The Mobile Mac

Picking the Right Laptop in 2006

- 2006.05.23 - Tip Jar

It's been a few years now since I've written a laptop buyer's guide, and there have been enough changes to warrant doing it again.

We've seen the introduction of dual core processors, Serial ATA hard drives, widescreen displays, bright screens, and big screens. A whole new class of mega-large entertainment-oriented laptops have emerged that are only really portable if your commute is only from the dining room to bedroom.

Meanwhile, desktop and laptop prices have dropped so low that buying extra desktops is an economical option to those who don't want to carry a laptop back and forth to work or between different rooms of the house.

Here's my take on all of it, though your mileage may vary.

First, before you even start looking at machines, you have to answer a few simple questions. How often will you carry the laptop? How long will it be carried? What will you use it for? How long do you plan to use it in a typical sitting? And finally, what is your budget? Answer those questions, and you will start to get a picture of what sort of laptop will satisfy your needs best.

Sadly, there is one more question that most people forget to ask and which I consider to be the most important: Mac or PC?

I'll get to this question last - first the user stuff.

How will it be carried and for how long?

From the start of the 20th century until the end of the Second World War, ship designers fought with three variables when trying to make ships of a given size (size classes were regulated by treaty) that were better than those of their enemies: engine power, armor, and firepower. These three directly impacted each other, as a ship that devoted more of its permitted tonnage to engines had less available for weapons and armor. More and heavier armor meant smaller engines or fewer and smaller guns. The art was in either getting the absolute best ratio or finding some way to cheat and just build a bigger and heavier ship without getting penalized under the treaty.

Weight Classes

Laptop designers face a similar problem of ratios, and they are related to the size of the screen, the size of the batteries, the power of the processor (limited by the heat it generates), and the weight of the machine. It's no great feat of engineering to make a laptop with massive batteries that will run all day, but those batteries are heavy. Likewise, there are processors out there that consume very little battery power, but they are too slow for heavy gaming and graphic use. The art is in the ratio. As with the ships of old, there are certain weight classes that manufacturers design to.

First are the ultralights. These machines are built to be as light as possible - some even come in at under 2 lbs. Of course, you won't find powerhouse chips, massive batteries, or large screens. These can get decent life out of their smallish batteries, but rely on 10" to 12" screens, often lack an optical drive, and usually have smallish keyboards. These are great for use on an airplane, but if you need a DVD drive or type a lot, you won't like ultralights much.

Next are the thin and light models, which until recently meant a five pound laptop with a 14" screen that was about an inch thick. Recently, however, smaller 12" and 13" models and larger 15" models have emerged that still weigh under 6 lbs. and in the case of the smaller ones, as low as 3-1/2 lbs. Thin and lights differ from ultralights in that they have large enough screens for all-day use (though 12" is pushing it these days), have full-size keyboards that are comfortable to type on, and finally, they are complete, meaning the optical drive is built-in, rather than an add-on accessory. Most users find a thin and light to be the ideal compromise.

Lastly are the desktop replacements, and again, this class has recently expanded with the introduction of 17" and even 19" laptops, with 15" being the entry level. These machines sacrifice some of their portability for power and often rival desktops in most performance areas. These are the media-center models with remote controls and multiple speakers.

The Right Weight

If you carry it more than you use it, get an ultralight, unless you frequently need the DVD drive, in which case a small thin and light is for you. If you rarely carry it but want to play the latest games in all their big-screen glory, a desktop replacement might do, though I'd hate to schlep one of these 9- to 12-pound behemoths across a college campus.

Applications

What will it be used for, and for how long in each session? Again, use matters. Spreadsheets, word processing, email, and Web browsing don't need much power, and an ultralight (or ultra-cheap) model will be more than adequate.

Do you need to view a lot of data at the same time? A large or wide screen with a high native resolution will help (resolution much more than size).

Plan on editing video or large image files (or playing games), then you need something with high-end, dedicated graphics and lots of video memory. If it says "integrated graphics" or "shared graphics", then it's not a high-end dedicated card. Look for at least 128 MB graphics cards on a game machine, and 256 MB is better.

Of course, any laptop with a desktop video card will have near desktop weight, so balance portability.

How Much Money?

What's your budget? This matters. If you only have $500 to spend on a laptop, you're either going to buy the cheapest piece of consumer junk Dell makes (slow, heavy, and oh-so clunky) or older technology on the used market. I'd go with the latter.

If money is no object, then you can get close to desktop performance in a machine that's still sleek, thin and light. Anywhere in between and the compromises set in.

Mac or PC?

"Mac or PC?" is the most difficult and important question of all.

Most people only know and use Windows, but with the current levels of spyware, adware, and viruses on the Internet, I just can't recommend Windows anymore for those who don't have to use it.

So who has to use it? Those who's companies have special applications that require Windows, hard-core gamers, and those who have corporate IT departments telling then what they can and cannot use.

For almost everyone else, a Mac is just a better way to go. Today's Macs use the same Intel processors as PCs, and with Apple's free Boot Camp beta software, they can even run Windows just like any PC on the market (and fast, too).

...if you want safe and secure computing, Mac OS X is your only choice.

Of course, with the singular exception of games and specialty apps, I just can't see any reason to run Windows on the Internet of 2006. Perhaps Windows Vista will improve things if and when it comes out next year, but for now, if you want safe and secure computing, Mac OS X is your only choice.

What about Linux? Linux remains a geek's toy for people who have a few hours to figure out how to get their video card to work, a few more for the sound, and a few more each time they want to add or remove a program or device.

I installed Linux on a ThinkPad a few months ago, and the install was very simple and took all of 20 minutes. The problem was that it took 2 hours to get power management, and even after 4 hours, I could never get DVD movie playback to work.

Of course in many businesses, the creation and manipulation of complex documents is an important fact of life. Linux fails here as well, simply because there is no version of Microsoft Word for Linux. Yes, you can run the Windows version inside a virtual machine or using Windows APIs (WINE), but that is far too complicated for those who just want to get their work done.

And don't even think about using a non-MS Word application like OpenOffice unless you don't share electronic documents with anybody else in either direction. Open a legal pleading, complex chart, or newsletter with a lot of graphics created in Word (as everybody does) in your free/open source application and have fun as you spend hours trying to make it look and print the way it was supposed to.

Viruses and other malware are not the only reasons I prefer Mac OS X. The interface is clean and easy to use without getting in my way. Printers and networks are discovered and configured automatically. It doesn't crash, and when an application goes down (application and OS crashes are very different things), you can always get out of it, unlike the ctrl-alt-delete routine in Windows that does nothing as often as it works. Its simply a better operating system, running on better hardware.

As stated above, you have an application that you absolutely depend on that is Windows- or Linux-only, then you have no choice and have to make do with that system. And for Windows, up-to-date virus, spyware, and adware protection is a must.

There you have it. Balancing your needs against your budget may not allow you to squeeze maximum firepower and speed into a heavily armored and lightweight package any better than the shipbuilders of the last century could, but it will get you as close as possible to what you want,and at a price you can afford and with a weight you can actually carry. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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