In a prior article here, I outlined some important things to ensure when you’re looking for a new laptop. With the release of Windows7, some of those things aren’t necessarily as important as they were under Vista and I’ve learned some new things in my shopping for a new laptop myself.
Keyboard / Trackpad
When we think of a new laptop, we consider all sorts of things … except the keyboard and mouse interface. The size and touch of a keyboard are critical. The location of the touchpad can become an issue too since many people will find their wrists touching the trackpad and changing where the text being typed gets entered. We each need to try the keyboard for a specific model of laptop for ourselves. Go to the big box store that has your model and type on it. Try to do it while sitting down like you would normally use the machine and see where your wrist rests. There are programs that will disable the trackpad when the keyboard is pressed. Each keyboard has a different feel or touch. For me, the touch of a keyboard is critical. The keyboard on my last Dell wasn’t ideal and there were static electricity issues which caused problems. I’ve heard that other brands have an issue with this too.
The keyboard is the most important interface to your laptop. It needs to work the way you want it.
Screen Size / Resolution
Watch out for low resolution screens advertised as 720p. 720p resolution sucks. The reason it is being advertised is because those panels can be cheaply purchased since TVs use that resolution too. 1080p is the minimal resolution I’d consider for a 15" or larger laptop. Anything less is simply too low for most application menus and a reasonable amount of data on the screen. For a desktop, anything less than 1900 × 1280 is low resolution these days.
Windows7, period. Whether you want the 32-bit or 64-bit version depends on the amount of RAM the system will ever hold. 3GB or less, use the 32-bit version. More than 3GB go with the 64-bit (x64) version of Windows7. Obviously, if you will run Linux or BSD or OSX, you can google for which version you should run. For example, I’ll probably purchase a 4GB RAM Windows7 x64 laptop. It will hold at least 8GB of RAM to allow future expansion. Most laptops that I’ve looked at recently still don’t support more than 4GB of RAM, so it this is your intent too, search a little deeper. One of the laptops claimed to hold 16GB of RAM (HP-Envy), but it wasn’t possible to configure it that way. I tried to get HP to answer how I could get 16GB of RAM installed and they couldn’t answer.
In previous operating systems, the x64 version often wasn’t supported by drivers. With Windows7, Microsoft has required that device makers include x64 drivers to be stamped Works with Windows7 or whatever they call the Win7 certified program now. Us x64 users aren’t second class citizens anymore.
Which version of Windows7 should you get? The main choices are:
- Starter – only for a netbook
- Home Premium – local disk or USB backups only. No ability to RDP into this system, but RDP out works fine. No Active Directory.
- Professional – Supports AD, networked backups, RDP in and out and everything HomePre includes.
- Ultimate – Supports everything Pro includes and adds BitKeeper disk encryption and the ability to boot VirtualPC VDI disks.
- It is unlikely anyone should purchase Ultimate. I have it only because Microsoft gives copies away at industry events.
- Professional is useful for any business environment with a LAN or if you have a backup server at home that isn’t from Microsoft. I also like to leave the laptop downstairs, but still be able to access programs on it remotely via RDP.
- Home Premium is the minimal IMHO since it includes an excellent backup program, but that program is limited to locally attached disks. It isn’t recommended for any but the smallest businesses (3 computers or less).
I’m relaxing my prior statement about Core Duo CPUs being old. Seems Intel is still producing modern CPUs under that brand. Would I purchase one of these? No, but if your requirements are minimal and performance isn’t important at all, go for it. You should pay at least $200 less for that CPU than a better performing model. Microsoft Windows7 XP-mode has been updated so that VT-x support isn’t required any longer, but if your laptop BIOS and CPU support it, you can expect very near native performance. I gotta ask, why wouldn’t you want that? Is it worth not getting a CPU with it? If you may want to run a VMware appliance or VirtualBox just get VT-x support in your CPU.
Today 4GB of RAM is minimal. I’d buy at least 4GB myself and be certain that the laptop can be upgraded to at least 8GB in the future. Most laptops cannot support over 4GB of RAM, so you’ll definitely want to check that AND verify it. Also, with more than 3GB of RAM, you’ll want the x64 (64-bit) version of Windows7.
