by Morris Rosenthal
I usually write about how to build, upgrade and repair PCs, but when it comes to laptops, building your own is off the table as a practical solution. I actually did know a guy back in the early 80’s who built his own laptop in a briefcase, but the display was a 8 digit LED and you could only program it in HEX. The best advice I can offer laptop shoppers is to figure out the minimum you’ll be happy with before you start and not to pay for anything extra. For example, on this last outing, I wanted built in wireless. This was actually a mistake because I could have bought a very similar model Toshiba laptop dirt cheap with rebates, $499, and added a USB wireless adapter for $10! However, I’d already made up my mind I wanted wireless built in, so I paid the extra $250 and justified it by the extra 256 MB RAM and 20 GB larger hard drive in my model. The truth is, I didn’t need either of those enhancements, I never came close to filling the 5GB hard drive in my last notebook, so the difference between a 40 GB and a 60GB hard drive is irrelevant, and Windows XP runs fine with 256 MB RAM.
So, how to say what’s required in a laptop today for the average user? For starters, you have to decide whether or not battery life is important to you. I don’t care about battery life with notebooks, I don’t want to be working anywhere I can’t actually plug in. Would you really take your laptop to the beach? If you do, go at night because you’ll never see the screen for the glare. Battery life is a function of two things: model and options. Some models have notoriously bad battery life, certainly the two older Toshiba Satellite’s I’ve owned have both been horrible, but since I don’t really care about sitting around outdoor cafes (and indoor cafes have wall sockets), I don’t even consider this. Sony laptops have a pretty good reputation for battery life, but they aren’t cheap. There’s also the option of buying a longer life or additional battery for many notebook models. Keep in mind that following this advice will turn your lightweight 4 pounder into a heavyweight 8 pounder, but battery life is always a question of compromise. Think hard about whether or not you really need to use your laptop in places where you can’t easily plug in, and if that’s the case, put battery life at the top of your list when you read reviews. BTW, the batteries in my latest Toshiba have been working as promised for over a year now, I usually get 3+ hours of life.
The next issue for most people is screen size. In my estimation, smaller screen sizes are actually better for working on, but unfortunately, cheap laptops tend to come with larger screen sizes. That may sound counterintuitive, but the only point of a large screen on a laptop is for watching DVD movies, and I don’t watch movies. However, what happens with a large screen is at normal sizes the text stretches a little too much and the letters lose blackness and sharpness. My current notebook has a 15.5” screen and I almost took it back before I got used to the way the screen looked. For me, a good screen size is around 12”, though some high end mini-laptops have 10” screens. 17” screens are just gross, makes it difficult to carry the thing around, they won’t even fit in standard laptop shoulder bags.
Connectivity is the most important technical issue for most people. Another bit of advice is don’t buy a laptop that requires add in cards. Nobody really uses the add-in cards anymore, whether PC cards or PCMCIA or any other alphabet soup, they all suffer from fragile connectors. Not the card edge within the laptop, that works fine, it’s the external connector for the modem, network, antenna, etc, that will be a lifelong headache. That’s why I was so set on getting internal 802.11G wireless connectivity in my current notebook, but the truth is, those USB wireless adapter are pretty bullet-proof, unlike the add-in cards. However, the standard cheap laptop today should be equipped with an internal V.92 modem (RJ-11 jack) and either a 100BaseT or Gigabit wired ethernet port (RJ-45) jack. A firewire port is also pretty common these days for an external hard drive and some audio/visual stuff, but if you’re that interested in high-end peripherals, you should probably be looking at a more expensive notebook.
USB 2.0 actually solves just about all peripheral connection issues, though some notebooks will have a mix of USB ports, like 1 USB 2.0 and 1 USB 1.1. I wouldn’t buy a notebook without a USB 2.0 port unless you are absolutely sure you’ll never be connecting any high speed peripherals, such as drives, color printers, scanners, or large Jump Drives. The truth is that most of these devices will work on a USB 1.1 port, but at about 5% the speed (20 times slower). You really don’t need a parallel port on a new laptop since most printers are manufactured with at least a USB option, and if you get a real deal on a laptop, it’ll be less likely to sport legacy connectors.
