Thursday, November 13, 2008

Choosing the right notebook/laptop

I have always been asked "What is the best notebook to buy?" and everytime I would answer with "What is your budget?". Some answered "no budget" but when I told them to get something expensive, they would retract and say they don't need high end models.

Another frequently asked question is "what is the best brand?". If only one brand is considered the best, the rest would have fold up their business long ago right?

So what's my point here? Choosing notebooks is actually really easy. You just get what you need, not want, but need. If we go by 'want', then it is endless, price wise.

Let me give a run down on what you would want to look out for

1. Weight
2. Screen size
3. Usage
4. Battery life
5. Comfort
6. Features

The thing is, all of them are related. If you choose one feature, you have to forgo some of the others. So this guide will hopefully help you, if you're looking for one, to choose what fits your needs.

Before I elaborate further, let me remind you that choosing a notebook by giving too much priority to the processor alone is pointless. A notebook can never perform as good as a desktop, period. Well, never might be the wrong word to use, but for now it certainly is. Currently, any dual core equipped notebook will do, and I really mean any. Processors are only part of what makes a notebook 'powerful'. Most of the time, a processor is more than enough to do what you want but other factors prevent it from doing its job. Memory and hard disk are the two main culprits. A notebook with a high end processor but low on memory will cause the hard disk to work harder hence slowing everything down.

Since we are on this, let me just touch briefly on the purpose of the Random Access Memory (RAM).

If you are processing something huge, the memory can only take what it can (its size) and will pass (write) data to the hard disk before it can continue processing other parts of a job. This whole process, depending on how huge a job is can take a toll on the hard disk which is way slower than the memory. So for example, opening a certain program can take quite sometime because the hard disk is being writen to and read from until the whole process completes. If you have more memory, the amount of data being writen to and read from the hard disk could be less and speeding up the whole process. So to put simply, more memory helps.

Hard disks, most of the time are the bottleneck. Take a look at any notebook. If it is slow, look at the hard disk activity. Most of the time the notebook is waiting for the hard disk to finish its job. Too bad, there aren't many choices for hard disks. Even if you go for 7200rpm ones, they are battery killers. So if battery life is important to you, take note of this.

For now, 1GB of memory is good enough. If you can afford it, go for more.

So forget about the processor and pay attention to other details. Getting a higher end processor may give the notebook higher resale value but after 2 years, most notebooks are obsolete hence pretty worthless. Pointless isn't it? Dual core is a gift, take it. Don't bother about Core 2 or 3 or 4. I have been using dual processor systems almost throughout my computer life and it really does make a difference; a single processor/core machines from dual ones.

If you are a very mobile person who plans to bring your notebook like your handphone, then carrying a brick everywhere is crazy. It is the same as carrying your bowling ball everywhere you go. Weight rules here. Problem is, most lightweight notebooks are expensive due to their size. Lightweight notebooks are usually small because that is the most effective way for manufacturers to cut down on weight.

If screen size is important to you, then there are 17" notebook nowadays called desktops replacement because that is what it is meant to be use as. With that kind of size, who would want to carry it everywhere? So another pointer here. The bigger the screen size, the bigger the total size of the notebook and the heavier it gets. Big screen notebooks uses more power and hence require bigger battery packs which adds up to the weight else the battery life will dissapoint. So if you are looking for lightweight notebooks, most big screen notebooks are out.

If you want to use your notebook for games, then you need to get a notebook with good graphics card. For all other usage, any graphics cards will do.

So if you ask me how do I choose my notebook, for starters, I would ensure that I go for 1GB memory and 2yrs warranty minimum. I have had a notebook that died a few days after its one year warranty is over. The cost to replace the motherboard is almost the same as buying a new one.

Next comes the part I hate mentioning - budget. You have to have one. Any amount will do, reasonable ones of course. Once you have the amount you made up your mind to part with, you can narrow down your choices.

For the rest, arrange by priorities

1. Screen size.

If you want to go for lightweight ones but will not be comfortable with 12" screen, then there is no point either. As mentioned weight will be affected by the size of the screen.

2. Format - wide or conventional.

Widescreen is good for watching movies although you will need getting use to if you have used conventional all your life. If you hate widescreen, conventional it is.

3. Graphics card.

If you're not choosy, any notebook will do. If you are particular, then there will be less to choose from. Generally, the more memory the graphics card has, the better it is. This memory is independent of the system's memory. Remember how memory helps? Also, there are many kinds of graphics card with different chipset. If you are a gamer, I think you should know what you want.

4. Features.

This is when you looked out for bluetooth, firewire, web-cam etc. For those going for lightweight notebooks, a lot of them comes with external optical drive to reduce the weight of the main system itself. So you have to make your choice if you really must have one built-in. If you do not mind external ones, make sure you get those that do not need external power. A lot of them nowadays come with their own battery pack that charges each time you USB plug it to a system. Wireless is standard nowadays, so no worries.

5. Physical attraction.

Choose which notebook appeals to you, in terms of looks. For me, I would choose something thin, something you can slide down your bag easily. A light and fast but thick as a brick notebook may not be appealing overall. A notebook normally tapers from the back. So something within 3.0-3.5cm at the front and 4.0-4.5 cm at the back is reasonable. Anything more is simply too thick. If you don't care at all, you will have more to choose from.

6. Battery life.

No brainer here. The longer it is, the better they are. No point bringing a notebook out for 1hr and it later becomes a useless brick

7. Weight

Actually this part is somewhere in between. If weight is more important to you, then maybe you can forgo a little battery life. Up to you which one is of more priority.

8. Feel

Lastly, go try it out. Feel how the keyboard works for you. Try to get those with full size keyboards so it will not be a nightmare to switch constantly from a desktop to your notebook. If at this stage you find the notebook not satisfying, then go back a few steps and start again.

There, that's it. How hard is it? I am sure most would ask what brand? Again, does it matter? As long as it fits your budget, any brand would do right? Personally, there are a few brands I like.

First of all, Panasonic. They are light and have super long battery life. Check out their range of Toughbooks. Downside, they are expensive! Most are 3.4k and above.

Next would be Dell. They are considered very much affordable. Downside, most are not that light. If they are, they are expensive. I would rather go for Panasonic.

Acer are affordable too, a little more expensive than Dell. Design wise is not bad and its feature packed with built-in web cam etc.

Fujitsu makes nice notebooks. They are considered expensive and they are conservative, so they are quite slow feature wise. As compared to Panasonic, Fujitsu wins by looks and comfort. I have always like how Fujitsu notebooks feels - their keys etc. Battery life, Panasonic wins hands down.

I have always hate IBM/Lenovo, no offence to IBM/Lenovo lovers. Ugly, heavy and not necessarily reliable, I can assure you of that. Lenovo knows that and they are trying to change. Not bad price wise, since most are made in China.

Compaq notebooks looks good too. Price wise is ok too.

Toshiba are generally expensive. Design pales in comparison but they try to be in between everyone else and may satisfy those who can't find what they want from other brands.

So remember, get what you need and not want, unless you can sign a blank cheque.

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