Computerworld

Buyers' Guide for Notebook PCs

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

Poor notebook technology choices can lead to shorter life cycles, higher costs and reduced mobile worker productivity.

See Buyers' Guide for Notebook PCs: Wireless technologies

It is important to make the right trade-offs regarding size, weight, performance and battery life. To help IT organisations make the right purchasing decisions, Computerworld has prepared an enterprise buyers guide which includes a shopping checklist and a guide to the latest wireless technologies.

It also lists security options for notebooks and provides recommendations for virtualization. It begins with the most Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and ends with a Glossary of Terms.

What is a notebook PC?

A notebook PC meets all the PC criteria but is designed to be moved easily from place to place. The system is completely self-contained and can be carried as a single unit, which includes a keyboard, a display, mass storage and the main system unit. Its power sources are alternating current AC or direct current DC. Examples of notebook vendors include Lenovo, Dell, HP, Acer, Toshiba, Fujitsu, Asus, Samsung Electronics, Sony, NEC, Panasonic, LG Electronics and Motion Computing.

Why is notebook selection for business use so important?

Not having the right mobile PC means that users are not working as efficiently as possible, and this can carry a high, and sometimes, hidden cost. Getting the right product depends on understanding company and user requirements, and basing any decision on those business needs.

What should selection be based on?

Organisations need to make the right trade-offs regarding size, weight, performance, battery life and price for each type of worker. Travelling workers have different requirements than workers who use their notebooks to extend the workday. Poor notebook technology choices could lead to shorter life cycles, higher costs and reduced mobile worker productivity.

Should selection be restricted to one model?

Gartner recommends offering two notebook form factors – a smaller, lighter system for travelling workers, and a larger system that is optimized on price or performance for day extenders.

What notebook size is suitable for day extenders?

Day extenders typically use their notebooks in the office, taking them home in the evening or for the weekend to do extra work. For these workers a lightweight device isn’t a priority. These workers are well served by 14 or 15-inch notebooks.

What size suits travelling workers?

Travelling workers represent different use patterns because they are out of the office up to 80 per cent of the time. They tend to carry their notebooks most of the day and work in diverse locations. For these users, weight and battery life, are important selection criteria which is why 12.1 and 13.3 inch notebooks are preferable.

What about upgrade cycles?

Organisations should always procure feature sets that reduce the need to return the machine for an upgrade during its expected lifetime – a process that is rarely cost effective for notebooks.

How long should the warranty apply?

Gartner advises organisations to match warranty periods to the notebook’s expected life, with a minimum warranty period of three years.

Over the page: Shopping Checklist

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Shopping Checklist

The following checklist covers a range of features to consider when making your purchase including processor type, memory, storage, graphics and peripherals.

Processors

Although the processors in all PCs use the same instruction set, notebook processors are designed with lower power requirements and more aggressive power management capabilities that extend battery life and improve thermal characteristics.

Most notebooks aimed at the corporate market are based on Intel processors. Intel’s current family of mainstream notebook processors are the Core i3, i5 and i7 processor families, which have replaced the older Core 2 processors.

Although AMD processors are gaining some traction in corporate notebooks, its largest mobile presence is in the consumer and small to medium business (SMB) markets with the AMD Phenom II dual-Core, AMD Triple Core and Quad Core Mobile Processors, AMD Turion II Dual-Core Mobile , and AMD Turion II Neo Dual-Core Processor for Ultrathin

Notebooks

Earlier this year Intel introduced another processor generation (second generation Core processors) based on the Sandy Bridge architecture. IT research firm Gartner said these new processors contain significant improvements in the areas of a better fully integrated graphics controller, a new ring bus architecture and improved turbo mode. Gartner recommends the new Sandy Bridge processors for all new corporate notebook purchases.

Stable Image Programs

Intel and AMD have introduced stable image platform programs that batch processor and chipset driver changes. These programs are targeted at corporate systems and help minimise the number of system changes that large organisations have to make during the life of their systems. Usually, the changes are batched at predictable intervals to assist notebook OEM and user planning cycles.

Even with a stable image platform, the only absolute guarantee of system stability will come from the notebook OEM, not the processor vendor. Stable image platforms make it easier for OEMs to maintain system image stability for their customers.

Gartner said organisations are advised to check with their notebook suppliers about actual notebook image stability.

Memory

Notebook memory is slightly more expensive than desktop memory. Since 2008 notebook systems have moved to DDR3 which consumes less power and delivers higher bandwidth. Gartner does not expect a shift to DDR4 memory for several years.

Gartner’s minimum memory recommendation for all classes of notebooks is now 2GB, although most systems are being configured with 4GB. While 2GB is enough to support the growing complexity and variety of applications used simultaneously by mainstream knowledge workers, moving to 4GB provides greater headroom and supports a move to a 64-bit version of Windows 7.

Gartner analyst, Federica Troni, said even applications that run with less memory benefit from the performance boost that additional memory usually provides for notebooks.

Troni said the key is to buy sufficient memory upfront and avoid the additional $100 cost, on average, for an upgrade during the product’s life span.

He said organisations looking to leverage virtual machines on their notebooks will want to install at least 4GB of memory and should run a 64-bit installation of Windows 7.

