A buyer's guide to laptops -- from mighty mites to mobile monsters

By Brian Nadel, Computerworld |  Hardware, hard drive, laptop

Whether you're buying for yourself or outfitting a department, shopping for a laptop today is a double-edged sword. The good news is that there's a huge variety to choose from, all with pros and cons. The bad news is that for many buyers there are just too many choices, leading to frustration and fatigue.

Do you need a netbook or a larger budget system? Will a traditional mainstream machine be OK or do you need a mobile workstation or entertainment notebook? With dozens of seemingly similar systems available, choosing the right one can seem like a task designed for Sisyphus.

I'm here to help by cutting through the marketing hype and pointing you in the right direction toward your ideal notebook. I consulted laptop designers, industry analysts and a few mobile mavens, then boiled down what's available into 11 different notebook types.

Arranged by size, weight and performance, these notebook categories range from 1-pound minimalist ultramobiles to monstrous mobile engineering workstations. They're presented with key features, typical specifications and a range of prices you can expect to pay, as well as reasons to buy or not buy each. To bring this exercise down to earth, each category has a few example models.

The best entry point for buyers is to start by picking the category that makes the most sense for how you work and play. But don't get too caught up in the categories themselves -- they should be treated as rough guides, not destinations. For example, if you're interested in a mainstream system but can't find exactly what you're looking for, try considering if a budget notebook with a few options or maybe even a large netbook would do better to satisfy your needs.

Regardless of what you call them, there's a notebook out there for every buyer and budget. Here's how to find yours.

Ultramobile PCs (UMPCs)
Small and travel-ready, ultramobile PCs (UMPCs) are the Lilliputians of the notebook world. These small wonders are for those who can't live or work without a computer but can't be slowed down with a 5-pound boat anchor.

The smallest of the small, many UMPCs are only about the size of a stack of 5- by 7-inch file cards and weigh just over a pound. They often lack many of the amenities of mobile life we've become accustomed to, with minimal ports for connections, screens that are about half the size of traditional notebooks and barely enough RAM to run Windows XP (and especially Vista) reliably. But it is their Chiclet-size keys that disappoint UMPC users the most. On some systems, even typing a Web address is tough going.

While clamshell designs with hinged-lid displays still dominate the category, new formats are starting to appear. Take Samsung's Q1 Ultra, which has a tablet shape with a miniscule keyboard that's split on either side of the screen. Other new designs mimic cell phones, with keyboards that slide out from the case.

Typically used by salespeople and those who service high-tech gear on the go, these machines handle the day-to-day routine of scheduling appointments, parts ordering, staying in touch and accessing corporate data. In other words, for many, the UMPC is a constant digital companion and career lifeline. Super-mobility is the operative concept here, and many UMPCs have optional GPS navigation receivers and can access 3G cell phone networks for always-on data.

But all this miniaturization comes at a high price. Despite being cramped and underpowered, UMPCs don't come cheap. At between $1,000 and $2,000, they sell for the price of three budget machines and cost more per pound than any other type of notebook. Still, they're so small that they go places the others can't.

Netbooks
The runaway sales hit of 2008 (and possibly 2009), netbooks are an entirely new species of the mobile ecosystem that do something once considered impossible. By providing minimal processing power and viewing space in an economical package, netbooks can be inexpensive without being thick and heavy.

Asus's Eee PC started it all off as the first commercial netbook, but was quickly joined by Acer's Aspire One, HP's Mini models, and Sony's Vaio P series. It seems that every time I look around there's another netbook on the market. In other words, shop carefully.

Netbooks, whose screens range from 7 to 10 inches, are perfect as a person's second or third computer for home, travel or student use. With downsized keyboards, screens and ambitions, netbooks often leave you waiting for apps to open or tasks to complete. They won't win any awards for performance, but some provide more than five hours of battery life.

