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Is a Laptop Right for You?

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Written on April 20, 2001 by Robert & Karen Vanderzweerde

Appeared in Greenmaster Magazine

When purchasing a computer, one of the many decisions you have to make is whether to buy a standard desktop computer or a laptop.

What factors should you consider?

Laptop computers offer the advantage of portability, making them suitable for people who travel frequently and need to take their computers with them. Sales people, accountants, auditors, designers, architects, lawyers, and managers with multiple locations are obvious laptop candidates, but many others find the portability factor useful.

Laptops are also small, making them ideal for people who have very limited space or who don't want a standard computer constantly on display in their workspace or home environment. It is easy to pack the computer away into its carrying case for storage when not in use.

But there are some disadvantages to having a laptop, too. Cost is an issue. Laptop users want their computers to be as small and as light as possible. Over the years, we have carried our laptops around the world, and the longer you carry one, the heavier it seems! To lighten the load, laptops are made with miniature components. These components also need to be sturdy to take the punishment of travel. Laptops are put in trunks of cars on very hot or cold days. A laptop must be able to withstand more abuse than a desktop. As a result of these needs, laptops always cost more than a standard desktop and generally have less power than their desktop counterparts. You get less computing power for more money.

Laptops also cost more to upgrade. Generally, you must purchase parts supplied by the manufacturer of the laptop if you want to add more memory, disk space, or other peripherals. You may not even be able to add some of the things you would like to add (for example, there is limited space for multiple storage devices). You may want to add a zip drive for backing up your data, but you will probably need to have an external device, rather than one in the computer. This will add to the weight if you need to take the external device with you when you travel.

Laptops are generally less comfortable to work on than their desktop counterparts. Keyboards are often smaller than the standard keyboard, screens are smaller and in a fixed position that forces you to look down at the screen rather than straight ahead, and the numeric keypad is difficult to use because it is buried in the regular keyboard.

If the need for portability outweighs these negative factors, then a laptop is the answer for you. Here is what to look for when you purchase one:

  1. Purchase a reputable name brand. If you are on the road and need service, you want it to be as easy as possible.
  2. Check to make sure the unit is well built. Look for things that are likely to break off.
  3. Take a test drive. Try the keyboard and the pointing devices. There is a huge difference in the keyboard styles of the different brands. Take a document with two or three paragraphs with you to the store, and set the machine up for a good test. Is the keyboard easy to use? Does the pointing device drive you crazy? You may have to add an external mouse if you don't like the built in pointer - one more thing for you to carry and lose. Can you read the screen easily?
  4. What is the battery life of the unit? If you plan to work away from conventional power sources, the battery life and recharging time will be a major factor in the unit you select. And, by the way, it is good for the battery to be completely drained from time to time. When the battery is not fully drained, it does not recharge completely and the battery life slowly decreases. This phenomenon is called "loss of battery memory".
  5. Do you need a docking station? If you work primarily from one location and travel periodically, a docking station makes your laptop function as a desktop when you are "docked". The docking station has a regular computer monitor and keyboard attached, so when you slide the laptop into the station, it operates as the "box" does in a desktop. You work on a full-sized keyboard and have a large, high-resolution monitor that you can position for comfort. You get the advantages of a desktop while you are docked and the portability of a laptop when you are away. Of course, if you are always on the road, a docking station won't be of much use!
  6. Does the laptop have a modem/LAN card? Some laptops have the modem already built in. If you visit many offices and would like to access their printers or the Internet, a modem/LAN card will let you connect to their local area network (LAN) to use their devices. If you don't need to access other systems, then a regular modem will work fine for connecting to the Internet by phone.

Once you have your new computer, make sure you protect it. Get a carrying case with enough padding to protect the machine from every day travel hazards. Theft and loss are also problems - consider anti-theft software that will help locate your computer if it is stolen.

Make sure you back up the information on your laptop. Many laptop users are lax about backup procedures because they are always on the road. If you rely on external backup devices, use every opportunity to back up when you can. When you configure your system, make sure you think about how to back up all those gigabytes of storage on your hard drive - it takes millions of diskettes to do the job.

And finally, take good care of your laptop. If it has been in extreme temperatures, let it come to room temperature before you turn it on. Gently vacuum the keyboard once in a while - laptops are susceptible to dust and dirt. Clean the screen carefully with a soft cloth dampened with water or glass cleaner. Always carry it in a padded bag. You may remember the Toshiba commercial from a few years ago: "I can't believe I checked my notebook!" It was a funny commercial, but is not recommended practice. Don't put your laptop through the airline baggage system!

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