Getting Rid of the ol’ Desktop – Laptop Buyers Guide

I can remember back in the mid-90’s waiting in anticipation of the Sunday newspaper. It would show up at my doorstep (or in the bushes, or occasionally on the roof depending on my paperboy) at 7am sharp. I would grab the giant bundle on sight, rip off the cheap green rubber band, plop on the couch, and dig in. Front-page news? Who cares. Political section? In the trash. Sports? Tossed it over my shoulder. The meat of the paper…and the entire goal of my newspaper subscription…was always located in the center: the Best Buy flyer.

Best Buy was a different store back then. They were one of the few places locally where you could buy a decent computer at a (then) decent price. Their flyer was lined with giant beige boxes from Packard Bell, IBM, Gateway, and Compaq…and I would drool profusely over every one of them. A whole market-line of computer specific furniture was created to house these beasts. Dropping $2000 on a computer also required the purchase of a computer desk, a computer chair, a computer desk lamp, a computer storage unit…people would base house purchases on “is there a room big enough for my computer?”

Times have changed…drastically. At one time, people used to choose a desktop computer because it was more powerful and considerably less expensive than a laptop. The explosion of wireless access has created a demand for portability, and now that laptop computers cover all price-ranges, a stationary desktop computer no longer makes sense. So, the question I’m hearing more and more is “I want to get rid of the boat anchor on my desk and replace it with a laptop. What should I get?” The answer depends on a few factors.

Where Will You Be Using It?

Laptops are like shoes. Different styles have different functions. Since laptops are portable, you have to ask yourself “Where will I be using it?” There are 3 categories:

  • I want to travel.
  • I may travel, but will mostly use it at home/work.
  • This thing is sitting on a desk and isn’t moving.

For Travel: If you plan on being a road-warrior with your new laptop, you’re going to want to look for features that are travel-friendly and support power efficiency. Light-weight models with a long-lasting 6 or 8 cell battery and a 13″-14″ screen will be your main focus. I wouldn’t recommend going below 13″ as you’ll start to run into a problem where you have to scroll around a lot to see content on websites…which quickly becomes annoying. Be sure the screen is visible in bright light, and the keyboard isn’t too cramped for touch-typing. I also like to test how long the laptop takes to come back to life if you close the screen without powering down. Closing the screen prompts the laptop to enter “Sleep mode”, and should be ready to wake up within a few seconds of reopening. Also, the lighter the better. Try keeping the weight under 5lbs. or your arms will hate you at the airport.

Light Travel/Home Use: If you’re looking for something for home that will be a “jack-of-all-trades” laptop for the family, or if you’re in an office but only occasionally travel, a mid-range laptop with a 15″-16″ screen will suit you fine. You’ll still want to go for at least a 6 cell battery for home so you don’t have to worry about dragging a charger with you between the couch and bed. Make sure the speakers sound decent…a lot of manufacturers skimp on the sound and there’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to hear that funny YouTube cat video posted on Facebook. Weight is not as much of an issue here as you won’t be lugging it around for long distances often, but you’ll want to stay in the  5-7lb. range to be comfortable.

Yeah, I'm thinking I should have went with the 15" instead.

Desktop ReplacementIf you don’t plan on moving your laptop (I hesitate to call this class of computer a laptop, because you would need a lap the size of a coffee table to accommodate one), you’ll want to look at a class of computer called a Desktop Replacement. The concept here is to take everything a desktop computer offers: a large screen, a large keyboard, and nice speakers, and put it in a consolidated package that can be easily moved without having to unplug dozens of cables. Desktop replacement laptops will have screens 17″ or larger. Battery life is not a concern as these big guys aren’t really meant to be moved around much. The larger screens are a hit with the older generations, and if you move furniture around, you don’t have to worry about hiring an IT guy to disconnect and reconnect everything. Just don’t think about travelling with one, as they can weigh in at well over 10lbs. (I recently set one up for a relative that weighed 16lbs!).

What About Power?

In the past, all computer owners used to brag about the parts in their computers the same way muscle car owners brag about their cam shafts and brake pads. Today, with the advent of cloud computing, hardware isn’t as much of a factor anymore. It doesn’t take much power to use the Internet, which is why 10 year old computers running Windows XP are still in use. Therefore, when asked “how powerful of a computer should I get?”, I usually respond with “Just about anything off the shelf is adequate.” Here’s a breakdown of the main parts of your laptop and what to look for:

Processor: The “brain” of your laptop, this determines how fast your software is going to work. Processors outpaced the needs of most software used today some time ago, so unless you’re into something that takes a lot of horsepower (graphic design, movie editing, or gaming for example), anything with an Intel i3 processor or higher will be more than adequate. If you’re one of those that does need a bit more power, look for an i5 or and i7 processor.

