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How to Buy a Portable Computer

With portable computers declining in price while rivaling the power of their desktop brethren, there's little reason for many users to consider a desktop PC anymore. And consider the benefits: Thanks to the inherent mobility of a portable computer, you can use it in more relaxed settings, such as a couch or bed, and you can move it around the house as necessary, especially if you install a secure wireless network. But for many PC owners, notebook computers remain an enigma. How do you find the right one?

Not surprisingly, you have many factors to consider, including the reliability of specific manufacturers and product models, whether service plans make sense, how and where to make the purchase, and so on. Let's take a look at these considerations so that you can make a more informed decision.

In the automotive world, low-rent companies such as Hyundai use long-term warranties to entice potential customers. But you won't find anything like that in the PC world. Instead, you have to rely on how well various manufacturers' machines have performed in the real world. One great source of this information is Consumer Reports, which has been protecting consumers in the United States for decades.

According to this organization, portable computers from Apple Computer, Dell, HP, and Sony are generally highly rated. However, these rating vary dramatically by model. Personally, I've found late-model Dell and HP notebooks to be top-notch (I've recently purchased an HP Pavilion dv1010us, which I adore, and I've always had tremendous luck with Dell notebooks), but I think Apple's PowerBooks are overly fragile and prone to accidental damage. I've had two in need of repair in the past year alone.

Service Plans
Laptops typically include more fragile parts than desktop PCs, and because they're usually carried along on trips and used around the house, they tend to get beaten up quite a bit more than PCs. Also, a typical notebook computer's LCD screen can be a frequent source of problems. For these and other reasons, I recommend always getting a service plan for a portable computer, preferably from the manufacturer—not from the store at which you purchased it. Purchase the plan that best meets your needs (i.e., how long will you use the computer?) and your price point.

Also, be aware of the difference between a service plan and accidental damage insurance. Some PC makers sell both. Some manufacturers sell only the former and will charge you if accidental damage caused your problem. We're meant to wonder whether purposeful damage is covered.

Online vs. Retail Store
The benefit of buying a computer online is that you can usually custom-configure the machine to include exactly the features you want. Some PC maker sites, such as Dell, offer an amazing (if somewhat confusing) array of options that you can configure. Others, such as Apple, offer far fewer configuration options. Either way, you have a choice. The only thing you need to get past is the natural fear of spending a lot of money on a machine you can't see or touch first. That's where manufacturer or model ratings come in handy. If you want to see how particular portable computers have performed for real users, check out sites such as CNET or Epinions.

You can also save money by frequenting online bargain sites such as Ben's Bargain Center, Slick Deals, and Tech Bargains. These sites alert you to special coupon codes, unusually low prices, and other special deals. If you buy online, they're a godsend.

Buying a portable computer through a retail store is often painful, but at least you can see and touch the available models. Stores such as Best Buy, Circuit City, and CompUSA are often staffed by unknowledgeable sales people, so it pays to do some research before you show up. And be sure to find out the store's restocking fee should you need to return the computer for any reason. Retail stores don't typically offer a la carte buying options. Instead, you buy preconfigured PC models that are specifically configured for retail stores. If you purchase such a machine, your future expansion options might be limited or expensive.

Understanding Your Needs
How will you use the portable computer? If you simply plan to use it around the house, you can save a lot of money by buying a bigger laptop with a desktop-oriented chip. Such a machine will get lousy battery life and be heavy to carry, a fine trade-off when you consider the price differential. Travelers will want to find a balance between size, weight, battery life, and performance, however. The HP Pavilion dv1010us I mentioned previously strikes a nice balance for me: I travel frequently and need something small and light with great battery life. I was willing to give up a bit of performance to meet those goals. Figure out what's most important to you, then study machine specifications until you find the right computer.

Types of Portable Computers
There are many kinds of portable computers. In a broad sense, you could divide the market into notebook computers, subnotebook computers, desktop replacements, and Tablet PCs. The general notebook-computer market is typically represented by a 14" screen, a full-sized keyboard, a speedy processor, an integrated CD/DVD drive, and a decent-sized hard disk. Subnotebooks typically drop the optical drive and feature smaller screens, smaller hard disks, and slower processors. Desktop replacements are larger and heavier and can often use a desktop PC processor, in which case they'll also get worse battery life. They also often include large widescreen displays, though wide screens are also appearing on other notebook types.

Tablet PCs, meanwhile, are definitely divided into two subcategories. The first, called convertible PCs, resemble typical notebook computers. But you can swivel their screens around so that you can write on them with an included stylus. The other type of Tablet PC, known as a slate model, lacks a keyboard and relies solely on stylus-based input. Such machines are typically used only in select niche markets. Also, Tablet PCs tend to be a bit more expensive than comparable notebooks, although that price differential is improving.

Features to Watch For
A good portable computer includes a mobility-savvy 1GHz to 2GHz Intel Pentium M processor and, potentially, the Centrino chipset. It should include Wireless-G (Wi-Fi) networking, at least 256MB of RAM, a 40GB or larger hard disk, and a CD-RW/DVD combo drive. These are all bare minimums. In my opinion, 512MB of RAM is vastly preferable, and you can even find models now with burnable DVD drives.

Today's portable computers should include two or more USB 2.0 ports, a VGA port for attaching to an external monitor, Ethernet network and modem jacks, and—unless it's a subnotebook—at least one PC Card slot. Larger and more well-configured notebooks will also include FireWire ports, serial and parallel ports, and even a multiformat media reader, which lets you directly access the types of memory cards that digital cameras, PDAs, and other devices use.

Some newer notebooks also offer a neat feature that lets you watch a movie or play a CD without booting into Windows. This functionality saves dramatically on battery life, when compared with performing those tasks from within Windows.

A good portable computer is cheaper than it was just a few years ago, but most of them are still more expensive than comparable desktop PCs. You'll pay anywhere between $600 and $3000 for a typical portable computer, depending on the type, but the thing to remember is that this isn't the end of your cost. You must also factor in the cost of any service plan and additional accessories. For example, if you travel a lot, you might want a second battery, a DC converter for powering the device on planes, or foreign-country adapters for overseas power. And of course, you'll want a bag of some sort to protect your new investment when you bring it with you, and possibly a Kensington Microsaver lock to ensure that it doesn't get stolen if you leave it in a hotel room.

Do the Work
Like anything in life, purchasing a portable computer can seem difficult if you don't know what you're doing. But with the right amount of prep work and research, you don't have to be intimidated. The right portable computer is just a Web site—or a Best Buy—away.

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