A buyer's guide to laptops -- from mighty mites to mobile monsters

Notebooks come in all shapes, sizes and prices. Here's help in picking the right one.

The weak reception by most buyers has a lot to do with the $200 to $500 that tablets tack on for the extra engineering, hardware and software required. Look for the first generation of tablet netbooks later this year that will cut prices to the bone.

Most tablets require a special electromagnetic stylus with which to write. The stylus seems especially easy to lose and costs about $35; it's a good idea to get an extra one. Some manufacturers include ways to physically tether the pen to the unit, but that can look like a ball and chain.

While some tablets are as small as the Fujitsu LifeBook U820 UMPC, most have 12.1 to 14.1-inch screens powered by video engines that draw on system memory. These screens require an extra layer to make them sensitive to the stylus, which can make them appear fuzzy compared to standard displays.

There is an important option to consider when buying a tablet. Many manufacturers offer a special screen that doesn't get washed out in direct sunlight. This makes a tablet the perfect companion for outdoor workers, such as a phone installer or someone who surveys property.

Rugged

There's no denying that notebooks are fragile; normal daily use by an energetic traveler is often enough to trash even the best-made system. By contrast, rugged systems have been designed to be stronger, less prone to damage and more reliable even in the harshest conditions, including extreme heat, cold, moisture or dryness or during heavy vibrations. That's why you see them in all kinds of demanding environments, from police squad cars to construction sites to soldiers' backpacks in Afghanistan.

Rugged machines come in when mobility is a must and failure is not an option. Manufacturers of rugged laptops often put their systems through rigorous testing -- including dropping the system 3 feet, spraying it with water, trying to shake it to pieces and other insults -- to meet the U.S. Department of Defense's MIL-STD-810 criteria for survivability in military operations.

But not all rugged notebooks are created equal. To begin with, there are fully rugged systems, such as the Panasonic ToughBook 30 and General Dynamics Itronix GoBook XR-1, that start with a stout magnesium frame for mounting components that can take the slings and arrows of outrageous abuse and come back for more. The base and lid are often clad in super-strong magnesium, the ports have doors or rubber seals to keep out the elements, and sensitive components, such as the hard drive and screen, are shock mounted to take a beating.

All that armor adds up to a case that's an inch thicker and often two pounds heavier than comparable non-ruggedized systems. That's why many come with a handle that makes carrying the rugged notebook a little easier.

By contrast, semi-rugged notebooks, such as Dell's Latitude E6400 ATG, may have plastic screen lids and don't cover all their ports. They are also thinner, lighter and cheaper.

To maximize reliability, both fully and semi-rugged systems often use older and slower (but proven) components. Forget about getting the latest processors or high-speed hard drives; these machines are about reliably getting the job done, even if you have to wait.

Because these are rugged, outdoorsy types of notebooks, their options go beyond what you can get on a normal system. Some have heaters for hard drives and screens so they'll work fine in subzero temperatures, and many have optional backlit keyboards so you can type in the dead of night. Some, like Panasonic's ToughBook 19, have a touch-sensitive screen for drawing a map of the countryside or marking up a repair manual with notes. Many rugged systems come with a 3-year warranty.

These notebooks don't come cheap. Ruggeds typically cost between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on options, and semi-ruggeds go for about $1,000 less. But if reliability counts for everything, they're more than worth it.

Budget

There are three things that count when it comes to budget notebooks: price, price and price.

The basic recipe for baking a budget notebook starts with a processor such as an AMD Turion X2 or a Celeron, Pentium Dual Core or slower Core 2 Duo from Intel; don't expect a high-speed chip. Mix in 2GB of system memory, a 14- or 15-inch screen and a 160 to 250GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, and bake until done. The problem is that all the laptops in this category come out of the oven looking like they used the same set of cookie cutters, with little to separate them.

Tags notebooksultraportable laptopsnetbooks

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Brian Nadel

Computerworld (US)

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