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Transcript

Personal Tech: Annual Laptop Guide

Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Personal Technology Columnist
Monday, July 12, 2004; 2:00 PM

Personal tech columnist Rob Pegoraro was online to talk about The Washington Post's annual guide to laptop shopping.

Read Rob's column, "The Rightness of Lightness."

Rob Pegoraro (The Post)



A transcript of today's discussion is below:

Want to know what upcoming topics are being covered? Sign up for Fast Forward e-letter -- get updated information on personal technology news and product demos. Read past editions of Rob's e-letter online here.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Rob Pegoraro: Good afternoon, and welcome back to the personal-tech chat. I've got lots of questions but not a lot of time, so let's get cracking....

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Goldvein, Va.: I'm looking for a laptop for under $1,000. Will do Office software, e-mail, downloads and sending files. Where would you steer me? Athalon, Celeron or Pentium? Can these be upgraded later on?

Rob Pegoraro: You can find laptops under a grand, but they tend to be really heavy sort. Anything in that price bracket will do fine at the functions you outlined, so the decision would come down to things like design, screen size and total laptop weight. The brand of processor really isn't important, compared to whether the laptop uses a desktop processor or one actually designed for laptop use (for instance, a Pentium M is much better than a Pentium 4).

Upgrading laptop processors? As a general rule, forget it.

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Arlington, Va.: Rob -- Can you recommend any of Sharp's ultralight laptops? (IIRC, the product line is called Actius.) Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: I tried out an Actius model last summer (the MM10, I think) and wrote a fairly vicious column about it--I've never seen a laptop with so many stupid design flaws in my life. The successor to that model seems to be better, but it still has an awful keyboard.

washingtonpost.com: Here's Rob's 2003 review of the Actius MM10.

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Chantilly, Va.: You may want to consider reviewing the Panasonic line up of Mobile Laptops. They have 3 full capacity models, T2, W2, and Y2, all coming in at or below 3lbs. They truly design computers for the mobile and outside world users.

Rob Pegoraro: I wrote a column about the Toughbook W2 a few months back--it's a great little laptop. But, alas, too expensive for this roundup.

washingtonpost.com: Here's Rob's review of the Panasonic ToughBook.

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Rockville, Md.: Hi Rob. I am submitting early because I have a meeting during your chat.

I design and develop e-commerce applications. I usually have a lot of processer intensive things running on my machine while I am developing (application server, editor, and compiler). Also, I am a consultant, which means I have no real desk, so I transport my machine home every night.

So what I need is a very powerful laptop (with lots of memory AND a fast processor) and something fairly light so I can carry it around. I have looked at the IBM T40 and the Compaq (a souped up X1000 model). Other than these 2 what other laptops would you recommend I look at/buy.

Rob Pegoraro: One of my freelance writers has a ThinkPad T40 and loves it. I think you'd have a hard time doing better than that.

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Alexandria, Va.: Too bad that you didn't get anything from Sony or IBM. Would have been nice to have a couple more comparison points, even if the criteria weren't met.

I assume Compaq wasn't included because it is part of HP. Are there any particular differences between those two brands, or are they basically the same and just marketed to different audiences (like Chevy/Pontiac)?

Rob Pegoraro: HP seems to be turning Compaq into a business-computing brand, at least in the laptop market. The HP publicists didn't even offer to send over a Compaq model after I said I wanted a consumer-focused laptop.

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Centreville, Va.: Laptops are getting bigger because their market is changing. Lots of students, 'tweens, and twenty-somethings obtain them as their only computer. They've become a status symbol to the younger folks, who respond to the big, visual features (17" displays, multi-media capability, etc) and less to the traditionally valued laptop features.

Rob Pegoraro: The figures we found show that 17-inch screens have yet to grab any big chunk of the laptop market. As for multimedia capability, um, every computer these days has that.

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Albion, Calif.: What laptop would you recommend for the professional artist?

Rob Pegoraro: 15-in. PowerBook G4.

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Washington, DC: New job/new laptop issue (sent you an email about this a couple of weeks ago).

My employer uses laptops as desktops, which I prefer (I travel every 6 weeks or so, not to mention work some at home), as I can carry everything with me. I'm intrigued by tablet PCs, as much of the travel work involves meetings where documents are marked-up in the meetings themselves. Some folks have tablets, but not many. What's appealing is the ability to put a price of paper in Portrait mode on the (remember Radius monitors?) and handwriting recognition. Have you or your crew tried them, where do you think this market is going, and is it worth the $$/effort?

