Secrets of the savvy school shopper

You have a primary role in deciding what kind of computers your schools will buy next. Nowadays, the convenience and mobility of laptop/notebook computers are factors you have to take seriously.

The appeal is unmistakable: Without the bulky monitor and box that are hallmarks of the desktop computer, you have more room; you can use your computer anywhere—at school, at home, or even outside; and there’s no need to own a second machine for travel.

In the past, the compromises necessary to enjoy the portability of a laptop were severe. A laptop meant a cramped keyboard, small screen, a slow processor, low memory, and minimal hard-drive space. Few ports meant you couldn’t run a printer, scanner, and another peripheral at the same time. Low-end graphics and sound cards all but ruled out watching movies.

But in recent years, as components became smaller and prices for liquid crystal display (LCD) screens came down, the promise of fully functional laptops has inched closer to reality.

Some say the true breakthrough came only this year with a new class of chips from the major chip makers. These high-speed chips, paired with a new type of RAM that accesses programs twice as quickly as its predecessors did, mean that replacing a space-hogging desktop with an equally powerful laptop is more than just wishful thinking.

Eight major computer makers introduced models with high-speed chips earlier this year, and more are likely to follow. Best of all, the price gap between laptops and desktops is slowly beginning to narrow as well.

These days, laptops hold nearly as much RAM as their desktop counterparts-in most cases, up to 1GB-so you can run a virtually endless array of programs simultaneously.

Then there’s the screen. You can buy a notebook with an LCD screen that’s every bit as good as the flat-panel monitors packaged with new desktops. All the new models come with 15-inch LCDs at a minimum. One manufacturer even offers a 16-inch display. Most of the keyboards are 95% of the size of a typical desktop keyboard, a difference you’ll hardly notice.

Of course, these laptops offer one feature your desktop doesn’t have: complete portability. The latest generation of laptops comes with a wireless network technology called 802.11b that lets you go online from nearly anywhere. All you need is a wireless internet hub, which will cost around $250.

A few late-model laptops also have Bluetooth, a wireless technology that’s been around for a while but is just beginning to catch on. Currently, its most common use is connecting Bluetooth-enabled peripherals such as handhelds and printers.

To get all these great features in a small box, a few compromises still are needed. Some of the new laptops are bulky and heavy-most weigh between seven and nine pounds. Their big screens and keyboards can make them less than ideal for a sprint between classrooms or for traveling from school to school.

This burden soon will be lifted as sub-three-pound machines are expected to begin hitting the market in the near future.

Another negative: The late-model laptops still are battery hogs. A machine with a bright 15-inch LCD will gobble the power. Battery life, on average, for these notebooks is still just two or three hours.

Still, for the portability and flexibility of anytime, anywhere computing and a full-range of applications and features, nothing beats a late-model laptop.

That’s why we’ve assembled a quick roundup of basic laptop/notebook information. To start with, what are the key factors to think about when considering this type of computer?

Key considerations before buying a laptop

1. Portability – The main reason to have a laptop or notebook is portability-the ability to take your entire computer from one place to another. If the computers you’re going to use will stay in one place, you probably should be looking at desktops.

2. Expense – Special deals and education discounts notwithstanding, laptops still are more expensive than comparably equipped desktops.

3. Ease of upgrades – Laptops are harder to upgrade than desktops. Generally, the CPU, video card, sound card, and screen that come with the laptop will stay with it through the life of the machine.

It’s possible to upgrade main memory and removable drives, but the upgrades can cost considerably more than a desktop’s. Cost of upgrading using PC cards or docking stations also remain on the high side.

Critical features

Memory is the single most important feature in a laptop. Most low-priced notebooks are sold with 32-64 MB of system memory (RAM). That’s not enough for running applications efficiently under any of the popular operating systems.

You’d do well to try to get a notebook with at least 128 MB. When it comes to memory, don’t forget: More is always better. Remember this, too: Buy the maximum amount of memory you can at the same time you’re buying the laptop. Many notebooks have only one or two memory expansion slots, and you can wind up throwing away the old memory if you have to upgrade later.

