For those of you with little experience with notebook computers,
I want to share a bit of my experience. It might help you make a
better choice. I have owned several and my background is in computers.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me (e-mail
If you do not want to bother with any research, but want to buy
a computer that is a great machine in general, I have a few specific
recommendations for you. Check out my Notebook
Recommendations page near the top. There is a table with three
solid machines that I recommend.
See also Duke's web page to understand their hardware and software
Table Of Contents
When to Buy
If you are new to this type of machine (Windows XP, Microsoft Office,
etc.) then I would buy as soon as practical, to have more time to
become comfortable with this computing environment. The ~$150 that
you might save by waiting for some special deal is not significant
enough to loose time during which you could be learning the environment.
Learning the Windows XP and Microsoft Office environments now will
allow you to focus on your studies later (Note: you will likely
want to buy Microsoft Office from The Duke Computer Store).
If you, like me, are already very familiar with this kind of machine,
I would wait for a good special, or would buy about two months before
school starts, whichever comes first (for the class of 2006, that
was about July 1). The two-month jump-start is to have time to deal
with any potential problems (problems with the order, or the machine)
well before school starts.
I will refer to mid-sized screens. By that, I mean any machine
in the range 14 through 15.4.
Purchasing Windows XP (Pro vs. Home)
In short, Pro is recommended and I believe that security is the main reason. I don't know the fine details of security that Fuqua IT is after, but several get by with the Home edition. If you have a choice, buy Pro, but if you already have Home, there may be no pressing need. The Duke Computer Store sells an educational version of XP Pro. For a detailed difference between Pro and Home, see this site: www.winsupersite.com/showcase/windowsxp_home_pro.asp
Purchasing Microsoft Office
One of our classmates just posted this information. Through the
Duke Computer Store, we can purchase a single machine license of
Microsoft Office 2003 Professional for $79 + $10 shipping. (For
a three-machine license it's $199 + $15 shipping.) That's quite
a bit less than the $350 or so (single-machine license) that is
usually charged when you buy with a system. If you don't mind installing
it yourself (and that's not hard) buying from the Duke Computer
Store will save quite a bit. To order now, you'll just need to give
them proof that you are (or will be) a student. You can FAX your
acceptance letter as proof. (Thanks for the tip Mike)
Thickness and Weight of a Computer
Thickness and weight are more important that some might think.
Gravity doesn't give up. If you have to carry it for any distance,
consider this heavily. Weight is not as important if you won't carry
it far, but rather will carry the machine to the car and then to
Thinness is very important even for those who won't carry the machine
far. Yes, the 0.2 or 0.3 inches can make a big difference when the
machine simply won't fit with your text books. My current Sony (0.9
inches thick) goes in my briefcase, it's MUCH easier to fit as compared
to 1.5 inch thick machines. Having said that, the 0.9 inches is
what caused them to use a keyboard with very short strokes and I
don't like that. So I will get a machine that is a bit thicker next
time. You'll have to decide how you will use your machine. If you
won't carry it far, and you have plenty of room, buy a bigger machine
and get all the benefits. Otherwise, you'll have to trade function
for portability. I'm looking for a 5-6 pound machine that is less
than 1.5 inches thick.
Small Ultra-light Machines
The extremely thin and light computers (e.g. our Sony 505 series)
are very convenient, but come with tradeoffs about which
I'm not so thrilled.
The CD/DVD and floppy drive may be separate from the machine.
This can be inconvenient, but the reduced size of the computer
was worth this tradeoff to me.
For me, the bad drawback is the keyboard. The stroke of the
key (the depth to which the key can be depressed) is shallow.
I found this to hamper my typing (and I'm a fast typist so it
bothers me significantly). Also, the general feel of the keys
is very important. If I can't tell where my fingers are without
looking, it slows down my typing. I will not buy a computer
which has a keyboard with a poor tactile feel. The new thin
Sony and it's better than older one, but it's not good enough.
