15 November 2008

What notebook (Laptop) is right for me ? Part 2: Configuring

Welcome back, in my previous post I laid out some of the technical terms you should be aware of when purchasing a new notebook (laptop). In this post I will try to help you configure a notebook to match your requirements and budget. Most notebook manufacturers provide customization options or several different models with different configurations, therefore it is important to see what is under the hood and try to mix and match to get the optimal performance at the lowest cost. There are several important questions that should be answered by every buyer before start looking for new notebook.

1. What is your budget ?
  • Less than $750
  • Between $750 and $1500
  • Above $1500
2. What are you intending to use it for ?
  • General computing tasks (i.e: word processing, internet, music, movies and very light gaming)
  • Gaming (run latest high-end 3D games)
  • Professional work / high-end computing (Image and video processing, 3D rendering, data mining , scientific simulations, etc..)
3. Is portability very important ?
4. How important is battery life ?
5. How long are you planning to use it ?

Once you successfully answerer these few questions, you can start narrowing down models. As with any buying decision, price is a decisive factor. Notebook prices vary from country to country, U.S being the cheapest. I will be basing my price estimations on U.S and Japan prices (Most developed countries have comparable prices). A new notebook with just the basic components starts at around $500~$600, these normally have a low end single core CPU like an Intel Celeron or an AMD Sempron, 1GB of RAM , around 160GB of Hard Disk space, a DVD drive, LAN and wireless adaptors along with either a 15.4” or 14.1” screen. Since they are made at a very low cost, build quality (construction quality), weight, battery life, and additional features are compromised. While they are adequate for general computing needs, they are not very future proof. If you have a very strict budget your options are limited. But at least try to get an AMD X2 dual core or a 1st generation Intel Core Duo CPU along with at least 2GB of RAM.

When talking of budget notebooks we can’t forget netbooks. Netbooks (or UMPC s: Ultra Portable Mobile PCs), are reduced sized notebooks designed for internet and very light computing. Usually have a 7” ~ 10” screen with a low power CPU (i.e : Intel Atom : single core ULV processor ) and don’t have a built-in DVD drive. These are good for those who travel frequently and want a very portable computer to in touch with others (IM, Email, Internet) or do very basic word processing and entertainment tasks. However, given the low performance components, tiny keyboard and screen, netbooks are not meant to be used as your primary notebook, rather a complementary travel companion.

If you can spend around $1000 or more, then you can buy a really good notebook. For gaming and high performance computing you need a good CPU. However, GPU is more important than the CPU for gaming; nevertheless, you still need a good enough CPU. Intel Core 2 Duo is my first choice because they deliver the best performance with low power and less heat, however if you want a slightly cheaper notebook then you can consider the newer AMD X2 Ultra series based notebooks. Intel recently released their latest platform code named Centrino 2, which includes a newer Intel Core 2 Duo 3rd generation CPU (based on 45nm architecture with a 1066MHz FSB, 3MB~6MB L2 Cache) the new platform also supports faster DDR3 RAM a new integrated graphics chips with few other upgrades. Therefore, I strongly recommend Centrino 2 especially if you are considering a midrange/performance notebook. For CPU intensive tasks like image/video processing or scientific simulations CPU speed as well as the amount of cache is important, You can use Intel Processor finder or Mobile Processor Benchmark List to find out the model specific information for a given CPU model number.

Amount of RAM is another performance critical factor. You need at least 2GB of RAM to run Vista comfortably, 3 or 4GB is better. However you should also keep in mind that Windows Vista /XP 32bit (which is the most commonly used platform) cannot utilize 4GB. This is due to a memory access implementation limitation of Windows. In a 32bit OS, memory address is represented as a 32bit number, theoretically 32bit addressing can address up to 4GB, however Windows maps all the memory of all the devices (Video memory, and other device specific memories) to a single large memory space, which limits the amount of accessible system RAM. For this reason a notebook with 4GB of RAM would probably can use somewhere around 3.2GB~3.5GB of RAM. The only way to get around this problem is to use a 64bit version of Windows; however 64bit Windows versions still have few issues compared to 32bit version. You can read more about it here (Microsoft knowledge base article). Most notebook manufacturers overcharge for additional RAM, but if you buy them separately they are very cheap, right now a pair of 2GB modules (totaling 4GB) can be bought for around $70, while if you try to buy 4GB preinstalled with the notebook the price can increase by even $200. Upgrading RAM is relatively easy and will not void warranty. RAM can be accessed by removing a small panel underneath the notebook. For exact instructions you will have to refer the user manual.

