Sunday, August 19, 2007

Buying a Laptop, Part Deux

As a follow-up to my previous about buying a laptop, I finally settled on a Dell XPS M1210 12-inch super portable. It isn't quite an ultra portable, but it is small and light… right at 4 pounds. And it doesn't skimp on its specs either… Core 2 Duo T7200, 2GB of RAM, 120GB hard drive, GeForce Go 7400 video… almost identical to the Dell Inspiron E1705 I bought back in March.

Moving on…

My purpose here isn't to tell you about my quest for my 2nd laptop purchase of 2007, but rather to give a little advice to those currently looking for a new laptop, based on what I found during my search. This information won't be valid for long since everything changes so fast, so if you're reading this much after it is posted, email me and ask me for updated advice.

I'll make this simple, putting the most important factors first…

Rule #1: Screen size is the largest factor in the base price of any model. And it doesn't go from smallest to largest. Mid-size screens, 14-15" tend to be the cheapest, with the price going up as you go bigger or smaller from there. Screen size is also the biggest determining factor in the size and weight of your machine, so choose based on how you are going to use your machine. Do you need a big screen? If so, are you willing to carry the extra weight and work with less battery life? If you want small, are you willing to pay the price premium for the privilege and possibility of a small battery? Would working on a small screen with low resolution start to become a problem after a while? If you are someone who likes to run lots of programs at once, consider the bigger screen.

Rule #2: The apparent speed of a machine is very much affected by how much memory (RAM) it has. If you are getting a computer with Windows Vista, 1 GB of RAM is the absolute minimum, but I highly recommend you get 2GB. XP needs 512MB absolute minimum, 1GB or more ideally. Memory is very easy and relatively inexpensive to upgrade (around $100 to upgrade a new computer to 2GB after it has been purchased), so don't let insufficient memory turn you off from a computer that is otherwise exactly what you are looking for. When a computer doesn't have enough memory (RAM), it is forced to use storage space on the hard disk drive, which is literally thousands of times slower, so we really want to avoid that.

Rule #3: Get an Intel CPU, not AMD. Just a year ago I would have told you the opposite, but Intel has made leaps and bounds in performance and value, especially when battery life is taken into consideration. And stay away from Pentium and Celeron models; they are SLOW by today's standards. The current best value is the Core 2 Duo, T7x00 series. These chips are fast, are pretty good on the battery, and don't add significantly to the price tag. You'll actually see a difference in performance with one of these chips compared with some of the other available alternatives. The Core 2 Duo T5x00 series is noticeably slower, and doesn't save much money, and the Core 2 Duo T2x00 series isn't really an option I'd consider. The real principle here is the FSB, or Front Side Bus speed of the chip. Chips with a faster FSB (667Mhz or faster) operate significantly faster than chips with a slower (533MHz) FSB. Often you won't find the FSB listed on a computer's specifications, despite the fact that this one number has the greatest impact on the computer's speed more than anything else. The T7xxx series has the faster FSB, and a larger cache, for much better performance than other options.

Rule #4: Go with Windows Vista, even if it means a few inconveniences in the short-term. We're going to start seeing some software in the next year or so that requires Windows Vista. Two years from now that will be more common. Windows XP may be fine for right now, but it will become more limiting in the future. As far as which edition of Vista to get, Home Premium is probably your best bet. Vista Basic isn't really an upgrade from XP (downgrade really), and Vista Ultimate doesn't offer any significant advantages given its premium pricing.

Rule #5: Get Antivirus/Antispyware Protection. I really like Spyware Doctor from PC Tools. It even includes Antivirus software now too. If your computer comes with Norton or McAfee, remove it and get Spyware Doctor instead.

Rule #6: Mac vs PC. I would say that unless you specifically need a Mac, buy a PC. The Mac has less software available for it, and sometimes you'll run into problems sharing files with PC owners. If you buy a Mac hoping to run Windows software, it can be done, but you will be buying a copy of Windows at an absolute minimum to pull it off; budget $200 for that. Simple enough, right?

Rule #7: Don't buy used. Kind of ironic advice considering I'm selling two of my old laptops, but it's really true… You never know how a computer has been treated, and a laptop that has been used regularly probably has an actual usable life of about 2-3 years tops before it just falls apart and quits working. Used laptops don't save that much money over new, and you'll certainly have to buy a new battery with a used laptop, taking away from an already small amount of savings over new.

Rule #8: If you use your laptop on battery, buy an extra. You'll need to replace it after about 12-18 months anyway, so just get it up front when you can usually get it cheaper as part of the initial purchase.

Rule #9: Hard drive size isn't that important. Unless you are going to be storing or editing video on your computer, hard drive size just won't matter that much. Bigger hard drives tend to be slightly faster than smaller drives, but you probably wouldn't notice the difference. The smallest you see on computers these days is 80GB, with 120GB being "normal," and anything larger just being a bonus. Unless you know you need the extra space, just ignore the HDD size.

Rule #10: Warranty. Unless you specifically pay for it, things like damage from dropping or misuse, or damaged screens aren't covered. Warranties tend to get expensive past the first year, and I'm not convinced it's worth it, especially if you know someone who is capable of swapping out broken parts.

Rule #11: Get a good case! The most common problem with laptops is broken screens due to their owners not taking proper care of them – packing them into backpacks that aren't designed to protect a laptop for example, or knocking them off the couch onto the floor. Unfortunately, the screen is also the most expensive part of the computer too. Buy a good case that will protect your new toy!


In short, get a computer with a Core 2 Duo CPU, T7x000 series, 2GB of RAM, and with a screen size that is appropriate for what you are going to be using it for.

