Whether you call it a laptop or a notebook, having a computer that can travel along with you has changed the way digital photographers work. In the field, a laptop becomes a portable darkroom, a repository where images can be downloaded and stored and a place where the best shots can be soft-proofed long before returning to the studio. In other words, portable computers have become indispensable.
The perfect notebook would be lightweight and have a large display, unlimited battery life and as much raw power as the mightiest desktop. But in the real world, we must carefully decide on a compromise that delivers the features we need the most at a price we find comfortable. Traditionally, the trade-offs have been screen size vs. portability and power vs. battery life. But there are many other important factors as well. For some users, storage capacities are most critical. For others, wireless connectivity is the top requirement. Because there's such a rich product pool to draw from, everyone is assured of finding just the right unit—provided they know what to look for.
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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If you want to take the proverbial high road, go with the new Apple MacBook Pro. It's available in several different configurations at different prices, but figure that you'll need to post a $2,500 entry fee to get into the race. For that you'll get a 15.4-inch widescreen display that offers 1440 x 900 resolution, a speedy 2.16 GHz Intel Core Duo processor, 1 GB RAM (conveniently installed as a single SO-DIMM) and a 100 GB hard drive. It also includes a SuperDrive optical drive and an ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 video card with 256 MB GDDR3 memory (so you won't lose performance the way you do with some shared-memory configurations). For connectivity, there's one FireWire 400 and two USB 2.0 ports, enough for most operations, including digital video editing.
Sony has a notebook computer to fit every taste and pocketbook, but photographers will do well to gravitate toward the VGN-AR190G, complete with a 2.0 GHz Intel Core Duo processor and a 17-inch display that delivers 1920 x 1200 resolution. Colors are rich and vibrant thanks to Sony's exclusive XBRITE HiColor technology. This is a serious multimedia machine that comes equipped with a 200 GB Serial ATA Hard Drive, 1 GB of RAM and a double-layer DVD writer with Blu-Ray Disc support. Interfaces include a media slot for Memory Stick and Memory Stick Duo media, one PCMCIA Type II card slot, three Hi-Speed USB 2.0 ports and one iLink (FireWire) connector. Wireless capability includes built-in WiFi and integrated Bluetooth. Tipping the scales slightly under 8.5 pounds, this cool beauty is available in this beefy configuration for around $3,500.
Dell is the country's largest seller of notebook computers, and for good reason. Whether you're running a portrait studio out of your home or you're a student studying photography, there's a Dell that's just perfect for you. For serious field use, the Dell XPS series is a solid choice. The XPS M1710, which has a direct price of $2,400, features an Intel Core Duo processor operating at speeds up to 2.16 GHz with a 2 MB cache and a speedy 667 MHz FSB.
It handles up to 4 GB of RAM, so you should never be left wanting for memory. Furthermore, its DDR2 dual-channel memory architecture is designed to help improve overall system performance and reduce power consumption. The standard LCD display is a 17-inch widescreen display driven by a 256 MB NVIDIA graphics card. It sports a 120 GB hard drive and a dual-layer 8x DVD writer. Dell clearly leads the parade when it comes to ports: the XPS M1710 has no less than six Hi-Speed USB ports plus FireWire, S-Video, DVI (Digital Video Interface) and a five-in-one removable memory card reader. Actual price depends on configuration.
The popular HP Pavilion dv8000t, which starts at a base price of $1,100, offers a wide assortment of customizable upgrades. For example, you can step up to 240 GB of total hard-drive space or add a LightScribe DVD burner. Like the other models reviewed here, the dv8000t features an Intel Core Duo processor and a 17-inch monitor. It will support up to 2 GB of memory and either one or two hard drives up to 120 GB each. The biggest advantage of being able to write to two hard drives is data redundancy. Its Super Multi 8x DVD writer is double layer and supports LightScribe, so you can burn attractive disk labels right onto the surface of the specialized media.
Finally, Toshiba earns the award for the strangest name with the Qosmio series of notebooks, but putting the pronunciation challenge aside, you'll like the features that their G35-AV650 provides. Checking in at less than $2,995, you get a 17-inch display, 2.0 GHz Intel Core Duo Processor and 1 GB of RAM (installed as two 512 MB chips). A total of 200 GB hard-drive storage is configured as a pair of 100 GB drives, and the optical drive is the de facto standard double-layer DVD writer. They also lead the pack in super-compact notebooks, so if you're more into portability than power, keep Toshiba on your short list.
What else can you do with a notebook computer besides edit images and delete spam e-mail while on the road?
Add Microsofts Streets & Trips with GPS Locator (less than $100 street price), and you have an incredible mapping system. Its faster and more flexible than trying to access an online mapping service, plus it allows on-the-fly itinerary changes to the nth degree. The GPS plugs into a USB port and identifies your exact location on the map. And, of course, it will draw routes and arrange directions based on your travel preferences. Find restaurants and local attractions and avoid contemporaneous road construction delays. The 2006 version offers voice prompting and optional night-style map displays. If you like to know where you're going, Streets & Trips is hard to beat. Contact: Microsoft, www.microsoft.com/.
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