Rahul Sah, Sanjay Majumder and Saurangshu Kanunjna
Bulk buying is not limited to desktops alone today. Today, organizations also need to buy lots of notebooks for their employees. Moreover, different employees have different needs, thereby complicating the equation even further. So how should you go about choosing the right one for your needs? How do you decide which notebook is apt for which working professional. The good news is that today there's a plethora of options to choose from. You'll find a slew of notebooks in different price brackets, targeted at different needs and professionals. This makes it very difficult to decide what to buy. If you buy a notebook without doing a thorough analysis of your needs and without comparing amongst different vendors, chances are high that you might crib later. This is not only true for bulk buying, but even for individual buying. So, in this guide, we'll take you through some of the intricacies of choosing a notebook, which will be useful for both categories of people--those buying in bulk and those buying a single piece for their needs.
Whether you're buying a notebook for yourself or for employees in your organization, it's essential to do a complete requirements analysis. In case of the latter, everyone's requirements are not the same, so you can't possibly decide to buy a single type of notebook in bulk and hand it all around. So the employees' requirements need a careful study to ensure that what they're asking for is what they actually need. It should be nothing more and nothing less. For instance, somebody might want a Core 2 Duo notebook with a 64-bit processor. But does the person really need the 64-bit machine? If not, then you could save some money by going for a 32-bit processor instead. That's where you need to step in and find out the exact reasons and guide the person in choosing the right notebook spec. For all you know, the employee might have heard of a particular notebook brand and wanted it for its sheer value.
You need to assess the particular notebook model and see whether it's really worth it. We've seen a situation where somebody requested for a particular brand of notebook and got it. However, later, the person was extremely uncomfortable using it because the screen size was too small, the keyboard's keys were too small and uncomfortable to work with. Overall, it led to lower productivity and the person gave up the notebook. This situation can be avoided if you step in initially itself to see whether the notebook being asked for is really worth it. If you're buying in bulk, then you could even negotiate with the vendor to let you use some sample models for some time. Another aspect to keep in mind is choice of vendor. If you're buying a wide range of notebooks for your office, then it's better to go for a vendor who offers the widest range of models. That way, you can strike a better deal not only in price, but also support.
If you're buying for yourself, it's always good to understand what exactly you intend to do with it and then find the best configuration. Keep in mind that you're buying something that you're going to use for at least two to three years (unless you're stinking rich), so its configuration had better last for that long. Otherwise, you might end up scouting around for a new notebook sooner than you thought.
How do you go about matching your budget with the needs of each user? One way out is to check out the price of comparable models with multiple vendors. It's a common notion that notebooks having relatively similar specs vary in price from vendor to vendor. This could be due to brand positioning, difference in service support or the cost of components. It's important to know in detail the reason why two vendors providing notebooks with similar specs, are charging different rates. By consulting various vendors about the price of a specific configuration, you can settle for the best trade-off in terms of quality and price. So a little research will help you know what fits his budget.
Don't bank on stickers
One thing you'll find across a lot of notebooks these days is the Intel Centrino Duo sticker. You need read between the lines here. A Centrino Duo doesn't really tell you the type of processor inside the system. In fact, Centrino is not really a processor but a technology, while duo connotes dual core. What it basically means is that there's some dual core CPU inside, and the notebook supports Centrino technology. For instance, in our notebook shootout in the following pages, we received two laptops that had the same Centrino Duo logo on them. However, one had a Core duo (32 Bit, T2500) processor inside, while the other had a Core 2 Duo (64 bit, T7400) processor. This led to a difference in cost. So do ensure that you ask the vendor which is the exact processor inside the notebook you're planning to buy. Not only that, but you should try to find the meaning of any sticker you find on a laptop. Let's now drill down into the actual hardware specs and see what's hot.
De-mystifying processor naming conventions
Today you will find a whole range of processors available in notebooks, especially from Intel. Not only that, but their names sound very similar to each other. For instance, should you buy a Core Duo, a Core 2 Duo or a Core Solo based notebook? Or maybe you should go for Pentium M or Pentium M Dual core. This is further clouded by stickers like Centrino duo, which we just talked about. Let's clear the air a little bit. Intel presently has three key categories of processors for notebooks: These are Intel Core, Pentium and Celeron processor families. The Core and Pentium family of processors are also broadly classified under Intel Centrino mobile technology. The Core processor family is also supposed to consume lesser power than the Pentium family.