If you are a gamer, then you need a good dedicated graphics card, because this is where most of the calculations related to 3D graphics are done. First you should focus on the graphics chip. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are 2 major manufacturers : NVIDIA and ATI. Both companies have entry-level, mid-range and high-end cards. Mid-range cards can handle most of the new games at satisfactory levels; these include NVIDIA 9600M series and ATI 3600 series. If you are a hardcore gamer then you should get a high end card like NVIDIA 9800M or ATI 4800 series, most high end gaming notebook also have the option to have two graphics cards in parallel (SLI), but they can easily cost over $2000. Frankly, I think it is much better to build a desktop for gaming than buying a very expensive notebook. Because those high end notebooks are very heavy and draw a lot of power and upgrade options are almost null. When considering graphics performance video memory type (bandwidth) is another important factor. Because memory type (i.e DDR2, DDR3) dictates the memory bandwidth and speed, which translates to the amount of data that can be transferred between the GPU and Video memory. To keep the costs down and mislead the customers, some manufacturers put slow memory with fast GPUs, this has a significant impact on the performance. Therefore even mid range GPU like 9600M GT with DDR2 memory won’t be any better than an older 8600M GT with DDR3 memory. This is something many users overlook when buying gaming notebooks.

Last but not the least significant component is the hard disk. If you can afford a SSD, then it’ll be the better choice especially with upcoming Windows 7 (since it has special optimizations for SSD) but for those who have budget constraints, a normal HDD is sufficient, preferably a one with 7200RPM rating. 500GB notebook drives are now becoming popular and the price is dropping fast. Similar to RAM, Hard disk upgrades from the manufacturer can be too expensive, therefore I recommend an aftermarket upgrade, especially if you want a larger Hard Disk. For example a 500GB 5400RPM notebook hard drive can be bought for around $150, while some notebook manufacturers charge up to $300~$400 to send it with the notebook. Upgrading hard disk is also very easy and safe, this is another thing you should consider.

Most mid-range / high end notebooks are equipped with latest Wireless, Bluetooth, LAN, DVD drives, there is not much to configure. Check my previous post for the latest trends in these components.

Now let us discuss about portability. Usually there are three notebook categories based on the screen size and weight : Ultra portables (screen size of 13.3” or less), standard (screen size of 14.1 or 15.4), desktop replacements (17” or larger). Unfortunately, portability and performance are at the opposite ends; therefore you have to compromise between one or the other. This is because of heat and power requirements; high performance components produce more heat therefore cooling system needs to be bigger, they also need more power meaning larger batteries.

For students who takes their notebooks regularly to the college/university or businessmen who travel a lot, I recommend portable (13.3” or smaller) notebooks. When you look at the actual weight and size, most would think the difference is insignificant, but once you start to carry it regularly you’ll start to feel it. On the other hand if you don’t transport it regularly and need high performance, then a 15.4” would be ideal. 17” are good only as desktop replacements, carrying a huge 5kg notebook is not very pleasant.

I have a 13.3” notebook with a 22” external monitor at home, and a 19” monitor at the university, so screen size is not really an issue for me. I think using a small portable notebook with an external monitor is the ideal scenario.

Battery life is another significant factor of mobile computing. Most notebooks provide the option of several different battery capacities. Extended batteries (especially in smaller sized notebooks) sometimes extrude from the back, it may not look very nice but that is something you have to compromise for more battery life. Therefore be careful when selecting extended batteries if the look of the notebook is very important to you (however in most 15.4” or 17” notebooks there is no difference in size between the extended and standard batteries).