The feel of the keyboards on the Dell and HP machines (with
mid-sized screens) felt better. The ONLY small machine with
a good keyboard that I've seen is the IBM. It's amazing how
they packed a great keyboard in such a small machine.
Note the size of the shift key. Many small machines, like mine,
have very small shift keys, and it's easy to hit the wrong key,
even with four years of use.
Small computers are often limited to one PC-Card slot (PCMCIA
slot - expansion cards for notebooks). This has not been a problem
because I bought a computer with many built in features (including
an ethernet connection, etc.) and therefore don't need to expand
the capability with PC-Cards. Be sure your machine has enough
for your needs.
With my thin notebook, I'm restricted to one USB port unless
I want to carry my port expander (a device that allows you to
use more ports like an extra USB, a parallel (printer) port,
a serial port, and a "video out") which defeats the
purpose of a small notebook. If you need frequent access to
any ports, be sure your machine has them available without a
Keep in mind the size of the power supply (the box that is
often in the middle of a notebook's power cord). If it's big,
it partially defeats the purpose of a small computer.
Small computers often have small screens, and I really appreciate
a large screen. It is more valuable than many might think. My
small computer has a 12.1 inch screen and I much prefer a mid-sized
The screen resolution of the small notebooks is often very
limited because of the screen size (they are usually no larger
than 12.1 inches - like my Sony).
The sound quality (unimportant to me) is generally not very
good on small computers.
General Capacity and Features
Batteries: I will look for an advertised
battery life of about 4 hours or more (on a Centrino type system
- see section on Centrino Technology). One
battery will likely work for me. But if you need more battery life,
you could consider buying a long-life battery and/or consider having
two batteries. This is especially true of you travel a lot. Another
option is to have a normal battery for lightness, then a long-life
that you could use on trips, etc.
Second Batteries: Normally,
a second battery is the same as the first and you will have to turn
your machine off or put it in suspend mode to change the battery.
But on some machines, you have the option of buying a special battery
that will fit in a module slot (in the place of your CD/DVD drive).
The advantage is that you can switch to the second battery without
turning the machine off (it should do so automatically). The disadvantage
is that these batteries are usually a bit smaller and a bit more
expensive, AND you don't have access to your CD/DVD drive while
you are using this. Some may prefer what is sometimes called a replacement
battery - or a primary battery (meaning it fits in the same slot
as the primary battery). You will have to turn off your machine
to change this, but it is often cheaper and a higher capacity battery.
Power in your car: If you might
use your computer in the car, I would recommend buying a specific
power supply for that purpose. You can find AC adapters for less
money, but the electronics are not as good and I suspect (but don't
know for sure) that there are power surges from the car, especially
when you turn the car off and on.
and I have a hard time remembering
to unplug before turning off the motor. While my current computer
has not been permanently damaged by my general AC adapter, some
computer settings were lost once. For my next computer, I'll spend
a little extra and buy a specific car power adapter.
Power Supply: I want a small power
supply (the box that is on the power cord of most computers). Some
computers have only a cord and the power supply is in the computer.
It will be a bit heavier, but it's MUCH more convenient.
Hard Drives - Size: For me, 60G
is a good target for a hard drive size. I don't download a lot,
but I want the hard drive to be big enough for several years without
upgrading (programs keep growing in size and so will your capacity
needs). If you are into downloads (like MP3 or video files) you
might want to really focus on hard disk size. You'll want 100G or
Hard Drives - RPM: Another concern for hard drives is the
RPM. Generally, the higher the RPM, the faster will be the response
time. On a desktop machine, 7200 is noticeably faster than 5400.
On notebooks, 5400 is the faster speed, and 4200 RPM is the slower.
The faster speeds will help boot-up time (as it did on my desktop
machine). In general, the power consumed by the hard drive has little
relation to the battery life. So I want a fast RPM (a.k.a. spindle
speed). My ideal hard drive will be 80MB with 7200 RPM, but I will
easily settle for 5400 RPM. See tomshardware.com
on spindle speed (RPM).
