Rob Pegoraro and the Fast Forward Team
Laptops for Starving Students and Other Folks on Budgets
Friday, July 30, 1999 at noon.
Whether you do your computing on the couch or in coach class, laptop computers can now be had for considerably less money than before – as little as $1,300 for a decently equipped entry-level machine.
But what features do you need, and what can you leave out?
What are the important things to focus on when you're looking at machines in the store?
And what about the new developments in portable computing, those tiny Windows CE machines and, debuting just last week, Apple's new iBook?
Fast Forward Editor Rob Pegoraro and his crack team of laptop reviewers were online to answer your laptop questions.
Silver Spring, MD:
As a longtime Macintosh user, I perceive a disturbing trend in technology reporting. Despite Apple's strong comeback, technology reporters continue to present a bearish view for Apple's future. These are many of the same reporters who disdain the monopolistic businesses practices of Microsoft. You would think that they would be more encouraging about a viable alternative to Wintel.
Rob Pegoraro: Good morning all. Rob is going to be a few minutes late to the chat, so I, Fast Forward flunky Mike Musgrove, will be playing the part for a few minutes....
Minneapolis, MN: I know that many of the major computer companies sell refurbished notebooks at a significant cost reduction. Would you recommend purchasing one of these?
Rob Pegoraro: I'd recommend buying a refurbished notebook from one of the major computer companies over buying a used notebook elsewhere, since they usually come with a warranty. Don't worry about their used status too much-- there's an article about this in our section today, actually at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/tech/0799pullout/073099_used.htm
Fairfax, VA: What do you think about the new ibook? Is it revolutionary, or just hype?
Rob Pegoraro: Well, that's the question of the week, isn't it? The AirPort feature is very interesting, to say the least. The hard drive space seems a little skimpy to me. All I know is that I probably don't see myself buying the "tangerine" one...
Rob Pegoraro: Rob here, back from an action-packed meeting.
Temple Hills, MD: Should I wait until after January 1, 2000 to buy a new laptop? Should I expect major problems after Jan. 1st if I buy one now?
Rob Pegoraro: No, not at all. Any computer being sold now should be 100% Y2K compliant, along with the operating system sold with it. (No guarantees here, mind you.) But you should make sure your old Excel spreadsheets, Quicken data files and so on don't have any funky two-digit calendar-year formulas embedded in them.
Fort Washington, Md.: I'm dying for a lightweight, smaller portable, probably a subnotebook. It has to have a fast enough processor and modem to make connecting to the Web fast, long battery life and enough storage space. The problem is the Sony Vaio and some of the other loaded ones are close to $3,000. I have great computers at home and work, so I don't want to spend that kind of money for my portable. What would you suggest for a lower cost super subnotebook?
Rob Pegoraro: I'll answer part of your question, Fort Washington, then hand off the rest of it to one of my colleagues...
Rob Pegoraro: I've yet to see a new laptop sell for much less than $1,200, although you can find discontinued models for maybe a little less. I'm not sure how limited your budget is (bad luck at the blackjack tables?), but I'd also suggest you look at our story in today's section about buying refurbished and used. It also helps if you can put up with a passive-matrix screen.
Washington, DC: This will be my first time computer purchase. My interest in a laptop-notebook is purely for space, since I have limited space to accommodate a tower, monitor and all the trimmings. I don't intend to travel with it, etc. Are there alternatives to a laptop when looking for a less bulky computer?
Rob Pegoraro: I can think of a few friends living in Manhattan studio apartments who bought laptops for the same reason, D.C.
Washington, DC: Can you beat the Gateway Solo I picked up at their outlet -in Kansas City- two years ago last Christmas for $799? It's a P-120 w-CD-ROM and a decent color screen. It doesn't play games very well -but neither do I- but it does just fine, thank you, with Corel 7 WP, Quattro and Presentations.
Rob Pegoraro: No, can *you* beat that? I.e., does this computer do what you want? If so, then you're doing great. A P120 should be more than acceptable for most of the usual desktop applications, plus Internet use. If you want to speed up the laptop a bit, I'd throw in some more memory--step up to 64 megs of RAM if possible.
Brian Mooar: One of the big problems with the VAIO laptops is the price. Several of the older models--that is models 6 months to a year old--are being sold at deep discount. Another big problem with the tiny VAIO 505 series is that everything comes a la carte. You want to hook something up to an SCSI or parallel port, you have to hook up a little accessory bar. CD-ROM drive comes separately. And the floppy drive is external. I've found my VAIO great for traveling, but a little inconvenient when it comes to every day use. All in all, though, it's a very nice little unit. For a price.
Rob Pegoraro: And here we have Brian's reply. Hope this helps.
Arlington VA: How come you stay only with 'big name' laptops? CTX and Umax make some very nice -cheap!] student machines. I bought an active-matrix CTX for under $1,000
Rob Pegoraro: We picked the laptops we reviewed based on a couple of factors. One, what's available in a given price range? Two, what's actually sold in stores where people are likely to see it? (I really can't recommend that a first-time buyer purchase a laptop without test-driving it firsthand before, which is why Dell isn't in this review.) Three, what brands do we see readers asking the most about? Hence the focus on name-brand companies, as you put it (although Umax is a fairly well-known name in its own right).
Arlington, VA: Okay, I just gave up my Mac desktop and passed over an iMac desktop and bought PC, but now I'm really intrigued by the new laptop. Good idea? Bad idea?
Rob Pegoraro: Depends (no, I don't really say that to *every* question I get...)
Newington Virginia: Hi - I understand that years back Tandy made a portable which was a favorite for some travelling newspaper people because it would record keystrokes pretty much all day on a diet of disposable AA cell batteries. What do you recommend for people today who want the lightest, least hassle keyboard-based notepad?