External ports (USB/Firewire/eSATA)
If you need firewire or eSATA, you already know it. Two USB should be fine, but more are handy. You also want some kind of video output for connecting to TVs and projectors. HDMI and VGA are nice, but so is S-Video for older TV connections. I’ve recently learned about Firewire security issues and will try to avoid that interface on all my future systems. If it is required, I’ll disable it in the BIOS. I’ve only seen a few eSATA capable laptops. eSATA is the fastest way to connect an external disk available today. Basically, the performance will match the internal disk controller – perhaps 5x quicker than USB 2.0. If you are serious about backups and can’t use a network backup, this is the way.
USB 3.0 will be great in another year, but you’ll need new peripherals to use it. Having it will be good, but today, it isn’t on my laptop must have list. Next year, it will be.
Apple is pushing Display Port as a replacement to HDMI. If your monitor supports Display Port, that is great, but it will be a few more years before even 20% of the monitors do.
I routinely use my laptop as a desktop replacement by connecting the VGA-out to a big monitor and plugging in both keyboard and mouse ports via USB. Highly recommended. None of my devices support HDMI (KVM, Monitors), hence the need for a VGA port or an output that can easily be converted to VGA, like DVI. It is possible to have both VGA and HDMI outputs – my old laptop had that.
WiFi / Wireless / BlueTooth
WiFi, 802.11g is a minimal, but 802.11N or cellular network wireless adapters may also be nice. You may want BlueTooth as well, if you are a road warrior and want to use your laptop for presentations or as a media player in hotels.
Disk Size / Memory Card Slot / Optical Reader
Current laptops seem to include at least 160GB of disk storage. The prior article covered this well. It also covered the memory cards and CD, DVD, Blu-Ray. Sometimes laptops do not include optical drives. If that is the case, you’ll want to build or purchase a USB device that you can boot from when there is a hard disk problem. Be certain to test this BEFORE your disk crashes. This week is the best time if you don’t already know that you are safe.
Install CD / Recovery / Backup
When offered, be certain to create the recovery CD for your laptop. Every non-corporate laptop that I’ve had included a recovery partition on the internal disk drive and a way to create recovery media. Be certain you do create this ASAP after your purchase. Up to 3% of all disk drives fail within the first year.
Warranty / Type of Support
I had a laptop die a few months ago. It had a 1 yr mail-it-back warranty. If you aren’t a computer tech and use your laptop for business, I’d strongly encourage you to get the 2yr in-home support contract. You don’t want to mail a non-working laptop across the country with all your data unencrypted inside it. You want someone to come to your home, check everything out, order replacement parts, leave the laptop there, and return in a few days to install the parts. If you are a business, this is critical since your laptop probably contains client and proprietary data. Don’t trust computer techs.
After 2 years, a laptop isn’t worth nearly the amount you paid for it. If it breaks after 2 yrs, buy a new laptop.
Also, be certain to use a credit card that will double the manufacturer’s warranty. Often these limit the doubled period to 1 yr, which is fine. I just used this to get repaid for a laptop that died. While they didn’t pay replacement cost, they did pay fix it costs which was about 80% of the original cost.
This is a question of hassle for you. I would try to reuse existing licenses myself. I already have an MS-Office license, so the new laptop won’t come preinstalled with it. If you are going to hand down an old laptop to someone else, you may want to purchase another license, but if it is for a child, I’d migrate the license to my new laptop and install OpenOffice on the older machine. Kids don’t need MS-Office.
Also, the version of MS-Office you currently use may not be available anymore. A new version may be pre-installed and have different file formats or a completely different menu system. Newer isn’t always better.
For many laptops, that free or trial software pre-installed actually saves money on the total cost. I’ve never used any of the pre-installed, free software. Even the Anti-Virus software. To easily remove all that cruft, check out Revo Uninstaller I’ve never used it, but people I respect swear by it.
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