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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Designing and Specifying PC Systems and Components | Notebook PC Specification Issues ]

Notebook-Specific Component Specification Issues

Notebooks are designed, built and used in a rather different way than desktops, so it should not be a big surprise that they have special issues that must be taken into consideration when selecting components. To help you with assessing different notebook models and their various attributes and components, I am going to take a look at various issues related to component selection that are particular to notebooks.

If you have not already done so, you may wish to review the general system-based component selection discussion. This will provide you with the basics of component selection in PC systems. While notebooks certainly are different from desktops, they are still PCs and much of that information will apply. A good approach is to start with that general information, and then read this notebook-specific page to see where and how notebooks differ from desktops.

The following are the components that require special consideration when purchasing a notebook PC, and the ways in which they are important to notebook design. Note that you can click on most of the component headings to go to the appropriate detail page discussing that component (though that discussion will not be notebook-specific):

  • System Case: The "case" of a notebook refers to the exterior of the unit, usually made of plastic. Assess the sturdiness of the unit. Open and close the screen and decide how solid the overall unit feels. Will it stand up to repeated opening and closing motions? Another important issue is cooling. Look for a system that has a reputation for reliable operation without overheating. A cooling fan is also a good thing to look for, especially one whose operation can be controlled by the user.
  • Power: Notebooks run either off their internal battery or external power. There are a number of different considerations to look for here:
    • Battery Technology: There are a several types of batteries used in modern notebooks. Lithium ion batteries are the best, as they offer long service and small size; they are also the most expensive. Nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries are the second-best type. Nickel-cadmium (NiCd) batteries are the oldest common technology and are now disappearing from the market.
    • Battery Capacity: Some notebooks only have one place for a battery while others have two, or will let you swap out one of the drives for an extra battery if needed. Designs that let you use two batteries are more flexible, though this does not matter for everyone. Also look for the ability to swap batteries without shutting the machine down.
    • Battery Life: Most manufacturers state an average number of minutes that the battery will last under "typical use". In most cases these are exaggerations if not outright lies. A better source of information on battery life is to look for real-world battery run-down tests, often conducted by online review sites and magazines testing notebooks.
    • AC and DC Adapters: The AC adapter is a very important component if you use your notebook a lot, even though it gets little attention. A second adapter is good insurance if you travel for long periods of time with your machine and don't want to be "stranded" in the event of adapter failure or loss. DC adapters are an option that let you use your machine in a car or on an airplane.
    • Power Management: Software features to disable hardware that is idle are important for maximizing battery life. Be sure to find out what is included and how much control you have over these options.
  • System Processor (CPU): Today's notebook PCs use special CPU designs intended especially for "mobile" computers. They typically use less power to conserve battery life, and they are also usually slower than desktop processors. Some notebooks now use Intel CPUs that come with "SpeedStep" technology. This feature runs the CPU at a slower speed and lower voltage when operating on the battery, and only at full speed when on AC power. This can be useful if battery life is essential to you, but be sure that it can be disabled if you need full CPU power when on the move.
  • System Memory (RAM): Notebooks use the same types of memory as desktops, generally, but that memory is often packaged into smaller physical modules. Adequate memory is very important: look for at least 64 MiB, and be sure to find out about memory expansion. You want the ability to expand the memory to at least 128 MiB, and most importantly, to be able to do it yourself. Find out if the unit uses standard or proprietary memory; standard is preferable.
  • Video Card: There's no separate "card" of course with a notebook, but the functionality is in there somewhere. :^) Considerations aren't much different for notebooks than they are for desktops. The biggest difference is that you are stuck with whatever is in the machine for as long as you use it. Therefore, it is best to get a system with as popular a chipset as possible; this will help ensure that you will have driver support into the future. Look for at least 4 MB of video memory; 8 MB is better. Note that 3D functions and features are changing all the time; don't expect to have a "superb" 3D gaming setup with a notebook, at least, not for very long. You can still have adequate performance though.

