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Sunday, October 1, 2006

Notebook Computers In The Wild


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A robust CPU is the key to computer performance. It's always wise to buy a laptop with the fastest chip available—it's certain to be eclipsed by an even faster chip within six months anyway, so start out at the top. The Intel Core Duo is in command of center stage these days. Even Apple uses this processor in its latest notebook computers.

Like AMD's Athlon 64 X2 dual-core processor, the Core Duo has two execution cores (computational engines) on a single die. Conventional processors have only one. When used with the right software, multicore processors can perform parallel execution of multiple instruction threads simultaneously. In other words, they can do two (or more) entirely different things at once. The operating system recognizes each core as a separate processor. The benefit is a significant increase in computation speed. The computer power doesn't quite double, but the increase in performance is substantial.

The AMD Athlon 64 FX processor is the first Windows-compatible 64-bit PC processor. It's highly prized by gamers—in fact, it was originally created to provide the enhanced video and 3D rendering capabilities that gamers demand. Although it can't process two separate threads simultaneously, it can still run rings around most CPUs.

Intel Centrino mobile technology is available in dual-core and traditional single-core configurations. Both Centrino versions are optimized for wireless connectivity and high performance. Additionally, Centrino chips offer enhanced power saving as well as cooler operation.

Second in importance only to the CPU is the total amount of RAM in your system. In fact, some will argue that RAM is more important than processor speed, and for applications like Photoshop, that may be true. A photographer's laptop should have at least 1 GB of memory. This is another case where more is better and there's no such thing as too much.

Most notebook computers have two sockets that hold memory chips. If both are filled, it's obviously necessary to remove one (or both) to add more RAM. For example, if you buy a notebook that has 1 GB of RAM that has been installed as two 512 MB modules, you can't increase the total memory without displacing one of the existing units—a costly procedure. On the other hand, if your notebook has a single 1 GB module installed in one of the sockets and the other socket is empty, you can simply add another module.

A large hard drive is the next consideration. Don't settle for anything smaller than an 80 GB hard drive. Remember that it's always easier (and cheaper) to specify a large hard drive as part of your original configuration than it is to add a large drive later. Image file sizes (especially RAW and TIFF formats) can be huge, and smaller 40 GB drives tend to fill up fast. Even my bargain basement, take-me-everywhere Toshiba Satellite 55 notebook has a 120 GB hard drive.

Because notebook computers are subjected to rougher handling than their desktop cousins, their hard drives are placed in greater peril. Sometimes they crash. Avoid disaster by backing up critical files to a compact external hard drive. External drives, like the Western Digital Passport, are inexpensive and very reliable. You can buy 60 GB of pocketable safety net for around $100. If you use your notebook as a desktop replacement, consider buying one that has two internal drives that are configured in a RAID-1 array. The Alienware Aurora notebooks, for example, are available with twin 120 GB drives. All data is mirrored so that if one drive crashes, an exact duplicate is available on the other.

For some people, a 13-inch display is enough for browsing images and doing minor retouching in the field, but for most of us, a 15-inch screen size is the minimum size needed to work comfortably. If your back can handle carrying it in the field, a 17-inch monitor is tops. I've been writing on an aging Sony GRV550 with a 17-inch display daily for three years now and have a hard time working when forced to carry a smaller notebook. If you occasionally make presentations or otherwise display images for clients, it's hard to beat the "wow factor" that a bright 17-inch display delivers.

One decision you'll probably have to make is deciding between a combo DVD-reader/CD-writer or a DVD burner. Go for the DVD burner without hesitation. You need a DVD writer, and the good news is that they're becoming de rigueur for today's top-tier notebooks. A common configuration is an 8x double-layer DVD burner that reads and writes all formats. If yours can handle DVD-RAM in addition to +R and—R DVD, consider that a plus.

Having a built-in memory card reader slot comes in handy. The aforementioned Toshiba M55 provides an SD card slot that I usually keep filled with a 512 MB card that's used to swap files between PCs. Even more important, though, is the number of Hi-Speed USB (USB 2.0) and FireWire (IEEE 1394, also known as iLink) ports that are available.

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