Walt Mossberg

Shopping for a Laptop? Expect Lots of Choices, And a Range of Prices

Choosing a laptop computer is trickier than buying a desktop PC because laptops are more diverse and more personal. The “laptop” category includes a mind-boggling array of computers, from featherweight models that are great for travel to bulky multimedia machines that double as TV sets and are almost as hard to budge. Their prices range from around $500 to nearly $4,000.

So here’s a basic buyer’s guide to buying a laptop. As always, my advice is aimed at mainstream users doing typical tasks. Hard-core gamers or folks doing video production need more powerful laptops than those specified here.

Laptop prices, like those of desktops, continue to fall. This week, for instance, Office Depot is advertising a Hewlett-Packard model with a 15-inch screen, a 40-gigabyte hard disk and a DVD drive for $499, after rebates. That’s unusually low, but it’s easy to find entry-level laptops for $600 to $900.

Meanwhile, performance has risen. Intel’s latest Centrino-brand chip platform, code-named Sonoma, boasts faster speeds and better graphics.

Laptop buyers should follow the same basic advice I offered last week for desktop shoppers. Get at least 512 megabytes of memory. Don’t worry much about processor speed. Buy as much hard-drive capacity as you can afford. Make sure your computer has multiple USB 2.0 ports, and slots for the memory cards used in cameras.

Also, on Windows laptops, security is crucial. Make sure that you get the more secure SP2 version of Windows XP and that you immediately install antivirus, antispam, antispyware, antipopup and firewall software. If you plan to use your laptop in public wireless hot spots, take the time to enable its wireless security features.

But laptop buyers must also consider some issues that are specific to portable computing.

In general, I believe International Business Machines’ ThinkPads, Apple Computer’s PowerBooks and iBooks, and Sony’s Vaios offer the best combination of screens, keyboards and wireless networking. But these brands aren’t the least expensive. Toshiba, H-P, and Dell are also good.

Size and Weight: There are several classes of laptops. At the light end are machines weighing just two to four pounds. These models are designed for mobility and are meant to complement a desktop PC. They are very thin, and have screens of 12 inches or less. Some, like the ThinkPad X41, lack internal CD or DVD drives. Others, like the Sony Vaio T250, include these drives.

On the heavy end are bulky machines that weigh seven pounds or more and are really desktop replacements, meant to stay put. Many boast 17-inch screens, and some include TV tuners. Examples are Toshiba’s Qosmio models.

In the middle are laptops weighing between four and seven pounds. These models can serve as desktop replacements but can also be toted on trips. They typically have 14-inch or 15-inch screens. Two excellent choices in this group are the Sony Vaio S series, at 4.2 pounds, and the Apple 15-inch PowerBook, at 5.6 pounds.

Windows or Mac: Most laptop buyers will go for Windows machines. But Apple’s iBooks, starting at $999 and 4.9 pounds, and its PowerBooks, starting at $1,499 and 4.6 pounds, are excellent choices. They are fast and elegant, with good battery life. And, like all Apples, they require little attention to security, because, so far, there hasn’t been a virus or spyware problem on the Mac platform.

Processor: If you want the best combination of power and battery life from your Windows laptop, get one that uses Intel’s power-saving Pentium M processor. These chips are included in models bearing the Centrino label, offered by many manufacturers. But they are also available in some non-Centrino models that use different wireless chips. If you aren’t especially concerned about battery life, laptops with AMD processors or Intel’s Celeron or Pentium 4 processors are fine.

Don’t pay extra for faster processor speeds. Even the slowest laptop processors can handily perform the most common computing tasks.

Battery Life: Insist on a laptop that can run for at least three hours on its standard battery. Some models can do much better. Unfortunately, Intel’s latest Centrino chip platform actually cuts the battery life offered by prior models by about half an hour in many cases. Some companies, like IBM, still offer models with the original Centrino chips for users seeking the best battery life.

Screen and Keyboard: Try to test laptops in stores to ensure you like their screens and keyboards. You don’t need a huge screen if you can get one with high resolution. I think a 12-inch to 14-inch screen is just fine if it’s sharp and clear. I also believe IBM’s ThinkPads have the best keyboards, but other brands have gotten better.

Wireless Networking: Built-in Wi-Fi networking is a must. Buy a laptop with the newer “g” version. Wireless reception capabilities vary in laptops, because of different antenna and case designs. In my experience, IBM and Apple laptops tend to have the best reception, but individual laptops may do better or worse in various locations.

If you plan to use your cellphone as a modem or to synchronize data with a cellphone or PDA, make sure your laptop has another type of wireless networking, called Bluetooth.

And as with shopping for desktop PCs, don’t be railroaded by sales talk. If you’re confused by technical specifications, postpone your purchase until you understand the terms clearly.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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