Backup Solution: For the files
that you store on the Duke servers, Duke will back those up regularly.
I want to have a CD-RW or a DVD rewriter for my personal backup
solution. DVD media holds MUCH more information than CD's (4.7G
compared to less than 1G). However, DVD is expensive.
CD/DVD Options: Most people can use
a CDRW for their personal backup solution. If your budget will allow
for it, I suggest buying a machine with a DVD/CD that can
read and write DVD's and CD's. Why DVD's? Because they have high
capacity. Backing up to CD will work well, but can be a pain if
you have a lot of data. However, you can learn how to selectively
back up your data (avoiding programs that can be reinstalled from
their original CD). That will drastically cut down on the data to
be backed up. Learn how to do partial backups that only include
files that have been changed. That way you can usually back
up within minutes.
Built In Features: Buy as
many built in features as you project needing (wireless net card,
maybe an ethernet network card also, modem, USB ports) so you won't
have to worry about filling up all your available slots/ports/capacity.
RAM type memory: It's very helpful to
have a lot. 512 Megabytes (Mbytes - or MB) would be great if you
need to switch among several applications. At Duke, I'm sure we
will use several large applications. The recommended 256M will work,
but try not to get any less. I don't want you to suffer the slowness
that might occur if several large programs are running at the same
time, and the machine starts doing what is called "swapping."
That's when the computer runs out of RAM type memory and starts
using the much slower hard disk as if it were RAM. It's very slow.
I would rather have a lot of memory on a slow machine than little
memory on a "fast" machine.
Expanding RAM type memory: Notebook
computers tend to have only two slots for memory. Sometimes a machine
is shipped with BOTH FILLED. For example, if you buy a 512MB machine
with two slots filled, it might be listed like this: "2x256MB"
for a total of 512MB. I want a machine with only ONE module from
the factor, often listed like this: "1x512MB" - also a
total of 512MB. But the second example (1x512MB) only uses the first
of the two memory slots. I will be able to buy another 512MB module
later, and put it in that open slot for a total of 1GB RAM. COUNTERPOINT:
Some will argue that performance is better with the 2x256MB setup
over the 1x512MB setup, and they're right (on many machines). But
to me, the small overall performance advantage is not worth the
limit on future expansion.
General Comments About Memory:
I suggest buying as much memory and hard drive space as you
can reasonably afford. Notebook hard drives are very expensive later,
and it's a pain to change them (my Sony hard drive would cost more
than my machine is worth now). Memory can usually be upgraded, but
sometimes it's difficult to find by the time you need it.
Processor Speed: The processor
(a.k.a. microprocessor, CPU, brain-of-the-machine) is not too critical
for me. If I had to skimp to save money, this is the place I would
Networking: For wireless communication
(Wi-Fi) (which I HIGHLY recommend) you can just be sure to
purchase a Centrino equipped machine (see note on Centrino below),
or just be sure your machine is equipped with 802.11b wireless capability...
or you can understand the following. There are two standards that
I'll list here: 802.11b and 802.11g. The "g" version is
about 4 or 5 times faster. "g" equipped machines can use
"b" networks (at the slower rate, of course). Duke is
outfitted with 802.11b only, so why would you want 802.11g? Only
if you want to use other wireless networks, OR if you want to set
one up in your apartment. A wireless hub for your house is not expensive
and it's nice to be able to use your notebook anywhere in the house.
for good prices on routers/wirelessAPs - I've been happy with my
D-Link router/wirelessAP. With that type of router, you can hook
all of your machines to the same Internet connection (using wireless
OR networking cable).
I would further recommend having a standard ethernet corded connection,
just for cases in which wireless connections are not available or
are not adequate. (This may be called 100baseT ethernet, or 10/100/1000,
1gig ethernet - the connection looks like a fat phone jack.)
