Sticker tells shopper key parts of a laptop

Plugged In

June 07, 2007|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,Sun Columnist

Last week I talked about the principles of buying a laptop computer for your college student (or yourself). Today I'll cover the specific components of a portable PC.

Like automobiles, computers have "stickers" that tell you what's inside. It will be posted on the retailer's shelf, on a technical specifications screen if you're shopping online, and usually on a real sticker attached to the computer itself. Here's what to look for:

The screen

The size and shape of the liquid crystal display (LCD) will determine the ultimate quality of your laptop experience. Like all computers and TV sets, laptop screens are measured diagonally.

Lightweight, ultraportable laptops have screens of 14 inches or less. Although happy Apple customers with 13-inch MacBooks will argue this point, I don't recommend anything smaller than 14 inches for long-term use. Another drawback of a small screen: a correspondingly cramped keyboard that can be nasty to work on for extended periods.

General-purpose laptops have screens in the 15.4-inch range, with an aspect ratio (width to height) of 4:3 - the same as a standard TV or desktop monitor. These are fine for most purposes - large enough for comfort, small enough for lugging around campus. Larger, 17-inch screens will please movie and game buffs, but they're more luggable than portable - and relatively expensive.

Wide-screen laptops, with a more rectangular, 16:9 aspect ratio, are gaining fans because they're shaped more like theater or HDTV screens. But be careful here - the term "wide" refers to the shape, not the size of the screen. In fact, a wide screen has a fractionally smaller viewing area than a standard screen with the same diagonal measurement. Practically, a wide screen lets you view two documents side by side.

A standard screen will display more of a single document. It's your choice.

Resolution: This refers to the number of horizontal and vertical pixels the screen can display. Most debate over this is nonsense. Unless your student has really good eyes, anything more than a 1,024-by-768-pixel display on a 15.4 inch screen is going to produce text that's too small to read comfortably. Higher resolutions may improve games and photo editing.

Finish: Flat-panel screens with glossy finishes look slick on the shelves and may add some depth to movies and games. I think they produce too much glare for concentrated work.

Keyboard

Look for a standard key pitch (19 millimeters between centers). Smaller keyboards will cramp folks with larger hands. Also, if you're a touch typist, check the position of the cursor keys and special-function keys (Home, End, PgUp, PgDown, Insert, Delete). There's a secret, industrywide competition to find the most awkward and illogical positions for these. So try to type on any laptop - or a model with the same keyboard - before you buy it.

Microprocessor

Also known as the central processing unit, or CPU, this is the heart of any computer - the chip that does the actual computing. A more powerful CPU that runs at a faster speed (measured in GHz) will provide a smoother, more reliable computing experience.

Laptops generally use mobile versions of processors from Intel or Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). Look for a PC with a dual core processor. This is complicated because Intel has been playing games with its naming conventions. Its latest processors are labeled "Core 2 Duo." If the description says Dual Core or Core Duo without the "2," it's probably an earlier model. This doesn't mean it's a bad buy - in fact, it might be a better bargain. AMD Turion processors with dual cores include "X2" in the model number.

Processor models are numbered - and higher-numbered models are generally faster. But one of the best ways to figure out what you're buying is to look at the sticker - if a machine is powerful enough for heavy-duty gaming, the sticker will brag about it.

You may also see the term "Centrino" bandied about. This a marketing gimmick by Intel to get manufacturers to use its supporting chipsets and wireless networking technology, in addition to Intel processors. Some manufacturers go along, others don't. It shouldn't affect your buying decision.

Memory

Memory chips (referred to as RAM) store programs and data temporarily while the computer is running. Adding memory will often boost performance more than a slightly faster processor. Microsoft recommends 1 gigabyte of internal RAM for its Vista operating system, and Apple serves up 1 gig in its basic MacBook line. I recommend 2 gigabytes - particularly if your student likes to play games in those rare moments when he or she is not studying.

Video

The computer's video adapter determines what appears on the screen. Even when they're displaying moderate detail, games and high-end graphics programs can strain a PC's video processor. For the best performance with Vista, Microsoft recommends an adapter that has at least 128 megabytes of memory reserved for video.

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