Average laptop will meet needs of most

HELP LINE

Helpline

October 02, 2003|By James Coates | James Coates,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

My daughter enrolled in grad school and needs a laptop. She saw a Dell 1100 for $699 after a $250 rebate. The features are: 14-inch XGA TFT display, 256 megabytes shared DDR PC2100 SDRAM, 24x CD burner/DVD combo drive, 30 gigabyte Ultra ATA hard drive, Intel Celeron processor at 2 gigahertz, integrated Intel Extreme Graphics, internal fax modem and NIC included, 96 watt-hour lithium ion battery (12 cell), Windows XP Home Edition and WordPerfect productivity pack with Quicken new user edition. You can add Microsoft Windows XP Professional for $70. Is this a good deal?

Your question brings up a chance to offer some tough-love advice about buying computers in today's amazing marketplace.

It's this: If somebody needs a beefed-up laptop or desktop, he's going to know that himself quite well and will tell you. Most likely that person will either be a hard-core game player or an equally hard-core computer graphics producer, a maker of custom animations or perhaps somebody using huge databases for financial or meteorological modeling.

In other words, not your daughter.

I've got good news for folks like her and kids headed for high school. Just about anything you find on the market will do nicely - particularly anything from brand-name outfits ranging from powerhouse Dell to low-enders like eMachines and Medion.

We've reached the happy (unless you're selling the stuff) point where the core chips from Intel and AMD are far more powerful and speedy than required by any of the software being sold for them. Cutthroat competition means that chipmakers pretty much pull from the market their older, and thus lesser, products and replace them with new ones.

As a result, it is difficult to find an underpowered computer. So it's far better to look for low price tags and reliable technical support than those breathless specs you quoted from Dell's typically breathless advertising.

The only thing in your list that isn't optimal is the fact that the high-toned 256 megabytes of DDR random access memory is a tick below the fairly common 512 megabytes. That means more than chip speed, because memory determines how much stuff can be run at one time, an issue that far more drastically affects speed.

Anything above 2 gigahertz (which that Dell laptop offers) is just fine and will be for some time to come. Likewise, 30 gigabytes is pretty much a base number for hard drives.

The screens begin around 14 inches, which is smaller than optimal, and extend up to 17 inches, although 15 is almost universally preferred. All the other talk about XVGA and TFT is just window dressing.

This is a great time for us computer shoppers. It's a buyer's market because just about anything any of us can find to buy is mighty fine stuff.

For baseline standards, get 512 megabytes of memory, a screen in the 15-inch range and a hard drive above 30 megabytes. As to chip speed, bus speed, operating system, software and the rest, the marketplace already has seen to it that you can't go wrong.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Contact Jim Coates via e-mail at jcoates@tribune.com.

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