Apathy, Ignorance, and Sound Quality

I may not be a purist audiophile, but I do consider myself a mainstream audiophile. What I mean by that is that I enjoy good quality sound, but not to the point where I blow tons of money (defined "tens or hundreds of thousands") on each stereo component getting the best sound possible like some people do. I think I still can understand what the average Joe on the street wants from their electronics, even though what I want may be a little different.

What blows my mind, though, is what content providers ("music companies") and electronics companies are trying to pass off as "high quality" sound these days. Things are being advertised as "CD quality" that aren't anywhere near the quality that we get out of CDs. MP3s are so common place that many consumers think that the sound of MP3s is normal, or even good, while at the same time those of us that have been exposed to good quality sound cringe at the sound of a typical MP3 file. While some attempts have been made to improve upon what is considered good sound (Apple, for example, uses AAC for iTunes/iPods, which is better than MP3, though it is still lacking), for the most part things have gone downhill—and done so very quickly.

I invested in an XM satellite radio several years ago, near the time of the initial public launch of the service, and it was one of these products being touted as "CD quality." And at the time, it was quite good considering the technology they were working with. Not stellar, by any means, but certainly better than the average FM broadcast, and I knew it wasn't going to be stellar, so I was happy with it at the time. It was definitely closer to CD than FM radio in terms of it sound quality.

What has happened since then is nothing short of appalling. As XM has added more and more channels since that time, they have gradually taken bandwidth away from the existing channels, reducing the sound quality of those channels to something that only a half of a notch above pathetic. (I presume that the bean-counters decided they could make more money by appealing to a wider audience by offering more channels, assuming that the average Joe is Ignorant to sound quality issues.) And yet they continue to market it as "CD quality." These days FM radio sounds better. Things got a little better two weeks ago with a new upgrade to the XM encoding systems, but they are still far from spectacular, or even acceptable if you ask me. These days both the low and frequencies are pretty much gone, and what is left is compressed so badly that it all gets merged into one big jumble of wishy washy highs, muddy midrange, and come-and-go lows, leaving everyone guessing what instruments are actually being played and what lyrics are actually coming out of the lead singer's mouth. And they have effectively taken away our stereo image, sending us back into the 1940s with what is, essentially, monaural sound. Yeah, great technological innovation.

If XM was the only company that had fallen into this trap there would be no issue. The problem is that this reflects the attitude of just about everybody.

Because some of this transition has taken place over the course of a period of time, a lot of consumers are just ignorant of it. And then there is another group that is aware of it, but is apathetic. Shame on the penny-pinchers behind it, and shame on those that are apathetic. Those of us in a third segment that actually care about the quality of our audio are suffering. Our voices are not being heard, or are being drowned out by the shouting of the wallets of the poor ignorant and apathetic consumers. We can't even get good quality sound when we try.

Music is all about conveying thoughts and emotion. And a lot of that emotion is missing when the quality of our sound is taken away. Have you ever noticed how much more exciting it is to see a band perform live than it is to listen to a recording? A lot of that has to do with the faithfulness (or lack thereof) of the recording we are listening to. Listening to a good recording on a good quality sound system is an emotional experience. By taking away our high quality recordings and reproduction, the "emotion" half of the music equation is being stripped away from us. It's no wonder that a lot of the music that is coming out today lacks emotion, because if it was ever there in the first place it wouldn't make it to our ears anyway. A hundred years ago we didn't have the option of listening to music in our homes; we had to listen to a live performance, and it was a much more enjoyable experience. That begs the question, has current technology really improved our lives musically?

I don't have any sort of answer to the problem, but it is, indeed, a problem.

Ironically even though products are being marketed as being "CD quality," CD quality isn't that great to start with. Not only because the human ear can detect nuances of sound that CD simply isn't capable of recording (part of the "emotion" of it all), but also because the CD players that most of us own (or with the prevalence of iPods and such these days, the CD players we once owned) don't do a very good job of maximizing what is there. The two formats that have been designed to take care of that problem, SACD and DVD Audio, have pretty much failed at this point. The CD format has now been in consumers hands for 25 years, and it was designed within the limitations of technology at the time. We should expect far more than what CD has to offer, not be comparing other products against it.

The driving factor behind all of this is, of course, money. We, as consumers, want the most out of every dollar that we spend. And those that produce the products that we own want to make as much profit as they possibly can. And that means cutting corners.

I know I'm a little bit fanatical about all of this, but I don't think I'm that far off from someone in the mass population if they were exposed to the high quality stuff that is out there. The problem is that we keep having low quality products and content shoved down our throats, keeping us away from what can truly be a grand experience. A very dangerous precedent has been set.

I'll step down off of my soapbox for now… but next time you have the opportunity to listen to a good piece of music on a good sound system, take the time to actually listen and enjoy it. It just might open your eyes ears to something you might really love. And take a minute to drop an email to a music company, or service, and let them know that you don't appreciate the shortcuts that are being taken. For right now they might still be able to hear you, but if things keep on going downhill like they are now, it might not be long before your words turn into the same total mush that they are already trying to shove down our throats.

Monday, August 13, 2007

I Killed a Tree!

I purchased an Epson all-in-one Printer/Scanner/Copier tonight at CompUSA (model RX580 if you're curious) and both the clerk and I were quite surprised at the receipt that printed out… In addition to the normal receipt, it also contained five (5!) rebate forms. It was quite the roll of paper I had in my hand as I walked out.

I came home and measured it and it was 145 inches long. That's just over 12 feet! Have you ever seen a receipt that is twelve feet long… for one item? It's amazing! I feel like I killed a tree just with that receipt.

The worst part is that two of the five rebates are only valid when the printer is purchased together with other items. Which I, of course, did not purchase. You'd think their system would be smart enough to realize, "Oh, this rebate doesn't apply; not all required items are being purchased." But no… CompUSA is killing trees.

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