Rob Pegoraro: I tried one of the first Tablet PCs a year or two back (can we get some links to these stories I've been mentioning?) and didn't like it much. The handwriting recognition was very poorly implemented.

Microsoft is readying a new version of the Tablet PC edition of Windows XP; it's supposed to ship this fall and address some of these points. I'll have a review whenever it's out.

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St. Peters, Nova Scotia: I travel between New England and Nova Scotia. I would like a laptop that can be repaired in either place without having to send it back to the manufacturer. What would you recommend?

Rob Pegoraro: Can't tell you off-hand--are you looking for on-site repair capability, or just the option of FedExing the laptop to a repair depot and having it shipped back the next day?

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Houston: I am just trying to replace my electronic organizer and recently wondered if I should consider a notebook. I have used (and loved)a Sharp Wizard (4 successive models) but they are no longer made. Since I don't want to give up the keyboard, I considered the Palm Tungsten C and the hp model. But both have keys that are too small and close together for my large fingers. I only want something to store contacts, appointments and expenses and be able to back up the data. A notebook is probably not the answer because I use it constantly and need "instant on." I am also having trouble justifying the minimum $800 outlay for a notebook (compared to $100 per Wizard)although I can stomach $400. Any suggestions?

Rob Pegoraro: Right, a laptop is the wrong way to go if you just need to look up phone numbers and such.

I would suggest buying an external keyboard for a Palm handheld; you can carry that in a briefcase easily enough and attach it to the handheld in seconds if you need to type in stuff at length. For the rest of the time, you can carry the handheld in a pocket. And if you haven't tried the handwriting-recognition software on these things, you should give it a shot; it's worth the effort.

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Olney, Md,: Rob, I appreciate your viewpoint on laptops, but I wanted to share mine. I love my monster laptop. It's a Dell Inspiron 8200, and it's well over 8 pounds all by itself, but I use it on my lap every night while sitting in my living room watching TV. Sometimes I carry it to other rooms in the house, and it always goes with me on trips, along with a few DVDs. Even if I'm travelling to visit family only an hour away, if I take my laptop I have all my filed e-mail and I can write a new message sent through -my- SMTP server, not Yahoo or Gmail, and all my bookmarks are there, too.

So I really like having a desktop replacement laptop, and I do carry it at least a few feet every day, and pack it up at least once a month or so.

I certainly agree that ultralights are nice, and it's ludicrous to market them without proudly displaying their weight, but when I bought my current laptop I decided not to spend another $500 to get a lighter laptop with the same power and options, or to get a less powerful and flexible but lighter laptop for the same money. And I couldn't be happier.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for sharing your experiences!

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Hampton, SC: Rob, My budget is going to only allow one music hardware purchase this year. Do I go for digital radio and all the accessories (and subscriptions) or buy iPod? Could you compare costs? I currently do my music (about 7 GB) on a laptop and flash player.
Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Get the iPod. Digital radio isn't worth the cost yet. Maybe next year for that...

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Alexandria, Va. : Great work as usual on the laptop guide. I finally took the plunge earlier this year and replaced my desktop with a laptop. A comment and a question: For the next guide, would you consider adding a lower-level entry machine, such as my eMachines laptop? With three USB ports, a widescreen display, and built-in WiFi, it seems to have all the desired bells and whistles as the ones you reviewed (and then some), yet was under $1,000 after rebates. Not being a road warrior, I was intentionally putting off buying a new computer until I could beat the $1,000 price point.

One minor set-up annoyance with my machine was similar to one that several of the reviewers mentioned with their machines. Does Microsoft intentionally not update the version of XP it gives to manufacturers? Mine immediately required tons of security updates, which I installed as annoying Windows Messenger "offers" incessantly popped up. (Thank goodness the updates took care of those.)

Rob Pegoraro: We didn't include the one eMachines model because it weighed too much--7.5 pounds. Also, the current post-rebate cost on it is $1,400.

Microsoft says it does update the versions of Windows provided to manufacturers, but the problem is that it also keeps out cranking out new security patches. And until Windows XP Service Pack 2 arrives (August is the last estimate I heard), the system will remain profoundly insecure out of the box.

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Sterling, Va. Firefox seems to have trouble detecting whether updates have been installed. The browser keeps displaying "New Updates are Available - Click her to view" despite my installing 0.9.1 and then 0.9.2 in a timely manner.

