Your Next Computer: A Notebook?

As part of my weekly commentary for Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE, an email newsletter aimed at IT professionals, I review a different notebook computer each month. I've been writing these notebook reviews for almost 2.5 years, and one of the interesting side effects of this work is that I've seen the notebook market mature dramatically to the point at which desktop computing seems almost passe. Increasingly, notebook computers have grown to equal and, in some cases, even surpass their desktop brethren's functionality. Should your next PC be a notebook computer? Consider the following.

Historically, choosing a notebook computer was an exercise in compromise because notebooks generally featured less-powerful processors, system buses, and video cards than desktop systems. Today, thanks to a surplus of computing power, any performance differences between high-end notebooks and desktops is negligible. You can even buy portable gaming systems from companies such as Alienware. But even mainstream portable computers now feature fast Pentium M or Pentium 4 Processor - M processors, powerful ATI or NVIDIA video cards, and speedy 40GB to 80GB hard disks. And recent systems I've tested, such as IBM's new ThinkPad T40 and Best Buy's vpr Matrix, handle graphically rich games such as "Quake III Arena" and "Unreal Tournament 2003" with as much aplomb as my decked-out Pentium 4 desktop. Desktops still maintain a slight performance edge over notebooks, but for 99 percent of the population, that performance difference isn't a concern.

The biggest problem with desktop PCs is that they're immobile: If you want to move a desktop system into the den and compute while you watch TV, forget it. Notebook computers can go with you anywhere in the house; to a local coffee shop, bookstore, or other gathering place; or on a plane to anywhere in the world. If you have wireless networking, all the better: You can browse the Web or answer email anywhere.

Storage and Expansion
One of the nice things about desktop PCs, however, is that they're almost infinitely expandable. A typical desktop PC can contain as many as four hard disks or CD-type drives internally, and you can add another drive controller to add four more, assuming you have the space. Desktop PCs also include several internal PCI slots, so you can add expansion cards. These features free up a lot of room for future expansion, making it easy to add DVD recorders, new sound or video cards, additional external expansion ports, TV or video recorders, and other hardware. Laptop computers are pretty much limited to external expansion through USB, USB 2.0, or, perhaps, FireWire peripherals. These expansion options are desirable, but not perfect: External peripherals, which often take the form of scanners, printers, input devices, and external hard disks, include a mass of wires, which is antithetical to the freedom of a portable device with wireless networking, but it's better than nothing. Some notebooks do have optional docking stations, which help with cable management.

Overall, desktop computers beat notebook computers for expansion, but notebooks will satisfy the needs of most users out of the box, assuming they configure their systems ahead of time with all the features they need. Modern notebooks ship with beefy hard disks, recordable CD and even DVD drives, multiple USB 2.0 ports, FireWire, and possibly a slot for the types of memory popular digital cameras use.

To get all these features in a notebook computer, however, you'll pay a premium compared with a typical desktop computer. However, when you compare the price difference, keep in mind the new computing scenarios and freedom that notebook computers offer. Using a notebook computer around the house has made home-based work less stressful for me because I can be more readily available to my family or get work done between other activities.

In addition, notebook prices have come down dramatically in recent years. You can get an excellent notebook for a lot less than $1000, and even Apple Computer sells an iBook model in this price range. In fact, my iBook remains the only new notebook I've ever purchased, although I've bought a few used PC notebooks. In short, notebooks exist for virtually every budget and need.

Time to Reconsider the Desktop PC?
If you haven't considered buying a notebook computer for various reasons, now might be the time to reconsider, especially if you're looking at a PC purchase in the coming months. Any of today's notebooks will outperform your old PC, and most include enough functionality and expandability to keep even the most finicky user happy.

If you're considering a notebook, drop me a note. I'm interested to hear why you might--or might not--opt to go this route.

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