In the Core processor family, Intel has three processors: Core 2 Duo, Core Duo and Core Solo. The Core 2 Duo processor has dual cores, 4 MB of shared L2 cache and supports up to 667 MHz Front Side Bus. Plus it's 64-bit enabled and supports virtualization. Core Duo is also dual core, but has 2 MB shared L2 cache, and has an intermediary bus that controls both L2 cache and its FSB is 533/667 MHz. However, it does not have 64-bit extensions. Next comes Core Solo, which has a single core, has 2 MB L2 cache and supports 667 MHz FSB.
The Intel Pentium processor family for laptops consists of the Pentium M and the Pentium Dual-Core mobile processors. These are older generation technologies, but you'll still find some notebooks having these processors. The Celeron processor family has just one processor, the Celeron M, which is meant for entry-level budget notebooks.
Let's now move on to the AMD's mobile processors for notebooks. Unfortunately, we didn't get any AMD notebooks for the shootout, but they have four processors in the mobile category. These include AMD Turion 64 X2 Dual-Core, Turion 64, Mobile AMD Athlon 64 and Mobile AMD Sempron. This naming convention is pretty straightforward. AMD Turion 64 X2 Dual-Core means two 64-bit cores on a single die, and Turion 64 means single 64-bit core. Mobile Athlon and Sempron are older generation processors.
This is a key but often ignored issue that you need to look for while buying a notebook. In fact, you might get a good price for the notebook you're buying, but if the support is bad, then you'll end up paying extra there. You need to ask your vendor, what kind of service will they provide. Is that just on notebook components or on the OS and software as well that ships with the notebook. Are they providing onsite support or do you need to take it all the way to the nearest vendor, in case there's a problem? Also, look around and check with your peers about the promptness in support by their respective vendors. Plus, how much time did they take to rectify a problem.
All notebooks come with warranty, but what sort of warranty is what you need to drill down into. Is it an on-site warranty (meaning the company will send someone to you) or is it a carry-in warranty? Does the warranty cover both parts and labor charges in case something goes wrong? And lastly, is there an option of extended warranty or insurance available? You'll need to weigh the pros and cons of extended warranties and insurance. For example, if you travel a lot, chances are that the amount you pay extra will be well worth the added peace-of-mind.
Types of RAM
Unlike desktop computers which have four RAM slots, notebook computers only have two (also called SODIMMS). If you want to upgrade RAM in future, find out if both RAM slots are filled or not. For example, if the notebook has 512 MB of RAM, does it have two 256 MB sticks or a single 512MB stick? In case of the former, both slots will be filled so in order to upgrade, you'll have to remove one. And selling old RAM is difficult. If you have just one 512MB stick, you can easily add another 512MB or 1GB stick. Then you need to find out the type (and speed) of RAM. Newer machines come with DDR2 RAM, with different speeds like 400MHz, 533MHz or 667MHz.
What hard drive?
Check out the RPM speed of the hard disk shipping with the notebook. Some vendors install lower RPM drives inside their notebooks to save cost. But over a period of time, as your data grows on it, you'll face performance issues. So higher RPM drives give you better performance than those with lower RPM.
What video card?
Nowadays, you'll find more powerful graphics cards inside notebooks, from the likes of Nvidia and Ati. These allow you to go beyond running basic productivity apps into more graphics intensive apps and even games. A powerful graphics chip will ensure that it takes some of the load away from the CPU, thereby improving the overall performance of your notebook. Another thing to check is the video memory. Most notebooks use a part of the main memory as video memory. This can be adjusted by the user from the notebook's BIOS. However, the maximum video memory that you can allocate varies in notebooks. You should go for a notebook that let's you allocate the maximum memory for video. Generally the allocation can range from 128 to 256 MB. However, if this is not enough, then you'll also find notebooks that have dedicated memory for graphics. This would offer better graphics performance.