As for the standard capacities, my advice is to settle for whatever fits your price tag, no kidding. You aren’t going to get a great deals on laptops with a DVD recorder, but just about all laptops come with a combined DVD player and CD recorder. I can’t imagine why anybody would want to record DVDs on a laptop anyway. Internal hard drives are all too large to be fully utilized by the vast majority of users, unless you plan to be dumping digital video to your hard drive all the time. Again, if that’s the case, you really need a higher end machine because a cheap notebook won’t be much good for manipulating video anyway. A small hard drive these days is 30GB, which is at least triple the storage I’ve used so far in my entire life.
When it comes to RAM, you need a minumum of 1 GB for Windows Vista, and since it’s shared memory, you may want to turn off the advanced graphics interface of Vista which isn’t worth beans anyway. Windows XP will run fine on 512 MB, it doesn’t mean that the memory management will take advantage of it that well. So why do some people upgrade their notebook memory to 1 or 2 GB? Well, they’re doing something that really uses the space, like voice recognition, video processing, in some cases, game playing, but here’s the caveat. You really can’t do any of those things well on a cheap laptop anyway because it’s as much a function of processor power as it is memory. And here’s the golden rule: Laptop pricing, when you scrape away all the irrelevancies, is really only based on two things: weight and processor. The lighter the laptop, the more expensive, and the more powerful the processor, the more expensive. If you’re in the market for a light, powerful laptop, you’ve wasted too much time reading this page already because you get what you pay for.
I’ve bought two new laptops in the last five years, and in both instances, I bought them on sale with store and manufacturer rebates. The laptop I’m writing this article on is a Toshiba Satellite M35XS161 that I bought at Best Buy for $750 after $200 in rebates, $150 from the store and $50 from Toshiba. I made photocopies of all the paperwork, followed the instructions to the letter, and put the copies with my bills where I’ll be constantly reminded until they show up. If the rebate checks don’t come in within a couple months, I’ll go complain at the store, but what happens more often is you get a letter from the rebate processor claiming that something was missing. Update! Got the money already, just around 4 weeks. This would have been a waste of time in the old days, but in early March, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) got involved, extracting an agreement from CompUSA that they would stand behind rebate offers from third parties on merchandise they advertise at cheap prices due to manufacturers rebates. I’m pretty comfortable with both Best Buy and Toshiba, so I don’t expect any problems, but it pays to be ready.
So how can you find which new laptops are available with significant rebates? My first stop in shopping for retail electronics is always salescircular.com. They list all of the laptop deals from the big electronics retailers in every state in the country. I think they basically have the same information that appears in the Sunday sales circular if you buy a big city paper, but they have it all in one place where you can see the items side by side. I like buying laptops from chains with local outlets so if I get home and there’s something missing from the box, I can go right back and return it. The problem with mail order is that if something shows up broken, you may get stuck arguing with the shipper rather than the vendor. That said, you can always search on Google for “closeout laptops” and you’ll find plenty of places that will sell you a cheap laptop by mail order. However, I’ve spent some time looking at these offers, and even when they are totally legitimate deals from decent vendors that I recognize, the prices just aren’t that good. The problem is that the biggest savings tend to be on the most expensive models, so you don’t end up with a cheap prices, you end up saving $500 and still paying $1200. I’d also stay away from refurbished laptops unless the price is incredibly compelling, and it usually isn’t. Refurbished laptops have limited warranties, normally 90 days, and my gut feeling is that when it comes to notebook computers, once a lemon, always a lemon.
There is one more way to get a great laptop deal, and that to start with what you already have and upgrade or repair it instead of replacing it with a new one.