All of us would all like to have a very durable long lasting notebook, but durability comes at a price. Normally most notebook manufacturers i.e DELL, Toshiba, HP, Lenovo, Sony etc.. has several different notebook product lines. These includes budget consumer notebooks (i.e : DELL Inspiron, HP Pavilion, Toshiba Satellite ), high performance gaming notebooks (i.e : DELL XPS, Toshiba Qosmio) and business class notebooks (i.e : DELL Precision, Lenovo Thinkpad and HP mobile workstation). Build quality between the consumer and gaming notebook models may not vary much, but since gaming notebooks are usually more expensive they tend to have a better build quality. On the other hand Business class notebooks have the best build quality, these are not normally targeted at normal home users, therefore they might lack some multimedia features you find in other notebooks like remote controllers, dedicated multimedia buttons, high resolution integrated web cameras etc. in addition they mostly come with business operating systems (i.e: Windows Vista Business) and bundled productivity applications (Microsoft Office). But they are built with better material like reinforced plastic or metal chassis with durable keyboards with track points, shock resistant hard disk mounts. These also include advanced security features like built in smartcard readers, TPM modules, hardware encryption support, industrial level graphics card (NVIDIA Quadro), docking station support etc.. If you are business user who travels a lot and use the notebook in harsh conditions then I strongly recommend a business class notebook. As consumer notebook models might wear off or break easily under a lot of stress. However for an average user buying a consumer line notebook can save some money.

Finally, I would like to say few words about warranty. All new notebooks come with a standard 1 year warranty for parts and labor, however this will not cover any physical damages due to accidents. Due to this most manufacturers also provide extended warranties (i.e: DELL complete care, HP Total Care). Depending on the plan, these will extend the normal warranty few more years with added insurance against accidental damages and theft. If you can buy that kind of an extended warranty for around $100~$150, then I strongly recommend it, especially if you are buying an expensive notebook. Most people don’t concern themselves with warranty but if a critical component (i.e : motherboard, LCD screen) fails just after the warranty runs out, it is generally wiser to buy a new notebook than replacing that part. Since notebook components are not standardized like desktop parts , finding the correct part is difficult and expensive, mostly because notebook manufacturers over charge for their parts. I have some personal experience with this kind of hard ware failures, My previous notebook’s motherboard and display both failed one after the other in 1.5 years, luckily I had 3 year warranty, without warranty the repair would have cost me around $600. In which case I would have just thrown it away and bought a new one. Therefore next time when you buy a new notebook think twice about warranty.

That’s all for today’s post. If you have any queries or comments, please don’t hesitate to drop a line or two.

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उजेली on November 15, 2008 at 9:51 PM said...

Thank you very much for the most useful information.

Alok said...

Thanks for this well written informative post. I have some points uncleared though:
a) If a notebook with 4GB of RAM can only use around 3.2GB~3.5GB of RAM; then what is the point of buying a 4GB RAM?
b) With the upcoming Windows 7 having special optimizations for SSD, will the normal/conventional hard disks be compatible and useful?

Hasitha on November 16, 2008 at 6:00 PM said...

Thanks for your comments,

Alok :
a) that 4GB limitation only exists for Windows Vista and XP 32bit; with Linux and Windows Vista / XP 64bit you can fully utilize 4GB RAM. Another reason for buying 4GB instead of 3GB is due to a memory technology called dual channel mode. This is a special technique used to double the data throughput of RAM by parallelly accessing two RAM modules at once. To have the maximum performance under Dual Channel mode you need two RAM modules of same size. Therefore, if you want to have more than 2GB then the next best choice is 4GB (2x2GB) than 3GB (1x1GB + 1x2GB). However newer motherboards have a special dual channel mode called asynchronous dual channel that can use dissimilar RAM modules, but the performance is not as good as normal dual channel. Also given the very low RAM prices I think it is better to buy 4GB despite the 32bit Windows memory limitation.

b)The data interface and physical dimensions of a SSD is identical to a conventional HDD. Therefore, even now we can upgrade our existing HDDs to SSDs. Only the internal architecture, speed and performance are different. Therefore Windows 7 will work with regular HDDs just as well with SSDs (maybe slightly slower, but nothing to worry about). As far as I know Microsoft has not reviled details about windows 7 optimizations for SSDs.

AP said...

Laptops are complex little machines with several configuration options that may lead to confusing buying decisions. In this article, you have really summarized the important factors that one should consider before purchasing a notebook. Weight, power consumption, warranty & insurance options, processing power and operating systems are probably the most essential stuffs. However, you have not said something regarding the best brand of laptops. My question is: does, at all, brand matters?

Hasitha on November 18, 2008 at 12:22 PM said...


Good that you brought up this question about brands, I was planning to write something about that too, but somehow it slipped my mind. There are few other things I would like to add, like building your own notebook from a barebones laptop (your own brand: more like building a desktop by selecting your own parts). I’ll write those in a new post, since the current one is already very long. Look forward to a part 3. If you have any more things you would like me to write in the next post, please let me know.

AP said...

Thanks, I will wait for the next episode.

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