Router / Wireless Access Point (These are two concepts, but they are often sold within the same box, often called a wireless router.) You can set up a Router
/ Wireless Access Point (AP) in your home and it's not very difficult
or expensive and works just like the wireless connections at Fuqua.
picture of a D-Link Router/WirelessAP.) It's a small box connected
to your high-speed Internet (cable or DSL, etc.) that will be a
hub for your wireless computer AND for any wired computer (equipped
with ethernet) in your apartment. Then, you can use your wireless
notebook in your home. I bought a D-Link for less than $100. Linksys
is a common brand. There are many. My D-Link was easy to set up. Be sure it supports VPN. If I understand things correctly, VPN support allows you to have multiple tunneling so two roommates could be connected via VPN tunnels at the same time.
I recommend using encryption, which is not difficult to set up.
You enter a code in the Wireless AP, then on your notebook which
is like a password. That's it. The transmissions are then encrypted
and no one can use it without your permission. You could share with
someone who lives in the next apartment if you wish... just give
them your code and they will be able to use your Router/Wireless
Bluetooth: This is a wireless technology
for a "very local" network. For example, a mouse or keyboard
can be wireless using Bluetooth. There are other wireless devices
that do not use Bluetooth, but Bluetooth is an emerging standard
and many devices will be available with that technology. If it's
not too expensive, I want Bluetooth on my machine. Other possible
uses for Bluetooth (some may not exist now) might include a portable
scanner, communications with a handheld unit (like Palm machines),
file sharing between computers, even updating a watch with appointments
and alarms, etc.
For machines that do not have Bluetooth, a Bluetooth USB module
is available for $40 from The Duke Computer Store (as of June 2,
Centrino Technology: This is a must
for me. Centrino Technology includes three aspects (listed below)
one being the processor. It's a Pentium M (very different from Pentium
4M and Pentium 4 processors). You should understand a few points
The CPU (microprocessor - or brain of the machine) is much
more efficient, both in running programs, and in power consumption.
In fact, a 1.5 GHz Pentium M processor is similar to a 2.5 GHz
Pentium 4(M). So do not let the low number (1.5 GHz clock speed)
fool you. It's fast. (See chart below.)
It includes, an internal wireless connection that will work
at Duke (802.11b). It's not as good as some otherwise equivalent
wireless cards, but it's adequate and built in. Some manufacturers
are offering a second built in wireless card that is better.
I might consider that, but it's not necessary, so don't worry
about it unless you just want the fastest wireless card available.
It includes a chip set that manages power consumption and
yields a FAR better battery life. A battery might last 50% longer
with this technology... at times more. Some machines will last
5 or more hours (my notebooks typically lasted 2.5 hours).
Here is a comparison of Centrino Technology. (From Techtv.com -
see more on their web site: www.techtv.com/products/story/0,23008,3420531,00.html)
BAPCo MobileMark 2002 (higher
LAME Encoder (lower is better)
M 1.5 GHz
Dell Inspiron 600m
Pentium M 1.6 GHz
IBM ThinkPad T40
Pentium M 1.6 GHz
IBM ThinkPad X31
Pentium M 1.4 GHz
Toshiba Satellite Pro 6100
Pentium 4M 2.2 GHz
IBM ThinkPad T30
Pentium 4M 1.8 GHz
IBM ThinkPad X30
Pentium IIIM 1.2 GHz
Mouse: I like touch pads for
"mouse" functionality (and most machines have that now).
I like the ability to use the touch pad as a left button, by tapping
on the pad. Sony does this. HP can be configured to do it (although
is not that configured that way out of the box - you only need to
use the Configuration Panel's mouse settings). I don't know about
IBM yet, but I will find out.
For some applications (e.g. graphics) you may want very precise
mouse work. For that, you might consider an extra (nonintegrated)
mouse. Most standard USB versions should work well. If you want
one that is very small and received good reviews for portability,
consider Belkin's portable USB mouse.