To cut the price tag to the absolute minimum, some systems, such as the entry-level EeePC 2G Surf, come with a small amount of flash memory storage and a Linux operating system by default rather than a larger hard drive and Windows. While you won't be able to use all the Windows-based applications you're accustomed to on these machines, you will be able to view, work on and save most of your files, such as images, videos and Microsoft Office documents, with included or downloadable Linux-based programs.

While early netbooks came with just 4 or 8GB of flash storage, newer models have larger capacities. The Sony Vaio P, for instance, includes a 128MB SSD or a 60GB hard drive.

The least expensive netbooks start at about $300, but newer "premium" models can rise to over $1,000. Because they might have trouble standing up to daily use and abuse, you might consider getting an extended warranty for any netbook; note, however, that this can add 50 percent to the price tag, making it less of a bargain.

On the other hand, if you subscribe to an online 3G data service, you might be able to find a provider that will chip in a couple of hundred dollars. You'll be obligated to pay about $60 a month for two years for the service, but if you want go-anywhere data, it makes for one of the notebook world's best bargains.

Ultraslim
It's funny, but ultraslim notebooks are defined more by what they do without than by what is included. To thin the machines down to their positively anorexic profiles, some notebook designers have cut out as much bone and muscle as fat, potentially reducing the system's usefulness on the road.

Still, because of their razor-thin profiles, these are the executive status symbols of our time. When you're carrying a beauty like the Apple MacBook Air, the Dell Adamo, or the Lenovo ThinkPad X301, those making due with a lesser model can only look up with PC envy.

Rather than the tiny screens and cramped keyboards offered by UMPCs and netbooks, this class delivers grown-up displays of 12.1 to 13.4 inches and full-size (or close to it) keyboards. With low-voltage processors, which consume less energy than most CPUs, they have just enough power for most everyday tasks. This type of machine is really meant for reviewing the work of others, doing some Web work, pounding out hundreds of e-mails a day and occasionally giving a presentation.

With jaw-dropping looks and the fastest processor in its class, the MacBook Air is the notebook to beat in this category. But it offers less than meets the eye because some of its parts -- like its battery and hard drive -- can't be easily upgraded or swapped. Plus, it lacks an optical drive and has just one USB port, and connecting to a wired network or an external monitor (other than Apple's own monitors that support the Mini DisplayPort connector) requires an adapter. This makes it less than road-ready.

Rather than a hard drive, ultraslims can be outfitted with a 32, 64, or 128GB SSD for saving files; models with a 256GB SSD should be available later this year. This solid state storage is much less fragile than a hard drive and can increase an ultraslim system's performance, but it can also add $800 or more to the system's already pricey bottom line.

Thin and light
From the start, the thin and light category has suffered from something of an identity crisis. That's because there are many notebooks on the market that are thinner and lighter, but the tag stuck. Today, it defines the minimum computer needed for the majority of mobile workers.

Smaller and significantly more mobile than traditional mainstream laptops, yet larger and more economical than the ultraslim class of notebooks, each thin and light design has a different way of balancing size, weight, power and cost. Systems ranging from Fujitsu's LifeBook S6520 to Toshiba's Satellite U405 all weigh about four pounds and have been designed to meet the needs of those who live on the road.

Along with screens that measure up 14 inches, these systems have up-to-date -- though not always the fastest -- processors and midrange hard drives. Although most have Webcams and Bluetooth, this class of notebook cuts corners on video. A typical thin and light machine is fine for e-mails, Web cruising and even a little video conferencing, but the graphics engine often lacks dedicated memory, which cuts into its visual abilities.

Lenovo's ThinkPad T400 may start a trend by packing two graphics accelerators into certain configurations. They let you toggle between maximum battery life with Intel graphics and system memory or peak performance with an ATI graphics chip that has 256MB of video RAM.

It is truly amazing how much can be stuffed into a thin and light's case. This genre has near-full-size keyboards, optical drives and a good assortment of ports, although some manufacturers exclude FireWire from the mix.

Happily for corporate buyers, it's also where security starts to enter the notebook equation, with fingerprint scanners, smart cards and Trusted Platform Modules available on many models. This makes a thin and light notebook not only a lean machine but a secure one as well.

