Saturday, July 25, 2009

Gonna Buy Laptop? Laptop Review

I have been looking for a desktop replacement laptop for quite some time now - P4 1.8 GHz desktop to be replaced by a laptop. I had to brush up my hardware knowledge in a short amount of time. Let’s just say after hours of reading, I have learned much about the current laptop market and want to write a review of all the knowledge I have learned along with some reviews of the laptops that I have checked out, read about and tested. Hope this review will help someone to purchase a laptop for an education-related profession this summer. I am going to organize the review into different categories based on the laptop components that I think are most critical to identify and compare. The review is written for the newbie (plain English) which I was one a few days ago.

1. Laptop CPU Review (Central Processing Unit)

This determines the general speed of your laptop. The newest technology in laptops on CPU structure is Intel’s Dual Core (Core Duo in Mac Vocab) technology. In short, it means two processors engineered onto a single chip. Theoretically, you would get twice the computational power of a traditional single processor. Watch the following two Flash demos created by Intel, you will understand why dual-core and what is multi-thread calculation.
Why Intel Dual Core Processor
What is Intel Multi-Core Platforms

However, I do need to point out what’s coming on the horizon – AMD Turion 64 X2 or Athlon 64 for 64-bit processing. It is scheduled to reach the market by mid June or July 2006 which will cause the Intel Dual Core chip based laptops to drop price. The AMD Turion Dual Core will be 64 bits where Intel dual cores are 32 bits. If you want to dig deeper on AMD VS. Intel in the multi-processor race, read this review. For those of you trust my opinion? You don’t need to worry about the 64 bits processing until the year 2008 when the major software corporations upgrade their product line to 64 bits. But even then, can they be brave enough to discontinue the 32 bits supported products? I highly doubt it.

Conclusion on CPU, don’t buy a Pentium M (single core) notebook at this point, go for an Intel Dual Core laptop if you need it right now. If you can wait until the summer is over, go for an AMD Turion 64 Dual Core Processor based laptop. As expected, the chips use Intel's new model-numbering scheme. The Intel dual core products are labeled as T2600 (2.16GHz), T2500 (2GHz), T2400 (, 1.83GHz) and T2300 (1.66GHz). I have chosen a T2500 (2GHz). Today’s laptop technology makes it possible to upgrade CPUs down the road, but it does depends on the particular laptop you buy and expect for an expensive labor cost.

2. Laptop Graphic Cards Review (or GPU – Graphics Processing Unit)
A graphic card is probably the second most important in computer hardware configurations. It determines how well you run the graphic based programs (where 99.9% of the software programs today have fancy graphic user interfaces). If you ever want to use the laptop to watch video contents, view animations or play games, you must know your graphic card chart well. When it comes to graphic cards, I put them into two categories: Integrated Graphics Cards, and Add-on Graphic Cards. Simply put, if you are going to use your laptop mainly for surfing the net, checking email, word processing, 2D graphic design and occasionally playing some games, a laptop with an integrated graphic card would do for you. However, if you work with animation creations, multimedia developments (e.g. video rendering) or game playing (3D games like Quake 4, Half Life 2, Far Cry, FEAR, Battle Field 2), you do need the add-on graphic cards. The graphic cards makes a huge difference on laptop prices, but the one thing you can bet, the more expensive the graphic cards are, the better 3D support they provide. The top of the line graphic cards today are: ATI Radeon X800, ATI Radeon X800XT, ATI Radeon X1800, ATI Radeon X1800XT, Nvidia Go6800. Nvidia Go7800, Nvidia Go6800 Ultra, Nvidia Go7900GS, Nvidia Go7800GTX, Nvidia Go7900GTX. These graphic cards come with minimum of 128 MB GPU memory and the Go7900GTX comes with 512 MB Memory. In the common laptop brands: Dell, Toshiba, Sony, Lenovo (IBM) and HP, Dell XPS 1710 is the only laptop that comes with the Go7900GTX card and of course it’s overall performance is also the highest. In general, Nvidia cards have higher 3D benchmarks over ATI cards based on the similar models. Here is a very well written article on Mobile Graphic Cards, read it for a better understanding on the graphic cards comparisons. Don’t worry, this article is also written for newbie.

Conclusion on Graphic cards, try to get an add-on graphic card when your budget allow and don’t go for the high end ones if you do not play games. I personally believe ATI cards are good for video editing and nVidia cards are great for gaming. Please note that it is awfully difficult (almost impossible) to change the graphic card on laptops for upgrade down the road, therefore, think wisely and choose carefully.

3. Memory (RAM)
Hardware people would tell you, when you have a limited budget, the most “bang-on-the-buck” investment would be computer memory. Same thing for the laptops. If you don’t want to invest an extra $400 on a 512MB graphic card, or $300 on the next line of CPU, you can always choose to spend an extra hundreds dollar or so to get a memory upgrade.

My opinion is that don’t settle with 512MB RAM today, go for the minimum 1G. Do make sure the laptop has room for further memory upgrade because if you want to use Windows Vista, 1G is the minimum requirement. You might need to kick in another 1G pretty soon. Laptop Rams are fairly easy to upgrade.

