Notebook special update

Once upon a time, notebooks were the tools of choice for road warriors - the classic image of the mobile worker. As the technology for notebooks has advanced (they've grown slimmer, lighter and more capable) and we've become more used to mobile communications, notebooks are increasingly the PC of choice for larger numbers. In this special update, PC World brings you up to speed with the changes in this market.

- We test the latest notebooks on the market in our Best Buys reviews.

- We help you choose the right machine in our buying guide and take a look at the latest CPUs for notebooks - and what Intel and AMD have in store.

- We showcase an environment where notebooks are put to the ultimate toughness test: Antarctica.

Notebook buyers guide

Over the last five years, the portable market for PCs has developed at a truly staggering rate. In the mid-1990s, users could expect to pay a huge premium for notebook computers, with their advances over desktop machines in terms of price matched only by their deficiencies in power and performance.

Increasingly, however, companies such as Intel are developing technologies for the mobile market only a few months behind the cycle of desktop innovation. The result? Notebook computers represent better value than ever before.

Which notebook

While the price of notebooks - as with all PCs - has been falling rapidly compared to the performance they offer, they still remain relatively expensive compared to other computers. They are also more difficult to upgrade than desktop PCs, meaning that the specification you purchase will probably remain largely unchanged until you replace your notebook. With this in mind, there are a few basic questions that you should ask yourself to help you find the right computer for your requirements.

Price, usability and portability are the three things you should establish before you set out to buy a computer. If a notebook is the right computer for you, the rest of this article will establish what else you need to ask to find the right machine.

- Price For many buyers, though not all, this is the first consideration. Our monthly reviews contain Power notebooks that typically cost over $5000, and Value notebooks, which are generally sub-$5000 models, some even coming in under $3000. These represent the two important price points.

It is true that you only get what you pay for with notebooks, but it may also be the case that you do not require the additional features of a Power notebook.

- Usability Users are increasingly considering whether to buy a notebook instead of a desktop system.

If you can afford both a desktop and notebook computer, then you get the best of both worlds. If you want a notebook as a desktop replacement, rather than supplement, you must be sure of your needs: if you think you'll want to upgrade in the near future, or work with a larger monitor, a desktop system is generally preferable. Alternatively, you can use your notebook at home with the addition of a monitor (perhaps an LCD model that takes up less space) and a full-size keyboard.

- Mobility Portability is affected by size, weight and battery life. Despite the advances in other features of mobile design, battery life lags far behind. Most notebooks operate for between one to three hours on a single battery charge and weigh around 3kg to 4kg.

Subnotebooks tend to weigh between 1.5kg and 2kg, but have similar battery life. If you want to store such things as contacts, and occasionally enter small amounts of data, a PDA (personal digital assistant) such as a Palm, Handspring or Pocket PC device may be more suitable to your needs. These devices are reliable, run for days or even weeks on a single charge and can be carried more or less anywhere.

The basics

Once you have decided on your budget and requirements, the next step is to determine the specification you can expect at different price ranges.

- Processor The first choice when buying a notebook is whether to go for an AMD or Intel processor. In contrast to its position on the desktop, the AMD mobile chip has not been as strong a contender as the Intel Pentium III flip chip for budget notebooks. However, it is cheaper and offers slightly longer battery life, though slower performance. AMD has also been slow to release a high-powered alternative to Intel's Mobile SpeedStep processor, but this is about to change with the release of the company's mobile Palomino.

Typical clock speeds for value portables range from 600MHz to 933MHz; for power notebooks, 850MHz to 1GHz. The main difference between power and value models is the type of processor on offer, rather than simple clock speeds.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the lack of Transmeta Crusoe chips. Touted a year ago as the mobile replacement for power-hungry AMD and Intel processors, we're only now starting to see Transmeta-equipped machines in the PC World Test Centre.

- RAM As with all computers, the more memory the better, although unless you are using Windows NT or 2000, additional megabytes over 128 are unlikely to make much of a difference to performance. On all budgets you should set 64MB as a absolute minimum, and even this is becoming the most basic specification for lower-priced models. Less than 64MB and you will probably find yourself upgrading - at much greater cost - later. l Hard drive Until recently, mobile buyers could expect to pay a large premium for storage. While notebooks still cannot keep up with the 75GB and 80GB behemoths now available for the desktop, 10GB drives are common on budget notebooks (anything less is a false economy), with power notebooks easily packing in 20GB to 30GB.

Notebooks with IDE drives are not perfect for disk-intensive activity, such as video-editing, but Sony, in particular, is marketing some of its Vaio models as mobile-editing suites for use with IEEE 1394 (FireWire or iLink) digital cameras.

- Screen and graphics Screen size is one of the major factors affecting the price of notebooks. For power notebook users, buying the largest size screen you can afford (up to 15in diagonally) is the best option unless you wish to purchase a subnotebook, in which case the extra real estate will also have an effect on your computer's weight and size.

Most notebooks over $4000 now include 14.1in screens, but if you wish to save money don't expect much larger than 12.1in. If price matters, go for a smaller TFT screen rather than HPA or dual-scan monitors.

Computer graphics is one area where notebooks truly lag behind desktop machines, although it is possible to purchase power models with GeForce2 chips and 32MB of dedicated RAM. A more realistic expectation for power users is between 8MB and 16MB memory using ATI chips.

One way to cut costs on budget machines is to use onboard chips that share video memory with the main RAM. These are decent specifications for office applications, but if video memory is all-important to you, expect to pay a lot of money or opt for a desktop instead.

- Battery If you expect to use your computer on the move, battery life will be one of the most important considerations when it comes to purchasing a notebook. However, it is something that is often overlooked. All but the very cheapest computers now come with lithium ion batteries, which offer the best performance. If you expect to use your computer on mains power, you may be able to make a saving by going for older NiMH (nickel metal hydride) batteries.

A word of warning: high power processors, plenty of RAM and fast disk drives will devour battery life. If these features are important to you, but so is mobility, investing in an extra battery may be a wise decision.

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Jason Whittaker

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