Very annoying, since this negates the utility of update notification.

washingtonpost.com: See Rob's recent e-letter: "Mozilla Firefox Update Is Worth the Download" (June 21).

Rob Pegoraro: Well, it *is* a .9x version browser. The update-manager components were only added relatively recently, so I'm not surprised to hear they don't work all the time.

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Ashburn, Va. Hi Rob - I always enjoy your column, especially in that you are one of the few mainstream tech writers who don't ignore my beloved Mac. That said, I'm in the market for a laptop for my daughter who is heading into 8th grade in the fall. I'm pretty torn between the 12.1" and 14" iBook. Your guide only shows the smaller, any reason why that one was picked? I'm curious if you found the screen too small or if that was not an issue at all. I like the 12.1" size when thinking of her lugging it around in her backpack, so I just am looking for someone to say not to worry.

Also, do you have any inkling of new iBooks, or just as good, new deals on the existing lineup, in time for school starting in six weeks? Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: I decided to review the 12-inch model because it was lighter, it was cheaper and, at least according to the Amazon sales rankings, more people are buying it.

I doubt new iBooks are arriving anytime soon. I suspect the entire hardware-development team at Apple is trying to get the next-gen iMac back on track (astoundingly, the company shut off production on the old model before the new model was ready to ship).

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Rockville, Md.: I have just installed a home wireless network with 4 computers. I assume I need to install a firewall software program on all 4 machines. CAn you recommend a good source for a beginner to better understand the software needs for firewalls and virus and the like. I did install McAfee firewall on one computer and I seem to get lots of pop ups that are very annoying.

Thanks, HG

Rob Pegoraro: Your WiFi router may already contain a built-in firewall. Visit grc.com, click the "Shields Up!" logo and run the security tests there; if it doesn't find any open ports, you're already protected. If not, check the manual on your WiFi box to see if a firewall can be enabled. If that's not the case, you should then install the free version of ZoneAlarm on each computer.

Well, actually, you should install ZA anyway--those computers could get infected elsewhere, and you wouldn't want one machine to carry a worm home, where it could attack every other machine behind the WiFi firewall.

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Washington, DC: My university is offering a deal to alumni on IBM's T41, T42 and X40. Are they comparable to the T40 that you just recommended?

Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: The T41/42 are the successors to the T40. The X40 is also apparently an excellent machine--it's IBM's ultralight (meaning the CD-RW drive is external, which isn't something I recommend in a machine that will be used as your only computer).

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Bochum, Germany: What's the best product when you can handle up to 10 pounds and money is secondarily important? Just a theoretical question.

Rob Pegoraro: I'm not sure I get your question. If money isn't the prime determinant, what *is* important to you?

Also, y'know, this isn't weight-lifting; nobody gives you credit for being able to carry more laptop. See the next question for more on this...

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Leesburg, Va. You are right on about the weight of laptops. I recently bought a Dell X300 for my daughter who will be a college freshman this fall. The X300 weights 2.9 pounds and I knew she would not be happy lugging around campus something like the brick of a laptop I have - A Sony Vaio PCG-FX140. We discussed the small screen and the slightly smaller keyboard, but she liked the idea of a light weight. After it arrived, she was delighted. Two weeks ago after a week of travel and a sore shoulder, I bought a X300 for myself. I love it. Sorry it was not one of your review computers. Dell lists the Latitude X300 as a business computer. Maybe, but four of my daughters friends saw her X300 and that is what they will also take to college.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for sharing your experience

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Alexandria, Va. I have a desktop that is over four years old and while I don't particularly like it, it does work fairly well for the minimal amount I use it, just email and the internet. But I recently got high-speed internet and the computer still seems slow. It only has 64 MB of RAM and I am thinking about upgrading. Does this make sense and would it improve performance? Also, where do I find a store to do the upgrade?

Rob Pegoraro: Hell yes! 64 megs is wildly inadequate. Upgrade to 256 as soon as you can--any old computer store can handle the chore, or you can do it at home. Trust me, it's really not difficult.

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Washington, DC: Thanks for yesterday's laptop guide. Do you know if there are issues involved with getting both a PC and a Mac onto one Wifi network? I'm just (thinking about) starting out with a wireless network- should I get a Linksys access point, an Apple Airport access point, or does it not matter?

Rob Pegoraro: It should not matter. I've logged on to PC-administered WiFi networks with Apple laptops, and I've put numerous PC laptops on an Apple AirPort network. No real problems either way.

