PhoneBoy Talks About: Laptops
As someone who ends up doing a lot of work with people's laptops at work,
I've seen lots of different laptops with different designs, features, and
add-ons. I've also had the joy of using different laptops while I am out
on the road. Each laptop is different and has strengths and weaknesses.
The "ultra cool" laptops are, of course, more expensive than their desktop
cousins. But you don't have to spend a lot of money to get a computer that
is both portable and powerful. Here are some things to look for when it
comes to choosing and using laptops.
Laptops have built-in keyboards that are often smaller and have fewer keys
than a typical desktop keyboards. Often the "extra" keys like the arrow
keys, numeric pad, and function keys are either cramped in a weird location
or require the use of extra "function keys" to activate. They also have
built-in pointing devices that include small trackballs, the trackpoint,
and the trackpad. The trackpoint is a small nub that sticks out of the
laptop keyboard that you move in the direction you want the pointer to
go. The trackpads require you to press your finger in a small square area
and drag it across this area to move your pointer. I don't know who
came up with this last one, but I think it's dumb.
Among other things, laptops often include a full complement of ports
for external devices such as printers, modems, keyboards, mice, and monitors.
There is also usually a built-in floppy drive. The newer laptops also include
16-bit sound, CD-ROMs, and infrared ports. The infrared ports allow you
to use peripherals without having to hook up the device to the laptop.
Like your TV remote control, you just point your laptop at the device and
the computer will be able to use it. You have to have devices that use
the IR protocol, but the basic idea is cool.
There are basically two types of laptop screens: passive matrix and active
matrix. Passive matrix technology will often go by different names, but
it's basically the same in that the screens aren't as sharp or as viewable
as active matrix screens. Active matrix screens cost more, but to me, the
extra cost is worth it. Laptop screens are usually limited to an 800x600
display area, which is more than adequate for most uses.
Typically, a laptop will contain two PCMCIA slots. PCMCIA cards are about
the size of your average credit card, but a bit thicker. Typical PCMCIA
cards include external CD-ROM drives, modems, network cards, and sound
cards. To the mobile Internet surfer, a PCMCIA modem is a must. The modems
are as fast as their desktop cousins and will either sport an X-Jack (a
standard phone jack that pops out of the side of the PCMCIA card) or some
sort of cord that has a regular phone plug at one in and a little, skinny
connector on the other that plugs into the PCMCIA card.
Many laptops include some form of "port replicator" or docking station.
The port replicators allow you to plug in a variety of "external devices"
into a single thing that "snaps" into your laptop. At work, for instance,
you can have a normal monitor, keyboard, network connection, CD-ROM, or
what-have-you. When you leave the office and take your laptop with you,
you use the built-in devices on the laptop. Not all port replicators are
created equal, though. The Advanced Port Replicator by Dell, for instance,
include a 10-Base-T Ethernet connection and an external SCSI port. Gateway
2000's version of the port replicator includes no such niceties and, due
to the design of the laptop, require you to open up the laptop to turn
off the computer -- very inconvienent if you are plugged into the port
The only companies that offer "true" docking stations, where you basically
have the equivelant of a full desktop system as a docking station, are
the older Macintosh Duo-Dock systems and the high-end Toshiba's.
Typically, you can get anywhere from 3 to 5 hours out of most laptops,
but that will vary depending on how you use it. For instance, one of the
Vice Presidents of the company I work for tried to load some software on
her laptop from floppy disks while on a long plane trip. The batteries
in her laptop died within an hour! I was able to get at least 4 hours out
of an older Dell laptop while on a recent trip to Detroit, but I had all
the power-save options enabled and was basically word processing and playing
Tetris. You can usually buy an extra battery for your laptop to carry with
you. But depending on the make and model of your laptop, the extra battery
can be $100 or more.
Most laptops will allow you to add additional memory to your system, but
it is often expensive. Though memory for desktop systems are at all-time
lows, laptop memory isn't. The amount of memory you can put in the laptops
will vary, though you won't need much more than 40 megabytes if you're
just running Windows 95 (Windows doesn't use any more than that).
Choosing a Laptop
Aside from getting all the features you want, you want to make sure you
can try out the laptop you want first. See how it feels to use. See how
heavy it is to carry. Put it thru its paces. Remember that you will be
using this on the road in weird places. If you travel on planes, you will
need to make sure you can use it without disturbing your neighbor. A decent
laptop will cost you around $2500 - $3000. Find the laptop you want, then
shop around for the best price. Make sure you get it from some place you
can take it back to if you have a problem.
Last Update: 26 July 1997
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