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Buying the Perfect Notebook

by Jeff Levy

More and more, people are choosing laptop computers (also known as notebook computers) as their primary PCs.  What’s attractive about laptop computers is that they offer the performance and features of desktop PCs but can be easily moved from room to room and easily put away when not in use.  


Laptops come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and colors, each with its own set of pros and cons. While the smallest laptops are the most portable and usually the coolest-looking, they also have smaller keyboards and displays, fewer features, and slower performance than larger models.  And they tend to cost a bit more.  On the other hand, more full-featured laptops weigh more and may be a bit bulkier to carry and take up more space on your desk and in your carrying bag.  So sometimes it’s about tradeoffs.  You just need to think about what's most important to you when you make your choice.   Consider things like computing power, features, battery life, great looks, a small form factor, or a low price.  Let’s take a look at the different kinds of notebook computers available today.


First, there’s the so-called Ultraportable. The smallest, most lightweight laptops are called ultraportables. Their compact form factor is really attractive to people who need to have their notebook computers with them all the time, like frequent business travelers. What you gain in portability will cost you in terms of weaker performance, smaller keyboards and displays, and fewer features. And of course ultraportable laptops almost always carry a premium price tag. Still, a compact, lightweight profile can make all the difference if you fancy yourself a road warrior. Ultraportable notebooks usually weigh in at 3 lbs or less and can be less than an inch thick. The screen varies from 5 inches all the way to 12 or even 14 inches. Most feature anywhere from 80 to 120GB of hard drive space, a DVD writer, USB ports, high-speed cable input,, and in some cases Firewire ports.  Note that some ultraportables do not come with DVD drives so you’ll need to purchase an external DVD drive if you need that capability.  Also typically included are built-in WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities. Prices start at about $900.


Next you have with I call the “thin and lightweight” notebooks, which I think offers the best combination of portability, performance, features, and pricing. Unlike ultraportables, most thin-and-lights have larger keyboards and displays, a larger hard drive, and on-board DVD drive. Yes, they're more expensive than slightly larger, heavier midsize laptops, but if you are looking for maximum productivity in a portable package, this is a choice you need to take a long look at,  Thin and lightweight notebooks usually weigh in at about 4 pounds and are close to 1 inch thick.  Most are equipped with wide-screen format displays that vary between 12 to 14 inches in size. They are equipped with fast processors and plenty of hard drive space, DVD drives, the usual ports, Bluetooth and wireless built-in, and prices usually range from $800 to $1400 or so fully loaded.


Next, we have what I call the “mainstream” or “Mid-sized” notebook computer. Here you’ll find that midsize laptops aren’t always inexpensive, but most inexpensive laptops are midsize. Why? I look at it this way.  The next step up, Desktop replacement laptop computers, are designed to deliver high performance and to replace a desktop unit, while thin-and-light units are optimized for portability. Midsize laptop computers give you everything you need for basic computing (word processing, storing digital photos, etc), home entertainment (burning CDs, watching DVDs), and online communication (e-mail and Web surfing). Midsize notebooks are smaller than desktop replacements, but with limited battery life, midsize laptops aren't particularly well suited for regular travel. Midsize notebooks weigh in between 6 and 8 Lbs and are usually more than an inch thick. 14 to 15.4 inch wide screens are common, and processors range from dog-slow to fairly fast.  It’s like the old adage with fast cars, which says “speed costs money – how fast do you want to go?”  Hard drives usually range between 250 GB to 640 GB or more, and DVD burners are included  You’ll find the usual ports here and options range from Bluetooth to HDMI to fingerprint readers. Prices start as low as $499 and go up to about $800.


The largest and heaviest notebook computers, the Desktop replacement models, are designed to deliver the power and features you would expect from a desktop PC. Too bulky for anything but room-to-room travel within a house or an office, desktop replacements typically offer the best performance, the largest screens (17 to 18 inches) and full keyboards.  Desktop replacement laptops tend to offer the most complete set of features available on a laptop.  These units are popular among home and business users, and these systems can deliver enough computing muscle for serious gaming, multimedia authoring, and even high-level digital audio and video work. These big boys generally weigh in at 8 to 10 Lbs, have 17 inch or larger screens, keyboard that include the 10 key pad missing from every other notebook, hard drives with massive storage, dual-layer DVD writers, Bluetooth, fingerprint readers, lots of ports, and more. Prices start at under $1,000 and you can score a hotrod unit for $1500 or less. Expect to pay $1,800 or more for a gaming-friendly top-of-the-line desktop replacement unit.


There’s also a hybrid class unit called the Tablet Pc.  Usually comparable in size and weight to ultraportable or thin-and-light laptops, tablet PCs let you take handwritten notes and navigate menus, documents, and Web pages using a pencil-like stylus directly on the screen. The most common type is the convertible tablet, which looks much like a traditional notebook computer, but has a display that swivels 180 degrees and folds flat over the keyboard with the display screen facing up.  These units use touch screen interfaces to let you work without using a keyboard.


Let’s not forget the pure Tablet, like the Asus Transformer.  This unit has a great 9 inch plus screen and is powered by the Android operating system.  It comes with Apps that let you view and edit Microsoft Word and Excel documents.  Priced under $400, an external docking station is available that looks just like the lower half of a typical laptop computer.  It has a great keyboard and a touchpad on board, as well as a built-in battery, so when you combine the tablet with this docking station you have a device that looks just like a laptop computer and it has about 15 hours of battery life.