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Washington, DC: Rob:

Saturday I purchased a Toshiba A75-206. Their $150 mail-in rebate offer ended Saturday, so I pressured myself into buying it. I'm in my 2nd year of law school and really needed a new computer. Aside from the issue of weight (when combined with 50+ pounds of books isn't a big deal) do you think I made a wise purchase?

It's well loaded, albeit heavy. Also, as an aside, I've never felt more pressured/harassed to purchase extended warranties then when I bought my computer saturday. Worse then used car sales man. I declined the stores offer and will purchase one directly from the manufacturer. Your comments are appreciated.

washingtonpost.com: Read the review of the Toshiba A75-206.

Rob Pegoraro: Have a look at the review and decide for yourself. Good luck...

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Silver Spring, MD: I am debating which laptop to get:Apple PowerBook G4 15inch 1.5GHz or the Sony Vaio K27. I will use it primarily for digital and video photography.

Rob Pegoraro: No contest there; the Vaio weighs 2-3 pounds more and has miserable battery life (going by Sony's own estimates) compared to the PowerBook.

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Somewhere, USA: I recently switched from Juno to PeoplePC because half the time Juno's e-mail server wasn't accessible. But I'm having the same problem with PeoplePC. Is that what I get for using cheap ad-supported ISPs?

Rob Pegoraro: Sometimes, yes, you get what you pay for.

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Baltimore, MD.: For a college student who will do store some music and digital photos on his or her laptop, how large a hard drive would you suggest? 40 gig, 60 gig or something else? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Go with 60--on a laptop, I almost always recommend buying more than you need, because upgrading the hard drive later on will be at least expensive/difficult and at most impossible.

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Sacramento CA: I am looking to buy my first laptop and want to balance the processor cost vs low temp and the longer battery life of the Centrino.Is it worth waiting for better prices for the Intel Centrino processor used in laptops?
Thanks!;

Rob Pegoraro: No; if you need a laptop now, you're not going to lose out in any way that I can think of. This just isn't a really exciting time in the computer industry!

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Annandale, Va.: In Sunday's column you said to pick the Pentium M over a Pentium 4. Is a Pentium M the same thing as a Centrino? If not what is the difference.

Also, a CompUSA salesperson said that a 1.4 megahertz Centrino or Pentium M (I can't remember which) has about the same speed as a Pentium 4 2.8 or so, is that a good estimate? If so, would the main benefit of the Pentium M be its use of less power?

Rob Pegoraro: All Centrino laptops use a Pentium M processor, but not all Pentium M laptops are Centrino models--to be worthy of the C-word, the laptop has to use this bundle of Intel's system circuitry and WiFi receiver.

The CompUSA salesperson was right, at least if you place any credence in Intel's own testing. What the Pentium M gets you is good performance in terms of both speed and battery life; what it costs you is bragging rights, if you're the kind of guy given to talking about clock speeds all the time.

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Washington, DC: I've always had Windows systems and still do. The Apple iBook looks nice, but I worry about compatibility with my existing programs, documents, etc. How easy is it to switch back and forth between Windows and Mac these days?

Rob Pegoraro: If you install the new Mac version of Microsoft Office (better than the Windows version, IMHO), you should find it just about seamless to move files back and forth.

What I can't answer for you, however, is whether you'll actually like Mac OS X at first. I find it a pretty pleasant place to do work in, but I've spent a lot of time switching among different operating systems. I'd say you should stop by an Apple Store around town and spend some time trying it out.

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Chevy Chase, MD: What is the normal usage time of the battery in the power book G4 from Apple? Can one download music with this computer?

Rob Pegoraro: Here's what I found in my review last winter:

"With the screen dimmed all the way and Bluetooth and WiFi disabled, the PowerBook ran a few minutes past four hours. Under worst-case settings -- everything on, a DVD movie playing and the screen fully lighted -- it expired after 1 hour and 40 minutes. I got from 2 1/2 to three hours of music playback, depending on whether the display was at peak or half brightness."

Yes, you can download music on it.

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Edmond, OK: is the new Apple Airport Express compatible with ANY 802.11g wireless router? In other words, can I use it with my Buffalo AirStation?

Rob Pegoraro: Should be, but I can't attest to that as I haven't gotten my review model yet.

