Rios Computer Associates

Choosing a Laptop

The best approach that I have found in deciding what sort of computer to purchase is to identify the things that are most likely to matter to someone, and narrow the search from there. Once you have a theoretical description of your ideal laptop, it is just a matter of seeing what is the best price you can get for systems that are as close as possible to your ideal.

Before buying any specific unit, though, it is extremely important to read over as many reviews as you can find for that specific model. Many vendors have customer reviews listed for each item shown on their websites. Even if you don't intend to buy from a particular vendor, the reviews for that model may still tell you a lot. In my own process of choosing a laptop, there was a Dell and a Lenovo that were very close in price and features. I was going back and forth until I read the reviews on each site. The Dell unit reviews were quite equivocal; people generally liked the unit, but there were a number of annoyances and dissatisfactions. The reviews for the Lenovo, on the other hand, read like a revival meeting! Customers were ecstatic, both with the unit and with the support. This made my final selection a much simpler process.

Most people will be using their computers for word processing, surfing the
web, email, and viewing (and minor editing of) photos. None of these are
challenging tasksalmost any computer would be adequate. Only a few tasks
require a lot of computing power: video editing, enormous spreadsheets with
lots of formulas, scientific modeling, live recording, serious graphic editing, architectural drafting, etc. Another situation that demands lots of processing power is when you keep many applications open at a time (I often have 20 or 30 windows open, for instance). The most processing power, and the most graphical processing power, is needed for gaming. True gaming machines are often in a separate category (and price range) altogether, though the most powerful regular laptops can at least function acceptably.

The questions that most people spend their time on are often not the most
important ones:

Hard drive size (storage) isn't a factor for most folks these days—all computers have drives larger than most would ever need—and installing a
much larger hard drive sometime in the future is relatively easy and inexpensive. Of course, if you know you will have 30,000 MP3s or dozens
of feature-length movies stored on your hard drive, you will need the biggest drive available. Otherwise, by the time you need more storage,  solid state "hard drives" (lighter, faster, lower power) may be cheap.

Memory (RAM): Almost all but the cheapest laptops come with at least 2 GB, and usually 3 or 4 GB of RAM. This is plenty for most people, and, if you need more later, more memory can be added very inexpensively.

Processor details: All but the cheapest laptops have dual-core processors,  and none that I have seen have the quad-core processors yet. Other than that, the only differences between one processor and another are power draw  (battery life) and speed. You would normally want the fastest processor you can get within your budget; even simple tasks, such as surfing the web, benefit from a faster processor.

If you want to compare various processors on your own, there are many sites
that collect benchmarks for various CPU's. This is more challenging, because the processor that is fastest in mathematical calculations may be much slower in handling disk access. So each CPU has a variety of benchmarks. NoteBookCheck is a good site for laptop CPU benchmarks.

Here is a site for desktop computer CPU's. It is in French, but the results are completely understandable. The first benchmark is Cinebench 10, and there is a drop-down window at the top to select other benchmarks. 

Optical Drive: Virtually all but the smallest laptops sold today have a DVD/CD "burner" (reads and writes). As long as you get a DVD R/W drive,  there are no important differences among them.

WiFi: Virtually all notebooks have 802.11g WiFi built in; a few have the "draft-N" standard as well, but this isn't likely to matter; most people use WiFi to surf the web, and the older standard is many times faster than even the fastest internet connection. So the newer standard doesn't really offer anything for most people.

Ports: Virtually every laptop has a video output port, an Ethernet port,  audio in and out, an expansion card slot (PCMCIA, Express card, etc.) and some number of USB ports. If you run out of USB ports, you can use a USB hub to add more ports. These hubs are often under $10, and are very lightweight and compact. Some laptops have media readers, which allow you to insert a flash card from your camera directly into the computer. While this is convenient, there are many other ways to accomplish the same thing if your laptop doesn't have this feature.

Webcam & Microphone: Most laptops have these built in these days. I would
recommend having them, except on the very cheapest laptops; the applications
where you might want these are increasing all the time. They can be added
on later, but it is a much clumsier physical arrangement.

The question of where to buy is worth addressing as well. If you want to buy from a store, in most cases you will be limited to Best Buy, Staples, Office Depot, Office Max, and a few smaller chains like MicroCenter and Fry's.

