Consumer Reports - Laptops

By: Brooke Yan

account for about 25 percent of sales. It’s not hard to understand why. Small and cramped have been replaced by bigger, crisper displays and more usable key layouts. have caught up in speed, and innovative new processors provide some real advantages. Fast and are common, as are ample hard drives. And a growing interest in wireless computing plays to the laptop’s main strength: its portability. A is the most convenient way to take full advantage of the growing availability of high-speed wireless Internet access at airports, schools, hotels, and even restaurants and coffee shops.

The technology that’s central to Intel’s newest has wireless capability built in, and delivers commendably-long battery life. The thinnest laptops on the market are less than an inch thick and weigh just 2 to 5 pounds. To get these light, sleek models, however, you’ll have to pay a premium and make a few sacrifices.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE

Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq (now owned by HP), IBM, Sony, and Toshiba are the leading Windows brands. are made by . Laptops can be grouped into several basic configurations:

Budget models. These have slower processors and lower screen quality than others, but are suitable for routine office work and home software. Price range: $800 or less.

Workhorse models. These have faster processors and more built-in devices, so there’s less need for external attachments. They’re not lightweight or battery-efficient enough for frequent travelers. Price range: $1,000 and up.

Slim-and-light models. These are for travelers. They can be less than an inch thick and weigh as little as 2 or 3 pounds. They generally require an external drive to read DVDs or burn CDs. Price range: $1,500 and up.

Tablet-style. These sit in your hands like a clipboard and have handwriting-recognition software. Some convert to a “normal" laptop with a keyboard. Price range: $1,800 and up.

IMPORTANT FEATURES

A is becoming a rarity in all computers. As an alternative, you can use a USB (about $20 and up), which fits on a keychain and holds as much data as numerous diskettes. Or you can save files on a writeable CD or . Most laptops have slots that can read one or more types of

Windows laptops generally have a 1.5- to 3.5-GHz . Pentium 4 processors have the higher speed ratings; the new Pentium M and Celeron M processors have a slower rated speed but actually perform on a par with other processors. Macintosh Power PC processors are measured on a different basis altogether. In short, the different types of processors make direct speed comparisons difficult. It doesn’t pay to try because any type of processor is likely to deliver all the speed you’ll need.

Laptops come with a 40- to 160-gigabyte and 256 megabytes or more of and can be upgraded to 1 gigabyte or more.

Today’s laptops use a rechargeable lithium-ion .

In Consumer Reports tests, batteries provided 2 to 5 hours of continuous use when running office applications. (Laptops go into sleep mode when used intermittently, extending the time between charges.) You can extend battery life somewhat by dimming the display as you work and by removing PC cards and turning off wireless devices when they aren’t needed. Playing a DVD movie uses more battery power than usual, but any laptop should be able to play a movie through to the end.

A laptop’s can be quite different from that of a desktop computer. The keys themselves may be full-sized (generally only lightweight models pare them down), but they may not feel as solid. Some laptops have extra buttons to expedite your access to e-mail or a Web browser or to control DVD playback. You can attach an external keyboard, which you may find easier to use.

A 14- to 15-inch , measured diagonally, should suit most people. A few larger models have a 16- or 17-inch display. A resolution of 1,400x1,050 (SXGA+) pixels (picture elements) or more is better than 1,024x768 (XGA) for viewing the fine detail in photographs or video, but may shrink objects on the screen. You can use settings in Windows to make them larger. Many models are now offered with a display that has a “glossy" surface instead of a dull one. Those look better in bright ambient light, as long as you avoid direct reflections.

Most laptops use a small touch-sensitive pad in place of a mouse--you slide your finger across the pad to move the cursor. You can also program the pad to respond to a “tap" as a “click," or to scroll as you sweep your index finger along the pad’s right edge. An alternative pointing system uses a pencil-eraser-sized joystick in the middle of the keyboard. You can attach an external mouse or trackball if you prefer.

Laptops include at least one for expansion. You might add a wireless network card or a digital-camera memory-card reader, for example, if those are not built in. Many laptops offer a connection for a , a $100 or $200 base that makes it easy to connect an external monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, or phone line. Most laptops let you attach these devices anyway, without the docking station. At least two , for easy hookup of, say, a printer, digital camera, or scanner, is standard. A wired network (Ethernet) port is common, as is a for digital-video transfer. Many models have a standard or optional internal wireless-network (“Wi-Fi") adapter. The found on a few models can be used to synchronize data wirelessly between the computer and a personal digital assistant (PDA).

Laptops typically come with less software than desktop computers, although almost all are bundled with a basic home-office suite (such as Microsoft Works) and a personal-finance program. The small speakers built into laptops often sound tinny, with little bass. Headphones or external speakers deliver much better sound.

HOW TO CHOOSE

Decide if a laptop is right for you. If you’re on a very tight budget and aren’t cramped for space, a desktop computer may still be OK. Otherwise, consider a laptop.

Windows vs. Macintosh. Many people choose Windows because it’s what they’ve always used. Apple’s iBook will suit you if you’re interested in photo editing, music, video, and other multimedia applications. Apple computers are also less susceptible to most viruses and spyware than Windows-based computers. The Apple PowerBook is relatively expensive as laptops go, however.

Buy à la carte. and Gateway pioneered the notion that every computer can be tailored to an individual buyer’s needs, much like choosing the options for a car. This configure-to-order model is now common practice for laptops as well as desktops.

You can also purchase a preconfigured computer off the shelf. (You can do the same online if you opt for the default choices of equipment the manufacturer offers.) That’s fine if you don’t have very strict requirements for how a laptop is outfitted or if you want to take advantage of an attractive sale.

Configure-to-order menus show you all the options and let you see how a change in one affects the overall price. You may decide to use a less-expensive processor, for example, but spend more for wireless capability or better graphics. Configure-to-order will often give you choices you won’t get if you buy off the shelf. And configure-to-order means less chance of overlooking important details.

Downplay the processor speed. Speed is no longer the be-all of personal computers. For years, processors have delivered all the speed most people need. That’s still very much the case. Spend the money on more memory instead. A Pentium 4 processor with a speed of 2.4 GHz and a Pentium M at 1.4 GHz earned the same speed score in our tests. The different types of chips now on the market make direct speed comparisons difficult.

Look closely at warranties and insurance. Get the longest manufacturer’s warranty you can afford; many offer one or two years above the basic one-year warranty, for a price. If you intend to travel a lot, buy screen insurance from the manufacturer. If you take full advantage of the manufacturer’s warranty and insurance, you won’t need an extended warranty from the retailer.

Copyright ? 2002-2006 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc.

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