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Portland, Oregon: My daughter is off to Northwestern University as a freshman in 2 months, and I need to make sure that she has a decent laptop that will last four years, w/o becoming obsolete. Before asking re overall merits of IBM laptops (she has an old 600E now), where I will value your advice, I will ask if most colleges or just a few schools have a "group buying service" that offer laptops for students -- great bulk-buy prices? Should she be trying to get a big discount on a group buy that Northwestern might set up for each freshman class, so she gets a unit configured to get the most out of the school's configuration? Or, does it fall to Dad and Daughter to navigate through the variables (with Post advice as a guide)? If she and I plunge into this, are used IBMs still a good deal, that is those many reconditioned IBMs ("Just off corporate lease")? Are they new enough not to be obsolete over 4 more years? Or are Toshiba or Dell much better? THanks! And, I have valued your comparisons in the past.

Rob Pegoraro: I don't recommend buying a used laptop of that vintage. At four years old, almost any laptop will be well on its way to the glue factory.

You definitely should investigate the educational discounts the school advertises because there's some special laptop configuration needed, and because you can save some real bucks that way.

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Washington, DC: Is it true, in terms of lightness, dependability, battery life, tech support and access to updating, that a T-41 from IBM stands above the competition. After all, haven't they been the leader in laptops from the beginning?!

Rob Pegoraro: Actually, IBM has not: oldcomputers.net/ibm5155.html

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Pittsboro, N.C. : I have a brand new Dell Latitude D600. My previous laptop was a Dell Inspiron that I bought in 2000, which I was very happy with.

My question is about the heat on the keyboard, on the left side where the left palm rests while typing. According to my surface thermometer this spot on the keyboard is 97-100 degrees. On the right side it's 79-80 degrees. My colleague bought the same model Latitude at the same time and he as the same problem. Is this a design flaw? This excessive heat is very uncomfortable when typing for periods over 15 minutes. A typing teacher would say you shouldn't rest your palms on the laptop when typing but I've been doing it for years.

My old Inspiron, which I still have, registers 79-80 degree heat all over the keyboard, as does my wife's I-Book.

What do you think? Thanks very much.

Rob Pegoraro: A lot of laptops do tend to run hot (in that same PowerBook review I just linked to, you can read about how I melted a dab of butter on the underside of the thing). However, a Pentium M-based machine like the D600 shouldn't get that toasty... maybe it's just a quick of that model's design?

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Oakland, Md.: Palm or Pocket PC if you own a Mac?

Rob Pegoraro: Palm. You *can* sync a Pocket PC handheld, but you'll need to buy some extra software to make it happen, and you'll have to use an interface on the handheld that's exceedingly un-Mac-like (in terms of being slow, inefficient, inelegant, etc.)

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Alexandria, Va. Rob - I'm having a problem connecting to the Internet via my new Dell. I think it is fixable, but has not been after going through the troubleshooter that came with the machine and spending 40 frustrating minutes with tech-support from India. What should my next step be? Before I call tech support again, I wonder whether you can recommend websites or forums where common questions are answered in plain English so I can understand the possible causes of this.

Rob Pegoraro: A lot of the time, I find that typing a brief description of the problem into Google leads me to a solution quickly. Of course, you do need to be able to get online to do this...

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Washigton, DC: Does the screen resolution affect the battery life? I have a 2+ hr flight and want to watch a movie. What will suck the life out of my battery the fastest?

Rob Pegoraro: Resolution? No. Brightness, absolutely. Turn the brightness down to the lowest visible level. Also, make sure you've got WiFi shut off (which you should do on a flight anyway).

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Falls Church, Va. I know sort of a silly question but ... review models? Are there gobs of laptops lying around the Washington Post office? Do you have to mail them back to the companies after you test them? I know Warren Brown doesn't get to keep the cars so I assume you don't get to keep the computers....

Rob Pegoraro: Yes, review hardware always goes back to the manufacturer. Same deal as Warren--except that he gets to tour the Shenandoah Valley during his reviews and I just grow more pasty-faced as I stare at a monitor indoors.

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Atlanta, GA: Which laptop would you recommend for a college student who is on a budget and will be taking "distance" courses at Emory U? Is the Toshiba Satellite A60 a good choice?

Rob Pegoraro: I wouldn't recommend it. The Satellite A55 costs a few more dollars, but it's much lighter and has a more efficient processor.

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Washington DC: I don't really care how light a laptop is, seeing that I still have to cart a mouse (at least) and probably a keyboard around with it.

