How To Shop For A Laptop

From price to weight, here's a guide to the vast array of notebooks on the market

The question I'm probably asked most often by readers is "what sort of notebook computer should I buy?" Most of the time, a definitive answer is impossible because the variety of laptops is too great and my knowledge of your desires and needs is too limited. But I can help you become an intelligent shopper.

Buying a desktop computer is simple. The products are all pretty similar, at least within a price class. And if you make a mistake, it can be corrected without much cost or difficulty by buying a different keyboard, monitor, speakers, or whatever. Not only do laptops come in many more flavors but the crucial choices are irrevocable. If you decide after you buy that you'd rather have a touchpad instead of a pointing stick or that the display is just too small, you are out of luck.

To help uncomplicate the choices, I'm going to focus on Windows 98 laptops for consumers or small-business use. The first step in shopping is setting a budget, which could range from $1,000 to $4,000, with $2,500 a happy medium. You can always modify the budget later, but without a reasonable starting point, you'll have a hard time beginning an intelligent search. Equally important is a hardheaded assessment of how you plan to use the computer. My laptop spends a lot of time in a bag hanging from my shoulder, so every ounce of weight counts. Usability in airplanes is also a rock-bottom requirement. But going for the most mobile computer means spending more, giving up features, or, often, both.

Many notebooks bought for home or small-business use are chosen more for their compactness and convenience than their mobility. They rarely travel far from the nearest power outlet, so their light weight and long battery life are not major issues. If portability is not paramount, you are a good candidate for a "three-spindle" laptop--a unit with a built-in hard drive, CD-ROM or DVD drive, and a floppy. These range from the least expensive laptops on the market to fancy multimedia machines with good stereo sound and displays up to 15 inches. These units typically weigh upwards of 7 lb and are about 2 in. thick.

At the lowest end, $1,049 buys you a Toshiba 1555CDS with a 380-MHz AMD K6-2 processor. This is a competent machine with two drawbacks: It comes with just 32 megabytes of memory, and upgrading to a more suitable 64 MB will cost $117. Furthermore, it has a 12.1-in. dual-scan display rather than the more popular TFT. The dimmer dual scans are now found only in the least expensive notebooks. If you are considering one, check it out and make sure you can put up with the tendency of the cursor to disappear briefly when moved rapidly. The otherwise similar Satellite 1625CDT costs $1,499 with a 12.1-in. TFT display and 64 MB of RAM.

As you spend more, you get bigger and better displays, larger hard drives, better sound systems, DVD players, and faster processors. The last is probably the least important because even the slowest laptops can meet nearly everyone's needs. For $2,700, you can get an IBM ThinkPad iSeries 1400 with a 500-MHz Pentium III, a 12-gigabyte hard drive, and a huge 15.1-in. display.

What if portability is your primary concern? Maximum mobility means a laptop with an external CD and floppy, as well as a cramped keyboard and minimal sound system. One interesting choice in this class is the Compaq Presario 305. For $1,999, you get a 3.1-lb laptop with an 11.3-in. display--and the 800-by-600 pixel display is much easier to read than the 1024-by-768 displays on many ultralights. If you can stand a bit more weight, consider the 5-lb Presario 1900 for the same price, but with a bigger screen and keyboard.

If you want to have your features and carry them, too, your best choice is a thin, light unit with a bay that can hold the drive of your choice or an extra battery. These systems are designed mainly for business use, and the 5-lb ThinkPad 600 with a 13.3-in. display is the first and still one of the best. The price, starting at $2,900, is steep, but it's a great combination of features and mobility.

In a laptop, little things mean a lot. I dislike touchpads, but lots of people can't stand pointing sticks. Keyboards vary a great deal, both in feel and layout, so look for one that's comfortable. If you travel with your computer, bring your bag or briefcase when you shop and make sure the laptop fits and is not too heavy.

Buying a laptop requires planning. But with a little work, you're sure to find something that fits both your needs and your budget.

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