Tablet
The pen may be mightier than the sword, but for decades the keyboard has ruled the notebook roost. The two try to get along in a tablet PC, which provides the best of both mobile worlds.

While there are slate tablet designs that do without the keyboard altogether, most tablets are convertibles. They replace the traditional notebook display with a touch-screen mounted on an articulated hinge that allows the panel to swivel and fold over the keyboard. This creates a space for viewing and writing.

Tablets are great for scribbling notes at a meeting, sketching your killer new product idea or drawing a map for a new factory, and then flipping the screen over and typing a memo about it. However, this genre of notebook has caught on only in niches, such as sales teams and schools.

The weak reception by most buyers has a lot to do with the $200 to $500 that tablets tack on for the extra engineering, hardware and software required. Look for the first generation of tablet netbooks later this year that will cut prices to the bone.

Most tablets require a special electromagnetic stylus with which to write. The stylus seems especially easy to lose and costs about $35; it's a good idea to get an extra one. Some manufacturers include ways to physically tether the pen to the unit, but that can look like a ball and chain.

While some tablets are as small as the Fujitsu LifeBook U820 UMPC, most have 12.1 to 14.1-inch screens powered by video engines that draw on system memory. These screens require an extra layer to make them sensitive to the stylus, which can make them appear fuzzy compared to standard displays.

There is an important option to consider when buying a tablet. Many manufacturers offer a special screen that doesn't get washed out in direct sunlight. This makes a tablet the perfect companion for outdoor workers, such as a phone installer or someone who surveys property.

Rugged
There's no denying that notebooks are fragile; normal daily use by an energetic traveler is often enough to trash even the best-made system. By contrast, rugged systems have been designed to be stronger, less prone to damage and more reliable even in the harshest conditions, including extreme heat, cold, moisture or dryness or during heavy vibrations. That's why you see them in all kinds of demanding environments, from police squad cars to construction sites to soldiers' backpacks in Afghanistan.

Rugged machines come in when mobility is a must and failure is not an option. Manufacturers of rugged laptops often put their systems through rigorous testing -- including dropping the system 3 feet, spraying it with water, trying to shake it to pieces and other insults -- to meet the U.S. Department of Defense's MIL-STD-810 criteria for survivability in military operations.

But not all rugged notebooks are created equal. To begin with, there are fully rugged systems, such as the Panasonic ToughBook 30 and General Dynamics Itronix GoBook XR-1, that start with a stout magnesium frame for mounting components that can take the slings and arrows of outrageous abuse and come back for more. The base and lid are often clad in super-strong magnesium, the ports have doors or rubber seals to keep out the elements, and sensitive components, such as the hard drive and screen, are shock mounted to take a beating.

All that armor adds up to a case that's an inch thicker and often two pounds heavier than comparable non-ruggedized systems. That's why many come with a handle that makes carrying the rugged notebook a little easier.

By contrast, semi-rugged notebooks, such as Dell's Latitude E6400 ATG, may have plastic screen lids and don't cover all their ports. They are also thinner, lighter and cheaper.

To maximize reliability, both fully and semi-rugged systems often use older and slower (but proven) components. Forget about getting the latest processors or high-speed hard drives; these machines are about reliably getting the job done, even if you have to wait.

Because these are rugged, outdoorsy types of notebooks, their options go beyond what you can get on a normal system. Some have heaters for hard drives and screens so they'll work fine in subzero temperatures, and many have optional backlit keyboards so you can type in the dead of night. Some, like Panasonic's ToughBook 19, have a touch-sensitive screen for drawing a map of the countryside or marking up a repair manual with notes. Many rugged systems come with a 3-year warranty.

These notebooks don't come cheap. Ruggeds typically cost between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on options, and semi-ruggeds go for about $1,000 less. But if reliability counts for everything, they're more than worth it.

Budget
There are three things that count when it comes to budget notebooks: price, price and price.