Hard Drive: This is the main storage area of your laptop…the “bank vault”. As mentioned, cloud computing has changed the needs of computers, and that includes local storage. Since everything is stored on the Internet these days, hard drive space isn’t that critical anymore. A lot  of laptops are coming standard with 320GB hard drives, and that’s more than enough for general needs. If you want some extra performance, consider a model with one of the newer Solid State Drives (SSD’s). These hard drive replacements generally have a smaller capacity (64GB-120GB is common), but they operate several times faster than a standard hard drive. If most of what you do is Internet based, an SSD is a good option.

Memory: This is your laptop’s “work area.” The more memory your laptop has, the more things it can handle at once. 4GB is pretty standard in a new laptop, with some higher end models coming with 8GB. I like having a lot of memory in my laptops…it decreases the chances of something bogging you down. Make sure any model you are considering has at least 4GB installed.

Screen: There are two common types of screens on laptops right now: LCD and LED. LCD is the older technology and uses a fluorescent backlight to brighten up the screen. LED uses (you guessed it) LED’s as a backlight. Of the two, LED’s give better battery life, but don’t always look better. If you’re looking for portability, opt for an LED screen (preferably something with a “matte” coating on it to prevent glare if you’re going to be outside a lot). If portability isn’t a concern, go with whichever screen looks best to your eye. Print should be readable and crisp, not jagged.

Accessory Slots: There should be plenty of slots for accessories on your laptop. At least 3 USB 3.0 slots, and an SD card slot for your digital camera are highly recommended.

Other Goodies: If you can get a laptop with Wireless N included, that’s a plus. Wireless N is the latest wireless standard (replacing Wireless G) and offers better range and stability on wireless connections. A webcam is also not a bad idea, as they’re great for making video calls or taking a quick picture of your surroundings.

Final Thoughts

The drive to portability and the use of wireless connections is making the Internet a more personalized experience for everyone using it. The idea of being able to connect and interact with the world anywhere you go has changed the way we live, and these new devices are the tools we’re using to get the job done. Not everyone is an expert in technology, but knowing the basics will get you through. If you’re thinking about ditching the old desktop dinosaur and going wireless, hopefully this guide points you in the right direction.

23 thoughts on “Getting Rid of the ol’ Desktop – Laptop Buyers Guide

  1. So what is your though for dial up internet for lap top, I’m in the older generation, but would like to repace mu desktop for a laptop. But can only get dial up here in the boonies, or pay through the nose for it.

    1. I have the same problem. Hughnet,
      Skyblue or Metronet are the only other things available here. What do I need to access by the Cell towers all over the place and what will it cost?

      1. Not sure what your best cell phone provider is in your area, but we only could get dial up at our home too. I got a new job in 2006 and needed high-speed internet for VPN access to the corporate network. The company provided me with a Blackberry as a cell phone and they set it up where I could connect the phone to the PC (laptop or desktop) with the USB cable and then using the software the cell provider gave us, the phone became the modem. Our provider was Verizon and the service was called Mobile Broadband Connect and used their VZAccess software as the “dialup” connection. AT&T has a product that will do this too, from what I have heard. It was $30 per month as an add-on to the monthly bill and gave speeds that came close to DSL speed (about 60% of the lowest DSL speed). I could use the laptop anywhere, including in the car, at the campground, etc., and be on the internet. As long as you had a decent signal you could connect. That part was great! The downside of the cell connection is that it is only one PC at a time. If you tried to set up internet sharing through the network at home (wired) going through the PC that was connected to the cell phone it slowed both PCs down to the point that it was basically slower than dial up. We’d also always be asked by the kids or the wife to borrow my Blackberry so they could connect too. We solved that somewhat by getting my wife a Blackberry too and set her up on the plan (for another additional $30 per month). Now that they have DSL to our house – finally – we got that. We can share the connection on the router and use the wireless connections on the laptops too. We can have all 6 PCs connected on the internet at one time – that does slow it down some, but it is still faster than the cell phone connection.

          1. It is really very easy. If you have a smart phone it probably will work. They also sell a device that just plugs into the PC and that is the modem. It works the same as dial up from them on – just faster.