Some of us simply can't safely use a laptop keyboard - but nobody has come up with a folding ergonomic keyboard for laptops.

Also, I disagree with you on power needs. If I am carting my laptop around with me, it probably is going to have oracle, Tomcat and eclipse all running at the same time. It is a development machine that can go from office to office rather than an email and web browsing station. I need power, but mostly I need memory and a full size keyboard.

Liz

Rob Pegoraro: Sure, but how many readers are running development software full-tilt? I'm the home-computing guy and I don't pretend to be anything else; if you want advice on what to equip your office with, I'm not the tech columnist you're looking for.

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Arlington, Va. Just wanted to note that HP does in fact have laptops under 6.5 lbs -- for instance, the nc4000 is shown on their Web site at 3.5 lbs. True, these are labeled as business laptops instead of consumer laptops, but there is no reason why they can't be used by consumers.

Rob Pegoraro: I thought HP would send along one of these, but they did not. I agree that those other models can be used by consumers, but the problem is that they tend to arrive bare of the software consumers will usually expect (for instance, a personal-finance application or some sort of photo-album program).

I suppose HP doesn't see a market for these lighter models, but I don't know why, and I can't help noticing that other companies are acting differently.

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Silver Spring, Md.: My wife uses a laptop for correspondence, Internet research and, occasionally, PowerPoint presentations. She's had good luck with Compaq but worse luck with her Toshiba, which she is replacing. She's eager to buy an Apple iBook, in part because of the raving for Macs by my brother-in-law, who does a lot of graphics. Are Apples/Macs really better in terms of durability and resisting viruses? We're likely going to be living in northeastern Brazil (where she's from) by next year. There's one Apple dealer there. I might add that the biggest mechanical problem she's had with her laptops has been power (when plugged in), due to power fluctuations (the local electricity utility usually pays for repairs but not always). Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: Durability? No. There's nothing magical about Apple's laptops' construction--if you go to Apple's Web site, you'll see that it's had to extend warranty coverage on some old batches of iBooks that had build problems.

But the part about Macs resisting viruses (and worms, and spyware, and browser hijackings) is true.

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Chapel Hill, NC: Hi Rob, after reading the new laptop buying guide, I want to point out one thing regarding the Apple iBook's setup assistant guide, as commented on by Alan Kay, who states that:

"Except that its registration sequence would not let me set it up and start working without entering personal information in a marketing-oriented questionnaire. I can opt out of receiving Apple's e-mails or phone calls, but I can't skip this questionnaire."

Last I checked, you can actually quit this program if you tried by using the keyboard shortcut cmd+q, but Apple doesn't make it known. I think Apple includes the personal info part because it does serve some functions beyond marketing information and registration. I'm of the opinion that it uses your personal information to set up your vcard in Address Book in addition to automatically configuring the computer's networking and system preferences.

Do you know anymore about this? I'd love to know.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for sending this along (I got one other e-mail about this from a reader).

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Washington, DC: I vote for a guide to buying a new television (plasma, lcd, high definition, etc.). if this is a democratic process, that is...

Rob Pegoraro: We've got a story planned about digital TV for mid- to late-August. If you've got specific questions you'd like to see us try to answer, now's the time to send them in!

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Arlington, Va. I've been looking at the Dell Inspiron 300M because of its low weight. I would be using in grad school (e-mail, Word, internet - no special programs). It has a Pentium M Low Voltage Processor at 1.2 GHz. Your article mention that people often look too much at the processor speed. Should I not be concerned it only being 1.2GHz (as opposed to 1.5 or more)?

Dell also offers extended warranties/ service plans (3 or 4 years). Any thoughts on paying extra for this?

Rob Pegoraro: I would not be too concerned. You might have to wait an extra few seconds to edit very large digital images; editing digital video probably would get a little pokey at times. But for the uses you describe, that processor's fine.

I think I'd rather pay for the laptop with a credit card that doubles the warranty; 2 years of coverage for the price of one sounds pretty good to me.

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Champaign, Illinois: Rob,
I am deciding on a laptop for my daughter who will be starting her freshman year in August. I am confused about DVD-writers and claims and disclaimers on them. I was told that DVD written on one laptop will not read another computer!; Please help.

Rob Pegoraro: Not true. DVD-R and DVD+R recordings should play on almost any new (or remotely new) computer or DVD player. DVD+RW also has pretty good compatibility. DVD-RW, not so good; DVD-RAM, horrible.

