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

Notebook Sizes and Classes

The first decision you will need to make when shopping for a notebook is what general class of machine you are most interested in. While it is true that there is a spectrum of different designs, most machines fall into one of a handful of categories, based on the market and users for which they are targeted.

The key to knowing which class you want is being absolutely sure about what your requirements are for the system. You must understand what you want the system to be able to do, and what your priorities are. To some extent, the category of machine is a function of the design decisions made by the engineers who created it. The existence of different notebook categories is based primarily on the issue of size. More specifically, different notebook types are needed because of the fact that size trades off against other critical attributes, including performance, capacity, features and connectivity.

There are in fact several different aspects of size that all factor into the design of different notebook types:

  • Weight: Probably the most important distinguishing characteristic between classes is the fact that smaller ones weigh less. Many who travel want a lighter machine.
  • Width and Depth: If you close a notebook PC, the two dimensions other than thickness are its width and depth. These are probably the least critical of the size dimensions. However, they do have a direct impact on screen and keyboard size.
  • Thickness: Smaller machines are thinner than big ones. In order to achieve this, the units often have smaller hard disks, use external optical drives, and have keyboards with reduced key travel (how far down the key goes when you press it). Thickness seems to be important to many buyers; I've never understood the big attraction of this myself (what's 1" thick vs. 1.5" thick compared to the other dimensions of the unit and the thickness of the carrying case anyway?)

Of course these are all related: smaller and thinner almost always means lighter too. Here are the usual notebook classes and a brief description of each:

  • Full-Featured: These are the largest and heaviest notebook PCs. They usually have very large screens, a full-sized keyboard, and many integrated peripherals such as sound and speakers. They usually have all three of the drives usually found in a system: hard disk, optical and floppy. They have an extensive collection of input/output ports. Since they include so many of the features, components and accessories of a regular desktop PC, they can do most of what a desktop machine can. This means that you can use one of these notebooks in place of a desktop machine, instead of using it as just a "second PC". For this reason, full-featured units are often called "desktop replacements". With this type of unit you are sacrificing weight and cost for features, capacity and performance.
  • Lightweights: These are more "middle of the road" machines. They are smaller and lighter than full-featured units, and may not have as full a complement of integrated components. Typically they will not have both an optical and a floppy drive, but may instead use swappable drive bays, or externals. They are larger than sub-notebooks however, and have more performance and capacity than most sub-notebooks do. They represent the "balanced" approach of the notebook design world.
  • Sub-notebooks: These are the very smallest units available that still maintain the core functionality of a PC, and run standard PC operating systems and software. With these machines the priority is small size, low weight and easy transportation. They are very popular with executives and others who travel a great deal: the difference of a few pounds between a full-sized notebook and a sub-notebook can become substantial if you spend much of the day dragging it around on your shoulder. In exchange for their small size these PCs often sacrifice screen size, performance, keyboard feel, integrated peripherals, battery life and many other attributes. They usually use external optical and floppy drives, and may even have their serial and parallel ports on an external device. To those who need the small size, these compromises are worthwhile. Some even buy a sub-notebook as a second notebook machine, to complement a more full-featured model.

Note: Some people call personal digital assistants (PDAs) "sub-notebooks" as well, since they are "PC-like" and certainly smaller than a notebook. I believe these units are stripped-down sufficiently that I don't consider them PCs any more, and do not cover them in this guide. I do mention a bit about them here.

Of course there are shades of gray between these categories, and not all notebooks will fit cleanly into one of the three. In fact, it doesn't really matter what class any particular unit falls into. What is important is to think about what size you want, and understand the way notebook makers position their products. The ideal size for you depends in turn entirely on how you plan to use the machine, and most importantly, how important size and weight are to you, compared to the other notebook attributes.

As I alluded to in the bullet point on sub-notebooks, the key in some ways is how "portable" you want "portable" to be. Some people use a notebook primarily while traveling, and only as a second machine. For these, a very lightweight unit is of paramount importance, and a lack of CPU performance, screen size or disk space is not a big issue. Others want a notebook for the ability to easily move their work with them, but usually use the machine in one position or another, stationary. I personally fall into this category--I prefer a machine that has more features, and I don't care much about weight since I don't spend very much time carrying the unit around. I do care about performance and features since my notebook is my primary machine.

Note: Companies focus heavily on the weight of the notebook unit itself, but when you travel, do you just take the PC itself? Of course not: you have to take all the cables and accessories too. Include these in weight assessments. For example, if a maker shaves half a pound off the weight of the base unit by making the CD-ROM drive external, then that only matters if you rarely use the CD-ROM drive. Otherwise you're going to be dragging it around with you anyway, and also putting up with the hassle of having it external to the system.

Tip: If you want to reduce your total carry weight, forego the fancy leather carrying case: they are heavy! Go with a good-quality padded synthetic case; ask about the weight of the case before purchasing.

Next: Key Notebook Design Characteristics and Tradeoffs

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