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Mark's Notes on Notebook Computers
 
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Introduction

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 below).

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 recommendations: http://www.fuqua.duke.edu/about/admissions/incoming/computing_details.htm

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.

General

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 a study.

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 port expander.

  • 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 screen.

  • 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 more.

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 do it.

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. Check www.buy.com 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. (See 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 AP too.\

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, 2004).

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 about it.

  1. 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.)

  2. 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.

  3. 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)

Notebook

Processor

BAPCo MobileMark 2002 (higher is better)

LAME Encoder (lower is better)

Centrino Architecture

Toshiba Tecra S1 Pentium M 1.5 GHz 181 165

Dell Inspiron 600m

Pentium M 1.6 GHz

179

156

IBM ThinkPad T40

Pentium M 1.6 GHz

176

155

IBM ThinkPad X31

Pentium M 1.4 GHz

155

177

Non-Centrino Architecture

Toshiba Satellite Pro 6100

Pentium 4M 2.2 GHz

147

169

IBM ThinkPad T30

Pentium 4M 1.8 GHz

131

216

IBM ThinkPad X30

Pentium IIIM 1.2 GHz

121

226

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 document.

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 page.

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.

Screen Technologies and Their Maximum Resolutions
(Please send any corrections or further tips) (Thanks to Ernesto for much info'!)
www.fourmilab.ch/documents/howmanydots
http://dret.net/glossary

Designation Dimensions

Max Screen Size
(just my opinion)

Common Sizes for Notebooks
XGA 1024x768 12 inch
SXGA+ 1400x1050 15 inch
UXGA 1600x1200 any offered today
WXGA+ 1920x1200
SXGA 1280x1024 13 inch Other Sizes You Might Find
WXGA 1366x768 (1280x800*) 14 for wide aspect ratio screens
WSXGA+ 1680x1050 any offered today: wide aspect ratio screens
WUXGA 1920x1200
* 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 common size)
  • 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.

Fuqua Computing Links
General
Incoming Student Website - very useful initially www.fuqua.duke.edu/about/admissions/incoming/
FuquaWorld - useful now and during school

www.fuquaworld.duke.edu

Academic Preparation The long URL is in this link
BLUE DEVIL WEEKEND www.thedukebdw.org/
OIT main page www.oit.duke.edu
OIT Survival Guide www.oit.duke.edu/docs
Duke OIT Computing (resources, etc.) www.oit.duke.edu/oit/computer.html
Fuqua IT Site it.fuqua.duke.edu
Fuqua's Hardware Recommendations The long URL is in this link
Technical Support
Duke OIT Technical Support Page www.oit.duke.edu/oit/stan....recs/support.html
Duke OIT Help Desk www.oit.duke.edu/helpdesk
Email
Duke email (web based emailer)

www.mail.duke.edu

Duke email Information

www.oit.duke.edu/helpdesk/email

Fighting Spam webacct.acpub.duke.edu/online
Storage at Fuqua
Storing Fuqua Data it.fuqua.duke.edu/itupdates/update_fuqua_data.html
Software
OIT Site License Software www.oit.duke.edu/site
Duke Software List www.oit.duke.edu/site/software.html
Getting Fuqua email addresses (LDAP) www.oit.duke.edu/da/ldap-ph/
Security
Duke's Security Page www.security.duke.edu
Duke Password Change - General webacct.acpub.duke.edu/online
Duke Password Change - from Fuqua page it.fuqua.duke.edu/itupdates/update_pword.html
Duke Lookup
Fuqua contact info lookup www.fuquaworld.duke.edu (FuquaWorld)
Duke contact info lookup www.duke.edu (Duke's main page)
Reference
Dret's Glossary (Terms, Acronyms, etc.) dret.net/glossary/
Tom's Hardware (Tech Info, terms, etc.) www.tomshardware.com
Fourmillab (describes video standards) The long URL is in this link
BusinessWeek on Wireless The long URL is in this link AND Another
Purchasing
Duke Computer Store www.dukestores.duke.edu/cpustore/
Duke Computer Store Advantages Financing and local repair and support.
www.oit.duke.edu/oit...ecs/buyduke.html
Pricegrabber www.pricegrabber.com (Thanks Peiman)
Buy.com www.buy.com

Contact Info© copyright - Mark W. Rice