Increasing numbers of computer buyers are choosing a laptop not just for travel, but as a direct substitute for a home desktop. During the first nine months of last year, while desktop sales plummeted, laptop sales soared. Over the past three years laptops have actually taken market share away from desktops.
The reason for the shift? Faster processors, brighter and larger displays, and more-efficient batteries have narrowed the gap between desktop and laptop. For many people, the performance difference has become academic. Of course, most desktop computers still outshine laptops in options you can choose, such as keyboard design and display size. But in a fast-paced society, those differences may not outweigh the ability to plop a computer on the kitchen table or have it handy in a classroom or airport.
If you’re considering a laptop for significant duty around the house, you should consider one of the two types we tested for this report, which included Windows-based models as well as a Macintosh.
All-in-one models, generally the heaviest, have the battery, DVD-ROM drive (sometimes combined with a rewritable CD), and floppy-disk drive–if there is one–all housed in the case.
Modular models have space for the battery plus a bay that accepts either a DVD-ROM or floppy drive.
A type we didn’t test, known as slim-and-light, is streamlined for travel by bundling only the hard drive along with a smallish battery; you connect other components with cables.
The laptops we tested have a 900-megahertz (MHz) to 1-gigahertz (GHz) Pentium III processor and a 20- to 30-gigabyte (GB) hard drive. (The Macintosh has a 600-MHz PowerPC G3 chip.) Because all the machines came equipped with demanding new operating systems, we equipped them all with a healthy 256 megabytes (MB) of RAM.
WHAT YOU GET
In both speed and storage, these machines are on a par with the speedier desktop computers we tested just a couple of years ago. They’re fine for most uses, including music, video, and interactive games.
Display. Screen sizes of 12 to 15 inches, measured diagonally, are now standard. That’s the most noticeable recent improvement in laptop design. These days, most laptops, and all the ones we tested, use a bright and crisp thin-film transistor (TFT) active-matrix screen. It provides a wider viewing angle and blurs moving objects less than the passive-matrix display found on some older models. (Passive displays also go by the abbreviations HPA, STN, and DSTN.) Most displays have a resolution of 1,024×768 pixels (picture elements), which is good for displaying fine detail.
Battery. All use a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, lighter and longer-lasting than earlier types. But brighter displays and more-powerful chips eat up battery power. On average, the batteries lasted about three hours in our tests, continuously running office applications. That’s a few minutes longer than last year’s models. The extra life probably comes from advances in power-saving technology, such as Intel’s SpeedStep and AMD’s PowerNow! One model, the Sony, came with a short-life “starter” battery that is only half the size of a regular battery, which costs $250.
The Dell, Toshiba, and Sony allow you to double battery time by storing a second battery in place of a removable drive. You can extend battery life on any laptop by dimming the display as you work, removing PC cards when they’re not needed, and setting the machine to tailor hard-drive use to your style of work. DVD players are especially tough on batteries. All the models except the Sony were able to play a movie disc for at least two hours. The Dell was the only one that could do it for three hours.
Running a laptop on 120-volt power will circumvent battery limitations, but several models, noted in the Ratings, became uncomfortably hot to place on a lap when running on 120-volt power.
Keyboard and pointing device. Full-sized keys are standard, though special-function keys may be in an unfamiliar location. There are two main types of pointing device: a touchpad that moves the cursor according to how you slide your finger across the pad, or an eraser-sized joystick wedged between the keys. The Dell has both.
Software. Don’t expect much: just a basic home-office suite like Microsoft Works or Apple Works, a home-finance program, a browser, and an antivirus program. Most of the Windows XP models relied on XP’s very limited CD-burning capability (see the box on the next page).
Multimedia. The small speakers built into these laptops often sound tinny, with little bass. The IBM’s speakers were just four inches apart. Headphones or external speakers deliver much better sound. Two models have controls for playing audio CDs that are accessible even when the lid is closed. Video usually includes 8 to 16 MB of RAM, accelerated graphics, and 3D-graphics circuitry. All models were fine at playing DVD movies.
Expansion slots. All models have one or two PC-card slots through which you add things like a wireless network adapter, digital-camera memory card, or card-based hard drive.
Connections. All models have a v.90 (or later) modem and at least one universal serial bus (USB) port for a printer, scanner, or digital camera. Four featured an IEEE-1394 (FireWire) port, useful for connecting a hard drive or digital camcorder. All have a wired Ethernet network port to connect to a local area network or cable modem.
The four high-scoring Windows-based models are all solid performers that would serve well as a desktop-computer substitute. The top-rated Dell distinguished itself with the longest battery life and the most sophisticated power management. Mac users who don’t mind a smallish display should be satisfied with the basic Apple iBook; higher-priced iBooks now have a larger display.
Laptops are built from parts that are expensive to repair or replace. If you travel a lot, consider third-party insurance, particularly on the display.
Which laptop do you need?
You use the laptop mostly at home, possibly in addition to a desktop computer. When traveling, you use it where performance and comfort are paramount.
