The Wired Snowbird III: Laptop Shopping Tips

Spring 2006 CSANews Issue 58  |  Posted date : May 27, 2007.Back to list

Snowbirds travel light. As you pack for another season in the sun, you’re grateful that you’ve learned the fine art of portability. But what about your computer? Rather than saying goodbye to that bulky desktop system, why not have a laptop computer that you can take with you? You’d have access to your files and applications all year ‘round. (See “Travels with my Laptop: The Wired Snowbird” in CSANews Spring 2005.) And you could stay connected with your friends and family wherever you are. (See “The Wired Snowbird II: Hotel Connections” in CSANews Summer 2005.) Here are some hints for finding your perfect laptop.

Spend some time up front deciding what you will use your laptop for. If you’re just sending e-mail and writing letters, a basic system will suffice. If you also plan to manage photos, watch DVDs, play games or edit home movies, you’ll need a more muscular platform. Write down your personal list, so that you’re not tempted along the way by trendy features which you won’t really need. Laptops fall into three categories based on size, weight and power:

Ultraportable: The smallest of the small, with screens of less than 12 inches (measured diagonally). At under four pounds, these are the easiest to haul around, but they also have tiny keyboards and slower processors. If you crave portability, don’t need raw computing power and can live with a teeny screen, this is the type for you.

Thin-and-light: Nicely portable systems with screens up to 14 inches and faster processors. You can easily toss one of these four- to six-pound puppies into your luggage without popping a tendon. A good compromise for most people.

Mid-size and desktop replacements: The heavyweights of the notebook world. These systems offer blazing performance and large screens wrapped up in a 6- to 10-pound (and heavier) bundle. Not very portable, these are not recommended for travellers. Having established your general limits on size and weight – and, of course, budget – it’s time to look at the technical specifications. You can go bargain basement but, in my view, you’ll later regret not having bought more.

Buy the most powerful processor, or CPU, which you can afford. The latest generation is Intel’s new Core Duo, actually two CPUs in a single chip. Aim for as close as possible to two Gigahertz (GHz) CPU speed.

Insist on at least 512 Megabytes (MB) of Random Access Memory (RAM). For gaming or movie editing, one Gigabyte (GB) is advisable.

Most notebooks these days come with at least 60 GB of internal hard disk. Don’t think that you’ll never fill up all that space. You will.

Laptop power supplies operate on 110/240 volts, so you can use them outside of North America with a simple
plug-end adaptor. They will also charge your battery. Don’t just go by the manufacturer’s estimates of battery life. Visit independent review sites such as reviews.cnet.com (click on “Laptops”) or www.notebookreview.com that run their own battery tests.

Make sure that you have a file backup solution. If you want to use DVD-ROMs, you’ll need to include a DVD burner. (CD burners are also available, but CD capacities are limited: you’ll need more than 80 CDs to back up that 60 MB disk, as opposed to 13 DVDs.) Maybe you’d prefer to back up to a separate hard drive. It doesn’t matter how you do backups. Just do them.

Your laptop should have both wired and wireless communications features built in, so you won’t need to buy additional network cards. It will come with a mouse replacement, such as a trackpad or pointing stick. Some, like me, can never get used to these fiddly devices, so consider buying a cheap mouse.

Remember that extra battery packs, mice and drives all add to the bulk and weight of your system, so keep your portability limits in mind. Speaking of accessories, ask yourself if you really need a separate laptop bag. You may be able to simply slip your laptop and its accoutrements into your existing shoulder bag.

Then there’s the software. Make sure that you budget for a good virus protection product and, if you’re not using a router, a software firewall.

Start your shopping at the big box stores such as Future Shop or Best Buy. They deal in volume, so they will have good prices but not necessarily the exact features which you’re looking for. Manufacturer Dell (www.dell.ca) lets you customize your order and has frequent specials. IBM sells refurbished ThinkPad laptops at significant discounts (www.ibm.com/ca/en, click on “Special Offers” and then “IBM Certified Used Equipment”).

As you narrow your search, test drive Doug Elliott is a freelance writer who has been working in Canadian high-technology businesses for over 30 years. He recently field-tested the wired snowbird approach during a three-month winter break in Australia. the finalists in the store. Make sure that you’re comfortable with the keyboard’s size and feel. Like new shoes, keyboards will loosen up with use, but not much, and if you don’t like it in the store, chances are that you’ll grumble about it at home forever. Heft the system to get a feel for its weight. Make sure that the screen is clear and bright and does not have distracting reflections. Even if you’re not planning to play DVD movies very often, pop one in and see how you feel about the system’s responsiveness, sound and image clarity.

Eventually, you’ll zero in on what you want and walk away with a new electronic companion for your winter – and summer – home.