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How to find the best notebook PCs and laptop computers
Updated:2010.07.11 Source:xitonghan Clicks:
 

How to find the best notebook PCs and laptop computers
Clearly the processor, as with a desktop machine, has a huge role to play in defining the performance of a portable computer. It's worth noting, though, that because portable machines tend to be used primarily for more mundane tasks, a lower spec processor can often be the wiser buy, especially as they tend to consume less battery power.

We'll start with AMD. At the time of writing it has a mobile-optimised processor called the AMD Athlon XP-M, and it's a comparably cheap solution. In terms of raw performance, it doesn't hold up too well against Intel's portable processors, but it will happily process basic office tasks without breaking a sweat. AMD also has the useful Mobile Athlon 4, which again targets budget laptops, and again lags slightly behind the Intel competition.

Intel, meanwhile, has plenty up its sleeve. The Pentium 4-M, for instance, is a fast processor, albeit one that doesn't necessarily maximise battery life. You can also find machines with a desktop Pentium 4 processor inside, but these generate masses of heat and eat battery life faster than anything else (although some machines also feature desktop AMD Athlon 64 chips that have a similar effect). That makes them suitable only for desktop replacement laptops, rather than a machine you'd take out and about with you.

For the processor that best balances performance and battery life though, you need to turn to Intel's Centrino technology or a later equivalent. Centrino is actually a combination of technologies including chipset, a wireless adapter and a processor. Processors included in Centrino models are either Intel Celeron-M or Pentium-M units, with the former being cheaper at a cost to performance.

So which should you plump for? If you're looking for your laptop to be truly portable, then a Centrino-based processor is the best bet, although you will pay a financial premium for the pleasure. These processors will also, incidentally, handle games a lot better than you may expect.

If budgets are tighter, then AMD's low cost solutions are worth a look though, while if it's a desktop replacement machine you're looking for, then one laden with an Athlon 64 or Pentium 4 will neatly do the job.

A machine that's never going to do more than a bit of office work and Web surfing is never going to require cutting edge specifications, and that's why budget portables tend to come with 256MB of RAM. Normally when it comes to a desktop machine we'd recommend no less than 512MB and ideally 1GB, yet in the portable environment, providing you're not one of those people who insists on having dozens of windows open at once, 256MB will get you by. If the budget stretches, however, 512MB will give you a noticeable performance increase. Is it worth going up to 1GB? Not especially, unless you're looking to use the machine for gaming or heavy multimedia work.

Laptop hard drives don't spin as fast as their desktop counterparts, and this is down to the need to limit power consumption. However, it's only when you take on intensive multimedia work and the likes of high-end games that you'll really notice any kind of difference in everyday use. Do note, though, that you can get portable machines with drives that spin at 4,200rpm and 5,400rpm, and if you must get optimal performance, then it's the latter you should opt for. You may end up paying extra for something that doesn't make an awful lot of difference, though.

As for capacity, this - as you'd expect - is led by what you actually want to do with the machine. If it's a simple, robust office and Internet computer you're after, then you could be fine with just a 20GB hard drive, although you may opt for 40GB as the price difference isn't too much. Only if you're looking at heavy multimedia work or gaming should you really look much higher, and 80GB units aren't too costly.

The majority of portable machines rely on graphics technology that's fully integrated into the laptop's motherboard. Thus, while they're fine for office applications, DVD playback and suchlike, they struggle when it comes to gaming.

That's why graphics giants ATI and nVidia have invested so heavily in providing portable versions of their powerful desktop graphics technology. Their products, in terms of power, lag a generation behind their desktop counterparts, but for the vast majority of modern games, that's not going to cause too many problems (although clearly it's a lot more difficult - yet not always impossible - to upgrade laptop graphics boards further down the line).

So, at the time of writing you're looking for the likes of Radeon 9800s and GeForce Go 6800 (at the high end) when it comes to checking out the specs. Cunningly, where manufacturers tend to skimp here is by offering higher end graphics solutions, albeit with only 64MB of graphics RAM. This is probably pointless, and if you are buying a laptop with powerful graphics, ensure that this side of the spec has at least 128MB of RAM behind it. Note that this is listed differently from the machine's main memory which we discussed earlier.

The tumbling costs of DVD burners mean that many laptops now come with a DVD writer as standard. Towards the budget end of the market, however, you may still come across machines that have a CD-ROM drive, or more likely a CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo. This is a drive that will read and write to CDs, but only read DVDs. Usually, for just a few pounds more, you can add DVD burning capabilities.

