In a Land of Alike Laptops, Weight and Battery Life Are Key
Laptop design has advanced a great deal over the past decade, but a few things still generally hold true: Batteries won't last through a cross-country flight, and affordable laptops weigh too much.
This is supposed to be the most innovative part of the computing business. But too many portable machines are designed with no more attention to detail than the average desktop.
Not every manufacturer is stuck in this rut: Apple's well-crafted machines have been gobbling up market share, even though the MacBook and MacBook Pro cost more than many other laptops.
Manufacturers of laptops that run Windows complain about having to compete in a commodity market yet fail to make their machines less of a commodity. They ship machines built from the same components, add the same mediocre programs and hope that some glossy paint will make the results stand out.
Consider this week's news that Acer will buy Gateway. Could you tell one brand apart from the other? Over the past 10 years, what has been Acer-esque or Gateway-ish about either firm's machines? Very little.
So long as this persists, it's going to be hard to recommend one PC vendor over another. But you can still pick out a good laptop if you shop by features, not brand.
Please don't start with the processor, even if most ads yammer on about clock speeds. Any model sold in the last few years is fast enough for just about all home tasks.
Instead, the most critical number for a laptop is its weight. Five pounds should be manageable, but six gets uncomfortable quickly. The power brick often adds almost a pound.
Weight figures can be hard to find -- at Sony's Web site, you must read a fine-print PDF -- but they can quickly narrow your selection. The lightest laptops have 12-inch screens, which many people find too small for day-to-day use. But a 15-inch screen usually pushes a laptop's weight past six pounds.
When a laptop offers a choice of batteries, its listed weight will usually be based on a standard battery that won't last as long as you want.
The default batteries on a Dell Inspiron 1520 and an HP Pavilion dv2500t, for example, kept them running for only 2 hours 9 minutes and 1 hour 52 minutes of DVD playback, respectively. Higher-capacity batteries can extend those times but add bulk and weight.
A MacBook's standard battery, meanwhile, lasted 3 hours in the same test, and a Toshiba Satellite U305 ran almost as long.
Most of the other key factors to consider in a laptop are identical to those on a desktop -- but on a laptop, it's harder to upgrade an inadequate component.
So when you ponder hard-drive sizes, buy too much of it. Sixty gigabytes won't cut it, especially when most PCs use some of that space for a backup copy of Windows. Get at least 80.
Don't skimp on RAM, the other kind of memory used for running software. You need at least a gigabyte, but get two if you use Windows Vista or if you're buying a Mac and plan to run Windows on it using a program like Parallels Desktop.
Other advertised features in laptops affect their utility only at the margins. Any new laptop should include a CD burner, although some of those can't burn DVDs, making it harder to back up your data. Gamers should look for a "non-integrated" or "discrete" graphics card with a separate stash of memory. Memory-card slots help in copying photos from digital cameras. Bluetooth wireless aids in connecting some cellphones.
All laptops now include WiFi for wireless access. The faster 802.11n WiFi on some laptops is worth an upgrade if you have a busy home network. But don't bother with mobile broadband receivers for the expensive data services of such carriers as Verizon Wireless or AT&T.
Note that Macs omit dial-up modems, which most people no longer use.
If you want free tech support in a hurry, ask a computer-savvy friend. Otherwise, you'll have to pay for your help in a per-incident fee or in time spent on hold (or, if you have a Mac, in line at the Genius Bars in Apple's stores).
The most important part of any computer can be the software it operates on. But this gets little attention from firms besides Apple: Its Mac OS X and iLife multimedia programs offer an ease of use and elegance absent in Windows.
Cheaper PCs come with the Basic edition of Windows Vista, which lacks many of Vista's advertised features.
And then there's the third-rate, third-party software on many laptops. Memo to the computer industry: AOL isn't the fastest-growing Internet service. And Napster and Yahoo aren't the most popular music sites. These programs are like the stickers on most laptops -- they're not there because of customer demand, but because the manufacturer made a few bucks by including them.
If more vendors focused on making money from their real customers -- say, by following the example of Dell, which lets buyers decline many of these extra programs -- they might find that their customers can tell them apart.