Laptop computers: A visit to lap land - MoneySense

Laptop computers: A visit to lap land

There’s a bewildering array of portable computers on the market, but only a handful of them qualify as best buys.

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One of the most common questions I get when people find out that I’m a technology journalist is: “Which laptop should I buy?” That’s like asking: “Which car should I buy?”

To help narrow down the field, I always ask some questions back. What will you use your laptop for? What’s your budget? Will it sit on a desk most of the time or will you travel with it frequently? What do you want to do with it? Do you have any single daughters? (OK, that last inquiry is not always in the strict line of questioning, but it does help me get dates.)

You should begin your laptop search by asking yourself many of the same questions. Then find the category below that best describes you, and check out my recommendations.

Student

Kids can have it all these days—mobility, functionality and, yes, even entertainment. If you’re in small quarters like a dorm room or tiny apartment and you want a workhorse machine that can plow through your studies, but also transform into an entertainment system for downtime, my first choice would be the Toshiba Qosmio G40($2,799). The Qosmio packs all the power of a desktop computer in a heavy (5 kg) but portable package. It boasts a generous 17-inch screen for movies, and works fine with an iPod or digital music player. The Qosmio also comes with a high-definition DVD player that plays HD DVD movies. For a less expensive 17-inch system in the same category, consider the Dell Inspiron 1720/1721 ($1,058 and up).

Family user

If you want a mobile computer to take to the cottage and share with the kids, look at an Apple MacBook (starts at $1,249). These easy-to-use, handsome systems include the iLife software suite for making movies and creating music. MacBooks are also low maintenance, free from nasty spyware and viruses, and pack all the tools a kid needs for homework. If you prefer to stick with a Windows-powered laptop, then look at Dell’s Inspiron 1520/1521. Dell used to have a reputation for making dinky, crappy laptops. This new line is totally redesigned and getting a lot of attention. The biggest problem with buying a Dell laptop these days? Picking which one of eight colors you want.

Budget buyer

A hot deal is rarely a good deal in the laptop market. However, you can protect your pocketbook and still get a decent system by compromising in two areas. The first is the microprocessor. Choose a lower-end Intel processor such as the Celeron Duo or opt for a processor such as the Turion 64 made by Intel’s rival AMD. Both processors work fine for everyday tasks, but are far cheaper than state-of-the-art processors.

Another way to save is by lugging a bit of extra weight. Heavier machines that tick in between 2.5 and 3 kg are cheaper than their lightweight rivals. The 2.5 kg Hewlett-Packard Pavilion DV2402CA ($849) is a decent choice. Also look at the Toshiba Satellite A200 ($749).

Business traveler

The mobile executive can choose between an ultra-portable system that slips nicely into a purse or a more substantial yet still ultra-light laptop that has a more robust keyboard and screen. Systems in either category weigh less than 2 kg, which makes them a joy for those who spend a good part of their lives lugging briefcases around airports. Executives who want an ultra-portable that is barely larger than a hardback book should look at the hardy yet petite Lenovo ThinkPad X61 ($1,699) or the Sony VAIO TZ series ($2,500). Those who desire something slightly bigger should consider the Lenovo ThinkPad T60 or T61 ($1,399 and up).

Gamer

If you’re on the hunt for a laptop capable of playing the hottest, latest, most demanding video games, you have only two real choices—Hewlett-Packard’s Voodoo Envy line ($3,158 to $5,000+) or Dell’s Alienware Area-51 systems (starting at $1,769, but much pricier with options). Both are aimed at performance gamers who want to be able to play games without compromise. These gorgeous systems come with 15- and 17-inch screens (and in one case a 20-inch screen). They have the guts to handle the data-processing loads imposed by many leading-edge games and high-end graphics systems to display the animated imagery in stunning detail.

Hip geek

I like to think that I slip into this last category. It’s for techies who want the coolest and best machine.

Most of the hip geeks these days are going for Apple’s MacBook Pro (starts at $2,199 for a 15-inch model and $3,099 for the 17-inch version). Part of the MacBook’s appeal is what it’s not—it’s not primarily a Windows machine and that’s appealing to many techies who have come to loathe Microsoft and its creations. But, to give the MacBook its due, it’s also well designed and nearly immune to viruses.

My personal choice is the Dell XPS M1330, which is the closest you can come to a MacBook while staying within the Windows universe. This fully redesigned laptop weighs in at 1.8 kg; you can order a 13.3-inch LED screen as an option. (LED is a bulbless light technology that uses less power. All the cool kids have LED screens these days.) The M1330 features a built-in webcam in the bezel above the screen and an HDMI connector to output information to your high-definition TV. Fashionistas take note: the M1330 comes in three colors (red, black and white).

If you want to look further afield, consider Lenovo’s T-series. It’s long been a geek favorite thanks to some nifty extras such as shakeproof, drop-resistant internal mechanisms that protect users with slippery fingers. Lenovo’s ThinkPad T60 or T61 ($1,399 and up) are excellent choices. Geeks are also gasping at LG’s beautifully designed new laptops. You may know LG primarily as an appliance maker, but if esthetics matter to you, be sure to have a peek at the sleek, handsome LG R500 laptop ($1,900) if you get the opportunity.

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