What to look for. Consider an all-in-one design with: * An 866-MHz to 1.2-GHz processor for Windows or a 550-MHz processor for a Macintosh. * 256 MB of RAM. * A 20- to 30-GB hard drive. Also consider a 14- to 15-inch active-matrix (TFT) display and a docking station or a plug for a port replicator (an attachment with connections for peripherals).
Expect to pay. $1,800 to $2,300.
Tested models. All fit the bill.
The laptop is a standard part of your travel gear, so size and weight are important.
What to look for. Consider a slim-and-light model weighing 3 to 4 pounds, with these basics: * An 866-MHz processor. * 256 MB of RAM. * A 20- to 30-GB hard drive. Expect a smaller display–about 12 inches. Battery life isn’t likely to exceed three hours; plan to carry a spare or recharge often.
Expect to pay. About $2,500.
Tested models. The Gateway, IBM, and Macintosh, though not slim and light, are the lightest in the group.
The commuter frequently uses a laptop to process work en route to or from the office. The student’s laptop travels daily to and from classes and the library.
What to look for. If power and comfort are most important, choose an all-in-one design. If a low price matters most, choose a machine with a passive-matrix display or a discontinued active-matrix model. If you want a light but practical machine for travel, get a modular model that can accept either a drive or a spare battery in one bay. A built-in Ethernet port lets you connect to an office or campus network.
Make sure the machine has these basics:
* An 866- to 1.2-GHz processor for Windows or a 600-MHz processor for a Macintosh. * 256 MB of RAM. * A 20- to 30-GB hard drive.
Also consider a 14- to 15-inch display (for Windows laptops) and a docking station or a plug for a port replicator.
Expect to pay. $1,300 to $2,200.
Tested models. Consider all but the HP and Sony, which are the heaviest laptops tested.
The new Windows XP
Most new computers now come with Microsoft’s Windows XP. We used the desktop computers in our lab to take a hands-on look at this new version of Windows. Here’s what we found:
Good points. The user interface has been spit-polished. When an application malfunctions, you can shut it down without rebooting the computer and, optionally, report the problem to Microsoft. There are guides called wizards that make it easy to handle tasks like setting up a home network. XP can alert you when bug fixes and upgrades are available from Microsoft; we recommend this.
If you upgrade your existing computer to XP, newer peripherals and installed software should work without a hitch. Older software we installed, including a 10-year-old version of Lotus 1-2-3, all ran fine. XP seldom requires you to restart the computer, and it protects its own critical files from accidental damage.
To determine how much upgrading an older computer may need to be compatible with XP, you can have the system diagnosed at www.microsoft.com/winxp/homeor www.pcpitstop.com/xpready.
Rough spots. To prevent software piracy, Microsoft requires you to activate your copy of XP within 30 days of installation and, should you ever make big changes to your computer’s hardware, check back with Microsoft. XP features plenty of messages urging you to sign up for Microsoft’s online services and the like. With peripherals and components older than a year or two, you may have to track down the appropriate XP-compatible software at the manufacturer’s site or, worse, do without the peripheral. A number of makers have produced such software. But you may get a warning when installing some software that it isn’t Microsoft-approved.
The bundled Microsoft Media Player won’t create audio files in the popular MP3 format; to do that, you have to buy third-party software for $10 and up. XP creates video files only in a proprietary Microsoft format that’s not compatible with a DVD player. The CD-burning feature is limited; you can dump files or audio tracks onto a disk only in batches.
The next big thing?
Introduced by Microsoft in November 2000, this is a prototype of a new, pen-based portable computer about the size of a clipboard. Dubbed a “tablet PC,” it will “bring the simplicity of pen and paper to computing,” says Microsoft. This past fall, several computer manufacturers, including Compaq, either demonstrated prototypes of their own or announced that they have plans for actual products. Pen-based computing has raised expectations before, then fallen short. It will get its next chance for success, according to Microsoft, sometime late next year. Details on the tablet PC are at www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/tabletpc/
The following are the features that add to a laptop’s price and can make a useful difference.
Processor. Windows computers use a processor in the Intel Pentium III class. The Macintosh uses a PowerPC processor that puts it in the same league.
Display size/type. All use a liquid-crystal display (LCD), typically 14 inches on the diagonal. An active-matrix display is the norm. Expect a smaller screen or a passive-matrix display on older laptops.
Carrying weight. It includes the removable drive on modular models. Unless the laptop will always live at home, lighter is better.
Supplied memory. Most computers need 256 megabytes of RAM to function well.
USB, PC-card, FireWire. The more USB ports available, the more peripherals you can connect directly. PC-card slots give the laptop room to grow. FireWire provides a high-speed link for video or photo gear.
Fits second battery. Travelers may want to extend battery life this way.
Floppy drive. The modular setup lets you swap, say, the CD-ROM drive for a floppy drive. Two laptops have an internal floppy drive, and others have none. The absence of a floppy drive is not a big drawback; files can be moved via the Internet or copied to a CD.
Pointing device. The touchpad is common. The eraser-sized stick pointer is used less often.
Best game display. These have more oomph in the graphics, for smooth game motion.
Full CD-RW software. These come with third-party software that offers more options for burning CDs.