Rob Pegoraro: The key word here is "notepad," NoVa. If you don't need to use Win 98 or Word 2000, you should look at the Windows CE sub-laptop units. They sell for $1,000 and under, weigh as little as a pound, and should run for eight or more hours on a single charge. They also boot up *much* faster than Win 98. The only problem is, they're really limited without a PC to dock with and backup data on. And the included word processor, Pocket Word, doesn't include a word count, about which I've complained so often that my own freelancers are sick of hearing it.
Hi, and thanks for the consideration of this question.
Rob Pegoraro: 15 inches? Bust out the checkbook now, Mark. 15-inch desktop LCDs sell for $900 and up now, and you still have to pay for the computer after that. And screens of that size are typically only sold as part of full-boat traveling-executive packages, so the odds are high that you'll be shopping in a $3,000-and-up bracket.
Island of Manhattan, New York:
Main Question: -Please answer!----> What are the minimum memory-speed-hardware-etc. requirements for a laptop which can be used at work and at school? What's the general price quote for this model?
Rob Pegoraro: Good questions, Manhattan:
aLEXANDRIA, va: I have an old 486 Compaq desktop, which I bought in 1994. Could I update my desktop by buying a new CPU or tower or box, and maybe extract the old hard drive from the old CPU and use it in addition to the new hard drives in the new box. Could I still use my old Compaq monitor and old keyboard? In this way I could save money. Could this work? Do you foresee any hardware problems I should be aware of.
Rob Pegoraro: Uh, maybe. The keyboard should definitely work, but it's not going to have the Windows shortcut keys (one springs open the Start menu, the other invokes the contextual menu you get when you right-click on something). Then again, keyboards really don't cost much at all these days; your savings are real limited.
Brian Mooar: On the Newington, VA question... I used to have one of those Tandy portables. If someone is a traveling reporter, or just wants to write from the road, the Sony 505 series is more than a worthy successor. At 3 pounds, I've found myself carrying my 505fx on planes with no computer carrying case. The magazine I carried on was actually a little bigger. If you need your CD-ROM or floppy drive--the a la carte problem we talked about earlier--you start adding cords and weight that make it decidedly less convenient.
Rob Pegoraro: Newington, hope you're still here. Further advice from our man Mooar:
Newington VA: Just out of curiosity, what do Post reporters carry for jotting up notes on stories as they happen?
Rob Pegoraro: The notebook I usually use weighs in at a few ounces, with a 4x6 in. display. Monochrome only, unless I switch pens. Storage capacity is, oh, maybe a hundred sheets of paper, double-sided. Backup is only via Xerox. But battery life is infinite and it's also pretty fault-tolerant in unfriendly environments (say, the 9:30 Club).
Fairfax, VA: Do you see palmtop computing and wireless networks as the wave of the future? Do you know much about SUN's JINI and if so do you think this will be an integral part of the wireless networks of the future?
Rob Pegoraro: Jini, for the uninitiated, is a way to have different devices--computers, CD players, stereos, phones, whatever--"talk" to each other using Java programming. You can't really buy any Jini-enabled gear just yet, so all I know is Sun's propaganda. It certainly sounds cool, especially if I can get my computer to reset all the other clocks in my home after a power outage.
Falls Church VA: Should a laptop be a 2- or 3-spindle device in your opinion? If 2-spindle, which drive would you not take with you?
Rob Pegoraro: We're talking hard drive, CD-ROM drive and floppy, right, Falls Church? The first one I'd ditch would be the floppy. Maybe I'm drinking Steve Jobs' Kool-Aid, but I really don't have much use for the things. Too many files are too big to fit on a floppy, and the ones that do fit there can be e-mailed just as easily without fear of the disk going bad (which I've had happen disturbingly often recently).
Toledo, OH: I am trying to find a laptop to fit my needs. I will be heading back to school to get a master's in zoology, so I will be putting a lot of my research into databases and also be writing a lot of reports. I would also like internet access. What other features do I need for this type of lifestyle? And what don't I need?
Rob Pegoraro: Heck, Toledo, any currently sold machine should handle this. We've been in a somewhat blessed time of computing for the last year, in which processing power has outstripped the needs of most productivity and Internet (not the same thing!) applications. Any currently sold machine should be able to run Access, FileMaker, what have you, fast enough; any machine sold in the past two years should be fast enough for Internet access. Repeat after me: *You don't need the fastest processors around to surf the Web.*
McLean, VA : when will there be computers that merge regular cpu towers with laptops -ie. much smaller but inexpensive computers, that are bigger than laptops-?
Rob Pegoraro: Not sure quite you mean, McLean. There are some of these small-footprint desktops--the Sony Vaio Slimptop, the Gateway Profile, the Packard Bell/NEC Z1. All of them pack the traditional components into a much smaller case, the latter two merging the CPU with a flat-panel display. There's also the iMac, of course, which is also a small footprint machine, just with a CRT display instead of a flat screen.
Alexandria Virginia: Which laptop would you recommend for a new college student, a probable liberal arts major, going to a college where both Macs and PCs can be used?
Rob Pegoraro: I take it that's you, Alex? If the college really is bi-platform, then you shouldn't have to choose based on what programs everybody uses (i.e., it's not like the need to run Microsoft Access means a PC is mandatory). If that's the case, use whichever one you know and are comfortable with--and fits in your budget.
Reston, VA: I'm already getting a super high speed desktop, but I would also like a Notebook to carry around classes. I need some really light, and it has to be fast enough so I can play Mp3s and type at the same time without the MP3 skipping...what's the minimum you recommend?
You're going to play back your MP3s in class while taking notes? :)
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