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Laptops Unplugged

Want to know what to look for in a laptop? The Online Mom explains the fundamentals.

By Barry Myers

Today’s laptops are wonders of technology. They do everything a PC can do; they can be operated from almost anywhere; and they’ll slip easily into a light-weight backpack. A well-chosen, well looked-after laptop will be able to handle everything you throw at it and then some.

But choosing a laptop can be a complicated business. The latest models feature a multitude of hardware and software options that can confuse even the geekiest of buyers! In this article, we’ll take a look at some of these variables and help decide which ones are important for the person that really matters – you!
Monitor Size. The range here can run from less than 7” all the way up to 22”, but generally most laptops screens are between 13” and 17”, with 14.1” and 15.4” being the most popular. Measurements are taken diagonally from corner to corner. Don’t assume the bigger the monitor the bigger the price, because often the opposite is true.

Notebook displays used to vary widely in brightness, color and sharpness but today you'll find much better quality across the board. The specs reveal little about actual picture quality on a laptop, so if that’s a big concern – as it should be – you’ll probably want to see the options in-person.

Processor. Often referred to as the brains of the computer, the processor is the most important chip in a laptop. The higher the “GHz” number, the faster your computer will run. We recommend at least 2.0 GHz but if you’re not a power user (gaming and/or entertainment), then you can get by with 1.8 GHz. You should look for a “Dual Core” chip, because it’s like getting two chips in one!

Memory. Every computer comes with a certain amount of RAM (random-access memory). Computers need to store currently running applications and data, so memory plays a major role in determining how much you can do before things start slowing down. As a general rule, you'll want at least 2GB of memory. If you're planning to hang on to your laptop for a long time, check if you can upgrade the RAM at a later date.

Hard Drive. This is the place where all your files will be stored. But don’t make the mistake of overestimating your needs, because it will cost you in both dollars and weight. Laptops can have hard drives as large as 320GB (actually, this is usually two drives) but it’s really hard to imagine needing that much, especially if you’re backing things up on a regular basis. Rule of thumb: for every 1GB, you can store about 1 – 1.5 hours of video or about 350 photos or about 102 songs.

DVD and CD Drives. Even low budget systems include a CD-RW/DVD drive (either built in or connected via USB) for uploading music, burning CDs, or watching movies. DVD burners, which let you store large amounts of information onto a disc, are also commonplace.

Battery. How long your battery will run before needing to be recharged depends on a host of variables, including what you are doing. (Watching a movie will use it up a lot faster than writing a document.) With a standard battery, you should expect two to three hours worth of run time. More powerful batteries will cost you extra but give you more juice. You also have the option of buying a second battery. They’re not cheap but are well worth the money if you routinely spend more than two or three hours away from an outlet.

Networking. Virtually all laptops now include an Ethernet connection for high-speed Internet access, and built-in wireless networking so that you can access wireless hot spots as well as your own home network. You will also have the option (often for an additional cost) of including Bluetooth wireless capability in your laptop. Bluetooth will let you connect your laptop to other Bluetooth-enabled devices, such as a printer, cell phone/smartphone, keyboard and mouse, music speakers, etc.

Other Connections. Other connections to look for include a VGA port for an external monitor, Ethernet and modem jacks, headphone and microphone jacks, and two to three (or more) USB ports for connecting other devices, such as an external keyboard and mouse, digital cameras, and MP3 players. For home use, you may also want A/V connections to hook your laptop directly to your TV.

Docking Station. A docking station contains a mixture of ports, slots, drive bays, and security features, and it usually attaches to the notebook from underneath. As the name implies, a docking station is where you park your laptop when you get back to your home or office, giving you easy access to your network, a bigger monitor, a regular keyboard, additional storage devices, and the convenience of leaving most cables plugged in when you walk away from your desk.

Keyboard and Mouse. Working for hours with just a pointing stick or a touch pad can take a toll on your hand, wrist, and forearm. To save yourself some wear and tear, invest in a small travel mouse. These can cost as little as $20 and they usually hook up via a USB port. The same advice applies to typing for hours on your notebook's keyboard. If you plant your notebook on your desk when you work, you’ll want to hook up a USB keyboard and give your wrists a break.

Laptop Case. You're about to drop several hundred dollars or more on a laptop and the last thing you want to do is spend even more money on a carrying case. But you'll be kicking yourself when your nine-pound load is cutting a groove into your shoulder and all the accessories come tumbling out in a tangled mess! Invest in a sturdy, comfortable carrying case and your shoulder and back will thank you. Look for padded shoulder straps, reinforced corners, and specialized compartments designed to hold the AC adapter, the extra batteries, and so on.

Despite the complexity of the available options, the good news is that today’s laptops are fast, powerful, and pretty affordable. With a little knowledge, there’s no reason you can’t find one that will satisfy your needs for a long time to come.

Barry Myers has been helping consumer technology brands communicate with consumers for over 12 years. Most recently he was a co-founder of DigitalLife, the country’s biggest consumer-facing technology conference and exposition. He’s currently hard at a work on his own niche social network. Barry lives in Manhattan with his wife, two-year old son, and twin cats Al and G.


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