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.

Power gaming

It's a cruel and dangerous world out there, filled with all sorts of aliens, car thieves and assassins out to get you. And that's just in video games. To play for keeps, you need a powerful gaming notebook that puts an emphasis on speed and graphics.

You can't defend yourself without seeing the enemy, so having a big, high-resolution screen with the latest graphics is a matter of digital survival. The top gaming machines today start with a high-end graphics card, such as Nvidia's SLI Dual GeForce 8800M GTX or ATI's CrossFireX. Both have a pair of video processing chips that share the load for superior performance. The CrossFireX also allows you to goose up its performance a notch or two during particularly intense scenes.

Whichever you choose, get it with 1GB of video memory. That way, the system can deliver realistic virtual worlds with the subtle lighting, textures and shadows that show up the way the game designer meant them to.

The rest of a gaming notebook is similarly top shelf, with a premium Intel processor, such as the Core 2 Duo Extreme or Core 2 Quad, and 4GB of system memory. On top of a Blu-ray optical drive, gaming systems like Toshiba's Qosmio X305 have the ability to hold a pair of hard drives with a capacity of up to 1TB of data. This will let you load hundreds of your favorite games.

Other than for connecting your tricked-out gaming mouse, keyboard and headset, the variety of ports is a secondary issue. One thing you will want is the intimidation factor, so top it all off with an imposing notebook case. At your next frag party, your notebook should be just as scary as your gaming style, and either the Qosmio's fire brand or Alienware M17's otherworldly spine and rib cage design should do just fine.

Mobile workstation

Let's say you have to do some CAD design work, analyze the data from an oil exploration project or simulate a complex scientific concept hundreds of miles from your office. Today's mobile engineering workstations can do all this in a hotel room, a construction trailer or a tent in the Amazon.

This class of notebook stretches the concept of portable, with cases that are wider and heavier than any other variety. They offer the best of everything, including the fastest Intel Core 2 Duo Extreme or Quad CPUs, and feature 64-bit operations.

While 2 or 4GB will suffice for all other systems, these are RAM hogs with room for 16GB. These machines have plenty of storage potential with a pair of 500GB hard drives, either to offer a terabyte of file space or the ability to mirror everything so that nothing is ever lost to a dead drive.

Visualization is what counts, but rather than pushing games, movies and TV, they excel in CAD, animation and graphing large data sets. Look for a graphics engine that can handle the rigors of workstation graphics, with at least 1GB of dedicated video memory. A big step forward is Nvidia's Compute Unified Device Architecture (CUDA), which is used by Dell's Precision M6400 Covet. With parallel processors that can incorporate dozens of computational cores, it excels at fast and accurate video.

Screens for this type of machine begin at 17 inches and have extra-high resolution, but that's just the start. Lenovo's ThinkPad W700ds has a second pull-out 10.6-inch screen that can either operate independently or extend the base display to create a 3200 x 1968 resolution composite screen, although there's an annoying black plastic strip between the displays.

If you have to ask how much, chances are these super-systems are out of reach. There are models that start at about $3,500, but with the right amount of video memory, RAM and hard drives, figure that $10,000 -- about the price of 20 budget notebooks -- is closer to the mark.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

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Brian Nadel

Computerworld (US)
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