A FEW YEARS ago, a laptop computer was a compromise you toted on the road when you needed a PC-to-go, but hardly a substitute for the real thing. That's not the case today.
The design of notebook-size PCs has improved to the point where a laptop can be your only computer. Although laptops still cost 30 percent to 50 percent more than comparable desktop PCs, the overall cost of computing has dropped so far that a good laptop is finally affordable. Figure $1,000 for a bare-bones machine and $1,500 to $2,500 for a true desktop replacement.
The main advantage of a laptop, of course, is its size. It doesn't occupy much real estate in a crowded dorm or apartment, and you can haul it from city to city, from dorm to library, or meeting to meeting.
The disadvantage of a laptop computer is its size - it's smaller and more cramped than a desktop machine. It's also more likely to break and more expensive to repair.
That said, today's laptops have plenty of muscle for standard computing chores - word processing, Web browsing, e-mail, financial record-keeping and digital music. They still come up a bit short for photo editing, digital video creation, gaming and other demanding jobs - unless you're willing to spend some real money.
Laptops fall into two general categories - lightweights and desktop replacement machines. So before you shop, ask yourself how you plan to use your PC.
If you frequently use a computer on the go and have a desktop PC elsewhere, a lightweight may be for you. Weighing 3 to 4 pounds with a power adapter, lightweights typically have 12-inch screens and no removable-media drives - meaning a CD-ROM or floppy.
To back up your files or install software that isn't packaged with the computer, you'll need access to a network or an external drive. Some lightweights come with external drives - with others, you'll pay extra. Just remember that carrying an external drive - your only salvation in the event of a crash - eliminates some of a compact machine's weight advantage.
Although most laptops have crisp, clear liquid crystal displays (LCDs), a 12-inch screen can still be hard on the eyes over long periods. A lightweight is also more likely to have a cramped, uncomfortable keyboard.
Desktop-replacing laptops are comfortable and powerful enough to be your only computer, as long as you aren't into heavy-duty gaming or video editing. You can find laptops that handle those chores, but you'll pay a premium.
These computers weigh 5 to 8 pounds and have 14- or 15-inch diagonal screens. The extra inch of screen adds a few hundred dollars to the price, and the half-pound or so to the weight of a 14-inch system with the same computing power. But a 15-inch LCD has almost the same viewing area as a 17-inch standard monitor. And the larger screen has room for a more comfortable keyboard underneath. So, a 15-inch laptop may be worth the money if it's your only PC and you don't have to haul it very far or very often.
Most desktop replacement systems come with an internal CD-based drive. Look for one with a CD-RW (so you can back up data and create your own CDs), or better yet, a combination drive that also plays DVD movies. A DVD burner will cost an extra $200 or so.
Higher-end laptops have modular bays that allow you to swap a CD drive for an additional hard drive or extra battery. A few models have two bays, so you don't have to choose between them if you're willing to spend the money for the extra equipment. For average users, that's overkill.
From a processing standpoint, the laptop industry is in transition this summer. Newer designs are based on Intel's Pentium-M processor, which runs cooler and provides longer battery life than the older Pentium 4 Mobile chip. But that also means you'll find bargains on P4 machines, which are fine performers. For all-purpose use, look for a P4 running at a speed of about 2 GHz, or a Pentium M in the 1.3 GHz range. Low-end laptops may still have Intel Celeron processors, which suffice for basic computing but not much more.
You'll also see a lot of fuss about Intel's Centrino technology, a label for computers that include the Pentium-M processor and Intel's built-in wireless networking adapter. Just remember that you don't need Centrino to hook up to a wireless network - any third-party wireless network adapter will get the job done.
Other features to look for:
A comfortable screen. The LCDs on most laptops are designed for 1,024-by-728-pixel resolution, which is fine with a 14- or 15-inch display. But some laptops have the resolution set much higher, resulting in text so small that it's almost unreadable. Changing the resolution often results in a fuzzy image. So look before you buy.