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Buying a Laptop

Billy Simms

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I am looking to buy a laptop computer. With so many different types and prices to choose from, the task can be overwhelming. I know there are many factors to consider, so I would appreciate any advice I can get. I will need to travel with my laptop so I’m guessing a laptop that doesn’t weigh a ton would be nice. Also, I will need a computer with plenty of memory and the ability to perform many functions that speakers need. Can anyone give me any suggestions?

— Bonnie Bakkum Amundson

I suggest Toshiba and I purchased mine at Toshiba Direct online.

If you haven’t looked at tablets before, you will find many additional features your regular laptop doesn’t have, including being able to write on your documents that you project on the screen. Yes, write. Flip the screen so you have a flat tablet to work with.

And by going Toshiba Direct, I was able to pick and chose how much power I wanted.

— Patti Branco

I am on my 2nd Gateway laptop in 10 years, and third desktop, all bought online with some phone help. (www.gateway.com)

I love the service, so far I have always been able to speak with an American and as for what kind, buy the biggest baddest and most fully loaded. Get plenty of USB ports, a powerhouse battery, and wireless configuration. Don’t worry so much about the weight; none are so heavy as to be a problem.

When you buy them on sale inevitably it is because they are already obsolete, and won’t have something you may not need today but will need tomorrow!

You can update drivers and software online at their site, and I have always found them to be as helpful AFTER the sale as before!

— Mitch Krayton

Like choosing a car, the first thing is to define how you will use it. If this is your mobile office you need to be certain the laptop can do all that your desktop can do while you are on the road. Buy the most RAM you can afford for faster and quieter performance. Get the smallest hard drive because that will be plenty to hold all you could need on the road. It will also keep the price of the laptop down. Put your presentation on cheap USB stick drives that fit in your pocket or bag. These can be password protected.

If you need more space than a 1 or 2 GB stick drive, or you have separate things you need to leave in your office that you don’t want to travel with, buy external USB hard drives. They are cheap and light. If the travel hard drive has really valuable material you want to protect use disk utilities to encrypt the information.

Get yourself an online account that can hold all your critical data. This way if you lose your laptop or drives, you can download files from anywhere you borrow or rent Internet access and still be ready to go.

Apple sells a service for $99 or less per year called .Mac that acts like a remote hard drive. The data is accessible from Macs and PCs. Many free accounts are also available from Google, Yahoo and MSN that include sizable free file storage. Plus any of the free photo sharing sites can hold JPG images of your slides and promo material just fine as well. (If you have your own Web site, there is a strong possibility you already have free file storage you are not using and can host your files in directories on your site that only you can access.)

If your laptop is just going to show slides, you can find alternatives to carrying it through airport security, like an iPod or your cell phone, which can plug into any computer or projector and display your slides in the order you want. These are very light weight and cheap.

As to the laptop per se, I would get a smaller 12–15" screen on the laptop to hold the weight down and because larger displays don’t open on airplane trays. You can always plug a large desktop display to any laptop when you use it in on the ground. There are large displays available in offices and hotels everywhere should you need it.

I have a bias to Macs because they just work with any display or projector you have. Really Plug and Play. The new MacBooks and MacBook Pros can also simultaneously run Windows, too, so you will find a universal fit in one device.

If you create slide type presentations, you will also want to seriously consider Apple’s Keynote software that only runs on the Mac as an alternative to PowerPoint. The ease of developing presentations can only be matched by the sharpness of the text, the coolness of the transitions and the crash-free playback of movies and audio. And so few people have seen the Keynote Themes that your presentation won’t look like everyone else’s. The WOW factor is huge.

During your talk, if you rely on your computer screen for notes or timers or info other than what the audience sees, you will need to have dual screen video capability. Less expensive units have only video mirroring (same image on both screens).

Wireless issues

Laptops used to be just portable computers and you needed a cable to network them (bring one with you anyway). But now laptops can connect wirelessly. There are many ways it can do this using tiny radio chips either installed inside the computer or as external peripherals.

Wi-Fi is the fastest and most popular with hot spots in hotels, coffee shops and airports. Bluetooth is handy for connecting keyboards, mice and headsets to your computer without all the mess of wires. It is also very useful for syncing up your cell phone data.