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Arlington, Va. What's your take on the USB port keyring things? I've seen people using them, and they seem like a decent feature, but are they going to flop like the Zip discs did a few years back?

Rob Pegoraro: Nope. They've pretty much won the contest to replace the floppy disk.

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Washigton, DC: I saw at Best Buy that there is a ~$70 laptop accessory that lets you plug it into an airplane and car. Where in the plane can you plug this in?

Rob Pegoraro: In the cockpit? :)

No, these power adapters supposedly work on the outlets in individual seatrests, but not all airlines offer them. Haven't tried the things myself.

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Washington, DC: I'm one of the people you described on Sunday who chose a heavy "desktop" laptop over a PC tower -- in my case, a Dell Inspiron 8500, purchased last year, and which I love.

Until this weekend.

I'm trying to record LP's and cassettes into .wav discs that I can then put on my iPod in a compressed AAC format.

My problem is that I can record only the left channel, not only on my Inspiron using RealOne Player v. 10, but also on a Dell Latitude D600 using MediaCenter 10.

In both cases, the right channel remains silent, so the left gets played back as mono in both sides -- no stereo sound.

The set-up and cables and connector are fine -- when run into a boombox, I get stereo.

I think the problem is in the microphone input.

Do you know if it is possible to record stereo via the Dell microphone input? Is there a setting somewhere in the menus where I have to toggle between mono and stereo input (I saw a help document for Windows Sound Recorder that said the default microphone input is in mono, but the solution didn't work for me)? Or is there a better way to do this, i.e., is there a way to use a USB input as a "line in" input?

I really wish now that I had RCA inputs as on a stereo that I've seen on towers. Meanwhile, I'm stuck and any help is greatly appreciated!

Rob Pegoraro: You've got me. I did the same thing myself a few months back using a ThinkPad X30, and the recordings came out fine (well, except that I had the levels too high, so they sound pretty crummy overall). Any Dell users with advice for WDC?

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Bowie, Md.: Rob, I've never been a fan of "women's guides" to things like digital cameras; but the weight of laptop computers is one area in which there probably are real gender differences.

Laptops are extremely popular with women who travel on business. Do certain makers seem more aware of this market than others, and does their design extend beyond weight (like keyboards suitable to smaller hands)?

Rob Pegoraro: The main difference I've seen in keyboard design seems to be country-specific; many of the ultralight machines have gone on sale in the Japanese market first and therefore are designed for smaller hands overall. (Some of these never make it to the U.S. at all; see www.dynamism.com for a glimpse of what you're missing.)

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Takoma Park, MD: Rob,

In your notebook computer guide, you said in parenthesis: "(and Apple, whenever it resumes selling the iMac)." Huh? Is Apple not selling the iMac at this time? Is a new machine coming out soon? Should would-be buyers wait?

Also, the interactive review is about the 12-inch model. Do the comments apply also to the larger-screen models?

Rob Pegoraro: Yup, Apple has stopped selling the iMac:

"Apple has stopped taking orders for the current iMac as we begin the transition from the current iMac line to an all-new iMac line which will be announced and available in September. We planned to have our next generation iMac ready by the time the inventory of current iMacs runs out in the next few weeks, but our planning was obviously less than perfect. We apologize for any inconvenience to our customers."

www.apple.com/imac/

It's a marketing foul-up of arguably epic proportions

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Dullsville, USA: To the person debating on whether to get the 12" or 14" ibook for their teenage daughter, I'd say go for the 12". It will fit better in a book bag (and I'd recommend getting one of those mac case sleeves as the Ibooks only drawback in my opinion is that the case scratches fairly easy) and is lighter than 14", which has the same resolution as the 12". The 12" also has better battery life when optimized (the best I've ever seen in a laptop).

I've had my Ibook 12" several months now. It replaced a Sony Vaio that had to be serviced 4 times in less than 3 years and thankfully I had purchased the extended warranty when I bought the piece of crap at Best Buy. I definitely made out better with the Ibook. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks, Dullsville!

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San Bruno, CA: I don't think laptops are good choices for older Americans who primarily use their computers at home, specifically because of screen clarity and keyboard size. The trade-off is too extreme.

Rob Pegoraro: Good point. Those issues--screen size and keyboard comfort--are one of the reasons why I suggested that some laptop buyers would be better off with desktop machines.

