How to shop for laptop

November 23, 1992|By Gordon McComb | Gordon McComb,Copley News Service

Taking a trip? Don't forget to bring your office.

What's this? Lug around your desktop PC, copier, fax machine, Rolodex and filing cabinet? Of course not. Leave all that stuff at home and carry a portable laptop computer.

A laptop computer can be every bit as powerful and capable as a desktop PC. But everything is crammed into a space only slightly larger than a three-ring notebook. With batteries, a typical laptop weighs about 5 pounds -- light enough for most travel, even everyday commutes.

Few differences

There are more than three dozen models of laptop computers available, from such manufacturers as Toshiba, NEC, Compaq and many others.

Although the models aren't exact clones of one another, there are more similarities than differences. Here is what you will find in the typical laptop PC:

Intel 80386SX or 80386DX microprocessor. The DX version is faster than the SX, but both are more than satisfactory for just about any task.

Two megabytes of random access memory (RAM), and often as much as four megabytes. The more RAM you have, the more programs and data you can juggle at once.

Black-and-white liquid crystal displays. Unlike a standard computer monitor, which provides its own light, the LCD must be back-lighted so you can view your work in dimly lighted areas. Contrast and brightness controls let you compensate for different light levels.

Battery pack for at least two hours of computing. A laptop is a true portable; you can use it away from an electrical outlet. The rechargeable batteries last about two hours (normal use), although some models claim a longer running time.

Disk drives for data. A 3 1/2 -inch disk drive is included so you can load programs and data. Most laptops also come with a hard disk drive.

Capacities of 40 to 80 megabytes are quite common (the larger the drive, the more power it consumes, and the faster the batteries will wear out). And with a disk compression program like "Stacker," you can effectively double the capacity.

Integrated keyboard. Even though the laptop is smaller, the keys on their keyboards are not. The size and spacing of the keys are exactly as they are on a full-size keyboard.

But because of the cramped space on a laptop keyboard, some keys serve double -- and sometimes even triple -- duty. Though laptops may look very much alike, and share common traits, prices can vary.

The major brands cost more than the off-brands, but quality and serviceability may be exactly the same. A generic laptop with four megabytes of RAM, a 40 megabyte hard drive, and an 80386DX microprocessor, may retail for between $1,200 and $2,000. You will find the best prices through mail order and at local computer discount computer stores.

Bells and whistles

In an effort to forge an identify -- and charge a bit more for the finished product -- many laptop makers stuff extra goodies into their computers. Many of these extras are quite useful, and you'll want to consider each one carefully.

For example, you'll likely want a telephone modem to go along with your laptop. The modem lets you connect with other computers merely by plugging a wire into the phone jack. You might want to connect with the head office, for instance, or access a computer data base to retrieve timely information. Some integrated modems in laptops serve as fax-modems as well.

In addition to letting you converse with other computers, you can use your laptop to send and receive faxes.

A number of laptops also offer a hookup to an external VGA monitor, helpful if you're using your portable computer at home. (A regular VGA monitor is easier to look at than the LCD screen of the laptop.)

Test the hard drive

Although you should avoid sudden and violent movements, test the hard drive by turning the laptop on, and giving the computer a few shakes. If data loss results, the hard drive is of an inferior design, and you should avoid that model.

If possible, buy the laptop of your choice with a full money-back guarantee. Use the laptop for, say, seven or 14 days.

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