4. Screen, Laptop Size and Weight
Two types of laptops today if we categorize them by size and weight, the desktop replacement laptops and day-to-day carry around laptops. The desktop replacement laptops come with 17 inch wide screen and heavy bodies (8 lbs to 12 lbs) while the day-to-day carry around laptops ranges from 9 inch to 12 inch to 14/15 inch with a weight from 3 lbs to 7 lbs. My experience tells me that you don’t want to carry an 8 lbs+ laptop walking around. A good trick I learned from the forums is you should find out the weight of the particular laptop you want and put books with equivalent weight into a backpack and walk around. Trust me, avoid buying an over-weight laptop!

One thing to note is that many manufacturers today (Dell, Toshiba, Sony) offers ultra-bright and ultra-sharp LCD as an upgrade option for their laptops. If the price is under $250, I’d suggest you go for it. Because they do make a huge difference when you watch a movie or play games. These screens used to cost over thousands of dollars a couple of years ago.

5. Hard Drive
Laptop Hard Drives are easy to choose, the common ones today are 60GB, 80GB, 100GB and 120GB in two different speed 5400RPM and 7200 RPM. The second one is relatively faster than the first.

I suggest go for 80GB which gives you enough space to hold contents and software and not blow your pocket. Speed wise, if you are not don’t any video editing or running software that needs constant access of the hard drive, 5400RPM would simply do it. Other wise, spend the extra $350 for a 7200 RPM drive. Laptop hard drives today are easy to replace and upgrade.

6. Battery
Now battery life has everything to do with the parts mentioned above. If you use faster CPU, powerful graphic card, bigger and brighter screen, and a large hard drive to watch movie or play games, well, good luck with your battery life. Laptop batteries come with different number of cells: the 6-cell, all the way to 10-cell Lithium Ion Battery. The higher the number of cells, the more power it stores. But like I said, if you do heavy duty tasks with your laptop, plug it into the wall!

7. Peripherals

- Make sure the laptop come with enough USB plugs. (at the least 2)
- A 5-in-1 or 6-in-1 card reader will be really handy on the road
- DVD burner would be nice when you have a smaller hard drive (smaller than 80GB )
- All laptops today have wireless card build in, but you might want to check on Bluetooth. It would be useful since more printers, communication devices and home appliances are Bluetooth equipped.
- A IEEE 1394 Port (Fire Wire) is important for video editing
- DVI Connector for the new laptops and Mac cinema displays
- S-video out if you want to project the laptop content to home TV

Personal Picks
Here is list of laptops I personally recommend, Google them or check with your local venders for the latest prices:

Lenovo (IBM) ThinkPad T60, for around $1550, this is a fast enough laptop with a dual core processor and ATI X1400 graphic card for normal computing an home entertainment. Specs: 5.1 lbs, Intel (1.66 GHz Core Duo), 512 MB, 14.1 in TFT active matrix. The specs are little low I would say, but for daily computing, this is more than enough.

Sony VAIO SZ120P/B, one of the smallest dual core laptop available in the market today. With a LCD of 13.3 in TFT active matrix, the laptop is only 4 lbs. I have seen the local London Drugs carry this laptop with NVIDIA GeForce Go 7400 (128MB Dedicated Memory) as the graphic card, you may even use this laptop for some high end gaming experiences. This laptop comes just around $2000. If you wait for another month, I bet it will drop to $1900 or lower.

Dell Inspiron 6400, a very nicely priced unit, for under $1800, you can get this laptop bundled with Intel® Core™ Duo processor T2500 (2MB Cache/2GHz/667MHz FSB ), 15.4 inch UltraSharp™ Wide Screen SXGA+ Display with TrueLife™, 1GB DDR2 SDRAM at 533MHz, 100GB 5400rpm SATA Hard Drive, and 256MB ATI MOBILITY™ RADEON® X1400 HyperMemory™. This set up is good enough for daily computing plus home entertainment and gaming purposes.

$2000 or above:
Apple MacBook Pro, comes in either 1.83 GHz or 2.0GHz Intel Core Duo processor, 1 GB DDR SDRAM, ATI X1600 and 15.4 in TFT active matrix. With a light weight of 5.6 pounds, this laptop is ideal to carry around or use as a desktop replacement computer. The ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 graphics processor is good enough for almost all of today’s newest games and it has great video play back capabilities. One can get this unit for around $2500 which is worth the investment by far. One thing I do want to point out is that with the Mac Boot Camp, you can install Windows XP to this machine as well!

Dell XPS M1710, now this is a monster Laptop; it is one of the top 3 laptops available in today’s market. With the Intel dual core processors, 1GB + RAM, NVIDIA GeForce Go 7900 GS (GTX) with 256MB (512MB ) DDR memory, this is the fastest laptop with a popular brand name (one of the Dell, Toshiba, Sony, Lenovo, Asus, Apple and HP) you can find on the market. With a similar price as the MacBook Pro, PC users certainly also get a bang-on-the-bucks product on this product as well.


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