Graphics

Modern computing devices use a graphics processing unit (GPU) to generate images on the display. Graphics devices can be discrete processors or integrated into the chipset or the CPU.

Discrete graphics provide greater performance and support more capabilities (better level or 3D acceleration, higher resolutions and multi-display support). A separate graphics processor can be scaled up to a level of complexity that would be impossible to match in an integrated part, Gartner said.

However, with additional performance comes additional cost. On the other hand, Gartner said integrated graphics processors have less complex designs and use a Unified Memory Architecture. Also, integrated graphics are less expensive and consume less power which results in slightly longer battery life.

The largest providers of discrete graphics are AMD and Nvidia while Intel is the largest provider of integrated graphics as part of its chipsets and CPUs. Intel chipsets that contain integrated graphics usually have the prefix G. Sandy Bridge processors are the first to combine the GPU onto the CPU die.

For the most part business users seldom require the performance of a discrete graphics adapter, unless they are attaching multiple external monitors, using very high-resolution displays or have graphically intensive application needs.

The drivers associated with discrete graphics adapters tend to be upgraded frequently. But overall enterprise PC makers have demonstrated a good ability to maintain reasonable consistency in their drivers.

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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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Solid State Drives (SSDs)

An emerging, but expensive, alternative to traditional hard-disk drives (HDDs) are SSDs. SSD technology for notebooks is based on non-volatile NAND flash-based memory. SSDs are available in a variety of capacities, ranging from 8GB to 512GB, although high capacities are cost prohibitive.

Because NAND flash does not contain moving parts it is inherently more reliable and has a five per cent power advantage over HDDs. PC SSDs typically cost the end user around $2.50 per GB. Over the next 12 months Gartner expects prices to fall making the technology more attractive to the enterprise. Gartner expects 128GB capacities to cost around $200 by 2012. The performance and endurance of SSDs will be critical metrics for enterprise users, given the drastic discrepancy between solutions.

Optical drives

Optical drives are included as a standard in many thin and light desktop replacement configurations. As with other components in notebooks, mobile optical drives tend to be a smaller, thinner form factor than their desktop counterparts, which results in slightly reduced performance.

Another factor with optical drives is the ability to swap them out of systems. This isn’t the case in consumer systems but most corporate systems support the ability to remove the drive.

Increasingly, notebooks will no longer include integrated optical drives. Gartner recommends organisations assess their users’ requirements for optical devices. While some users will need them, many will choose to trade off the convenience of performing backups for a lighter notebook.

USB

The USB is a peripheral bus supported in notebook PCs. USB ports can be used to connect a PC with many peripherals, such as a mouse, keyboard and modem. USB 2.0 is capable of transmitting data at 480 Mbps. Many users recharge peripheral devices, such as smartphones and media players, off the USB port, reducing the number of power supplies carried with USB 2.0.

USB 3.0 is capable of transmitting 5 Gbps and is backward-compatible. It was released in 2008 but has only now become mainstream. Gartner recommends notebooks include at least two integrated USB ports. Desktop replacement systems should feature at least four USB ports.

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Secure Digital Cards

Some notebook manufacturers have introduced secure digital (SD) card slots in their products. SD cards are particularly attractive for their small size. They enable a high level of interoperability among all kinds of devices, such as digital cameras, handheld devices and phones.

The SD I/O slot supports cards for peripherals, such as Bluetooth, cameras, Wi-Fi, GPS receiver cars and other devices. In general, SD cards, including microSD, are the most popular flash cards available, but other flashcard formats have been used in notebooks. Traction has been limited, however, to PCs that support particular vertical applications where a camera, PDA or other peripheral is sharing data with the notebook.

USB flash drives

The relatively high speed of USB 2.0 ports and the debut of USB 3.0 capable flash drives enables the uses of external storage options, including the extremely popular USB flash drives. These USB flash memory storage devices plug directly into any USB port and can be used for storing virtually any digital data. Flash drive memory keys range in size from 64MB to 256GB. As higher-capacity USB flash drives of 4GB and greater have become affordable enabling users to create a “portable personality” allowing them to customize and store their preferences for use across multiple computers.

Docking stations

Another way to add peripherals to a mobile computer is through an expansion chassis that might be a fully loaded docking station or a minimal port replicator. Most notebooks, but not all, have a proprietary bus that enables them to plug into the expansion chassis.

Docking stations are geared for users who want to keep the travelling weight of their notebooks low when on the road, while maintaining the full functionality of a desktop PC in the office. Users can plug their keyboards, monitors, network connectors, printers and peripherals into the docking station, rather than the notebook. That way, users can simply remove and replace the notebook in the docking station without detaching and re-attaching cables.

Port replicators are a lower cost expansion option. For most applications, Gartner said port replicators are all that is needed. Major business class systems provide docking station and port replicator compatibility across most of their product lines for at least two generations of notebook products.

If the docking stations are compatible with multiple models, then users can more easily move from one location to another, and IT can upgrade some or all users without replacing some or all docking stations. Gartner said this level of asset protection can mean considerable cost savings, because docking stations may cost up to one-third the price of the notebook.