Check which OS is the notebook shipping with. Many notebooks, especially at the entry level ship with a free version of Linux, say Fedora Core. If that's the case, then you should verify what kind of support will you get with the OS. Otherwise, switch to an OS that you're more comfortable with and you get the right support for it as well. Moreover, in case you do decide to go with Linux, then check whether all the extra buttons on the notebook's keyboard work with it. We've seen cases where buttons for volume control, wireless, etc don't function under Linux. Ensure that such problems are resolved before buying. In case of Windows XP, it's better to choose a laptop with the XP Professional edition instead of the Home edition because that's more suited for an office environment. Nowadays, many notebooks are either shipping with Windows Vista, or claim to be ready for it. Vista also comes in various editions: Vista Business, Home Basic, Home Premium and Ultimate edition. The cost of the notebook can vary depending upon which OS you're getting. Ensure that you get the OS that suits your requirements.
Support for Vista
The day you buy a notebook, you reasonably expect it to last for the next 3-4 years. By next year, you might find Vista becoming the predominant OS on most notebooks and desktops. At that time, if you also need to upgrade, then you have to ensure that your laptop is ready for it. Many notebooks come with a Vista compatible logo on them. This alone is not sufficient.
Microsoft provides a compatibility test component that rates a notebook's readiness for Vista. In this, if you get a score of three or above then rest assured your notebook will provide a desired experience with Vista. A lower score doesn't mean that Vista won't run, but you might not be able to use all of its features. Also note that this test can only be run on a notebook loaded with Vista. We checked all notebooks in our shootout for Vista compatibility and have discussed their scores separately.
Another thing that you need to check is whether all the hardware that you plan to use with your notebook is supported in Vista. Currently, there are still several USB based storage devices, Bluetooth Dongles, etc, which don't get detected by Vista. This problem might get resolved ultimately, but you should be sure about it before buying a Vista notebook.
The battery backup of a notebook can range from 2.5 to 5 hours with wireless connectivity. Most notebooks have their own power management system that gives longer battery backup when running on battery. Such features basically dim the brightness of the LED and escalate the notebook to the sleep mode if it's kept idle for some time. By default the primary battery is 6-cell Lithium ion, but if your mobility requirements are high, then you can go for a 9-cell option at an additional cost and get at least 5 hours back up.
What accessories do I need?
Most companies supply a good carry case with the notebook. This is suitable for most purposes, and you should only consider buying another one if you need to carry more-or for fashion! If you're buying a case, make sure that it has adequate protection against bumps and knocks-or protection against the elements if you travel a lot. For high risk areas, you can also consider a notebook cable lock which slots into the Kensington lock slot. Apart from these necessities, you can look at screen cleaners, external drives, and several USB accessories like LED keyboard lights, fans or a Skype phone if you talk a lot.
Screen size and weight
Notebooks come in several screen sizes. There are compact notebooks with screen sizes of 12.1” and 13.3”. Then there are the regular notebooks with screen sizes of 14.1” and 15.4”. There are also 17” screen notebooks, which can act as good desktop replacements. Many notebooks nowadays also come in wide screen format. This has several advantages such as better viewing angle, more desktop area, etc.
One thing you should check when buying a wide screen notebook is compatibility with external display connectivity. If you connect it to a projector or another monitor, will it display everything correctly? We've had cases where the screen resolution goes for a toss the moment you connect a notebook to an external display. Coming to the weight of the notebook, the one listed on the vendor's website or in a publicly accessible brochure is the weight of the notebook without any accessory or bag. You should personally inspect the weight of the notebook along with the carry bag and other essential accessories such as power adapter, external optical drive, etc.
A lot of the notebooks we received had a button marked 'Bluetooth'. But
while it installed a driver for it, we had to insert a USB Bluetooth dongle
to get any Bluetooth connectivity on that notebook.
USB placement: USB ports are very useful if you use them a lot. So, is it convenient to have them on the sides or at the back? Some notebooks have them on the sides only, evenly arranged. Others have one or two on the side and the rest at the back. Also idiotic is the placement of USB ports next to power or Ethernet ports. USB devices often come with very fat cables or are fat themselves (like USB drives) and these can't be plugged in without removing other connections. Same, of course, goes for other ports.
