BUYING A NEW LAPTOP

Acer Aspire 5334

A friend asked for advice about buying a Windows laptop. This is a question we hardly ever deal with in this column. The reason is simply that manufacturers keep playing catch-up with each other and that tends to level the field.

One of the things we look for when we shop is good battery life, but it’s a trade-off. Higher-performance machines may only run for three hours. Cheap netbooks often get eight, but they have smaller screens and cramped keyboards. Follow the instructions for charging procedures to get the best results.

We want lots of RAM: at least two gigabytes, and really prefer more. RAM is Random Access Memory, which is different from the long-term memory on the disk drive. Netbooks don’t come with much, but most can be upgraded. Disk drives have huge capacities now; the smallest seems to be around 300 gigabytes. Not one person in a thousand needs more, but drives tend to be used as a closet for files and programs that are rarely looked at or used. Best to store those elsewhere, like online or in external drives.

We don’t play complex role playing games, watch TV on a computer or have the patience to edit video, so we have lower requirements: Skip the processor claims, and go straight to the keyboard. How does it feel? Bob hates using laptops because the keys are always squashed together and it’s too easy to make typing mistakes. But we bought a couple anyway, for use when travelling.

There should be lots of ports. We mean USB ports, slots for camera cards, ear-phone or external speaker jacks, and some might have a serial port. There should be at least two USB ports, and if there are more that’s great. If not, it’s often useful to get a USB hub, which is an extra cost, but not much. This provides more ports.

And then there’s the screen. Is it big enough? Our friend is willing to pay double for a 17 incher, even if the laptop has features he doesn’t need. We noticed that some of the expensive large screen laptops lack the free Microsoft Works program and other software our cheapie laptops came with.  We bought a couple of Acer laptops for $450 each. They came with Microsoft Works, which is all most people need for word processing and spreadsheets. If you need more, you can always download OpenOffice for free from openoffice.org.

Finally, you’ll need a mouse. This is always an extra, since it doesn’t fit into a laptop computer.  Laptops have touch-pads, and you control the cursor by moving your finger on the pad. It’s tempting to say these are junk, but … all right, they’re junk. Get a small mouse with a retractable cord, or one that uses radio pulses and has no cord. Carry it in you purse or pocket.

And our last word on the subject: We never buy the extended warranty contracts. These are one of the worst deals in the known universe. (We are certain to get an email from someone who was saved from a big loss by that warranty contract, but is that person real?) Remember: the manufacturer already has a warranty on the computer; why do you need another one from the store. We’ve heard from a good source that large retailers instruct their sales clerks to push for the extended warranty at least three times before the final sale. So we cut that part short by waiting for the sales-person to inhale, and then we say no, no and no.

Our $450 Acer Aspire 5334 laptops came with three gigabytes of RAM and MS Works. They were very similar to the five other makes on display.  Our friend will probably get a Toshiba, another very good choice. They made the first-ever laptop and still have a great reputation. Take a look at Retrevo.com for detailed reviews.

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