By Al Giovetti


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Notebook Computers

by Al Giovetti

You may want to consider buying a notebook computer, since prices have been dropping dramatically. Many notebooks are over $1,000 less than last year. You will find that the price of notebooks is still almost $1,000 more expensive than a comparable desktop.

In 1997, the price of inexpensive, budget-priced computers were about $2,000. In 1998, that price has dropped to about $1,000 or less for a Pentium CPU with 32 MB of RAM, a 12.1 inch flat display and a 2GB hard drive with built in CD-ROM. For someone who only wants to use a spreadsheet or word processor, these computers do the job admirably, and there is really no need to worry about obsolescence or upgrades unless you want to upgrade to newer Word Processors.

The midrange notebooks have also come down with prices in the $2,000 to $3,000 area, or much lower. These notebooks should have the Pentium II processors with a CD-ROM or DVD and a minimum of 64 MB of RAM, and a 4 GB hard drive and many multimedia devices.

The high end notebooks will have the 450 MHz Pentium II series with the new 100 MHz bus. A bus helps to transport information from one location to another on the computer. The older processors have a 33 MHz or 66 MHz (a doubled 33 MHz) bus which may cause the bottleneck for your information transfers in the computer. The faster the transfers are the faster you computer gets since this was often the slowest portion of the data processing chain.

High end notebooks will have active-matrix screens, 128MB of RAM, an 8 GB hard disk drive, DVD drives and full multimedia capabilities. The multimedia should include speakers, microphone, 64- to 128-bit sound card preferably a Sound Blaster brand-name card not just Sound Blaster compatible. While many off-brand cards are 100% compatible, the brand-name cards are better supported and more full featured and up-to-date.

While high end notebooks are expensive and much more expensive than high-end desktops, if you want to run the latest and greatest software and multimedia applications, and you use your computer to surf the web, you may want to have the best laptop that money can buy. When compared to a desk top with comparable features, the high end notebook could cost you thousands of dollars more.

Obsolescence is more of a factor in laptops. The prices of laptop computer components have been dropping more dramatically than that of desktop computer components. It is likely that in the next few years that laptop prices will be very close to that of desktops.

Make sure that you check the upgradability of your laptop before you buy. Many of the off brand computers will not upgrade while many name brands are more upgradable. Also check the costs of these upgrades. Even if you do not need the capacity now, you will in the future.

Unfortunately, waiting to buy a computer when the prices go down is at best a gamble. Computer prices plummet on a daily basis and no matter when you choose to buy, the prices will be invariably several hundred dollars cheaper for a comparable machine within months of your purchase. There is never a good time to buy, you just have to "pay your money and take your chances."

Conversely, most computers will become obsolete within two to three years -- no matter how much you spend. The best way to buy is to not buy the best processors or highest priced components since these will drop in price the most. Buy a computer that has components that are somewhat less than optimal. If the most advanced processor is a 450MHz Pentium II with 100 MHz bus, you can probably find a bargain buying the 400 MHz processor. Backing off on certain features to the less optimal model will save you money without appreciable differences in performance.

Buying just what you need is also foolish, since the computer will become obsolete in a short period of time. It is just like moving into a store or office, you need to leave room for expansion. Don't buy the least expensive computers or older models, since they are virtually worthless unless you only intend to use a word processor or spreadsheet.


The processor is often low end on the cheaper laptops and the display is what we call a passive-matrix, which is the least expensive display. The passive matrix display depends upon a good ambient or room light source to provide the brightness. Those people who intend to use the notebook in bed and not disturb their "significant other," or those who intend to use the notebook in airports or other dimly lit locations should consider spending the extra bucks for the active-matrix screen which provides its own brightness.

You can save money by purchasing a notebook with a processor by AMD or Cyrix. The money saved from such a move can be uses to add features or peripherals to the notebook. Many experts claim that the less expensive, non-Intel processors run all the Windows applications that are available.

The advantage to the Cyrix and AMD processors is that many of them on the low end and for a low price used the 100 MHz bus earlier than Intel did. As a result many of these inexpensive processors out perform the Intel processors in speed for the same MHz. It is easy to see that the slowest link on a 400 MHz processor is the bus when it is running at a lower speed moving information about the interior of the computer.

