Here's what to look for in a laptop, though you may need insurance

June 23, 2005|By Mike Himowitz

IF THE QUESTIONS I get reflect the marketplace, the desktop computer is becoming a dinosaur. Almost everyone who asks for advice these days wants a laptop PC, and recent industry data show that portables are outselling laptops for the first time.

There's a good reason. Laptops are now almost as cheap and powerful as desktop machines. You can find a perfectly serviceable portable machine for as little as $800 and a pretty good one for a grand. For many buyers, even the small price differential is outweighed by the convenience of computing to go.

Most laptop owners use their computer in one place most of the time, or they take it from home to office. And virtually all laptops have connectors for standard monitors, keyboards and mice. So as long as there's room on your desk, there's no reason to suffer a small screen, cramped keyboard or awkward pointing device. You can buy all three for $200 or less and enjoy the benefits of a full size machine at home.

Just beware that a laptop is likely to be considerably more expensive than the sticker indicates. One reason is that over the long run, laptops are far more likely to break than desktop machines - which makes an extended warranty a good idea. I don't recommend these for desktop computers but, if you're buying a laptop that's going to get banged around a bit - by you or your favorite college student - it's likely to pay off.

An extended warranty will add $150 to $300 to the price of the machine, depending on the length. I don't usually recommend more than three years, but I do recommend adding accidental damage to the warranty. Extended warranties cover factory defects only - not students who leave their laptops on the floor, go to bed and forget where they put them until they get up in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom and step on them. Accidental damage protection adds about $100 to the price of an extended warranty. Don't leave home without it.

That said, the first thing to decide is what kind of laptop you need. They generally fall into three categories.

True lightweights, in the 2.5- to 4-pound range, are favorites with road warriors - frequent travelers who spend their lives in airplanes, airports and hotels (or at least it feels that way). Lightweights are easy to carry around campus and generally get excellent battery life.

The drawback is a screen of 12 to 13 inches - that's tough on all but the very best young eyes - and a keyboard more comfortable for hobbits than humans. Most lightweights also come with relatively small, 30- to 40-gigabyte hard drives.

Also, lightweights typically don't have a CD or DVD-ROM built in. This eliminates one of the favorite pastimes of airborne computer users - watching movies. Some lightweight laptops come with an external drive as standard equipment; with others, it's an extra cost accessory. At the very least you'll need a CD-RW drive to install software and make backups of your data. If you take it on the road - and there's no way to start up a crashed computer without one - the CD/DVD will add up to a pound to your to your bundle.

Good lightweights aren't cheap - expect to pay $1,500 to $1,800. But the people who have them love them.

The best value today in laptops is what I call the mainstream machine - which typically weighs in at 6 to 8 pounds, with a 14- or 15-inch screen and built-in CD or DVD-based drive. These are still light enough to carry around airports or college campuses, but have screens and keyboards that are big enough to use comfortably for long periods.

I recommend a 15-inch screen in this range. It has almost the same viewing area as a standard 17-inch, tube-based monitor. You'll also find laptops with 17-inch wide screens, which are great for watching movies in their original aspect ratio but otherwise aren't worth the extra weight and expense.

At the low end, in the $700 to $900 range, mainstream laptops will generally have relatively slow Mobile Intel Celeron processors and barely enough memory (256 megabytes) to run Windows XP. Although these machines are fine for basic chores - Web browsing, word processing, e-mail, financial record-keeping, and basic digital music and photography, you're best off upgrading the memory to 512 megabytes or more. This makes Windows run better and helps offset the slower processor.

You'll get the best bang for the buck in the $1,000 to $1,200 range, where you'll often find a later-generation Pentium M processor and enough graphics horsepower for digital photography, light-duty video and basic gaming. A few of these machines may have 80-gigabyte drives, but drives of 40 to 60 Gigs are more likely. If you're a music or video buff, you may want more storage. External, plug-in drives that store 120 gigabytes or more are available for $120 and up.

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