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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.

By Brian Nadel
May 13, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Whether you're buying for yourself or outfitting a department, shopping for a laptop today is a double-edged sword. The good news is that there's a huge variety to choose from, all with pros and cons. The bad news is that for many buyers there are just too many choices, leading to frustration and fatigue.

Do you need a netbook or a larger budget system? Will a traditional mainstream machine be OK or do you need a mobile workstation or entertainment notebook? With dozens of seemingly similar systems available, choosing the right one can seem like a task designed for Sisyphus.

I'm here to help by cutting through the marketing hype and pointing you in the right direction toward your ideal notebook. I consulted laptop designers, industry analysts and a few mobile mavens, then boiled down what's available into 11 different notebook types.

Arranged by size, weight and performance, these notebook categories range from 1-pound minimalist ultramobiles to monstrous mobile engineering workstations. They're presented with key features, typical specifications and a range of prices you can expect to pay, as well as reasons to buy or not buy each. To bring this exercise down to earth, each category has a few example models.

The best entry point for buyers is to start by picking the category that makes the most sense for how you work and play. But don't get too caught up in the categories themselves -- they should be treated as rough guides, not destinations. For example, if you're interested in a mainstream system but can't find exactly what you're looking for, try considering if a budget notebook with a few options or maybe even a large netbook would do better to satisfy your needs.

Regardless of what you call them, there's a notebook out there for every buyer and budget. Here's how to find yours.

Ultramobile PCs (UMPCs)

Small and travel-ready, ultramobile PCs (UMPCs) are the Lilliputians of the notebook world. These small wonders are for those who can't live or work without a computer but can't be slowed down with a 5-pound boat anchor.

The smallest of the small, many UMPCs are only about the size of a stack of 5- by 7-inch file cards and weigh just over a pound. They often lack many of the amenities of mobile life we've become accustomed to, with minimal ports for connections, screens that are about half the size of traditional notebooks and barely enough RAM to run Windows XP (and especially Vista) reliably. But it is their Chiclet-size keys that disappoint UMPC users the most. On some systems, even typing a Web address is tough going.

While clamshell designs with hinged-lid displays still dominate the category, new formats are starting to appear. Take Samsung's Q1 Ultra, which has a tablet shape with a miniscule keyboard that's split on either side of the screen. Other new designs mimic cell phones, with keyboards that slide out from the case.

Samsung Q1 Ultra
The Samsung Q1 Ultra. Click to view larger image.

Typically used by salespeople and those who service high-tech gear on the go, these machines handle the day-to-day routine of scheduling appointments, parts ordering, staying in touch and accessing corporate data. In other words, for many, the UMPC is a constant digital companion and career lifeline. Super-mobility is the operative concept here, and many UMPCs have optional GPS navigation receivers and can access 3G cell phone networks for always-on data.

But all this miniaturization comes at a high price. Despite being cramped and underpowered, UMPCs don't come cheap. At between $1,000 and $2,000, they sell for the price of three budget machines and cost more per pound than any other type of notebook. Still, they're so small that they go places the others can't.

Ultramobile PCs at a glance

Target audience: This is the machine for those who absolutely must have a PC with them but need to travel extremely light, such as salespeople, traveling repair technicians and mobile data junkies.

Fujitsu LifeBook U820
The Fujitsu LifeBook U820. Click to view larger image.

Pros: UMPCs are tiny, weigh just over a pound and are extremely mobile.

Cons: They are so small that everything is undersized and underpowered; plus, these small wonders can be expensive.

Typical size / weight: 7.0 x 5.5 x 1.1 in. / 1.2 lbs.

Screen size: 5 to 7 in.

CPU / RAM: 600MHz to 1.6GHz Intel Ultra Mobile or Atom / 512MB to 1GB

Storage: 40 to 120GB HDD or 32GB to 64GB SSD

Ports and connections: 1 to 4 USB ports, VGA, audio, Ethernet and flash card slots

Price range: $1,000 to $2,000

Examples: Fujitsu LifeBook U820, HTC Shift, Samsung Q1 Ultra

Buying tips: Before you buy, try one out in person to see if your fingers can manage the tiny keyboard. Also, if available, GPS and 3G network data cards can come in very handy.

Laptop categories



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