Seasoned computer users know the most important laptop features boil down to processor, system memory, battery life, and monitor size -- but consider these the essential “basics” that are just as relevant today as they were a decade ago.
Since then, however, we’ve had a number of new technologies crop up, such as dual- and quad-core CPUs, wide-area networking (WAN) connectivity, solid state drives and security-related tools. Here’s a look at a few of the newer features available if there’s a need and a budget.
Why limit yourself to one engine under the hood of your car when you can have two or four? This is a way to think about dual- and quad-core technology, giving your laptop a serious boost in performance.
Powered by chipmakers Intel and AMD, many laptops today include a dual-core processor, which speeds up your applications and makes multitasking smoother, while high-end laptops have quad-core processors for serious PC video editors, animators, and gamers.
The good news is that you need not break the bank to afford one as dual-core CPU-based laptops start at $549.
Solid state drives
Rather than a traditional hard drive to store all of your PC’s data, laptops with “solid state drives” (SSDs) use Flash memory -- similar to what holds your digital camera’s photos or iPod nano’s music -- which offers a number of advantages to the mobile computer user. Solid state-based laptops are smaller, lighter, more energy efficient, run faster, and are less susceptible to damage because there are no moving parts.
“In many vertical markets, rugged-ization and durability are very important, with features like shock mounted [hard disk drives] or SDDs, crumple zones in the notebook in case of accidental drops, and spill-proof keyboards,” says David Daoud, an analyst with IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based technology research firm.
Not everyone is sold on SSDs, however. Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at the New York-based Jupiter Research firm, says small businesses watching their budget might be turned off at the relatively high costs of SSDs compared to traditional hard drives. “While battery life is improved, you’ll definitely pay a premium for not a lot of disk space, plus the claims about [increased] performance are not proven,” says Gartenberg. “The best bang for your buck is still is magnetic [hard disk] storage.”
Integrated cell connections
Rather than hunting for a Wi-Fi hotspot, your laptop can log online anywhere you can get cell phone reception -- even while on a moving train or in the back of a cab. A new trend is for laptop makers to include integrated GSM/GPRS connectivity, giving you access to a wireless carrier while on the go. Some even include support for high-speed “3G” connections, offering broadband-like wireless speeds.
“Integrated WAN and GPS are interesting new features in laptops,” agrees Gartenberg. But he cautions “you need to decide if you’re willing to make an investment in a carrier, which is not unlike a cell phone commitment.”
“In the wireless world, we also expect Qualcomm’s Gobo chip to find a great deal of interest, among those who travel a lot and travel across regions with different wireless broadband standards,” adds Daoud.
Side view screens
Many laptops today include a 2.5-inch colour liquid crystal display (LCD) on the opposite side of your screen -- just as your flip phone might have a smaller screen on the outside (mainly to show who’s calling). Some Windows Vista-based laptops include an extra “SideShow” screen so you can quickly read downloaded emails, notes or calendar appointments -- all without having to turn on the PC.
Gartenberg agrees a “mini environment in which you can rapidly boot up to look at a calendar or access a Web browser” is appealing, though SideShow hasn’t caught on just yet: “It remains as a promise more than a fulfillment at this point.”
Security improvements, too
Integrated fingerprint readers are a reliable biometrics-based technology that ensures only the laptop user can access data on the drives -- an important consideration given the potentially sensitive corporate data carried under the arm while traveling.
Further, traditional locks, from the likes of Kensington, can serve as a visible deterrent to a would-be thief; a steel cable is connected to a small security slot on the laptop, usually at the side or back, before tethered to a large or heavy object, such as a desk at an airport lounge.
A mobile businessperson may also install clever software, such as Lojack (from $39.99 a year), that will stealthily contact the security center with its whereabouts the moment the stolen laptop is connected to the Internet.
But for all of these newer laptop features, however, Gartenberg believes one of the most important is still battery life. “Today, it’s possible to have your laptop last more than 10 hours on single charge -- you don’t want to fight for a plug at the airport or your local Starbucks. “At the end of the details these are the details that boost productivity,” he says.