Ten Rules for choosing a New Laptop computer

1. Processor speed, a much used sales point, is not as important as most people think. Unless you are running high end graphics you can easily use a Pentium III or equivalent. Often test show that systems with P4 chips actually run no faster than Pentium III configurations in laptops. People, who have modest computing needs, can save a lot of money by sticking with a PIII-M notebook. Use that money for other things, like RAM.

2. System memory: Don't settle for anything less than 256MB of system memory if you want to do more than word processing and e-mail, because Windows XP and newer applications quickly chew up memory and threaten to slow down your work. Memory slots are usually fairly easy to reach on notebooks, if you wish to upgrade.

3. Graphics memory: You'll want 32MB or 64MB of video RAM if you plan on using your laptop to drive external monitors for presentations. Make sure that the memory is dedicated rather than pulled from main memory; this is sometimes referred to as a universal (UMA) or shared (SMA) memory architecture.

4. Screen: Some portables with 14.1-inch and 15.1-inch screens now cost as little as $1200. But business-class fliers who prefer a more compact notebook screen size of 12.1 or 13.3 inches may soon have only ultra portables to choose from.

5. Battery: In battery tests conducted by the PC World Test Center, battery life in units equipped with the new P4-M chip averaged roughly 2.5 hours. While Intel and notebook manufacturers try to iron out the P4-M's power consumption kinks, consider buying a notebook that uses the older Pentium III-M chip; these portables posted battery lives of between 3 and 3.5 hours in most cases. Most notebooks come with a lithium ion rechargeable battery, which lasts longer than the less common nickel metal hydride rechargeable and doesn't need to be replaced as often.

6. If you want more time away from an outlet, buy a notebook that has a modular bay capable of holding a supplementary power pack. Secondary batteries usually cost between $100 and $200.

7. Keyboard and pointing device: A thin-and-light notebook usually has smaller-than-average keys spaced more closely than the ones found on a desktop-replacement model. Even notebooks with the same standard 3mm travel (the distance a key depresses) and 19mm spacing (from the center of one key top to the next) can feel different, however, and their layouts may differ significantly.

8. For people who can't choose between a touchpad and an eraser head pointing device, some notebooks include both. If you buy one of these dually equipped portables, make sure that it provides two sets of mouse buttons--one for the touchpad and the other for the eraser head--so you don't have to stretch to reach.

9. Optical and other drives: Built-in rewritable DVD drives aren't likely to arrive in notebook PCs anytime soon, but if you can afford it, the next best thing is a combination DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive. Midrange machines usually feature a DVD-ROM drive or a CD-RW drive, and only the least-expensive notebooks come standard with just a CD-ROM drive.

10. The floppy drive has outlasted its SuperDrive and Zip drive challengers and continues to appear in many notebooks. Some "legacy light" portables have phased it out, but you can buy a USB add-on floppy drive for less than $100.

 

More advice from PC Advisor magazine

Notebook shopping tips

A 1.6GHz Pentium 4-M processor or slower For everyday work - word processing, spreadsheets, email - you don't need the latest, greatest (read most expensive) Pentium processor.

256MB of memory or more Anything less will slow your work, especially if your notebook uses the memory-hogging Windows Millennium Edition operating system.

Lithium-ion batteries They usually last longer on one charge than nickel-metal hydride batteries and don't need to be replaced as often. If you want more time away from a socket, buy a notebook with a modular bay capable of holding a supplementary power pack. Secondary batteries usually cost between 60 and 130.

A 14.1in screen A screen larger than 12.1in eases eyestrain. Unless you're really pinching pennies, bigger is better.

A 20GB hard drive Unless you generate multi-megabyte music or database files, or install more than one office suite, 20GB is plenty.

Trackpad pointing device Pointing devices are a matter of taste. However, most people find a trackpad easier to use than a pointing stick. For people who can't choose between a touchpad membrane and an eraserhead pointing device, some notebooks include both. If you buy one of these, make sure it provides two sets of mouse buttons - one for the touchpad and the other for the eraserhead - so you don't have to stretch to reach.

Multiple USB ports More notebooks are coming with two or more USB ports, useful for connecting more of the latest peripherals.

All-in-one design Unless you need a lightweight notebook, opt for one with internal bays for both the floppy drive and the optical drive. This design eliminates time-consuming swapping of devices.