Optical drive placement: Whatever be the optical drive on your notebook, if it is on the front edge, you better be sitting at a table, as you need ample space. The same goes for 'quick' (browser, e-mail, etc) buttons on the front.
Keyboard arrangement: Where are the keys you use the most? If they are in radical positions unlike the usual QWERTY fashion, it is not convenient to work with. Also some keyboards have very small left-shift keys or have the 'Fn' key near 'Ctrl', etc.
Sometimes, the number of input/output ports in a notebook is compromised due to a smaller physical size. As a thumb rule, you should have at least three USB 2.0 ports, FireWire, VGA out, S-Video out, Ethernet (RJ45), modem (RJ11), headphone (line-out) and microphone ports. Even a notebook with a 12.1-inch display should have these basics for seamless connectivity.
For true mobility, you need to have all possible connectivity options. Just about every notebook today comes with WiFi, modem, and Ethernet. You should also look for Bluetooth as that's increasingly becoming important thanks to so many mobile devices coming with the same feature built-in. But of course, if your notebook doesn't have it onboard, then you can always buy a USB based dongle for it. Having it onboard is more convenient though.
With instant messaging and voice conferencing becoming more and more popular, the web cam is now a popular addition to the mid-level notebook. Not only can you use the webcam for peer-to-peer video conferencing and for taking impromptu photos/ videos-you can also use it to remotely monitor an area using Skype.
Check the resolution of the webcam; 1.3 mega pixels is now de-rigueur. Also check if the notebook you buy has a built-in microphone(s). With both these built-in, you'll eliminate the need to attach bulky peripherals with cables later.
Most of the business notebooks are equipped with enhanced features such as TPM (trusted platform module), finger print reader and HDD security. The Fingerprint Module is a biometric reader, which uses a person's fingerprint to ensure security. This ensures not only an advanced level of security but also ease of use; one can also lock the files/folders etc to protect from unauthorized access. Interestingly Lenovo notebooks are coming with a face recognition system as protection against unauthorized access.
Drive protection/data prevention
Here drive protection means protecting your hard drive physically. Many notebooks today come with shock absorbent systems. This means that as soon as a notebook senses shock or vibrations, it parks the head of the HDD in a safer place; so that it does not bang against the media, thereby preventing physical damage to the drive. Check whether your notebook offers this protection.
This is a key concern now-a-days. One of the benefits of having a notebook is that you can keep it in your lap while working (which is why the name laptop). Therefore, they must have very good thermal management. Unfortunately, many notebooks don't. Either the keyboard gets too hot, or the bottom of the notebook heats up significantly, or maybe the touchpad becomes too hot for comfort. None of this should happen in a notebook with good thermal management.
Drivers and recovery
All notebooks should have a system for recovering data, if your hard disk were to crash. So, if a vendor provides readily usable drivers and recovery CDs, that's a big plus. But if the same vendor provides a blank notebook and leaves it for you figure out, then you might land up in a soup.
Unlike desktops, notebooks offer limited upgradeability. That again is usually quite expensive. But in case you have to upgrade, then your options are the processor, RAM, hard drive, optical drive and battery pack. Each of these has its limitations. A notebook may or may not support their upgrade. Let's look at each of them. Check for the number of RAM slots a notebook has. If there's only one, then make sure you get sufficient RAM to last long.
For instance, Win XP requires at least 256 MB RAM to work properly, so that's the minimum you should go for. Or else, you will have to replace it with a higher capacity RAM module later. There are some notebooks that come with on board RAM, plus an extra slot to add more. While upgrading, make sure that RAM you buy matches the one already present. Unlike RAM, there are no extra bays for more hard drives.
So when you run out of hard disk space, you have two options. Either replace it with a higher capacity one or buy an external drive. There are a number of options available in external hard drives, right from those that connect to a USB or FireWire interface to those that go inside a PCMCIA slot.
If you need to upgrade a CD/DVD writer, then either go for an external USB/FireWire based drive, or replace the internal one. In case of latter, the part is most likely to be available with the vendor alone. So be ready to pay out of the nose for it.