            1. Bucketheadcharly is correct you will not be ulibding a laptop.Al most all new laptops come pre-configured with everything you will need to get onto a wireless network (Not a cell network). I assume the Comcast router you speak of is really a cable modem and yes you will want a wireless router. Once you get used to using the laptop you will want to use it everywhere in the house. A wireless pre-N router will give you the best range and reception. Simply plug the router WAN port into the cable modem and follow router manufacturers instructions.As far as the taking the laptop anywhere you want to go you will need a laptop internet card and a mobile data plan. For more in depth information check out this article

        1. Ron,

          For those people that don’t have DSL or cable available, we have a much better solution than getting multiple cell phones with data plans. We use a MiFi card to provice wireless. It’s the size of a credit card, lasts for up to 4 hours on a charge, and one card can power up to 5 computers/devices at once. Plans star at $25/month:

          1. Sounds like a better and easier way to do it. I wish we’d have had that then.

            1. For the US, this is a good deal: for $40, you get 30 days of unlimited Internet usage with no coartnct. Speeds are around 800kbps down and about 180kbps up in my area. That’s not great, but it works fine for most applications. It’s the same speeds you would get on Verizon (for comparison, in many places in Europe, you get nearly 10x the speed for half the price). Configuration is done through a straightforward web interface. The default setting for the MiFi is a secure network with a key printed on the back (this can be changed through the interface). There are some limitations: battery life is nominally only 4h and Internet connectivity in moving vehicles is not all that great. I’ve used this with iPad, iPod Touch, netbooks, and laptops, and it has worked well with all of them.

          2. Thanks Brian for the continuing tech sieres. As always, we look forward to hearing what you have to say.You mention using an external LCD monitor for a laptop. We have heard the phrase that some people use their laptop as a “docking station.” What does this exactly mean and potentially cost and if we understand this correctly, would an investment in some exterior components erase some of the “cons” of the laptop?Also, can multiple substations be set up using one laptop docking station? Does this depend on how many USB ports the laptop has?Would you mind explaining some of the options we have as laptop users?

    2. Well, sells dial-up modems for $39.95 (free shipping), or if you want to go faster we’re now offering High-Speed Wireless.

      At this point, I would recommend going with wireless instead of dial-up. People don’t optimize websites for dial-up anymore, making the Internet a frustrating experience. Wireless allows you to connect up to 5 computers or devices with a high-speed connection. It’s also portable: you can connect nearly anywhere in the US. (Not to mention it’s a lot less expensive than satellite).

      If you’re interested, take a look:

  2. I use to do the same thing as you….go to the Best Buy flyer to see the latest!

    I have never owned a desk top! I have always had a laptop–my first was the IBM “thinkpad”.

    Even on dialup, my thinkpad was just fine. Now I have wireless with a fast Acer product!

    1. Thinkpads were solid machines. Believe it or not, I still have a perfectly running 13 year old Thinkpad running Windows ’98. I use it from time to time because it has a serial port on it, and it’s the only way to access a few pieces of older equipment I have laying around.

      Thinkpads were made for IBM by Lenovo…who severed ties with IBM a few years back and are now selling laptops direct. They’re still a very solid brand and work very well with wireless.

    2. For the US, this is a good deal: for $40, you get 30 days of unlimited Internet usage with no rtnocact. Speeds are around 800kbps down and about 180kbps up in my area. That’s not great, but it works fine for most applications. It’s the same speeds you would get on Verizon (for comparison, in many places in Europe, you get nearly 10x the speed for half the price). Configuration is done through a straightforward web interface. The default setting for the MiFi is a secure network with a key printed on the back (this can be changed through the interface). There are some limitations: battery life is nominally only 4h and Internet connectivity in moving vehicles is not all that great. I’ve used this with iPad, iPod Touch, netbooks, and laptops, and it has worked well with all of them.

  3. Dial-up is propeller driven — a thing of the past. Satellite not the greatest. Cable, dsl, radio is the way to go if available. All else fails there is always MiFi which is fairly good. But as in all cell phone apps coverage is varied. The limits set my most providers are very low. With the high content of most web pages it doesn’t take long to reach the limit of the data plan. If any other internet access plan is available go for it. MiFi would be great if you need temporary access on the go, but most hotels and motels offer WiFi free. As a primary source for internet access MiFi is expensive. Even at 10G you can expect some over charges.

    1. Actually that’s not true at all. MiFi is a great alternative to dialup customers, and the average usage is between 1-4GB per month. Very few go over that.

  4. Your “averages” are way off. With todays appliances (kindle, internet radio, laptops) it doesn’t take long to hit 10G. True if you do basic email and very little browsing (no large pictures in the email from you friends — don’t send large pictures to your friends, no youtube viewing, don’t even think about down loading a movie) then MiFi is great!

    1. John, I’m taking data directly from our user base. Our customers typically use between 1-4GB, with the average being somewhere around 2GB.

  5. Cricket has wireless usb ouetrr for $40 a month and it is a little faster than dsl. You can use this anywhere within city limits if you have cricket in your area. Verizon also has it but I think you have to get a contract. As for the home connection you will need a wireless ouetrr, you can get one at Walmart for about $40. If you have comcast you will have to connect the laptop internet card to the ouetrr and you will have wireless internet.

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