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Technology

Student laptops

Last Updated August 25, 2006

It's not even frosh week yet, never mind exam time, but students shopping for new laptops already face tough questions. Crashing prices over the past few months mean basic notebook computers can now be found in the $500 range, but will those low-priced machines make the grade?

Unfortunately, there's not a simple yes or no answer.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press)

The first thing to consider is the notebook's central processor, also called the chip, which is the equivalent of the engine in a car. For basic computing needs such as word processing, web surfing and e-mail, "virtually any reasonable modern laptop computer out there would fit the bill," says Richard Morochove, a Toronto consultant who advises businesses about technology.

In other words, even the most modest chips in the latest entry-level laptops should have enough power to let people get everyday jobs done.

However, students taking courses in fields such as engineering or design may need specialized software that demands better performance than an entry-level machine can deliver. They may be better off with higher-end notebooks that have more powerful dual-core processors — actually two processors built into a single chip that can share the workload. The laptops that Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., now issues to all students use dual-core processors because of their greater speed and lower power consumption, says Greg Deveau, supervisor of technology training at Acadia's User Support Centre.

Besides processing power, the amount of memory installed in a computer affects performance. Most laptops on the market today have at least 256 megabytes (MB) of random-access memory (RAM). That's enough memory for basic tasks, Morochove says, but those with more advanced needs should look for one gigabyte or more.

There's an important factor to keep in mind when it comes to memory, too — graphics. In low-priced machines, the specialized processor that handles graphics usually shares the notebook's main memory instead of having a separate piece of memory built in just for graphics. This helps to keep manufacturing costs down, but it means that if the notebook has 256 MB of RAM and has to share it with the graphics system, a big portion of the machine's main memory often won't be available to run programs.

That's OK for basic work like word processing, but multimedia-intensive software (whether it's a graphics editing package or a game) usually needs dedicated graphics memory to deliver decent performance — at least 128 MB strictly for the graphics card, Morochove suggests, plus 256 MB or more for the computer's main memory.

Notebook storage

Storage is another important consideration, since notebook hard drives can be difficult and expensive to upgrade.

Most laptops now have hard disks that hold at least 80 gigabytes, "which is plenty" for most students, says Keith McWhirter, manager of campus computer sales and service at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

For those storing lots of music, photo and video files, a good accessory is an external hard drive. This is a large-capacity hard disk installed in a portable case that plugs into a notebook's USB port. It's handy both as a source of supplementary storage, and as a way to back up important files and leave them somewhere safe in case the laptop gets damaged or stolen.

Macintosh versus PC

Many people fret about the age-old Windows versus Macintosh question, but it matters less today, because Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintoshes can now exchange files with computers running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows and even run Windows themselves.

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A few compatibility concerns linger, though, and many institutions have standardized on Windows-based software and equipment. It's worth checking with a school's IT department to make sure a non-Windows machine will handle everything a student will be expected to do. For example, Macs are available through the University of Toronto Faculty of Arts & Science Student Computer Program, but the university suggests Windows XP for some specific jobs, says Monica Contreras, the faculty's assistant dean and director of planning and information technology.

What about wireless?

Given the way students move around, it's no surprise wireless networking is popular on many campuses. Contreras's first recommendation is to choose a laptop that handles wireless networking — also known as Wi-Fi. That will let the student connect to university resources and the internet without plugging into anything.

Though Wi-Fi cards are available as laptop add-ons, many laptops come with Wi-Fi built in, and this saves the trouble of installing the add-on hardware (usually very simple) and the software to make it work (usually not quite so simple).

However, the caveat is that Wi-Fi is evolving. A faster standard called Wireless N is due next year, and a laptop with one of the current flavours of Wi-Fi built in will not be easy to upgrade as faster versions appear.

Morochove suggests either buying a laptop with Wi-Fi included in the form of a pre-installed add-on card that can be upgraded later. Alternatively, he says, choose one that supports the Wi-Fi standard called 802.11b as well as the faster 802.11g (or just "b" and "g" for short). Another Wi-Fi standard called 802.11a is as fast as "g" but less widely used.

A different kind of wireless technology, called Bluetooth, is designed strictly for short-range communication, such as between a computer and printer or between a cellphone and wireless headset. It's less useful than Wi-Fi and is easy to add later if you need it, Morochove says, so it's probably not important to get a laptop that has it built in unless the student has a particular reason for needing it.

Size does matter

When it comes to comparing the virtues of various laptops, smaller is not necessarily cheaper and bigger is not always better.

A bigger laptop can have a larger screen, which matters more for graphics than for simple tasks like e-mail. A larger machine typically has more room for bigger batteries, too, but since larger screens use more power than smaller ones, a bigger machine won't always run longer on a charge than a more compact model. Larger laptops also weigh more, and smaller ones often carry a higher price tag because miniaturization requires more expensive parts.

In other words, no one size fits all.

A way to balance portability against screen size is by connecting a small notebook to a larger computer monitor when at home or back at the dorm. It's possible to plug a bigger desktop PC monitor into most laptops. If this is something that appeals, then make sure the laptop has a VGA port for old-style CRT monitors, and/or a DVI port for digital LCD panels.

Alternatively, a $150-to-$300 docking station will connect the laptop to a monitor, a network connection, a printer, and other extras such as a full-size keyboard and a mouse in one step. The convenience is worth the investment if you want to connect many extras, McWhirter suggests.

An Achilles heel of entry-level laptops is battery life. Many cheaper laptops only run for about an hour or so on a charge. If you're going to be using the machine regularly in areas where there are no wall sockets to plug into, it's probably worth either buying a second battery, or investing in a more expensive laptop that will run for several hours on a single charge.

Laptops often take a beating, so durability may be worth considering too. A magnesium case will hold up better than plastic, McWhirter says, but it's not worth looking for an all-but-indestructible "ruggedized" machine such as those used by the military, because these laptops can cost as much as replacing a cheap notebook several times over. The main concern is salvaging data if something happens to the computer, so look for a well-protected hard disk and a spill-resistant keyboard (which, while not waterproof, allows time to shut the computer down safely after a minor spill and dry it out).

And speaking of protection, backing up data is simple with a CD-ROM burner or a drive that can write to higher-capacity DVD-ROMs. An external USB hard drive can also be used for backup. The price depends on the drive's capacity, but one that can back up all the files on an average notebook's hard drive can usually be found for less than $125.

Finally, more expensive notebooks usually come with built-in productivity software for jobs like word processing, while their cheaper counterparts often don't. While add-on software is readily available and choices will depend on the student's needs, Contreras warns that everyone needs up-to-date anti-virus protection — better safe than sorry.

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