Screen Size: I strongly prefer a mid-sized
screen (unlike my current small screen of 12.1 inches) because I
can more easily switch between programs, and I can see more of a
Screen Resolution: is basically,
the number of dots that make up the screen. This is important because
the more dots on your screen, the clearer the images on your screen.
The text will be easier to read and curves are less "ragged."
I prefer small but clear text so I can fit more data on my screen,
so resolution is important to me. Many do not like small text so
they think that high resolution is not important. But even with
larger text, high resolution is somewhat important because it will
cause the text to be clearer (or less "ragged"). My Sony
notebook has a screen resolution of 1024x768 (1024 dots wide, by
768 dots high). That is not sufficient for me. I want at least 1400x1050
(see SXGA+ below). There are several screen technologies and each
has it's own maximum resolution, so you may want to look for a notebook
with specific technology that matches the resolution you're after.
WARNING: You will find good deals on machines with XGA (1024x768)
screens, and you might be happy with one. However, in general, I
do not recommend them and, to me, it is a fairly serious drawback.
Here's why. My current 12 inch screen is at XGA resolution and looks
fine... with a screen larger than 12 inches (including most of the
below) I consider XGA to be somewhat of a waste of screen real-estate
because I could buy a machine with a 12 inch screen, still see the
same amount of data and have a 3 pound machine (yes, the text is
larger on a 14 inch XGA machine, but to me, the 14 inch advantage
is minimal without higher resolution). Personally, if I have a 14
or 15 inch screen and am lugging around 5-7 pounds, it better show
more information on the screen to justify that weight over the 3
pound IBM that I recommend below. With SXGA+ or higher (see chart
below) you get a big advantage with a larger screen because you
can see more data. For a 12 inch screen, XGA is fine. But if you
want to buy an XGA machine with a larger screen, just be aware that
you will not fit any more data on the screen than you could with
that way-cool 12 inch screen 3 pound IBM in the recommendations
One further note: many who look at high resolution screens have
not seen them in high resolution mode with the icons adjusted appropriately,
so they think that all it does is make the text too small. You can
make the high resolution work to smooth out the text rather than
only make it small. Be sure you have really seen a properly configured
high-resolution screen before discounting their benefits.
Max Screen Size
(just my opinion)
|Common Sizes for Notebooks
||any offered today
||Other Sizes You
||14 for wide aspect ratio screens
||any offered today: wide aspect ratio screens
|* I've seen both sets of numbers,
but the first set appears to be correct
Service Contracts: I will
by a full-service, rapid turnaround contract for support. For example,
if I purchase a Dell, I will get their 3-year contract with the
extra protection for dumb things that I might do too (like dropping
the computer, or spilling a drink on it).
Summary of What I Bought
I bought an IBM T42 15 inch (for the high resolution). The keyboard
is GREAT and the entire machine is well thought out. The only drawback
is that, even though six pounds is light for a 15 inch machine,
it can get a bit heavy. But then again, a five pound machine would
feel that way at times too. Here was my criteria:
- Mid-sized SXGA+ (or better) screen (14-15.4 inches is a relatively
- Full-size keyboard with large shift keys.
- Centrino technology (which includes basic wireless LAN capability)
- 60GB hard disk (40GB might work). If bigger is available with
little cost, I'll do it. I want the fastest RPM available since
it doesn't appear to use much more power (7200 RPM is rare, but
great; 5400 RPM is somewhat common and still fine; 4200 RPM will
work but is slow).
- 512 megabytes of RAM in ONE CHIP (often listed like this: "1x512MB"
or "1 DIMM").
- Wireless LAN 802.11g. 802.11b is included in machines with the
Centrino logo. But if I can afford it, I want 802.11g capability
in case I want to connect on other networks (T-Mobile, etc. or
in my home) but this is not necessary and in general, we will
not really need the faster speed.
Options to Consider
See my Notebook Checklist
to be sure you consider each feature.
The IBM, HP, and Dell machines I've been studying are very tempting
in most ways. (See Recommendations)
Good luck. If I can help, let me know. My e-mail address is below.