Tip: Many laptops have the ability to send the output to an external monitor; if this is important to you be sure to look for it.

  • LCD Screen: The screen is probably the most important and most expensive part of any notebook machine. There are a few key issues to keep in mind when selecting one:
    • Size: Most notebooks use screens that range in size from about 10" to 15". Larger screens let you see more information at one time, and can also let you use larger typefaces to reduce eye strain. They cost more of course, and also make the notebook larger. Someday someone will invent a "fold-out" LCD screen: that will be awesome. :^)
    • Technology: Most LCD screens use one of two basic designs. The superior type is active-matrix (sometimes also called thin-film transistor or TFT) which uses a transistor for each pixel on the screen; the inferior type is passive-matrix (also known as dual-scan) where a transistor is used only for each row and column of the screen. Active matrix screens are brighter, easier to view from an angle, and preferred by most users, especially those that use the notebook a great deal. They can cost significantly more money, however. They also use more power than passive designs.
    • Resolution: Each notebook LCD screen has a maximum screen resolution that corresponds to the number of pixels it can display. The higher the resolution, the more data on the screen, but the smaller the size of each graphic or text element for a given screen size. Standard resolutions are 640x480, 800x600, 1024x768 and 1280x1024. You can usually set a high-resolution screen to display at a lower resolution, but this is not ideal: the image will be reduced in quality, Some systems cannot scale lower-resolution displays to the full screen; they just make a small box in the center of the screen with a black border around it--probably not what you want. Some units use unusual proprietary resolutions, which can still work OK but might cause confusion to some types of software.
    • Quality: Seeing is believing--take a look at the screen and assess its brightness, viewability, sharpness and clarity. Check any new notebook for screen defects: black pixels or pixels stuck in one color. Assess the brightness and contrast controls for the screen.

Warning: Some manufacturers, in an attempt to reduce warranty costs from bad pixels on LCD screens, set a "minimum number" of bad pixels before they will consider a screen defective. This means that if you try to get a notebook with a bad pixel replaced, you'll be told that this is "within design specifications" or similar nonsense. I don't know about you, but if I spend $3,000 on a new notebook I expect all the pixels to work properly. Find out about such policies before you buy!

