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How to pick out the laptop computer that will perfectly suit your on-the-go needs.

For the first time, laptop sales exceeded those of their desktop counterparts in 2005. Three major reasons were the portability that laptops offer, the growing availability of Wi-Fi/wireless technology, and the new affordability of laptops for average consumers.

At the same time, more of us are traveling more often–and no one wants to be without his home office, his window to the online world, or his multimedia entertainment center. It’s now possible to get virtually any combination of options, from fundamental to highly sophisticated–on a laptop. The technology choices are daunting.

Yet for most of us, choosing a laptop computer is not just about technology. It is also a personal choice. For example, are you more comfortable sticking with name brands–or do you enjoy the challenge of spec’ing your own system, shopping generic offerings and individually purchasing components? On a Sunday afternoon, which Murphy’s Law dictates is when most of us will experience a technical problem with our laptop, what type of support do you want? Are you a do-it-yourselfer, a casual user who can wait until Monday, or one who wants answers now, and a live help person over the telephone?

Support and feeling comfortable with the laptop selections we make are issues that exist at the fundamental personality level for most of us–and then there are the technical laptop choices, and the task of figuring out which technology package best fits our lifestyle. There are many great laptop choices for Apple and Linux users, but since most consumers shop for laptops built off the standard PC base, PC technology will be the focus of this article.

What kind of user are you?

Popular laptop purveyors like Dell and HP offer user profile questionnaires and discussions on their Web sites to help you determine the type of laptop user you are. These vendors (and others) agree on four fundamental classes of laptop users:

o The low-end user who is interested in basic functionality like a word processor, a spreadsheet package, and Internet access for shopping and e-mail.

o The middle-spectrum user who needs access to databases and multiple applications at once, in addition to the fundamental functionality at the low end.

o The graphics and multimedia user who uses the laptop for games, graphical design, burning CDs–in addition to the low- and middle-spectrum functionality.

o An advanced application user like a mechanical engineer, who needs full CAD support for his work in addition to all of the functions previously mentioned.

The right choice

Once you know the type of user you are, you can start your laptop search. Manufacturers group laptop functions and features according to intensity of use. Not surprisingly, the more functions and features you need on a laptop, the higher the price. Laptop offerings differ from vendor to vendor, but this is how they typically break down by user classification:

The low-end user: Very basic computer users who need a word processor, a basic spreadsheet, and Internet/e-mail access will be excited at the number of laptop purchase options under $700. These laptops typically feature the Microsoft XP home operating system, and a Microsoft suite of software for word processing and spreadsheets. They also come bundled with Internet/email access.

Minimally for processing and memory, you should look for a Pentium M processor, at least 512 RAM–and as large a hard drive as you can afford. The standard display is likely to be 14.1 or 15 inches wide, and the laptop will come equipped with a basic graphics accelerator and an internal antenna or card for wireless access. Weight will average around six pounds. For the base price, most manufacturers also offer a choice between a DVD drive, a CD burner/DVD combination drive, or a DVD burner. A standard battery with two or three hours of life between charges is also typically part of the package.

There are several other options low-end users should also seriously consider, such as one or two USB ports for accessories like digital cameras, and a Firewire port for camcorder. Most manufacturers are building these ports into new laptop models. While you might not need them today, they will become important to you when you want to store digital camera photos and camcorder movies.

The middle-spectrum user: If you don’t consider yourself a power user but you require database access and use several applications at once, you will need all of the features and functions that a low-end laptop user does, plus a few more. You also might need to take your laptop on the road more, and that you might be using it for business as well as for personal tasks.

In the mid-range of laptops, either an Intel or a Celeron M is a very capable processor. Many laptop manufacturers build on this platform with higher-end accelerators for graphics, and additional capabilities for mobile computing. Mid-range laptops also carry more ports for connections than their lower-end counterparts. They often have dual-battery systems that give you twice the on-battery time of a standard laptop unit. They are also designed for easy docking at desktop workstations. These laptops often are “ruggedized” with heavy-duty or metallic chassis that provide extra protection for hard drives and other vital laptop components. Pricewise, you can expect to spend as much as $1,250, although there are laptops in this class that are available for less.

The graphics and multimedia user: Graphics designers, photo-editing buffs and video-game players will want a laptop that features a Pentium M processor and either a Microsoft XP home or professional operating system. They should look for a laptop that carries a leading-edge graphics card that can utilize PCI Express, along with a top-notch video display. Many graphics-oriented laptops include connections for both Ethernet and wireless networks, along with a smart-card reader with a security chip for media downloads, and a ruggedized chassis. Laptops with heavy-duty graphics and multimedia support weigh more (6-8 pounds) and top out around $1,500.

Engineering users: These folks should select a laptop with a 700-class Intel M processor with lots of cache. The recommended operating system is Microsoft XP Professional. SDRAM memory should be dual channel, and the hard-drive capacity should be as large as you can get. Typically, engineering laptops come equipped with high-resolution, 14.1-inch displays. These laptops weigh more, and pricing is usually over $1,500.

Things to consider

Regardless of the type of laptop user you are, there are several other items you should weigh in your purchase decision:

o Does the system come bundled with a security system? Does it include both virus detection and a firewall?

o How long do you expect to use your system? If you want a system that can carry you forward for three years, make sure that you buy “large enough” to accommodate the applications and data you are likely to acquire along the way.

o What kind of a warranty do you want with your system? Most laptops come with 90 days on parts and service. Extended warranties are available. Unlike desktops, most laptops have proprietary technology that is difficult to repair or replace. In other words, you might find yourself having to replace your entire laptop!

Weigh your options

Choosing a laptop presents numerous options and choices that desktop computers do not. First, there is the functionality you want on your laptop. Then, there are its portability (weight) and toughness (ruggedized chassis) to consider. Price also matters for most of us. For laptops, pricing can start below $500 and zoom into the $5,000 range for a highly equipped and customized machine. Laptops are also more easily stolen than desktops, which makes data and application security very important.

There are also laptop characteristics that are essential, even at the lowest end of laptop computers. These include: at least 512MB of random memory, plenty of hard-drive capacity, and built-in USB and firewire ports for cameras and camcorders. Wireless access is also an option that within the next few years will become a necessity.

Security is also important. The Windows XP SP2 operating systems enables you to install anti-virus, anti-spam, anti-spyware, anti-popup and firewall software.

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology practice for technology companies and organizations.

Trading Up Responsibly

One factor in getting any new computer is getting rid of the old one. Unfortunately, this is a consideration that doesn’t occur to most consumers until long after the transition to the new machine, if it ever does.

If you have old technology to dispose of, there are numerous donation, trade, and even resell options that promote environmental responsibility

Computer manufacturers like HP offer programs for the disposal of old computer equipment. Other options for getting rid of old equipment are: selling, trading or giving it to a computer equipment refurbisher like Computer Renaissance; or donating it to a school or a charity.

From a monetary standpoint, you might be best off by making a donation to a charitable organization that you can claim as a tax deduction. There might also be a family member who can use your old machine. Ask around. If the machine isn’t running at all, there are still parts dealers or refurbishers who might be willing to take it off your hands.

The thing to remember is that old computers are not like old cars. Resale value is virtually non-existent. Nevertheless, finding another use for your old machine and ensuring that the use is environmentally responsible, is smart. –M.E.S.

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