Sticker tells shopper key parts of a laptop

The Baltimore Sun

Last week I talked about the principles of buying a laptop computer for your college student (or yourself). Today I'll cover the specific components of a portable PC.

Like automobiles, computers have "stickers" that tell you what's inside. It will be posted on the retailer's shelf, on a technical specifications screen if you're shopping online, and usually on a real sticker attached to the computer itself. Here's what to look for:

The screen

The size and shape of the liquid crystal display (LCD) will determine the ultimate quality of your laptop experience. Like all computers and TV sets, laptop screens are measured diagonally.

Lightweight, ultraportable laptops have screens of 14 inches or less. Although happy Apple customers with 13-inch MacBooks will argue this point, I don't recommend anything smaller than 14 inches for long-term use. Another drawback of a small screen: a correspondingly cramped keyboard that can be nasty to work on for extended periods.

General-purpose laptops have screens in the 15.4-inch range, with an aspect ratio (width to height) of 4:3 - the same as a standard TV or desktop monitor. These are fine for most purposes - large enough for comfort, small enough for lugging around campus. Larger, 17-inch screens will please movie and game buffs, but they're more luggable than portable - and relatively expensive.

Wide-screen laptops, with a more rectangular, 16:9 aspect ratio, are gaining fans because they're shaped more like theater or HDTV screens. But be careful here - the term "wide" refers to the shape, not the size of the screen. In fact, a wide screen has a fractionally smaller viewing area than a standard screen with the same diagonal measurement. Practically, a wide screen lets you view two documents side by side.

A standard screen will display more of a single document. It's your choice.

Resolution: This refers to the number of horizontal and vertical pixels the screen can display. Most debate over this is nonsense. Unless your student has really good eyes, anything more than a 1,024-by-768-pixel display on a 15.4 inch screen is going to produce text that's too small to read comfortably. Higher resolutions may improve games and photo editing.

Finish: Flat-panel screens with glossy finishes look slick on the shelves and may add some depth to movies and games. I think they produce too much glare for concentrated work.

Keyboard

Look for a standard key pitch (19 millimeters between centers). Smaller keyboards will cramp folks with larger hands. Also, if you're a touch typist, check the position of the cursor keys and special-function keys (Home, End, PgUp, PgDown, Insert, Delete). There's a secret, industrywide competition to find the most awkward and illogical positions for these. So try to type on any laptop - or a model with the same keyboard - before you buy it.

Microprocessor

Also known as the central processing unit, or CPU, this is the heart of any computer - the chip that does the actual computing. A more powerful CPU that runs at a faster speed (measured in GHz) will provide a smoother, more reliable computing experience.

Laptops generally use mobile versions of processors from Intel or Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). Look for a PC with a dual core processor. This is complicated because Intel has been playing games with its naming conventions. Its latest processors are labeled "Core 2 Duo." If the description says Dual Core or Core Duo without the "2," it's probably an earlier model. This doesn't mean it's a bad buy - in fact, it might be a better bargain. AMD Turion processors with dual cores include "X2" in the model number.

Processor models are numbered - and higher-numbered models are generally faster. But one of the best ways to figure out what you're buying is to look at the sticker - if a machine is powerful enough for heavy-duty gaming, the sticker will brag about it.

You may also see the term "Centrino" bandied about. This a marketing gimmick by Intel to get manufacturers to use its supporting chipsets and wireless networking technology, in addition to Intel processors. Some manufacturers go along, others don't. It shouldn't affect your buying decision.

Memory

Memory chips (referred to as RAM) store programs and data temporarily while the computer is running. Adding memory will often boost performance more than a slightly faster processor. Microsoft recommends 1 gigabyte of internal RAM for its Vista operating system, and Apple serves up 1 gig in its basic MacBook line. I recommend 2 gigabytes - particularly if your student likes to play games in those rare moments when he or she is not studying.

Video

The computer's video adapter determines what appears on the screen. Even when they're displaying moderate detail, games and high-end graphics programs can strain a PC's video processor. For the best performance with Vista, Microsoft recommends an adapter that has at least 128 megabytes of memory reserved for video.

On laptops, this is a serious issue because the video circuitry is built in and can't be replaced. If your student is serious about gaming and graphics, look carefully for a computer with a graphics adapter from nVidia, ATI or some other player that has dedicated video memory, as opposed to "shared" memory that's also used by the operating system.

Multimedia

Most laptops with 14-inch screens or larger come with some type of compact disk drive. Unless your student is a budding video producer, a DVD/CD-RW, which records audio and data CDs and plays DVD movies, will do fine. But a drive that can also burn DVDs is a nice extra.

Hard disk storage

The hard drive stores programs, data, music and video permanently when the computer is turned off and shuttles everything back and forth into memory when the PC is running. Laptop drives are generally smaller than desktop models, so get at least 80 gigabytes of storage if your student collects music or video. Luckily, you're not locked in here - cheap, high-capacity external drives make it easy to offload seldom-used files and carry them around if the main drive fills up.

Ports

Lots of useful things plug into a computer's USB ports - including mice, full-sized keyboards, printers, scanners, music players Web cams, flash drives and external wireless network adapters. The more USB ports your laptop has, the better. Pick up a compact, four-port USB hub (which adds three ports to your laptop) when you buy the machine. It's $20 well spent.

Wireless networking

Many laptops come equipped with wireless network adapters - a must on most campuses and Starbucks coffee shops. If yours has one, make sure it meets the industry's 802.11g standard. Some say they meet the newer 802.11n standard, which is backward compatible with older wireless networks. But the standard is so new that you may not get much extra speed out of it.

If your computer doesn't have wireless networking built in, you can pick up a wireless adapter that slides into the laptop's card slot or a USB port for $50 to $100.

Pointing device

Most laptops use touch pads to replace the mouse, although a few use trackballs or little buttons in the center of the keyboard. They're all terrible. Buy a mouse and use it whenever you have enough room. Even if you ignore everything else here, your kid will thank me for this advice.

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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