(Unfortunately, there are hardly any desktop machines that won't completely take over your desk--aside from, for instance, that Shuttle XPC I reviewed a few weeks back)

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Columbia, Md.: Hi Rob,

I'm currently looking to buy a laptop for school (basically word processing) and for some fairly serious Photoshop work. I've always been a PC user but I'm seriously looking at the Mac option. For what I need do you think I should pay the extra $500 for a Powerbook as opposed to the iBook?

Rob Pegoraro: For Photoshop use, I'd get the PowerBook. The bigger screen will more than pay off in that case.

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Washington, DC: Hi Rob,

I'm in the market for a laptop and I need some guidance. The use I would give it is first, professional, I'm an Immigration lawyer and we work extensively with forms, need speed and portability even though I'd like the all-in-one type. Preferably a good readable and reasonably large screen. Secondly, for personal use.

I am considering a Sony Vaio, of the Z line, i.e., PGC-Z1WAMP1 (not sure this is a all-in-one). Would this be a good choice?

Thanks in advance,
Antonio

Rob Pegoraro: Seems quite nice. But I'd look at the S-series as well, which cost quite a bit less (although its screen is 1 in. smaller).

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Alexandria, Va. I just started looking for a laptop. One thing that surprises me is the long distance from the edge of the computer to the keyboard. I know this is to allow space for those inconvenient thumb mouse pads, but it makes a big difference in how I hold my wrists when I'm typing. Totally different from how I've been doing it for 20 years! Do any models have a more convenient set-up?

Rob Pegoraro: Nope--that's been the standard design for the last decade or so.

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Washigton, DC: JUST got a dell 8600 (with the 15.4 inch screen). I didn't see it listed in your laptop review. Any downsides to it? I can still return it if you recommend something better. It will be my second computer and my computer that I go to grad school classes with (American University has a WIFI campus).

Rob Pegoraro: It seems a little heavy--the weight Dell lists assumes you've ejected the CD-RW drive ("As light as 6.9 lbs with travel airbay module"). I'd get the 600m we reviewed instead.

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RE: Mono recording: Some colleagues at work had similar problems with a Dell desktop. Seems that they couldn't use any microphone with the Dell PC unless they put an adapter plug on the end. The microphones worked fine with every other PC. We thought it might be a mono/stereo problem too.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the suggestion

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Olney, MD: Great article about laptops/notebooks yesterday. Just bought a hp pavilion zx5000 and love it. Really helps me get things done.

I am looking at a Compaq Presario R3000T as a gift for my 19 year old son. Any thoughts about it? He wants of course wireless lan and all the popular bells and whistles.

Appreciate this opportunity to get some expert advice. Thanks in advance.

Rob Pegoraro: I'd keep shopping. That weighs 8 pounds! Of course, if your son is the body-building type, he may not mind :)

One thing to remember when shopping for any laptop: Almost all of them include WiFi and most of the other things you'd think of as "bells and whistles" (CD burner, for instance).

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Arlington, Va.: I seem to recall that you did a recent article on the current state of Linux. Would you link to it? I'm considering partitioning my hard drive and installing Linux, mostly just for the heck of it. I'm fairly knowledgeable about my computer, and I'm trying to decide whether to go with a commercial release or attempt to download Linux free, piece by piece.

washingtonpost.com: See Rob's column, "Linux, Still an Awkward Alternative." (July 4)

Rob Pegoraro: Get a commercial distribution.

(I am shocked, shocked to report that this is the *only* question I've seen about the Linux review today. Maybe the Slashdot discussion wore out all the other people who read it?)

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Schlepptopp, Va. OK, I'm a dork, but it appears to me that you didn't really love ANY of the laptops reviewed. Got a favorite? I'm looking to replace my heavy Inspiron 8100 "desktop replacement." I still need a desktop replacement, but one that won't give me herniated disk when I schlep it to Starbucks, my second office.
Cheers!;

Rob Pegoraro: You're right that, after editing each of these reviews and talking at length to each review, I didn't find that any one completely clobbered the competition. The iBook came close--but it needs a bigger hard drive and a memory upgrade, and you can't get a higher-resolution screen without stepping up to a PowerBook. The Dell came second, but I was really disappointed by some of the design decisions on it (like, giving up on a third or fourth USB port in favor of serial and parallel ports, or including a smart-card slot but not a memory-card slot).

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Rob Pegoraro: And that, dear friends, is all the time I've got today. Thanks for keeping me busy--see you here again in two weeks!


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