Buyers' Guide for Notebook PCs

Your guide to choosing the best notebook PC for your small or medium business

Display Technology

Display technology research is focusing on enabling lower power consumption, lighter weight, improved resolution and lower costs. Display screen size, measured diagonally across the screen, is an important variable that affects notebook size and carry weight. In addition, screen resolution, which measures how many pixels are on the screen, affects how much information can be displayed at one time.

The industry standard display technology for professional notebooks is thin-film transistor, also called active-matrix – a type of LCD technology in which each pixel is controlled by one to four transistors. Although originally restricted to 11.1-inch or smaller notebook screens because of price constraints, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are increasingly being used as backlights on notebook LCD screens on the strength of their low power consumption, long service life, brightness and light weight.

Most notebook OEMs have plans to extend LED backlights broadly across the product line as prices continue to decline. For mobile workers, Gartner says LED backlights are worth considering because of the lighter weight and better battery life.

Still further in the future, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) is an emerging display technology made by placing a series of organic think films between two conductors. When electrical current is applied, a bright light is emitted and glows like a conventional LED, without requiring backlighting.

Screen size

Notebook screen size decisions always involve trade-offs. Larger screens make it easier to read and offer more data but it adds weight and takes up more space in a briefcase. Smaller size screens shed weight to improve portability but at the expense of readability.

Gartner said virtually all screens offered for business are widescreen, with exceptions for niche and legacy products. Most enterprise class systems are in the 14.1 inch and 15.4 inch ranges. Increasingly, 12.1 inch and 13.3 inch mainstream enterprise notebooks will be offered.

Resolution

Notebook screen resolution standards are denoted by the number of rows and columns of pixels on the screen. Higher resolution screens display more pixels and, more information at one time.

The caveat: As resolutions gets greater, with more pixels on the screen, the smaller the pixels get, creating smaller font and object displays. As a result, higher resolution tends to be offered only on larger screen sizes. The cost of higher resolution screens is dropping quickly, which makes them attractive for many applications. As users continue to keep more applications open at once – and as applications continue to add sidebars and additional subtask windows – the additional screen real estate afforded by higher resolution is welcome.

WXGA is the baseline standard for widescreen notebooks. WUXGA screens are available in higher-performance notebook sand is reserved for screen sizes 15.4 inches and above. WSVGA is generally found in low-end mini notebooks.

Batteries

Notebook manufacturer claims for battery life range from five to seven and a half hours on most mainstream models. However, there is generally a difference between the stated and the real battery life experienced by users.

Compute-intensive application usage, inappropriate power management settings and battery degradation all serve to reduce battery life in actual usage situations over time.

Some notebook models offer secondary batteries that go in a utility bay or as a “slice” that attaches on the bottom of the notebook. These batteries can nearly double battery life. With some configurations, manufacturers claim as much as 19 to 24 hours.

Four hours is the minimum required for business users. Gartner said most organisations include a spare primary battery and/or a secondary battery in their notebook configurations as a way to extend notebook work time. Gartner analyst, Stephen Kleynhans, said batteries should be viewed as consumables and replaced every two years. Power management

Power management functionality enables a system to monitor system activity and shut off components that are not in use. With power management enabled, if a file is loaded into memory from the hard disk, after a few minutes of inactivity, the hard disk will stop spinning (or, if the display is not updated, the screen will go blank). This feature may be defeated if notebook users have a screensaver running. It is also possible to create different power management settings for notebooks that are plugged in versus those running off a battery.

Power management features will help, but only if systems are set up to use them, and users are aware of all the options. In many cases, power management features are not enabled by the IT department or the users.

Gartner said users should test the optimized settings, if available, and make changes based on their specific needs. Intel’s term for the power conservation capability that is built into its notebook processors is Enhanced Intel SpeedStep Technology.

SpeedStep provides for the adjustment of processor voltage and clock speed to reflect different workloads, based on user preferences. This enables notebooks to run at full power and full speed when connected to an electricity supply, or when more performance is required, and to cut the power and lower the clock speed to conserve power while using the batteries.

AMD PowerNow! Technology is the term used for AMD’s power saving technology.

Storage

Most mainstream notebooks offer hard drives with typical capacities available in 160GB and 320 GB, which is sufficient for most users. Higher capacity (320GB) drives are available for users with data intensive applications that require local data storage, or for applications that require large graphics files. Bitmapped images tend to average 1MB each. Digital video can run from 2.5MB of storage per minute (for moderate Internet-streamed quality) to about 190MB (for consumer digital video), and drastically more for high-definition video needs, depending on resolution.

Drive speed is also a consideration with notebooks. Mainstream hard drives, at 2.5 inches in height, are available in 5,400 revolutions-per-minute (rpm) and 7,200-rpm speeds. Low-profile drives, at 1.8-inches in height and used in thinner notebooks, are typically slower.

The 7,200-rpm drives are typically available in 250GB capacities, with higher capacities currently available up to 500GB. For notebooks that can support 2.5inch drives, Gartner says purchasing the faster drives is recommended for the better performance they provide. As Gartner points out, hard drives are the component with the highest failure rate in notebooks.

Hard drives account for 25 to 45 per cent of notebook failures annually, approximately five to 12 per cent of the total notebook population.

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