What to look for in a new notebook
Sep 1, 2009, 13:40 GMT
Washington - There are plenty of reasons right now to be considering the purchase of a new notebook computer. You might be gearing up for going back to school, getting ready for the launch of Windows 7, downsizing your equipment, or just upgrading an old machine.
Whatever the reason, the timing is right, as there have never been more choices in notebooks than there are now.
The bad news about lots of choices, however, is that you have lots of decisions to make when you look at the models available. Here are some guidelines that will steer you in the right direction.
--- Form factor / screen
Thanks to netbooks, there are now more notebook sizes available than ever before. That means that it's very important to be clear about how you'll primarily use the notebook you want to buy. That's because, frankly, there's no one size of notebook computer that's perfect for everything.
A netbook will be great for maximum portability, but not very good at all for running demanding applications. A desktop replacement notebook will have the muscle to power through high-end graphics software and games, but lugging it around with you on extended trips will be more of a burden than a pleasure.
Even the 15-inch widescreen notebooks - often cited as a good compromise between portability and power - are really better suited to replacing a desktop computer for general office chores than they are for typing on the tray of a cramped airline seat.
Bottom line: if you want both power and portability, the line of notebooks with screens from 12 to 14 inches make the most sense today.
You can outfit these models with high-end processors, plenty of RAM, and fast hard drives, and you can still carry them around comfortably. Anything larger you should really only consider if you'll primarily be using the notebooks at home or at school. If you're primarily a road warrior, look to 12-inch models or netbooks.
--- Hard drive
Today's notebook computers come with a wide variety of hard drive options - in part because hard drive technology is quickly moving toward the world of solid state (SSD). But most notebooks today are still shipped with traditional hard drives spinning at 5400 or 7200 revolutions per minute (rpm).
Since you're probably buying with the future - and Windows 7 - in mind, avoid 5400-rpm drives. They're simply too slow, and the price difference to a 7200-rpm drive is small.
However, you may need to specifically request a 7200-rpm model. Dell and other big notebook sellers frequently have 5400-rpm drives shipped by default, in part to keep system prices low.
SSD drives are clearly the future, however, and with good reason: they're light, almost indestructible, use very little power, and most importantly, they're blazingly fast. To give you an idea of just how fast, a typical Windows 7 installation may take a minute or more to boot up with a traditional hard drive, but only about 15 seconds with an SSD.
Unfortunately SSDs are still quite expensive compared to traditional drives. If you can afford an SSD, though - and 128 GB models today retail for around 300 dollars - you won't be disappointed if you skip the old technology altogether and trade up.
If you have to skimp on any aspect of a new notebook, make it the processor. The fact is that most of today's mobile chips are fast enough to run today's operating systems and software. And o
Other components of a notebook - especially the amount of RAM and the type and speed of your hard drive - have a bigger impact on performance than the processor. You can spend 300 dollars to move from the base processor of a given model to the fastest but end up with only fractional improvements in real-world software performance.
The one exception to this rule is with netbooks.
The processors in netbook computers - typically from the Intel Atom line - are much slower than desktop or even traditional notebook processors, in part because they're designed with maximum battery life and portability in mind.
But most people are used to computers that are responsive, and the slowest Atoms are not. So look to netbook models with the faster N270, N280, or Z530 processors. The extra bump in speed will be appreciated and make you happy with your netbook for longer.
Don't buy a notebook with less than 2 gigabytes (GB) of RAM unless you plan on upgrading the memory yourself after purchase. While Microsoft claims that any version of Windows will run on machines outfitted with only 1 GB of memory, none of its operating systems will run well with that amount.
In addition, the world is slowly but surely moving to 64-bit computing, and every version of Windows currently sold now comes in a 64-bit version. That's significant because one of the main selling points of 64-bit computing is that the operating system can access more than the 4-GB limit. Soon enough, applications will start demanding more RAM.
Even today, though, having more memory means you can use more applications at the same time, which probably translates into greater productivity. So consider 2 GB to be a useful minimum amount of RAM for any new machine, and if you can afford it, 4 GB of RAM is better.
--- 32-bit or 64-bit?
Increasingly, your choice in operating systems is boiling down to 32-bit versus 64-bit. Clearly the future is with 64-bit operating systems and software. And in fact, many notebook makers are offering the 64-bit version of Windows by default.
So is 64-bit the way to go? Not necessarily. The fact is that a significant number of applications have not yet been ported to the 64-bit version of Windows, so you could run into compatibility issues.
Check the software you rely upon to see whether it is compatible with 64-bit Windows. If not, opt for the 32-bit operating system. You can typically upgrade to the 64-bit version later at no charge.