Along with memory, here are some other features to think about:

Batteries – Lithium batteries are superior to other kinds.

Hard Drives – 2-5 GB minimum. Of course, more is better.

Hardware DVD/MPEG-2 – All DVD drives rely on MPEG graphics compression to display video. The current standard is known as MPEG-2. MPEG-2 compression can be provided by software (slow) or by hardware (fast). It is generally agreed that a 500 MHz or faster Pentium III or Athlon is required to play software DVD effectively. Hardware MPEG-2 is preferred; it will provide smoother playback. Hardware MPEG-2 is a video chip function in notebooks.

Video Screens – These come in two basic flavors: active matrix (TFT) and dual scan (STN)/passive matrix screens. Another type of passive matrix screen is called HPA (High Performance Addressing). HPA screens are generally brighter than plain dual scan screens. Active matrix screens are faster, brighter, and cost about $200-$300 more than a dual scan/HPA screen. It’s best to view the screen before purchase to see if you like it.

Video Memory and Screen Resolution – The screen resolution of any notebook or desktop computer is a function of the graphics adapter, amount of Video RAM available, the display size (pixel density) of the screen (e.g. 640×480), and the number of colors used. These screen features are loosely defined by the type of output the screen can produce e.g. VGA, SVGA, XGA, and SXGA as shown in the following table.

Recommended Minimum Video Memory – 2MB or more is preferred. With less, you might have headaches running programs with Super VGA resolutions. To get true color (XGA – 16 million colors) on an external monitor, the graphics adapter needs 4MB of video memory (Important: Your notebook’s graphics adapter must also be capable of producing the desired number of colors. Check this out before you buy). Try to steer clear of “shared RAM.” Here’s why: The video controller accesses shared RAM more slowly than dedicated Video RAM, and the memory used by the video card reduces the total system RAM available to software programs. For example, if your notebook with 32 MB of shared RAM is running in XGA mode, you would have only 28 MB of RAM available for programs. So if your software program required 32 MB of system RAM, you’d be out of luck.

Shared RAM allows manufacturers to cut cost, size, and heat generation by eliminating Video RAM. As a result, you will usually see shared RAM in lower cost laptops and notebooks. Unless low power needs and extended battery life are of paramount importance to you, avoid notebooks with shared RAM.

Laptop CPU speed ratings

Generally, you should try to buy the fastest CPU speed you can afford. Because CPU data change frequently, you should check an up-to-date CPU index from a vendor neutral source. One of many such indexes may be found here:

In general, a good rule of thumb is the slower the CPU, the lower the price should be.

Another smart strategy is to try before you buy. When you’re preparing to place an order for your schools, you should expect vendors to accommodate your request to give a sample machine a test drive.

If you don’t like the keyboard, mouse, screen, or performance, you shouldn’t buy it in the first place. Your best bet is to shop around, attend several trade shows, and try as many laptops as you can.

Return Policy – Make sure you can return the laptop for a refund if you don’t like it (better vendors allow returns of laptops up to 30 days after purchase for a full refund). Many vendors have special rules on returning laptops, so make sure you know what they are before you buy. Warranties – Make sure you understand the laptop’s warranty and how it will be repaired if it breaks. Remember that small and new companies’ warranties might be worthless if they’re not in business tomorrow.

Additional Maintenance Contracts – These might be worth considering with laptops. Here’s why: The more you move them, the greater the chance something will break. If it is important to you that your laptops are always working, you might want to buy the maintenance contract.

In the last analysis, it’s usually wise to do business with people you’ve heard of. You can check the school-field consensus about companies that sell laptops by reviewing the Five-Star Rating System at the School Technology Buyer’s Guide. Just point your browser to

When it comes to laptops, brand is an important consideration. The brand can determine the quality of the machine, its warranty, and parts availability. Buy a brand you know and trust. It might not guarantee satisfaction, but it certainly will tilt the odds in your favor.

eSchool News Staff

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