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In Search of the Perfect Laptop

Laptops are beginning to compete with desktop PCs as a choice for a primary PC, but you can make a big mistake if you don't evaluate your laptop purchase carefully.

By Alan Freedman

Contributing Editor

Laptops are the hottest PCs today. They're not only a perfect choice for a second PC, but with their increasing horsepower and features, they are beginning to compete with desktops as a primary PC. After all, if you have to take it on the road, it's a royal pain transferring files from the desktop to the laptop while you're making a mad dash for the 6:13 to Westchester.

But, as has been true with laptops since day one, buyer beware. You can make a big mistake if you don't evaluate your laptop purchase carefully. Although this is beginning to change, for the most part, you're stuck with what you buy. You can't swap primary components such as display adapters and hard drives with the same ease as your desktops. Even with removable hard disks, you're still beholden to the vendor of your laptop, and you will pay at least double or triple per megabyte compared to a desktop disk.

Although we're always in a transition between the current high-speed CPU and next month's high-speed CPU, we're even more in a transition between non-multimedia equipped and multimedia-equipped portables. In time, sound and built-in CD-ROM drives will be the norm. In the meantime, more laptops are sound-card and speaker equipped than ever before. If your requirements are for sound-based CD-ROM products, such as encyclopedias and other "talking" databases, a built-in sound system is a must. Sure, you can plug in a PCMCIA sound card, and there are good ones, but there's already too much stuff dangling from these things. Now you want to add speakers?

I don't know about you, but I've been lugging seven and eight-pound machines around conferences for years. They're damn heavy, and combined with all the other junk in the case, a 10-pound load is truly enough to take your back out after six hours of on-the-shoulder, off-the-shoulder. My druthers would be two pounds. Some day, maybe, but not today.

Laptops offer an enticing alternative to desktops for users that work nights and weekends at home. It makes a worthwhile investment for everyone, and it's good for employee relations. Employees can spring for their home monitor and keyboard, while the agency foots the bill for the rest. Lest you say public property should not be taken home. Change the rules. It's win-win. If the employee leaves the job, the agency gets the laptop back or lets the employee purchase it. With laptop values depreciating faster than Superman can chase the bad guy, it's not a bad way to get some bucks for last year's model.

Following are some important features to help you make that all-important laptop purchase.


Portable PCs are loosely classified by size and weight. A laptop usually weighs from seven to 12 pounds and will not fit into a briefcase. A notebook computer will fit into a briefcase and weighs from four to six pounds. A subnotebook weighs two to three pounds, and a pocket computer is one pound or less. Vendors often call their nine-pound machines a notebook, but all's fair in marketing.

Few machines have a built-in handle, a rather odd omission that forces you to use the travelling case, which is usually stuffed with disks, cables, extra battery, transformer, and yesterday's lunch.

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