Thursday, September 22, 2011

How to buy a laptop


Laptop is a  very specialized piece of equipment. It has to chosen carefully in order to suit your needs and not just by looking at benchmarks. That procedure is for desktops.

I will not list laptop models or vendors here because the hardware and configurations change so fast that by next day it would be outdated. To figure which ones are topping the list go to pcmag.com, laptopreviews.com But remember the your final choice might be complete different than the ones they recommend. But if you sure that this is what I need then go ahead.

Now let us see how to choose the right laptop.

To select a laptop answer these first

1. Why do I need it ?
2. What do I expect from it?
3. How much spending can I afford ?
4. How much battery life I want?
5. How long do I want my laptop to be mainstream?

CATEGORIES :

A> Business - This means you have to make presentations with it. And travel a lot.

Options : Business laptops are available to suit this niche. But personally I would say - Buy one laptop for office use. And buy one for travel. The travel laptop needs to be a netbook i.e. a 11" laptop or best would be a Macbook Air because it is very light and portable.


B> Student (till undergrad) - This means you have write report. Do light calculation. Surf the web and listen to music. Travel to and fro to the college campus. And need good value for money.

Options - This category has lot of options because weight and performance is not an issue. But cost is. I have seen many freshmen using Macbooks. This is surely an overkill. Macbooks are feature rich but low priced ones have dated hardware and they phase out faster compared to market.

Best bet for students would be to buy laptop with one generation older CPUs than the current market trend and low range budget laptops with 14"/15" screens. 14" for those who like portability and 15" for the entertainment minded people.


C> Office - Heavy duty data analysis and desktop like use. Needs to be tough and speedy.

Options -  Desktop replacement laptops. Not Macs. Their hardware would suck. But people say that the 17" Mac is very portable compared to other 17" in this category. So decide which one is needed more - portability or performance. HP machines rules this category for years but they are bit lagging at the point of this writing but they might pick up at any time. One word of caution - keyboards on HP laptops are very inconvenient to type with. And the touchpad scroll rarely works even in Windows. But people using these desktop replacement should always get a keyboard and mouse pair because they have to put long hours before the laptop. So at the end HP might turn out to be better.

D> Researchers / graduate students - These people are unlucky. Because they need performance for heavy duty computation, portability for giving talks, low cost, etc.

Options- Try buying a high end budget laptop.


Now lets talk about the current offering from the market.

HP

 A leading brand. But try the model out in a local Bestbuy store. See how comfortable you are with the keyboard etc. The speakers of low end/ budget laptops series are really bad. They crack up at high volume.

dv/ dvt series


Battery - ok.
Power supply - Prone to damage due to overheating.
Screen - More glare than other laptops of same price range.
Keyboard - Bad. Uncomfortable. Slow response. 
Touchpad - Slow response.
ACPI / Fn keys - Works well in Linux
Fan - Small. Causes massive heating. Cannot be used on lap or on a soft surface.
Speakers - Waste. Cracks up even though Altec Lansing.

Excellent finish. 

The wireless switches are physical switches. Not keyboard driven. So it is a good response. But sometimes the bluetooth have the switch and slipping the switch turns the wireless. Then must boot into Windows to get the HP driver recognize the switching and turn the bluetooth on.

DELL 

 A very customizable laptop. A good choice for college students. These laptops can have a flashy lid. But beware that if it is customized online and assembled somewhere in mid-east Asia like Taiwan the build quality would be abysmal. Dell is notoriously bad for after sales service. I cannot tell how many times I have I have gotten into huge verbal fights over their sales representative. Once a guy inspected my friends laptop and said that the motherboard is fried and the replacement costs around $350. I said that motherboard is not fried but the power supply is damaged. He started shouting that he knows better. I let him go. He took $10 receipt for his PRODUCTIVE visit. I took the laptop to a local store. They fixed the power supply for $80. Also once another of my friend got a laptop with a faulty battery. But he is little slow with computers. He realized it much later. When he called up DELL after 30 days they said it is too late for a replacement battery. I was confused because there is supposed to be 1 year warranty.

Inspiron / Studio series
Battery - bad, heavy, takes long to charge.
Power supply - Prone to damage due to overheating.
Screen - Can get stuck pixels.
Keyboard - Flimsy.
Touchpad - Works well but has a bad feel for touch.
ACPI / Fn keys - Works well in Linux
Fan - Weak , very weak. Causes massive heating. Cannot be used on lap or on a soft surface.
Speakers - Average.

Excellent finish on some, crappy on assembled ones.

XPS series
Everything similar except it is a faster system.

Alienware series
Good quality
Great finish
Keyboard and touchpad state of art
Overheating problem remains.
Bulky. Just  a desktop replacement. Rather get a desktop for 1/4 the price.


TOSHIBA 

 Good features at a low price. I bought one with a backlit keyboard for $750. They are choice for high end budget laptops for researchers. But they are heavy (not bulky), repulsive looking laptops with many of its features not implemented in standard ACPI. The upshot is that the backlit keyboard does not work without drivers in OS like Linux. Not very portable. So try to keep till 14" only. Also, Toshiba laptops tend to get heated up on the right palm rest. However the bottom of the laptop remains very cool. So you can use it on your lap for a long time. But with the right palm rest heating up it makes little sense. 

Some Toshiba laptops like the P740 series have very good stereo speakers. Not the Altec lansing speakers that are pushed as a home theater like experience but rarely deliver the goods. The speakers that came with my P740 is a harman/kardon one. It packs a solid punch. Now, you can show off those 720p movies to your friends without the embarrassment of the sound cracking up.

I heard good things about the Protege series but never tried it.


Battery - Every bang for buck. Superfast charging. Stays for over 5.5 hours straight.
Screen - Little glossy, but overall great feel. Not much glare.
Keyboard - Top notch. A chiklet keyboard gives a smooth typing feel. 
Touchpad - Works better in Linux with the middle click in the top tight corner.
ACPI / Fn keys - Uses non standard ACPI calls. Hence, backlit keyboard does not work in Linux. So do not buy the backlit ones if you are planning to use Linux.  Neither does the Bluetooth switch work which is same as the wireless switch. 
Fan - Good ventilation. Multiple vents causes good cooling. Can be used on lap for a long time.
Speakers - Mind blowing (laptop specific; harman/kardon speakers).

Even though the webcam was advertised as skype compatible Google video chat had better picture than skuype. Have to use v4l2ucp to adjust brightness before using video call in Skype.


ACER - Do not know.

MSI - Do not know.

ASUS - Really good series of laptops but lacks variety. Great battery life for some models and excellent finish on some. Try them out in a local store.



FEATURES :

These are features that I consider to be necessary but not mandatory.

1. Bluetooth.
2. Smart card reader.
3. USB 3.0
4. USB 2.0 ports - minimum 2

These are features which are extra and far fetched.

1. WIMAX
2. WiDi
3. Blu-Ray drive.
4. Any optical drive.


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