In the market for new PC? Laptops are worth a look

April 29, 2004|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

WHEN INCOME tax time rolls past and refund checks roll in, I get a lot of calls from people who want to replace old computers. This year, there's a common theme: Should I replace my desktop computer with a laptop?

A few years ago, I would have said: No, buy a desktop machine, or maybe two - one for home and one for the office. That's because laptops were too expensive for the performance they provided, particularly when they were unlikely to be used anywhere besides the home or office.

But that's changing. Laptop prices have dropped significantly - mostly because of a decline in the cost of liquid crystal displays (LCDs) - the most expensive component of a portable machine. Laptops are still more expensive than desktop machines with similar performance, but the gap is shrinking.

In fact, the overall power of computers has improved to the point where a relatively low-priced laptop ($1,000 to $1,500) will handle any job short of serious video editing or shoot'em-up gaming - the only chores that make any computer break a sweat these days.

If you're turned off by the size of a laptop's screen or keyboard, consider this: Almost every portable has connections for a standard monitor, keyboard and mouse. You can buy all three for as little as $200 and leave them parked on your desktop. The only time you'll have to use the laptop's screen and keyboard is on the road, giving you the best of both worlds for a relatively small additional investment.

The main disadvantage of any laptop is the lack of expandability. To add another hard drive or CD-ROM, you'll have to buy an external unit (although some laptops have a spare bay for an additional device). Either way, these are far more expensive than internal drives designed for desktops, and they'll add weight if you want to carry them with you.

If you can live with those limitations, it's time to start looking. You'll find that laptops come in a remarkable variety of sizes.

At the skinny end are 3-pound lightweights designed for road warriors who prize portability and battery life over screen size, creature comforts and features. They won't weigh you down, but they're not exactly a pleasure to use for extended periods - say, more than an hour or two.

At the Godzilla end are 10-pound monsters that can match most desktop computers, cycle for cycle and feature for feature. Although they're "portable," meaning you can lug them from one desk to another, you won't want to do too much walking between desks.

Not surprisingly, the cost tends to rise at both extremes. Somewhere in the middle, you'll find what you need - a laptop that's powerful enough for most home and office chores, comfortable enough to replace a desktop machine and light enough so that carrying it from home to office, or even on an occasional trip, won't put a dent in your shoulder.

One of the main issues is the size of the screen - particularly if you're not planning to use a standard monitor. Although you'll find laptops with screens ranging from 12 to 17 inches diagonally, the best bet for heavy users is a 15-inch display, which comes close to the image area of a 17-inch CRT monitor.

Under the hood, you'll find a variety of processors, mostly from Intel, including the new Pentium-M, the Mobile Pentium 4, the standard Pentium 4 and the low-end Mobile Celeron. Each comes in a variety of speeds, all of which gets very confusing.

You'll get the best battery life and a cooler ride from the Pentium-M, the latest in laptop design, but it's not worth the premium unless you expect to use the computer away from a power outlet for three hours or more at a stretch. The standard Pentium 4 packs the most power for the lowest price, but it's a hot chip that eats batteries - don't expect more than two hours.

The Mobile Pentium 4 and Celeron are good compromises. For decent performance at a reasonable price, look for a Mobile P4 in the 2.8 GHz speed range.

Internal memory: Because notebook computers require compact, low-power designs, laptop memory chips are more than twice as expensive as memory chips for standard computers. As a result, some manufacturers cut corners on low-end models by installing only 128 megabytes of RAM. That isn't enough to run Windows XP reliably. Get at least 256 megabytes of RAM, and 512 megabytes if you can afford it.

Hard-drive storage: For general-purpose computing, a 30-gigabyte drive is fine, but if you plan to store thousands of photos, music files or video clips, a 60-gigabyte drive is better.

Video: If you plan to use programs that involve intensive graphics or video, avoid PCs with so-called "shared" video memory, which steals RAM that should be available to store programs and data. Look for a graphics adapter from nVidia, ATI or another manufacturer with at least 32 megabytes of onboard memory. If you're a gamer, seek out a laptop with graphics optimized for action (it will be a selling point, and you'll pay for it).

CD or DVD: At the minimum, you'll need a CD-RW drive to install software, play music and back up your data. But a combination drive that also plays DVD movies is fun for traveling. Ports: These are connectors that hook up the laptop to external devices such as printers, cameras, scanners, keyboards and disk drives. Look for at least two USB 2.0 ports (three is better, although you can also buy a small hub that will allow you to hook up additional gadgets). If you're interested in digital video, a FireWire port (also known as IEEE 1394), will record movies directly from a digital camcorder.

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