Why a laptop?
Laptops are more convenient than desktops if you work away from your desk.
Even for people who rarely need to roam with their computer, laptops take up less desk space and can easily be put away when not in use, freeing up your whole desk for other tasks.
Expansion options have traditionally been easier for desktop machines but since the advent of USB, laptops are now also easy to add options to - from wireless networking to a TV tuner card to just about anything!
Laptops are becoming more affordable and more reliable and entry level machines such as a second hand Pentium M laptop can also be found for under A$500 (as at August 2008).
Unfortunately laptops often cost more to repair because parts are smaller, more expensive and sometimes proprietary (you can only buy it from the laptop manufacturer).
Which Laptop should I buy?
Buy a system that will do everything you need now. You might like to allow for future needs (for example, the next version of your favourite software may require additional memory to run as fast).
Buying a quality brand such as Dell, HP/Compaq, Toshiba or Sony will minimise the chance of any hardware problems and if you do have a hardware problem, parts should not be a problem.
New or Second Hand?
You can save a fair bit of money buying second hand. Often, you can pick up a machine with additional accessories (extra memory, wireless, carry bag, docking station, extended warranty etc) which you have to pay extra for if you buy new. Choose a seller with a good feedback rating and look for a machine that is still under warranty from the manufacturer. Then if there are any problems, you can have the machine repaired locally without paying for return postage. Compaq/HP and Dell warranties are still valid even if the machine is sold to a new buyer.
A friend in Melbourne bought a second hand Dell machine and there was a problem with the battery recharging. Fortunately, the warranty was still current and she logged a call with Dell. Within 24 hours there was someone onsite. The engineer could not tell immediately which item was at fault so the main board, the battery and the AC power supply were all replaced!
My experience with Dell is similar and that is why I prefer to buy and sell Dell hardware.
What about CPU, RAM and HDD?
CPU (processor), RAM (memory) and HDD (disk drive) need to be suitable for the operating system you are proposing to run. I recommend the following as a minimum. Anything less will mean your machine will start and run very slowly, especially if you try and run more than one program at a time:
Program CPU RAM HDD
Windows XP Pentium 233MHz 128MB 2G
Windows 2000 Pentium 133MHz 64MB 650MB
Windows 98 486DX66MHz 24MB 200MB
Windows 95 486SX25MHz 8MB 40MB
Office XP Pentium 133MHz 64MB 210MB
Office 2000 Pentium 75MHz 32MB 190MB
Office 97 486SX25MHz 16MB 100MB
Most programs run well with a 500MHz processor as long as you have enough memory (e.g. 512MB or greater). It is not usually easy to upgrade the processor on a laptop so choose something that will be suitable for you some time into the future.
The more memory the better. 512MB is usually enough memory to run current programs but if you intend running many programs at the same time, 1024MB or even more would be preferable. Memory is relatively easy to upgrade in a laptop (and not too expensive). Often the current memory has to be replaced rather than added to because there are only one or two memory slots.
Hard Disk Drive
A 30GB drive is usually sufficient for the operating system, applications and personal files unless you have a large MP3 music collection or are uploading photos or movies from your movie camera. If you find that you are running out of disk drive space, the hard drive can be upgraded or an external USB hard drive can increase your storage space. An 80GB hard disk costs around A$100 as at August 2008.
Laptop Processors (CPUs) Types
The Intel Pentium M and Intel Celeron M
These processors are designed from the ground up for the mobile environment and are an improvement over the Pentium 4 processors. Interestingly, a 1.7 GHZ Pentium M can out-perform a Pentium 4 running at 2.4 GHZ! Battery life is usually good with a Pentium M processor due the power saving design of the components. The Celeron M is basically the same as the Pentium M processor except that the level 2 cache is smaller.
Mobile Intel Pentium 4
These CPU's are suited for heavy duty processing requirements such as video editing and 3D gaming. They are similar to a desktop Pentium 4 processor but with better thermal properties and lower power consumption.
Mobile Intel Pentium 4-M
The Pentium 4-M is similar to the Pentium 4 but does not support Hyperthreading, uses less power, and generates less heat.
Mobile Intel Celeron
These CPU's are suited for lighter duties. The on-chip cache memory is smaller than the above processors.
AMD Mobile Athlon XP-M
Athlon XP-M processor machines offer as good or better performance than similar Pentium processors and are usually better priced.
If you spend long periods away from your desk, then battery life will be an issue. You can expect up to three or four hours out of a new battery before it needs to be recharged. Batteries do not last forever and after a year or two you may notice your machine does not last as long off the mains as it used to. Be sure to check the battery condition when buying a second hand laptop as new batteries are not cheap.
TouchPad or AccuPoint?
You can plug in an external mouse into any laptop but if you are away from your desk you may be relying on the built in TouchPad or AccuPoint. This is often down to personal preference but you can usually get used to one or the other if you have to. Some laptop models (e.g. HP/Compaq/Dell) come with both.
Most recent laptops come with USB and this is very useful for connecting to modern peripherals. For example, some printers have USB connections only so a USB connection on your laptop is desirable. On the other hand, some recent laptops no longer have serial or parallel ports and if you wish to connect your old parallel port printer or GPS with a serial interface, you might need to purchase a USB to parallel or USB to serial interface to be able to connect.
Other connections you might like to consider when selecting a laptop might include a modem, network connection or wireless adapter. If your laptop has none of these, they can always be added via USB or PCMCIA slot.
To save space and reduce weight, many laptops do not include a floppy drive. This may not be an issue as USB memory sticks are now tending to replace the role of the floppy drive. An external USB floppy drive can be added if you need one. If all you need is a CD player, you should be able to find some bargain laptops. Alternatives include CD/DVD, CD-RW/DVD ("combo") and DVD-RW. You can upgrade to a CD or DVD burner later or it can be cheaper to add a USB external CD or DVD burner. A brand new DVD burner suitable for a laptop costs less than A$100 on eBay.
Buying on eBay or at Auction
Buying on eBay or at auction, like many things in life can be a risky business. Of course, if the laptop is cheap enough, this makes the risk worthwhile!
There are a few ways you can minimise the risk:
- buy at an auction where you can freely inspect the machine prior to the auction
- buy on eBay only with reputable sellers (as indicated by their feedback rating)
- inspect or ask about the battery condition (a new battery could cost you $100)
- bid on quality brands such as Dell, HP/Compaq, Toshiba or Sony
- work out your personal spending limit in advance
- do your homework on the value of the machine before bidding - check similar listings on eBay
I have saved the best tip until last. Check the warranty status of the machine you are bidding on. You can do this for Dell and Compaq/HP machines from the Dell and HP web sites (there may be others). The auction house may include serial numbers in their catalogue, so you can look up warranty status before bidding. In some cases, you can even review the service history on a machine. Imagine finding out that the machine you want to bid on had a brand new hard drive installed only a month ago, or that the machine you are keen on has had so many faults that you begin to question the previous owners treatment of the machine! You then have a huge advantage over the other bidders because you will know it may be worth bidding an extra $100 because there is still six months warranty on a particular machine. Also, you may know the machines to avoid.