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.

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