The minimum to opt for here is the aforementioned combo drive, while if you're going down the DVD burner route, opt for a dual format unit that is compatible with both the + and - DVD writing specifications.

You spend a lot of time staring at a computer's screen, so don't be tempted to overlook it. Many models are now coming with crystal clear widescreen displays; they're generally quite strong, although they inevitably add to the bulk of the laptop. That's why many people still opt for a more conventional display.

Laptops come with LCD screens, the size of which tend to start at 12.1 inches diagonally, and head up to the 17-inch mark. What you plump for is ultimately down to straight user preference. You know what kind of screen size you'll be comfortable using, and if you don't, head down to a computer retailer and do a comparison. Before buying the machine itself online at a big discount, naturally...

Now we come to the battery, which is the bane of the laptop computer user. We've already discussed processors, but they have a large part to play in the battery life of a laptop. Going back three or four years, the most you could expect from a single, fully-charged laptop battery was two hours of work time, or less if you were taking on processor-intensive work or DVD playback. Now, thankfully, you have a few options.

The machines with the shortest battery life tend to be those with desktop processors in them. Conversely, they also have tremendous processing power, so it tends to be a bit of a trade off. However, as they aren't optimised for mobile working, they eat power, and they eat it fast, sometimes giving just 70 minutes off a full charge.

That's why such machines are often sold as 'desktop replacement' products, rather than laptops. At the time of writing, the clues to look for in the specs are processing power in advance of 2.8GHz, and if you're buying a Pentium or Celeron based system, the lack of the letter M (ie Pentium 4 rather than Pentium M), or no mention that the CPU is mobile-optimised.

Longer battery life comes from chips that form part of Intel's Centrino technology. The Centrino isn't actually a processor itself, more a series of technologies designed to optimise battery life and wireless working. However, whenever you come across a Centrino machine, it will have either a Celeron or Pentium processor within it that's been optimised for portable use. And that means you can expect battery life at best touching the five hour mark.

Incidentally, there is another way round the problem of limited battery life, and that's to simply buy another battery. You can either get one that sits inside the machine (if there's room), or there are an increasing number of portable external batteries that will also do the job. You can expect to pay into the hundreds of pounds for many of them, though.

Most modern laptops come equipped with USB 2.0 ports, an in-built 56Kbps modem and LAN ports as standard. Budget models may not have FireWire and wireless networking features as standard, although the overwhelming majority of laptops also have a PCMCIA slot, which accepts expansion cards that can host these features.

For most people, connectivity is vital and a necessary consideration. For most of us, those USB 2.0 ports will be enough, but don't overlook the fact that more and more laptops are shipping without floppy drives. CD burners, networking features, the Web and flash drives are now the most popular ways of getting data to and from a portable machine. You might want to think in advance of your favoured method, and ensure that your purchase supports it.

One factor you might not immediately think of when buying a laptop is just how portable it is. It's easy to assume that every machine is as easy to carry around as another, but that's simply not the case. The weight of a machine with a widescreen display and desktop processor on board can dramatically differ from that of a sleek Centrino-based portable. Most manufacturers will now quote you the weight of the machine in their specifications, so if portability is important to you, be sure to seek this out. To help with portability, many manufacturers will now also include a special laptop bag as part of the deal.

Moving now to software: as with a desktop machine, it's easy to end up paying more than you need for a package because it's been buffed up with bloated software. You will, however, need an operating system, and the overwhelming majority of laptops use Microsoft Windows in some guise. Linux hasn't really made inroads into the portable market as yet, and thus Windows XP Home or Professional will more than likely be bundled in.

Some leave it at that, others will include one or more of the following: DVD playback software (useful, but not that expensive to buy), anti-virus package (never to be sniffed at), some form of office package (if it's Microsoft Office, that accounts for much of the price, while the likes of Ability Office barely dent it) and CD/DVD burning software (the bundled stuff is generally quite limited, but enough to do what the majority of people need it to do).

If a portable machine goes awry, it costs a great deal more to fix than a desktop PC. For that reason it's worth looking into warranty packages, although don't instantly snap up the one that your retailer is offering you. Shop around some third party services and see if you can get a better deal.

Hopefully, all of that has given you some useful pointers as to what to look out for. The usual rules should apply when you do finally go shopping though: research your purchase carefully, ask as many questions of your retailer as you need and make sure you pick the machine you want, not the one they want to sell you. Oh, and don't forget to check out the machines we've tested at IT Reviews. Happy shopping...