer manufacturer.


3) Faster, Higher, Stronger

With the delicate balance of performance and pocketbook to keep in mind, the three BIG things that will determine your laptops performance out of the gate will be: processor, memory, and video. Other things will affect it as well, but these seem to be the “big three.”

• Processors

ProcessorsMainstream high-end processors are generally considered to be the Intel Core 2 Duo with the AMD Turion 64 X2 coming up behind it. The mainstream middle-end processors would be the AMD Athlon 64 X2 and the Intel Pentium Dual Core. If at all possible, and in that order, these four proceeding processors would be the ones to look for.  That being said, the mainstream bargain (the nice way of saying low-end) processors would be the Intel Celeron Dual Core, Intel Celeron M, and AMD Sempron. Both AMD and Intel use model numbers for their processors (to distinguish as the core use, processor megahertz, bus speed, and cache) and these can be confusing.  I’d recommend using a table (such as many that are found on Wikipedia.org) to be able to differentiate a T5550 from a T7200.


• Memory

Computer memory is pretty simple – the more you have the better it goes. One gigabyte of computer RAM is usually considered the starting point that you’d want to look at, 2 is even better (except on bargain units, where as 512 megabytes would be ok).

• Video

On video memory, the way the market currently stands, there are two distinct options:  using a “discrete” (separate) video chipset with dedicated memory, or using an “integrated” video chipset that shares the computer main memory.  ATI and nVidia Videooffer discrete chipsets of various flavors and amounts of dedicated memory, while Intel, ATI and nVidia all offer integrated solutions. Generally speaking, discrete video chips perform much better in gaming (in fact, gaming is not really recommended when using integrated chipsets), video editing, etc.  If you plan to use your laptop for
e-mail, writing and surfing the web, then getting a laptop with a discrete chipset would be a waste of money.


eee_PC4) It’s Small and Cheap ….It Must Be Good??

One of the big trends currently is small, very, basic cheap laptops commonly called Notebooks.  These are ultraportable laptops with very basic processors (read that as slow), low memory and hard drive capacity, and may include an operating system you’re not familiar with (read that as Linux). These laptops are great for travel and as a second laptop for the kids – but for any kind of serious computing, they are not really recommended.

Manufacturers have also been racing to get thin and light units to the marketplace such as the Apple Air and the Lenovo X300 laptops as well as using material other than plastic for the outer casing (such as carbon-fiber and magnesium alloy). Large screened desktop replacement and entertainment laptops are also popular models as well and usually feature extras such as a TV card, blu-ray player and remote control (sometime more than one!) Tablet and Convertible Laptops (“normal” laptops whose screen flips around to become a tablet) also have their legion of followers as do the rugged industrial strength laptops such as Panasonic’s Toughbook series.


Fait Accompli – La Fin!

Though by no means exhaustive, and some things painted in broad strokes, it is our hope that this Tech Tip will help you to navigate the rivers of uncertainty in the laptop jungle and help you reel in the perfect laptop!

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