The basic recipe for baking a budget notebook starts with a processor such as an AMD Turion X2 or a Celeron, Pentium Dual Core or slower Core 2 Duo from Intel; don't expect a high-speed chip. Mix in 2GB of system memory, a 14- or 15-inch screen and a 160 to 250GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, and bake until done. The problem is that all the laptops in this category come out of the oven looking like they used the same set of cookie cutters, with little to separate them.

Because they have roughly the same hardware, they all end up about the size of a legal pad that's a little less than two inches thick, and they weigh 6 or 7 pounds. That's because cutting inches and ounces costs money.

There are a few happy surprises when it comes to configuration, though. Just about every budget machine these days has a good assortment of ports and a DVD-burning optical drive, although some can't handle the latest double-layer media. Plus, Toshiba's Satellite A305 comes with an FM tuner and the option to have two 250GB hard drives inside.

Don't expect stellar performance or full-day battery life, but this class of system can easily handle daily tasks such as e-mail, Web research and tapping out memos and reports. They start to bog down with computationally intense tasks like video editing or heavy-duty database work.

What's missing from a $450 budget notebook? A lot of the things that we've become accustomed to, such as a high-resolution screen, Bluetooth, a fingerprint scanner and sometimes a webcam. In some cases you can order them as options, but the money adds up quickly -- if you want any of these items, it might be a better deal to get a stripped-down mainstream system instead.

Mainstream
As the name implies, the mainstream notebook market is dominated by the systems that companies buy to outfit the majority of their mobile workers. They're more expensive than budget systems, while being bigger and heavier than thin and light systems. They are all about performance and reliability with solid components.

Rather than changing quickly as new components come out, the designs of these laptops tend to be locked in for a few years, and their accessories can be used by several generations. This makes it easier and less expensive for businesses to deploy and maintain mainstream notebooks, but it also makes them a bit less exciting for consumers.

Mainstream machines are for those who create complex documents, crunch numbers, perform online research and -- above all -- communicate. In other words, a mainstream notebook is a mobile stand-in for a desktop PC. With fast Intel Core 2 Duo processors, at least 2GB of RAM and large hard drives, this class of notebook offers excellent performance, although it can be at the expense of battery life.

Video may not be top shelf, but it's a step up from budget systems, with a 14- or 15-inch screen and a powerful graphics engine that uses either system memory or at least 256MB of its own video memory. Better yet, these machines often have all the ports of a desktop PC, with four or more USB outlets, FireWire and sometimes HDMI for plugging into a big-screen TV.

Mainstream notebooks also offer a great selection of upgrades, add-ons and options, from high-performance 7,200-rpm hard drives or integrated Turbo memory to SSD storage or a high-resolution display. Watch out, though -- the costs add up quickly.

The down side is that all these goodies add up to a bulky machine that weighs 6 or more pounds. Before you buy, imagine sprinting between airport gates with one of these mobile monsters inside your shoulder bag.

Entertainment
The sooner we face up to the fact that we're all media junkies, the sooner we can satisfy our needs with an entertainment notebook. As good at turning an office or small apartment into a media lounge as they are for taking TV on the road, entertainment systems contain the equivalent of a high-powered media machine. But be warned: They can weigh more than 10 pounds.

Look for a premium Intel processor, like the Core 2 Duo Extreme or Core 2 Quad, along with 4GB of system memory. A large hard drive is de rigueur because an entertainment notebook is not only for watching TV shows but recording them with a built-in digital video recorder. Since you don't want the hard drive to fill up with Sponge Bob reruns, most have double-layer or Blu-ray optical drives for putting your favorites onto discs.

The center of attention is the built-in TV tuner. At the moment, however, no mobile entertainment system on the market has two tuners for watching one show while recording another. I suspect it's just a matter of time.

Video is key, with a high-definition display of at least 17 inches; in fact, 18.4-inch panels are becoming the sweet spot. Look for a high-end graphics engine with between 512MB and 1GB of its own video memory.

