Kicking the Tires: A Buyer’s Checklist

When considering the purchase of a notebook computer, here's what to look for.
John GoffSeptember 1, 2002

Making a smart decision when buying a notebook computer’s not that tough. Here are the basics.

Battery life — To discover the Achilles heel of the current crop of notebooks, simply unplug them. Most of the machines in the roundup ran less than two hours on a single battery charge — some lasted barely ninety minutes. Those numbers drop dramatically when you watch a DVD on an ultralight.

The slightly larger iBook and the Fujitsu LifeBook, were the best of our review bunch, with the Apple providing about three hours of power when unplugged. The Mac portable even lasted long enough for us to watch an entire DVD (“Bear in the Big Blue House — The Directors Cut”). The IBM ThinkPad X24 also ran over three hours on a single charge — but only on the company’s default power setting. A more normal power setting delivered good, but less impressive, results (under three hours).

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If battery life is crucial to your work, consider a) buying a second battery, b)tweaking the power management settings, or c) operating the machine while sitting in a vat of salt water.

Display — First-time notebook buyers are often dazzled by a pretty face, opting to purchase a notebook with as big a screen as possible. That can be a mistake. While a 15-inch LCD looks great, it’s a pain on a portable — particularly if you plan on using the machine in planes, trains or automobiles. The very first time a passenger sitting in front of you shoves their seat into the full recline position, you’ll comprehend the beauty of a smaller screen.

The ideal display size? For our money, 12-inches. And remember, you can always hook your notebook up to an external monitor for the big picture.

Footprint/Weight: All ten machines in the roundup are very totable, although the WinBook X2 was too heavy and bulky for our delicate build.

The undocked Gateway 200 and Dell X200 were the lightest machines of the group, weighing in at around 3 pounds. The Apple iBook and the Sony VAIO VX88 were the heftiest machines we reviewed – and that’s a very relative term. Both were easy on the shoulder. (Note, we did not include the AC adapter when calculating poundage. You can add in another 5 to 6 ounces for the transformer, plus whatever else you thrown into your notebook carrying case. Your mileage may vary).

If you do a lot of traveling, footprint is every bit as important as weight. A portable that looks petite on top of a desk may not look so small on top of a seat tray. Today’s portable computers may no longer be called laptops, but they still need to fit in your lap. As a rule, shy away from notebooks that are wider than a foot, or over 10.5 inches deep.

Memory — All the machines in the roundup come with a minimum of 128 megabytes of RAM. Since memory chips are dirt cheap right now, we suggest you hold out for at least 256 megs. Remember, the surest way to improve the performance of a computer is to bulk up on memory.

Ports — Hooking peripherals up to a computer is a whole lot easier than it used to be, and that holds true for portable computers as well. Most notebooks today feature a bevy of ports. Why so many plugs? Because there’s so many things to plug into them (camcorders, CD burners, Zip drives, and the like).

While you’ll want a notebook with old standbys like a serial port (for a mouse) and a parallel port (for a printer), make sure to get a machine with at least two universal serial bus ports. The upcoming version of the USB protocol (2.O) tranfers data at 480 Mbps — which is even faster than the 400 Mbps rate for FireWire (IEEE 1394) transfers. Almost every peripheral now comes in a USB version. And why not: with USB ports, there’s no need for loading software to drive peripherals. Just plug and play.

One caveat, however: If you plan on doing any video work with your notebook, make sure you get a FireWire port. While USB may eventually supplant IEEE 1394, the FireWire protocol remains the standard for camcorders and PC-based digital editing equipment.

PC Card Slot — At one point in time, we thought PC Card technology would come to dominate the world of portable computing. We also predicted Kaypro would come to dominate the world of personal computing.

Morale of the story? Don’t eat paste as a little lid. Also: while PC card slots are handy to have, they’re no longer a must-have on a portable computer. One Type II slot will suffice.

Power cord — Despite the small size of the portables, the transformers that power them can be a bit on the beefy side. We weren’t wild about the fold-out designs of the Apple iBook power plug, for instance. While a cord shouldn’t make or break a purchasing decision, lighter transformers are preferable, as are plugs that only have two prongs. Three-prong plugs often require adaptors.

Processor — Intel’s Pentium III-M chip remains the standard chip for portable computers. The P-III M comes in two models, either low-voltage or ultra-low voltage. In theory, a ultra-low voltage chip should add to a portable’s battery life. Underscore in theory. The Dell X200 comes with the ultra-low voltage chip. But in our exclusive usability tests (that is, we used the damn thing), Dell’s ultralight failed to impress with its battery life.

Clock speeds for Pentium III-M portables range from 800 GHz to about 1 GHz, which should provide plenty of power. But be advised, portables are now showing up with Intel’s latest mobile computing chip, the Pentium 4-M processor. Clock speeds for that approach the 2 GHz mark. If you need lots of processing punch, you might want to look at 4-M-based portables. In the meantime, the arrival of Pentium 4-M notebooks will drive down the prices of III-M notebooks (all of the units in this year’s buyer’s guide featured Pentium III-M chips).

Storage — These days, buying a truly portable computer doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice storage space. Most ultralights now boast capacious hard drives, anyway from 15 to 30 gigabytes. These drives offer two immediate advantages. First, you no longer need to purge large files on a monthly basis. And second, we get to use the word capacious.

Wireless networking — Ultralight portables like the ones in our roundup are designed to be ported. If you plan on doing a lot of porting, make sure you purchase a notebook that’s equipped with an integrated wireless adapter. Such an adapter will enable you to go on line at airport kiosks or in conference rooms.

What’s more, if your company has an in-building wireless setup, you’ll also be able to log onto your corporate network with a few clicks of the mouse (on computer spec sheets, wireless network adapters are often identified by the number “802.11b”). All the machines in the roundup – except the Apple iBook — came with integrated wireless network adapters.