Online, there are many retailers of computers, including CompUSA (now part
of TigerDirect), pcmall, ecost, newegg, etc. Generally, I haven't found them to have particularly good prices on computers; I can usually get better deals with what is on sale locally, or direct from the manufacturer.

Buying direct from the manufacturer can have a number of benefits. The biggest is that you can usually get a system configured exactly the way you want. And the prices are often quite goodthe manufacturers often have specials. The laptop I just bought for myself had a 30% off sale goingand because it was "Cyber Monday", I got an additional 15% off that.

Be careful if you try to buy from Dell's website. Their deals are constructed so that they offer you a low price, but somewhere along the line, you get switched to a higher priced item or deal without your realizing it. So while there are sometimes good deals from Dell, their practices on the web are very close to "bait and switch".

Here are the critical choices:

1. SCREEN SIZE and RESOLUTION: 9", 10", 12", 14", 15.4", 17", 20". As the screen size goes up, so does the weight, and often the resolution of the screen increases as wellthough not necessarily. This choice depends on your eyesight, how much you will be carrying the unit around, and how much information you need on the screen. Interestingly, size does not correspond significantly to price.

Resolution refers to how many dots (pixels) are on the screen. For LCD screens (unlike the CRT's that used to be used with desktop computers), the
clearest image requires running the screen at its highest ("native") resolution. In some cases, this may make the letters and icons too small. While there are ways to change the settings to make them larger, this is not always a simple solution. So don't get a higher resolution than you actually intend to use.

2. BRAND SUPPORT and RELIABILITY: Two brands are noticeably better in support and reliability: Lenovo and Apple. The difference is not so great that I would rule out other brands, but it should be a factor. I would readily pay 10% more for Lenovo (which used to be IBM), but not 50%. For that reason, I rarely recommend Applemost Apple products cost about double what it would cost for similar features from other manufacturers, and many of the accessories and programs for the Mac also cost quite a lot more. So the extra expense is ongoing.

Another brand worth considering on the higher end is Fujitsu. They are somewhat higher priced, and I only know to buy them factory direct, but the clients I have who have bought them have been very satisfied with them.

HP, Compaq (which is owned by HP), Dell, Gateway, and Toshiba are all in the middle of the pack in terms of quality and support. Generally, I have no
problem recommending any of these, and have many clients perfectly happy with them. I have no horror stories except with Dell, whose support ranges from very good to unbelievably bad. The others all have support which is
adequate but not excellent.

Acer is a notch below, primarily in design. Their computers tend to be reliable enough, but there are often minor "rough edges", and their support seems a small notch below the middle group. So if all other things were equal, I would buy one of the brands named above instead of Acer. But a savings of even $100 would make me consider the Acer very carefully.

eMachines used to be awful, but they have gotten better since they merged
with Gateway. I rate them about the same as Acer.

Asus and MSI are very new in the market, though Asus is a long-time manufacturer of computer parts. I suspect their support is very weak,  though the Asus quality is probably quite solid. Some of their products are unique, though, so if what they are offering is exactly what you need, they may be worth considering.

Sony is at the bottom of the support and reliability list. They have some very pretty piecesSony visual design is among the best. However, that fancy design often houses some clever but dysfunctional technology. The larger issue, though, is that their support is far and away the worst in the industry. I've had customers (plural!) throw away a $2,000 Sony while it was still under warranty! Sony's philosophy seems to be that if they stonewall you long enough, you'll go away.

3. WEIGHT: For most people, this relates closely to how often they will carry the unit around. If you move the laptop only when you go on a trip,  then weight won't matter much. If you carry it around all day long, even ounces can matter! If you move it around the house once or twice a day,  then weight matters, but is usually not critical.

The lightest low cost units are the 9"-10" under $400 mini-notebooks,  usually about 3 lbs or less. That's the weight range that most people want for carrying it around all day. You can get full-powered computers in that weight range, but the price goes up substantially.

The lightest full-powered low-cost units are the 14.1" notebooks that weigh about 5-1/4 lbs. That is a reasonable weight for most people. 15.4" notebooks weigh about a pound more, and 17" notebooks usually weigh a little less than 8 lbs. The differences are more striking than the numbers would suggest. Some higher priced units weigh less than similar lower cost units.