Lastly if you want a data card access (EDGE, EV-DO, GPRS, etc.) from your cell provider which will give you Internet access everywhere that you have cell phone access, you will need to have a data card or PCMCIA card slot on your laptop. This is only available on high-end computers. Note that you can still use data card services using USB peripherals/radios which add bulk to your travels. With a great more difficulty, you can even use your cell phone to act as a modem cabled to your laptop.

One cool thing about always-on data services is that you can use the mapping facilities of GPS satellites to guide you in new cities and locate hotels, restaurants or gas stations. (And you don’t need to pay for the expensive built-in one for your cars). I believe Sprint is offering this free to their cell phone users with data services as of April 1st, 2007. Others have competing plans.

Remember that all those wireless services use up your laptop battery quickly, so only turn on those services that you are using at the moment to extend your mobile battery life. Take a spare battery but mind that this adds weight to your pack. And recharge often.

Note on security. When using wireless networking, take care to secure your wireless connection or your computer will open to compromise by any person sitting next to you or on the same network.

Note on Apple laptops: The MacBook only mirrors and has no PCMCIA slot. The MacBookPro provides dual screen capability and a PCMCIA slot. Both have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and wired Fast Ethernet built-in.

What ever the vendor you choose, be sure the laptop has all the tools you need and none that you don’t which goes back my opening comment about how you will use it.

P.S. Make certain you bring the proper cables, power connectors and batteries to suit your requirements on the road.

— Sharon Adcock

I just went through the “what type of laptop to get” question and purchased one 2 weeks ago. I have the HP Pavilion DV6000 model. With a $50 rebate the cost was $899 I think or maybe $849.

I had a techie friend go with me. Looked at HP, Lenovo (the guys who bought IBM’s Thinkpad), Fujitsu, Sony, and Dell. My tech friend loves the Lenovos; says they’re the best on the market. But they’re also the priciest.

There was a model just up from mine on the HP that I wanted (that was $1,099). The best price for it was at Costco (who knew?!), but they only take Amex and I don’t have Amex. Circuit City had a price only $50 more, but they were out of stock. So I went to Fry’s Electronics and got my current model there, as I wanted my buddy with me in case of tech issues. Alas, Fry’s had the same unit as Costco and while they were cheaper on my unit, they were $1,349 for the model at Costco, so I bought the model I did and applied the difference to getting Office ’07 (got Office ’07 at Costco; price was the cheapest).

I love the HP I got. It’s much lighter than my old Dell, has a great screen. It’s got a gazillion USB and different ports.

All laptops ship with Vista now, so that might be a change for you from XP. Also, if you get Office ’07, the interface for Word is totally different. I bought Vista and Office ’07 for Dummies, but I haven’t had a chance to read them yet.

One thing you might encounter is whether your printer (or other peripherals) is Vista compatible. Go to the manufacturers Web site and check it out. I had an older copier/printer that was expensive when I bought it, but Sharp didn’t update drivers for Vista, so now it’s being used only as a copier. I bought a Lexmark 7350 all-in-1 inkjet printer, which was $109 with sale price on the Lexmark site. I like lasers better, but this was recommended by a journalist who reviews the stuff.

One thing to keep in mind re: printers. If you’re getting a new one and it’s Vista compatible, you don’t have to really do anything. If I understand it correctly Microsoft is maintaining the data and if you’re online, Vista will recognize the driver/printer. My printer shipped as XP-compatible and had a disc for software install, and then I thought I had to download the Vista driver. It got all messed up and I spent 2 hours with Lexmark’s India customer service with no resolution. Talked to my tech friend. He had me uninstall the stuff, and then go online and voila, Vista said good to go. Something like that.

If you have a printer that is XP-compatible and there is a Vista driver from the manufacturer, then I think you just download the driver and again once that’s done Vista will recognize it.

Transferring data to the new laptop shouldn’t be difficult if you have hard drive or flash back-up. I had a really old laptop so I just emailed myself the files from the old one to the new one and downloaded it. It was a bit tedious, so hopefully you won’t have to do that.

I originally bought Norton anti-virus and we could never get it installed correctly (spent 3 hours trying), so I took it back. Some tech friends recommended free anti-virus software from Grisoft called AVG. (www.grisoft.com) I use that. Also I use ad-aware (www.ad-aware.com) for my anti-spyware. Both work fine with Vista.