  • Hard Disk Drive: Most better notebooks now use industry-standard 2.5" form factor notebook hard disks. Here are some specific issues to keep in mind:
    • Performance: Notebook hard disks are smaller and usually slower than desktop units, to reduce power consumption and heat generation. They often are major bottlenecks in overall system performance, so get the fastest one you can.
    • Hard Disk Bay: Designs that have a user-accessible bay and use standard drives let you upgrade to a larger drive in the future if you need to, or replace a failed drive. These are greatly preferred over designs where you can't access the drive yourself.
    • Thickness and Compatibility: There are four different standard heights for notebook hard disks: 9 mm, 12.5 mm, 17 mm and 19 mm. Thicker notebooks can usually use thinner drives (but not always). Thinner notebooks can't use taller drives.
  • Floppy Disk Drive: Having a floppy drive of some sort is a good idea. Since most people use them rarely, there's not much disadvantage to having the floppy be a module or external unit. Some notebooks come with high-capacity LS-120 floppy drives, which can facilitate backups.
  • Optical (CD/DVD) Drive: Most notebooks come with either a CD-ROM or DVD drive (called optical drives because they use a laser). Much as is the case with desktops, your choice comes down to cost and what options the manufacturer is offering. CD-RW drives are generally not offered on notebooks. (DVD drives are nice on notebooks if they come with video hardware and software to let you watch DVD movies; the high quality of the LCD screen can make this a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours on a cramped cross-country or overseas flight.)
  • Keyboard: Since they must be crammed into small spaces, keyboards on notebooks are very suboptimal--and of course, unlike regular PCs, you can't just replace them if you don't like the one that is included. Here are some particular issues:
    • Quality: If you do a lot of typing do not underestimate the importance of keyboard quality: a bad keyboard can make the entire notebook experience very dissatisfying. If possible, try the unit out first. Don't just press a few keys, type a page of text into a word processor. See if the support for your wrists is adequate. Decide if the travel of the keystrokes is acceptable or if you feel like you are typing on concrete. Also pay close attention to the layout of the keyboard: the closer to a standard desktop keyboard, the less confusion you will experience going between desktop and notebook machines. Watch arrow key placement for sure: a standard "inverted-T" arrangement is far superior to "four in a column" arrow keys, for example.
    • External Support: If you do a lot of typing on a notebook, the ability to attach an external keyboard is a must. You may be able to do this through a PS/2 port on the back of the notebook, or through a docking station or port replicator. USB is also an option on some models.
    • Extras: Some notebooks come with extra programmable buttons or "instant" Internet buttons. Nice to have I suppose, but not a major consideration for most people.
  • Pointing Device: Since regular mice require a flat surface they can't readily be integrated into notebooks. Most notebooks come with either a flat touchpad or an integrated pointing stick. Which you prefer is a matter of personal taste: if you are like me you hate both, finding them cumbersome and slow to use. If so, make sure you can attach an external mouse through a serial, PS/2 or USB port, or some other way.
  • Modem or Internet Connection: Most notebooks either come with a standard V.90 56K modem integrated into them, or they rely on the use of a PC Card modem, which may or may not be included. Integrated is better, depending on cost and assuming it works properly, because it means you save a PC Card slot. If you do use a slot and also plan to do networking, look for combination modem and networking PC cards that integrate both in the same package, again, saving a slot.
  • Sound System: Once a special feature, a sound chip is found on most notebooks today, and many also have speakers. The speakers on a notebook are generally very small and therefore not of much use; they are fine for "business sound" I suppose, but bad to the point of giggles for music or gaming. A headphone jack is a must if you want to use your notebook for sound (as I do many hours a day.) A line-out connection for a home stereo can make your notebook produce sound as good as many desktops.
  • PC Card Slots: Most modern notebooks come with PC Card slots that allow you to add expansion devices to the notebook. The invention of these slots greatly improved the expandability of notebooks, allowing you to add to a notebook system an amazing array of different peripherals that were previously the exclusive domain of desktops. Here are some important considerations:
    • Number And Type Of Slots: Most notebooks use standard "Type II" slots, which allow the use of "Type I" or "Type II" PC cards (the types differ in thickness, and Type II is most common). Two PC card slots is standard; thinner notebooks may have only one slot, with restricts your expansion options (though they may make up for it with an integrated modem, for example). Avoid any model that has no slots at all.
    • Slot Technology: The older interface used for these slots was the 16-bit PCMCIA interface. Many newer notebooks use the 32-bit CardBus interface, which greatly improves performance. CardBus is especially important for high-performance applications like high-speed networking or external hard disk drives; for something slow like a modem it doesn't make any difference. CardBus slots are normally backward-compatible with 16-bit PC cards, supporting both types.
  • Other Interfaces: Better notebooks come with a wide assortment of input and output ports: the more you have, the more flexible the machine. If you plan the system for a particular use, look for the interfaces you need. Here are some ports you may find: PS/2, serial, parallel, USB, Firewire (IEEE-1394), video in and video out, joystick, audio in, audio line out, speaker out, and infrared (for some types of printers).

Tip: Using a third party multiplexing device called a "Y Mouse" (by P.I. Engineering) you can add both an external keyboard and mouse to a notebook through a single PS/2 port.

  • Carrying Case: Last but not least, do not forget a padded carrying case if you travel with your notebook PC. Without one, you are likely to meet with disaster some day (I myself recently dropped my notebook from a height of about two feet--the padded case probably saved it). Better cases offer more protection from shock and more room for your accessories. Also look at the carrying strap: wider ones will be easier on your shoulders. Synthetic cases may not be as fancy as leather ones, but are often considerably lighter. Finally, try to go with a simple case if possible, so as to avoid advertising to potential thieves the presence of an expensive piece of equipment.

Next: Software Issues in PC Specification

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