While these other chips will most probably satisfy your needs you should be aware that using brand names often simplifies the process of upgrading and solving incompatibility problems. Many support departments for software manufacturers only support the more popular boards and processors, blaming incompatibilities on these units. I have often heard these support people claim that they do not support such-and-such sound board, microprocessor, or other computer components. While these "off brands" are becoming more and more accepted each day, you may still have support problems at some software vendors and manufacturers.

While some of the newer programs are going to a more DOS like computer keyboard control and only using the mouse where pointing is absolutely necessary, the mouse pointers on laptops come in a variety of configurations. Most of the mice are the glide-point type which uses an eraser like joystick in the center of the keyboard to move the mouse pointer. The touch-pad type uses a small 2x3 inch pad which uses your finger sliding on the pad to direct the movement of the mouse.

Familiarize yourself with the use of the use of each type of pointer. Spend some time using each one extensively before choosing. Many people find that personal preference is the only difference among mouse pointer devices so that making an informed choice is essential. If you find after purchasing your computer, that you do not like the mouse pointer, you cannot change it easily without trading in your notebook which could be very expensive.

Many notebook computers support external mice and keyboards in addition to having them on the notebook themselves. The external mouse and full-sized desktop keyboard are easier to use and more comfortable to use than the small, cramped keyboards found on most laptops. Hand pain is often caused by using uncomfortable keyboards, so that if you will be using the laptop computer at home or if you will be typing a lot, you should consider buying an external keyboard. Also, remember that the ergonomic keyboards, like the Microsoft Natural Keyboard, cause less hand pain.

Some newer and more expensive laptops come with the full featured 104 key keyboards built into the laptop base. These keyboards have the numeric keypad that is needed for those who will be doing extensive numeric data entry at remote locations. These keyboards are mostly found on the high-end machines, and while they do have the numeric keypad and separate cursor and control pads in addition to 12 function keys, they are smaller and more cramped than the conventional and ergonomic desk-top keyboards.

Digital Versatile Disk

DVD players are becoming the standard for computers with their increased capacity and their new features. More and more programs are becoming available on DVD, especially high-end multimedia programs and movies which require a lot of information. DVD players hold 4 to 9 GB of information when compared to the 660 MB held on a CD-ROM.

The high end DVD players are 4.8x speed type III with the PCI decoders. The type II DVD players will allow your laptop to function as a DVD movie player with the more modern active matrix screen displays. Just like the CD-ROMS, the speed of the DVD player is increasing. DVD-ROM-R or recordable DVD ROM drives are becoming available now.

Make sure that when you choose DVD-ROM that you understand what type of DVD player you are talking about. The more current the model you buy the longer it will take to become obsolete, the faster it will play, and the more it will cost. When comparing prices for systems remember that a cheaper notebook or DVD player may not be a better deal, it may just be an older model.

Advances in technology have made flat panel displays which are used in laptops and now becoming more affordable for even desktops the monitor of choice over the old cathode ray tube. These advances are the reverse engineering of the technology revolution that replaced tubes in video cameras with the CCD (Charge Coupled Device) chips. These new two dimensional matrices used in flat panel and active matrix displays show more detail, are clearer, and brighter than the more bulky monitor.

Docking Station

A Docking Station is a base station for a notebook that turns it into an almost desktop system. A large plug and socket system attaches the notebook to a small base unit which has one or two expansion boards for hooking up to the network, and may have a soundboard connected to speakers. The cables are contained that hook the station up to printer, mouse, full-sized keyboard, and monitor. Often the docking station will have an attached storage system, such as a floppy, CD-ROM, DVD, or hard drive in the unit.

The Universal Docking Stations are designed to work with any notebook computer. A docking station is an accessory that allows you to add you computer to an existing network, or a desktop grouping with monitor, mouse, speakers, keyboard, printer, and other peripherals all hooking up with one easy slide in device. Many of the Universal Docking Stations are inconvenient to use with your computer and often do not come with a video-out port.

