Top 5 Overlooked Items when Buying a Notebook Computer

It is late August, 2010, and up to this point I have never bought a notebook computer. I am, and have been all this time, a desktop computer type of person. By and large desktop computers are more flexible, upgradable, faster, have bigger screens with higher resolutions(assuming you plug in a bigger screen), and you can plug more stuff into them like digital TV receivers, printers, scanners, awesome video cards, and dual screens (always good). Really there is only one ‘true’ advantage that notebook computers have over desktop computers that I can come up with: they are portable.

Not that we don’t have notebook computers laying around the house. We do. My son has one (an ASUS), as does my wife (a DELL). And the company I work for prefers to issue its workers with notebooks rather than desktops, so I have a ‘company’ notebook (IBM Lenovo). But the company notebook is locked down using domain group policy—so there is not much I can do with it except work using the pre-installed tools from the company. I am unable to install anything on it because my account on that computer does not have local administration access, and there is no way I can change this.

Well at this point in time I am thinking about buying a notebook computer. Notebook computers are no longer second class citizens when it comes to Windows-based computers. While bang for buck they are still about 50 to 80 percent more expensive than a desktop this is much better than the 300 percent difference five years ago. If you are prepared to shell out about $1,000 to $1,500 (in Australia—for all the Americans reading this *G*) you can expect to pick up a pretty useful notebook computer.

Being the type that researches everything, whether I need to or not most times, I had a look around to see what the wise advice was—from people I trust—about buying a notebook computer. I found some useful stuff.

It seems that there is general agreement that the Top 5 really important things most people overlook or don’t think too much about when going out to buy a notebook computer are:

  1. Weight/Overall size: Generally the whole purpose behind getting a notebook computer is portability. Based on the axiom that the weight of anything carried on your back (assuming the use of a backpack to carry it) increases in perceived weight by 10% for every 10 minutes it is carried, then the lighter the load in the first place the better. But then some people my not care two hoots about the weight as they are never going to carry it any further than the car to the house.

    And if you get a notebook that is just too big it may not fit into your backpack or briefcase in the first place.

  2. Screen resolution: Notebook screens are very confusing. There are so many sizes and resolutions. Unless you are paying attention it is possible to end up with a whopping great 17” screen notebook that only has a 768 pixel height (which is about the ‘height’ of an 12” CRT screen of old)—so your mate with a 15.4” 900 pixel height notebook screen is getting about 30% more on his screen than you are with your 17” screen.

    Also the vast bulk of Web pages are set out (designed) based on everyone having at least 1000 pixels of screen depth (based on the ‘standard’ 1280x1024 4:3 screen). So if you get a 768 pixel height screen (or less) then practically every Web page you go to is going to need scrolling up in order for you to see what the Web page designer thought you were going to be able to see on the initial opening of his/her page.

  3. Battery life/Fast charge: One of the key reasons for moving to a notebook is portability, and embedded in the concept of portability is not having to plug into a power supply too often. So a notebook with a long-ish battery life is probably something to consider.

    But when you do have to charge it then sometimes it would be nice if it was a fast-charge charging system so that it got up to 80 or 90 percent of full charge in 20 to 30 minutes; rather than having to wait 3 or 4 hours, or more, for it to charge up.

  4. Numeric Keypad: This requirement is so often overlooked, but do you need a separate numeric keypad? And from the advice I looked at on the Web the answer to this for many people is a surprising “yes”.

    There are a lot of angles to this but very quickly the two key ones are: (a) if you are going to be using the notebook for Microsoft Excel or other financial, mathematical, design/CAD, or statistical work then get a notebook that has a separate numeric keypad; (b) if you are the kind of person who makes use of keyboard shortcuts or plays modern games on your computer then get a notebook with a separate numeric keypad. Using an ‘embedded’ numeric keypad in any of these cases is horrid and may end up in you having to take Valium or resort to hard liquor.

  5. Docking: Do you want a notebook that can dock? If you intend to use your notebook as a desktop replacement while also providing yourself with some portability, then the answer to this question is probably yes. If you buy a docking notebook then you can put a docking adaptor (sometime called a ‘docking station’) on your desk and leave your desktop screen, keyboard, mouse, printer(s), scanner/fax, network connection, etc., plugged into it. Then when you want to work at your desk you just dock your notebook to the docking station—which does not even require you to open the lid of the notebook (in most cases)—and turn it on.

So once you have nailed down the answer to these Top 5 overlooked requirements, then you can proceed with looking into the other 100 or so aspects of buying your notebook such as:

  • CPU (performance),
  • internal video ‘card’ performance,
  • external video ‘card’ performance (for when you connect a desktop screen to the external video connection),
  • screen size (as opposed to screen resolution which was covered in the Top 5 things),
  • amount of memory (remember that anything more than 4GB with 32-bit Windows 7 is basically useless),
  • which edition of Windows 7 to get (Standard, Premium, Business, Professional, Ultimate, etc.,),
  • 32-bit or 64-bit computing (there are upsides and downsides to either decision so be sure what you are doing here, especially if you are going to go with a 64-bit computer with 64-bit Windows installed),
  • colour,
  • number of USB ports (I recommend a minimum of 3: two get used when you use an external mouse and keyboard, and you need one more for anything else),
  • HDMI out (to be able to connect easily into your HDMI-compatible wide-screen TV),
  • sound quality (which means the embedded speakers as well as the capabilities of the sound ‘card’ included),
  • one or two hard disk bays (and if there are two disk bay then should one of them be used for an SSD to provide overall faster performance of the computer?),
  • Blu-ray or just DVD/CD,
  • embedded Web camera,
  • user swappable battery (so you can carry a fully charged spare and swap them over if you need to—good for going on long trips where you may not be close to mains power for some time),
  • embedded microphone,
  • etc, etc.

But with the top five overlooked criteria worked out you will find that progressing through the layers of what other bits and pieces you need might be a little simpler—or not.

An interesting observation is that none of the glossy advertising for notebook computers in the local papers and catalogues that I have checked actually mentions any of the Top 5 requirements. Curious!