In your lap – buying a notebook computer

By Alex Kidman

The popularity of notebook PCs has exploded over recent years, and more notebooks are now sold than traditional desktop-style PCs. The most obvious benefit a notebook offers over a desktop is portability; you can’t easily lug most desktop PCs (plus monitor, mouse and keyboard) unless you’re possessed of a Schwarzenegger-style physique, but even the heftiest of desktop replacement laptops can easily be shifted around a room, and the smallest of ultra-portable notebooks can slip into a large cargo pants pocket for true portability.

There’s also the appeal of having an all-in-one machine with its own dedicated keyboard, mouse pad and often fun extras such as inbuilt web cameras and decent quality speakers.

While the genesis of the modern notebook lay in business users looking over dusty Excel spreadsheets in dingy motel rooms, modern laptops can act as full entertainment centres, with the added benefit that you don’t need to lug your 50 inch plasma TV along for the ride. So what should you consider when pondering your first notebook purchase?

Notebook types

All notebooks are notebooks, but as George Orwell might have said, not all notebooks are created equal, especially when it comes to size and features. At one end of the market, there are mammoth entities like Toshiba’s Qosmio range. Often referred to as ‘Desktop Replacements’, these are machines that are (as the name suggests) designed to supplant an existing desktop, offering high-end graphics and processor performance, along with multimedia extras such as HD DVD or Blu-ray drives for video playback.

ASUS R2HAsus’ R2H offers a different take on the tablet concept – a base screen that you plug keyboards and other peripherals into as you need to use them.

The other extreme end of the market sees true ultra-portable PCs such as Sony’s Vaio TX or Asus’s surprisingly cheap Eee PC. These are tiny ultra-portables that sacrifice some usability in the name of being easy to transport. If you’re after a machine that you’ll carry around often, then the size and the weight becomes far more critical than how much horsepower is under the hood.

HP Compaq Presario 2710p table computerFavoured by business types and those who take a lot of notes, Tablet PCs have a swivel touchscreen that enables a paperback form factor plus software that converts handwriting to text and simple illustrations such as graphs into computer graphics.

In-between these extremes lie a raft of machines, ranging from business-styled machines (typified by Lenovo’s Thinkpad line) to entry-level budget machines for students and plenty of more stylish looking laptops, such as some of HP’s more recent designs, or not unsurprisingly, Apple’s Macbook and Macbook Pro lines. Carefully consider how and where you’ll use your notebook, as buying something that’s too heavy will seriously hurt your shoulders after a long day’s lugging, but buying an underpowered machine will hurt your brain if you’re forever waiting for the processor to catch up.