The most compatible and easiest-to-use docking station for your laptop is the docking station designed and offered as an accessory to your computer by your computer manufacturer. You would be advised to steer clear of the Universal Docking Stations reputed to work equally well with all computer laptops. A docking station will save you time and effort connecting and disconnecting cables every time you set up your computer at home. Be sure to check the availability of a manufacturer compatible docking station before you make your notebook computer buying decision.

If you are going to be using your desktop extensively at home in the home office, you should consider getting a full-sized monitor. Those who use laptops for the first time will be surprised and dismayed at how difficult a 12 inch monitor is to use when compared to a 17 inch, which is quickly becoming the desktop standard. The full sized monitor can be easily attached and detached with the docking station that is provided by your manufacturer at extra cost.

Consider a Portable Printer or Scanner

When on the road you should consider purchasing peripherals to print out documents, backup data to floppies, and when you return to transfer the information to your desktop computer. Peripherals like portable printers or scanners are much lighter now and are easier to carry than ever before. Peripherals come in wireless versions that simplify set up and also reduce the amount of equipment that you have to lug around and connect to get up and running.

A scanner and a printer will allow you to make changes to a contract at the client's location. A scanner will give you the ability to fax documents to others for approval and review. The document can be faxed back from the reviewer and the details hammered out to produce a new document that can be signed on the spot with copies for everyone. The flip side to this is that the client will often have a fax machine and copier, while the scanning function is more rare. Most of the time this convenience will be outweighed by extra cost and the problems encountered lugging the extra junk around.

Portable printers print more slowly than desktop printers, but they are also light and full-featured. Portable printers come in both color and black and white and print high quality images. You may have to manually feed the paper into the printer while other printers can access a small stack of papers. Always remember to have extra paper and ink jet cartridges on hand, just in case you run out on the road.

An infrared link lets peripheral devices communicate with one another without wires. This saves you hooking up each peripheral to your computer when it is needed. With IrDA (Infrared Data Association) compatible wireless devices, these peripherals are already hooked up, all you need to do is plug them in and turn them on. (IrDA was formed in 1993 as the standard setting body of the infrared data devices industry.)

Another peripheral you should consider is a videoconferencing camera. Many people are using videoconferencing as a way to keep in touch and share applications at the same time using remote software. Portable or Mobile video conferencing cameras can be used as a digital camera when on location with images that are immediately available to the laptop for manipulation and transmission to your permanent office location. This type of application would be particularly useful to anyone who needs to take pictures on the road, and may need to work with them prior to returning to the office or where time is an important constraint.

Some digital phones can be configured to work with computers to provide wireless communications in the form of data transfer, email, and wireless fax communications. Wireless communications enhance your computer utility while in the field. The convergence of wireless telephone technology and notebook computer technology should lead to many new and exciting innovations.

PCMCIA? What's That?

Notebooks use computer cards similar to the cartridges that you see in the Nintendo 64 and other computer console game systems. PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) or more simply PC Cards plug into your system and increases memory, storage and other applications. Many modems come on PCMCIA cards which allows the flexibility of replacement or removal for upgrade.

The 32-bit PC CardBus used in the PCMCIA bus is faster and more flexible than the normal 16-bit PC bus. The CardBus utilizes bus mastering to speed up PC card performance by letting the card directly access the main memory without going through the CPU (Central Processing Unit). CardBus accommodates cards of different voltages and with advanced power management features available to some PC cards using this technology, the cards will idle or switch off to save battery life.

Usually PCMCIA devices come in type I, II or III which generally means the size of the card. The more advanced cards take up two or more slots in the PCMCIA bus. Another new PCMCIA bus card allows the computer to link with digital voice recorders to provide voice to text conversion using new voice-recognition software from companies such as Dragon's Naturally Speaking Preferred.

Headsets with microphones attached will allow you to dictate information or to view a multimedia presentation without disturbing others. This can enhance the utility of the computer by allowing you to watch your own in-flight movie just by bringing the DVD movie version along with you on the plane.

USB? Huh? More Jargon!

USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports are the newest technology in Serial ports and you should make sure that your notebook has this convenient and universal device connector. The USB port is more adaptable and easier to use than the other, older Serial port. The USB adds greater flexibility and adaptability to more devices than before realized.

The most dangerous phone line to your modem are those unknown lines that you find in conference rooms that we set up special just for your presentation. What about those lines provided in motel rooms that were hooked up by "Buba" the local representative at the out of the way hotel you just happened to get booked into. More modems are fried or zapped by phone line "irregularities" leaving you high and dry. Make sure that your notebook surge protector has phone-line protection included with its other features.

Power Problems and Crispy Critters

Don't just protect your modem, power line "irregularities" can fry your computer to so that you have a matched set of crispy critters. A power surge can be occur at any time putting your multiple thousand dollar investment at risk or destroying it in one careless moment. At the very least, make sure you have a high quality surge protector designed for travel. Power line surges are not covered by your computer warranty, which means that your investment will be a total loss unless your personal or business insurance carries a rider to cover this eventuality.

Make sure you consider a lap top with an internal AC adapter so that you can easily plug in at home or away. The normal AC adapters tend to be less sturdy than a regular power cord and fray or break easily. Look for a more sturdy variety or make sure you buy an extra one for the laptop. Keeping one at home and in the office will save you the trouble of carrying one back and forth and you can leave it plugged in to simplify set up.

Car adapters are a must for people who need to use their computer on the go. With the new GPS or global positioning software and accessories you can locate someone more easily and get directions from anywhere in the world to that location. You will virtually never be lost again using this kind of accessory. So don't forget to buy and use a car adapter for your computer. Auto power is low voltage and much less likely to damage your computer system than 120 volt house power.

An extra battery will save your bacon many times. If you are working and the laptop goes off due to power loss, having an extra battery handy will often do the job. You can also be working on your laptop while the other battery is charging if you have a separate charging circuit or external battery charger. The extra cost of the battery will protect you against carelessness, worn out, lost, or failed batteries.

Most notebook computer owners do not pay attention to battery technology. The battery technology determines how long the battery will last, both between chargings and how long it will be able to recharge and retain power. Most rechargeable notebook batteries are of the nickel cadmium or NiCad , nickel metal hydride (NiMH), and lithium ion type.

The lithium ion batteries are the most expensive but they are light and charge faster and more reliably since they do not have the "memory effect" problems which can lead to improperly charged or partially charged batteries. The least expensive nickel cadmium batteries must be fully discharged before being fully recharged to avoid the "memory effect." Nickel metal hydride batteries are heavier than the lithium type but do not have the memory effect problem, and they last 50% longer than nickel cadmium batteries.

Laptops require special care. While your CRT Monitor has a tough glass screen which can be cleaned with clean water and a non-abrasive cotton cloth, the LCD display of a notebook computer is more fragile and requires special cleaning solutions and special cleaning papers to prevent damage and scratches. Please be sure to check with your notebook manufacturer to determine what the recommend before risking damage to those very expensive LCD displays.

Special Software

Mobile-Computing Software is another feature that new laptop computer users should consider. There are programs that allow you to print your copy remotely. Other telecommuting software such as the Intel teleconferencing system and the PC Telecommute features allow workers to work from a remote location and to communicate directly with the company computer.

Programs like PC Anywhere allow you to access client computers from a remote location. Using this program accountants can perform adjusting entries and print out financials from any locations set up on this software. Computer service representatives can call up remote client systems to correct incompatibilities or service the computer.

WAN (wide area network) to LAN (local area network) solutions can allow you to integrate into your LAN environment from any location in the world and provide easy access to all company data and information. The remote access server or RAS provides a port whereby remote users can access the main computer. This communication software is becoming more and more transparent to the user and very easy to use.

Synchronization software will update computer files so that your laptop has the same data files as the office computer. This software is especially useful to those who work in the workgroup setting and need the latest revision or for those whose schedule needs integration with the home office information.

I hope this view of notebooks gives you some ideas. Make sure you stay tuned to the next installment. Thanks for listening.

cc: Kimberly Lippencott
Beverly Abbott












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