Sound is just as important, with high-end audio chips and elaborate control panels. Some models, such as the Acer Aspire 8920, include up to five integrated stereo speakers, a bass booster and Dolby Home Theater sound effects.

These systems have room for an incredible array of connection possibilities, with four or five USB ports, HDMI (for connecting to an even bigger screen), eSATA (for an external hard drive) and often SPDIF (to drive digital speakers).

At 10 pounds of gear, this class is more appropriate for trips from the den to the kitchen rather than from Cincinnati to Seattle. If you do need to hit the road, figure on buying the custom bag that the manufacturer sells for this system, or -- better yet -- get a wheelie bag.

Power gaming
It's a cruel and dangerous world out there, filled with all sorts of aliens, car thieves and assassins out to get you. And that's just in video games. To play for keeps, you need a powerful gaming notebook that puts an emphasis on speed and graphics.

You can't defend yourself without seeing the enemy, so having a big, high-resolution screen with the latest graphics is a matter of digital survival. The top gaming machines today start with a high-end graphics card, such as Nvidia's SLI Dual GeForce 8800M GTX or ATI's CrossFireX. Both have a pair of video processing chips that share the load for superior performance. The CrossFireX also allows you to goose up its performance a notch or two during particularly intense scenes.

Whichever you choose, get it with 1GB of video memory. That way, the system can deliver realistic virtual worlds with the subtle lighting, textures and shadows that show up the way the game designer meant them to.

The rest of a gaming notebook is similarly top shelf, with a premium Intel processor, such as the Core 2 Duo Extreme or Core 2 Quad, and 4GB of system memory. On top of a Blu-ray optical drive, gaming systems like Toshiba's Qosmio X305 have the ability to hold a pair of hard drives with a capacity of up to 1TB of data. This will let you load hundreds of your favorite games.

Other than for connecting your tricked-out gaming mouse, keyboard and headset, the variety of ports is a secondary issue. One thing you will want is the intimidation factor, so top it all off with an imposing notebook case. At your next frag party, your notebook should be just as scary as your gaming style, and either the Qosmio's fire brand or Alienware M17's otherworldly spine and rib cage design should do just fine.

Mobile workstation
Let's say you have to do some CAD design work, analyze the data from an oil exploration project or simulate a complex scientific concept hundreds of miles from your office. Today's mobile engineering workstations can do all this in a hotel room, a construction trailer or a tent in the Amazon.

This class of notebook stretches the concept of portable, with cases that are wider and heavier than any other variety. They offer the best of everything, including the fastest Intel Core 2 Duo Extreme or Quad CPUs, and feature 64-bit operations.

While 2 or 4GB will suffice for all other systems, these are RAM hogs with room for 16GB. These machines have plenty of storage potential with a pair of 500GB hard drives, either to offer a terabyte of file space or the ability to mirror everything so that nothing is ever lost to a dead drive.

Visualization is what counts, but rather than pushing games, movies and TV, they excel in CAD, animation and graphing large data sets. Look for a graphics engine that can handle the rigors of workstation graphics, with at least 1GB of dedicated video memory. A big step forward is Nvidia's Compute Unified Device Architecture (CUDA), which is used by Dell's Precision M6400 Covet. With parallel processors that can incorporate dozens of computational cores, it excels at fast and accurate video.

Screens for this type of machine begin at 17 inches and have extra-high resolution, but that's just the start. Lenovo's ThinkPad W700ds has a second pull-out 10.6-inch screen that can either operate independently or extend the base display to create a 3200 x 1968 resolution composite screen, although there's an annoying black plastic strip between the displays.

If you have to ask how much, chances are these super-systems are out of reach. There are models that start at about $3,500, but with the right amount of video memory, RAM and hard drives, figure that $10,000 -- about the price of 20 budget notebooks -- is closer to the mark.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Join us:
Facebook

Twitter

Pinterest

Tumblr

LinkedIn

Google+

Answers - Powered by ITworld

ITworld Answers helps you solve problems and share expertise. Ask a question or take a crack at answering the new questions below.

Ask a Question
randomness