4. BATTERY LIFE: If you can live with 2-3 hours of battery life, then this will not be a factor for youvirtually all notebooks can do that. If you need significantly longer than that, this becomes your first criterion,  because there are very few notebooks that can go over 4 hours.

5. OPERATING SYSTEM: Windows Vista/XP, MAC O/S, or some kind of Linux.

The Mac O/S is only available on Apple’s computers; it is highly regarded, though its reputation for being safer is based on circumstance. A number of
studies have shown that MAC O/S has as many or more security problems than Windows-- but because there are so many fewer Macs, virus writers focus more on PCs. As Apple becomes more popular, it is becoming more of a target. Apple now recommends having security programs (anti-virus, anti-spyware, firewall, etc.) on their computers.

Linux is a great way to keep the cost down and keep the speed upif you have a very limited range of what you want to do with the computer, or if you are already a supergeek.

Windows Vista is the latest version of Windows, and it has been subject to extensive criticismmost of it justified. It has very few advantages over Windows XP, is not compatible with a number of older hardware and software products, takes more memory, is slower, and some people find it to be less stable. However, it is hard to find a computer that doesn't have Vista on it. There are at least four versions of Vista, which makes it more confusing still. Here is Microsoft's comparison.

Windows XP is "tried & true", relatively stable, faster than Vista, and compatible with the widest range of products. I finally bought a new laptop for myself last week, and I paid $100 extra to get XP on it. 'Nuff said.

Vista & XP come in both 32-bit versions and 64-bit versions. The 64-bit versions are somewhat faster, and can address more than the 3GB RAM limit that the 32-bit versions have. But the 64-bit versions may have some compatibility problems with older peripherals and software, or even with some current peripherals. If you don't have a lot of old software and equipment, the 64-bit versions can be a good choice.




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Computer hygiene is important, but the paid-for protection programs are often worse than the ones you can get for free.  We have solved a lot of our clients' computer problems by removing Norton/Symantec programs.

Click here to read more.

Macs & Viruses

Have you been told that buying a Mac will avoid problems with viruses? That can be a good temporary solution—until a lot of folks start buying Macs.

Click here to read more.

Choosing Secure Passwords

A word about passwords: lots of people tell you to create screwy-looking passwords with uPPer and LowER case and all kinds of strange symbols in them. It turns out that this is bad advice...

Click here to read more.

Chain Letters

Almost all messages that you get telling you to 'Forward this to all your friends' are hoaxes. Here are some ways to determine whether you should pass it on or hit 'Delete'.

Click here to read more.

Choosing a Laptop

The best approach that I have found in deciding what sort of computer to purchase is to identify the things that are most likely to matter to someone and narrow the search from there.

Click here to read more.

Avoiding Malware Sites

The bad guys seem to have an unlimited number of ways to trick people and avoid detection. Do you know how to protect yourself from malicious websites?

Click here to read more.

Web Hosting & Authoring

There are lots of places that will host you for just a few bucks a month. The critical question is not cost, but reliability and support.

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Choosing a Credit Card

Regardless of which computer you get, most extended warranties aren't worth the money. But how you pay for the computer matters a lot...

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Affordable Office Suites

Microsoft has dominated the office software market with Microsoft Office, but their software package can be expensive for personal use. Did you know that there are cheaper or free alternatives?

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Videocams & Farsightedness

Comfortable reading is all but impossible when you're farsighted, and computerized magnifers are expensive. Luckily, there is a way to get a cheap makeshift magnifier that works better than the real thing!

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Working with PDF Files

Going backwards from PDF to text is usually somewhat messy, but not impossible. Here are some methods to convert your PDF documents into more accesible formats...

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The most important program I have, except maybe email, is my Personal Information Manager: InfoSelect.

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Reinstalling Microsoft Office

If your computer on which you have Microsoft Office installed dies, you don't need to buy a new copy; the license for Microsoft Office is transferable. You just need the original CD and the Product Key to install it just as you did originally.

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IMAP: Pros and Cons

IMAP is one of two commonly-used email protocols. I've heard lots of wonderful things about IMAP, but in real life, I have found it has its own share of drawbacks...

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Recovering Data From Failed Hard Drives

In more than 90% of cases of hard drive failure the data is retrievable, but the method used depends on the type of failure. A hard drive can 'die' for several reasons...

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