I’m a pretty basic user — email, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, that type of thing. My laptop is my main computer. I don’t have a separate desktop system.

When I got my laptop, I signed up for Verizon FIOS (fiber optic) television and Internet. Love it. It’s really fast. I’m set up for wifi throughout my place, which is great. If you don’t have FIOS obviously you can do the same with cable.

— Randall Craig

I have recently purchased an IBM Thinkpad X-series tablet that I am very happy with. It weighs about 3.5 pounds, has a 5 hour battery, and has ample processing power. The “kicker” is with the stylus: when I use PowerPoint during presentations, I can actually write on the screen — diagrams, participant comments, or anything.

— Peggy Duncan

I suggest that you buy the biggest and the baddest that you can afford. I’m a heavy user...in office and on the road. I have a Dell Inspiron. Fortunately Dell has dedicated North American tech support with in-office repair. I’ve had to get my keyboard (letters faded twice) and entire mousepad and plate replaced (from dropping at the airport more than once). The technician came to my house the next day to fix.

My next purchase will be something in the Dell Latitude or Precision family because they’re more durable. I don’t mind it weighing a little more because I roll my laptop everywhere. Features to consider: add additional memory if you need to, CD/DVD burner, built-in Verizon Mobile Broadband Card, wireless network card, Bluetooth. Depending on which system you purchase and how you plan to use the machine, you may want to upgrade the sound card. When you purchase, negotiate for free add-ons, particularly when you’re near the close of the sale (e.g., you ordered the CD/DVD player and want to get the burner).

I’m waiting until Microsoft works out the kinks with Windows Vista before I make the purchase.

— Diana Royce Smith

As an owner of both PC and Apple laptops, I’ll tell you my next laptop is going to be an Apple! You get much more power, technology, space, protection from cooties, and coolth. You get much less hassle and weight.

My Apple laptop is so lightweight, I bought a padded envelope and slip it into a “regular” backpack, along with other stuff I don’t want to have lengthening my arms. A non-computer backpack doesn’t scream, “Steal my laptop here!” in coffee shops and airports.

At the higher end of PC laptops, prices don’t differ that much. All you need to remember with an Apple is, bring that little converter cable to connect to a projector.

In either case, you’ll probably appreciate having a cordless mouse and some high-capacity way to back up stuff. I’m currently using multi-megabyte flashdrives, as they help me to separate files on the hard drive into conceptual chunks, but you might prefer a separate backup-everything option.

— Robert Ian

I recommend either the new MacBook or MacBook Pro.

Apple computers are the only computers that run both Mac OS and Windows on the same machine. This gives you the ease of using a Mac with the ability to load and run windows if you so choose. Besides, Microsoft Office for Mac means you can communicate and exchange files with windows users seamlessly across platforms.

— Meggin McIntosh

I have a Toshiba Portege that I’ve now had for nearly 2 years. It’s very light and part of why it’s light is the CD/DVD player (and its power source) is external. So, sometimes, if I know I’m not going to be using a DVD in a presentation, I don’t lug that part around. I had a Toshiba laptop before this that was fabulous, too, but weighed so much that I had trouble hoisting it into the overhead bin. I spent a little more and got this one. It’s still going strong.

— Nancy Stern

Sony makes a great traveling laptop.

— Susan Granger

I had the same need — and I really wanted it lightweight and small — so I went with the SONY VAIO which has a Cingular connection. I can use the usual WI-FI when that is available — and, when it isn’t, the laptop connects with Cingular so I can use that wireless network. Since Cingular combined with AT&T, it’s really effective — particularly in the out-of-the-way places we vacation, like St. Thomas in the Caribbean and the lake country of northern Wisconsin.

My laptop is the size of a large book and very lightweight, particularly if I pack the connector cords in my suitcase or carry-on. In fact, I was so delighted with it that I bought one for my husband, who is also a speaker, for his birthday last year.

— Yvonne Ortega

I swear by Dell. Their service is 24/7, and you can get an extended contract. You can also get a damage/spill/drop contract for $69 a year. Their Latitude is lightweight. You can look up Dell on the Internet. Dell also has a toll-free number.

SpeakerNet News is produced by Rebecca Morgan and Ken Braly. It is not affiliated with the National Speakers Association. Send comments or suggestions