I'VE CARRIED notebook computers since 1987. My first had only two floppy drives. Another early machine I carried has a red-glass plasma display, which was cool to look at but hardly something I liked to work on for more than an hour. Notebook computers have come a long way since then, and now they are almost comparable to desktop computers.
I'm writing this article on an aging but trustworthy Compaq Presario 1680. While it sports only a Pentium 233 MMX processor, it is more than capable of handling e-mail and word processing. Battery life varies, depending on what I'm doing, but I can usually count on an hour and a half per battery. I could probably tune the power settings and get more, but I'm happy with two batteries and three hours. Any longer than that, and I'll use a more powerful desktop with a large monitor and keyboard.
I also have a new Powerbook G3 notebook. A bit more current than my old Compaq, it has a 400-megahertz G3 processor, 5-gigabyte hard drive, 190 megabytes of RAM, and a large, clear display. My favorite feature is definitely the DVD drive. Since Macs don't compare easily to PCs, I'd have to rate it as a 500-megahertz PC notebook, based on comparisons with other computers we have at the office.
When you're looking to get a notebook computer, you need to understand that smaller can be better, but it'll cost you more. Miniaturization is key when you try and pack a keyboard, computer, hard disk, mouse. and display in a case that weighs less than eight pounds. The case has to be strong and resilient-especially when you might drop it, something that would rarely happen to your desktop machine.
There are many different choices you'll have to make when selecting a notebook for yourself. The first one, which will set the tone for most of the features, is price. The base price for a new notebook is hovering around $1,100. For this you should be able to get a decent machine, 400 megahertz processor, 4 gigabyte drive, 32 MB RAM, CD-ROM drive, and 56k modem. As you increase your budget, you get more RAM, a larger display, DVD drive, more hard disk space, and lighter weight.
I get asked a lot if you should buy a used notebook. This depends on your level of risk tolerance. Things can go wrong, and with a notebook it can be expensive. A cracked screen can cost $1,000 or more. Replacing the hard disk can cost twice what a larger desktop drive would cost. However, if you take care of it, you can get a great deal. Plus, most problems I've seen with notebooks occur when the hard disk breaks, so you can use the opportunity to upgrade to a larger drive. I have only purchased used notebooks over the past five years, and have been very lucky with them.
RAM is very expensive when compared to normal desktop RAM, but the price has come down lately. Get as much as you can afford. Most come with 32 MB, but you really need at least 64 MB. for Windows 95 or 98, and even more for Windows NT or 2000. If you have to choose between features and RAM, select RAM. The more RAM you have, the less disk-swapping you'll experience, and your computer will feel more responsive.
When it comes to mice, you actually have four different choices. Trackballs have virtually disappeared: they tended to get clogged with dirt. The "J" mouse is a small joystick that resides, strangely enough, by the "J" key. It's nice because you don't have to move your hand from the keyboard to use it. A trackpad is what I'm using on both notebooks now. It's a small square of pressure-sensitive material just below the space bar. You can get very fine movements by rolling your fingers. Finally, you can always attach a small mouse to your notebook if you don't like the device that came with it. I just happen to prefer the trackpad, but all of the pointing devices work well. Don't go with your first impression-sometimes they take a while to get used to.
Before you buy a notebook, make sure the weight is something you can handle. Some notebooks still weigh eight pounds or more with an extra battery, floppy, power adapter, and other accessories. Some of the newer notebooks are slim and weigh around four pounds. You should try lifting, carrying, and using the notebook before you buy it. I'm willing to carry an extra battery and work stuff, so my bag must weigh at least ten pounds. I'd love to replace it with a Sony Vaio at four pounds. Plus, I wouldn't need a case-the Vaio has a superstrong magnesium shell.
I love the freedom I have using a notebook. No, I don't use it on a plane much, but I do like to work anywhere inside and around my house or office. However, I still have to connect the machine with a cable to my home network when I want to print or move files around. I think the next project is setting up a wireless network so I can truly work or play anywhere.
Good luck selecting your notebook. But be sure to try it before you buy it-you'll be glad you did.
|Mike Kaltschnee writes about technology for DACS and is a co-founder of WebSpice.com. You can contact Mike online at firstname.lastname@example.org.|