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Laptops traveling new roads

Students, homemakers and others are joining the ranks of the portable computer users. Should you?

By JULES ALLEN and DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 2000


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Some laptops, such as the Dell Inspiron 8000, feature active matrix, or TFT, displays, which are sharper and brighter than less expensive dual scan, or DSTN, displays.
It can be a desktop replacement for people who want the same computer at home and on the road. It can be used by digital photo enthusiasts to store photos. It can be an entertainment center, playing DVD movies. And it can be a traveling companion for anyone on the go.

Manufacturers are packing more power and performance into these little boxes. Some even have begun offering models that cost $1,000 or so, though most consumers probably will prefer more expensive machines for power and performance.

"The configurations continue to creep up, but the prices don't go down," said Tracey Capen, executive reviews editor at PC World magazine. "For the same price, you're getting more stuff."

Consumers will find few choices in the $1,000 area, Capen says, but a lot more in the $2,500 range, about average for a laptop.

That's a big change from the not-too-distant past, when a mobile computer seemed to be only for the rich or those living off the corporate dole. Laptops were big and heavy, had lousy battery life and were wildly expensive.

Battery life remains a concern, but manufacturers have overcome size and price issues to make life in the notebook lane an affordable reality. Random access memory got less expensive, processors faster and, most important, liquid crystal displays (LCDs) better.

Before buying a laptop, a consumer should ask some of the same questions that apply to choosing a desktop, starting with: What are you going to do with it? They make sense for people with jobs that stretch beyond sitting at a desk, but they also are suitable for writers, students, RV touring addicts, homemakers who chase toddlers around a house and so on.

Laptops are wildly addictive. As soon as you've been unshackled, the liberation of computing where and when you want is bliss.

Here are some of the main items to consider in picking a mobile computer:

Display: The display usually is the most expensive part, making up more than half the cost. Consumers have two choices: the less expensive dual scan display (sometimes denoted as DSTN) or active matrix (also known as TFT). The dual scan display isn't quite as sharp or bright as the active matrix, but if you plan on hooking the laptop to a desktop monitor and need only occasional mobility, the cash savings might tempt you. The size of the screen will affect cost: the bigger, the more expensive. If you're using the laptop as a desktop replacement, you may need a larger screen.

Unlike last year, a shortage of screens is not expected and supplies should be adequate through the holidays.

Weight: It's an issue if you travel. Lugging a 5- or 6-pound machine around an airport may not seem like much, but it can be a pain. If so, you might want to consider lighter notebooks, though the trade-off is that smaller machines have fewer peripherals built-in and you may need to carry around a gadget bag for extras such as disk drives. Generally, the smaller machines are more expensive than their bulkier kin.

Speed: Traditionally, mobile computers lag desktops in speed. Intel says it will have a 1-gigahertz mobile chip out next year, almost a year behind its desktop cousin at that speed. The current top-of-the-line mobile chip runs about 850 megahertz. "Intel has done a pretty good job of making processors more efficient," Capen said.

For standard applications such as word processing, e-mail and surfing the Internet, anything above 500MHz should do fine. The best gift you can give your notebook is as much random access memory (RAM) as you can afford, followed by hard disk space.

One of the big differences in chips this year, though, is that they're better in managing battery life. Intel has a chip that runs at a higher speed when the laptop is plugged in and at a slower speed when running off batteries to conserve energy.

Transmeta has joined forces with Sony to release a line of laptops using Transmeta's Intel-compatible Crusoe processor, though no date has been set. While benchmarks show it lags in speed behind Intel and AMD processors, it provides better battery life.

Keyboard: Some laptops come with full-size keyboards, particularly good if they're used as desktop replacements. Some can have keyboards about three-quarters of normal size.

In addition, the type of pointer control is important. A touchpad allows someone to use a finger drawn across the pad to move the cursor. IBM uses a small eraser-like button in the middle of the keyboard to control it because it's convenient for people who like to keep their hands on the keyboard, said Dan Lowden, IBM's ThinkPad brand manager. It's a matter of personal choice, so try both in a store or on friends' laptops before you buy.

Flexibility: Some high-end systems have "multipurpose bays," which allow users to swap out devices, such as CD-ROM, DVD-ROM or CD-RW drives, spare batteries or second hard drives.

"We're starting to see more notebooks offer CD-RW as an option," Capen said. He says those are particularly good for digital photo enthusiasts.

Expandability could play into your purchasing decisions. If you think you'll need specialized add-in cards that are not available in PC Card format (or PCMCIA as they used to be known), you could be out of luck with a notebook. A docking station could be an option, but if you plan on keeping a machine inserted in one for any period of time, perhaps a desktop might be reconsidered.

Also, for infrequent on-the-road e-mail, a beefed up personal organizer such as a Palm device or even a Web-enabled phone could suffice.

A lot of general computing questions come into play when you make your choice of manufacturer and model. If you're comfortable troubleshooting your machine and installing your operating system, buying a "no-name" brand could save you money. Those who need occasional-to-frequent handholding should consider a machine from Compaq, IBM, Dell or Gateway.

Any piece of expensive hardware really needs serious protection for a mobile life. Good padded computer bags start at about $40 and go into the hundreds. Be sure to check your insurance policy for coverage just in case your laptop meets with an untimely departure. While it's the lesser of two evils, physical damage is almost preferable to theft, since you at least know where your data is.

Products such as DiskLock encrypt the hard disk and require passwords before the machine will boot. Those who connect to unfamiliar networks, such as at Internet cafes and universities, should install a firewall package such as BlackIce for the PC or Network Barrier for the Mac. It's essential.

Finally, be wary of used machines unless they're re-certified either by the manufacturer or a company you trust. A mobile, fragile piece of equipment like a laptop is subject to all kinds of abuse that desktops aren't.

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