Mobile Computing: Back-to-School Notebooks, Part 1

What could possibly remove the sting from the dreaded phrase "back to school"?

A full scholarship for a year of study abroad wouldn't hurt. But let's set our sights on something more realistic: a new notebook.

This week and next, I'll tell you what to look for if you're shopping for a new notebook, whether you're sending a beloved child off to college, heading back to school yourself, or even going back to work after a summer of leisure.

Start With the Basics

Processor speed, memory capacity, and hard drive speed all play key roles in how well a computer handles routine tasks, such as Web browsing, e-mail, and word processing. Whenever possible, investing in a faster processor, more memory, and a large, fast hard drive will help keep your new notebook performing well and reduce the need to upgrade later.

If you're on a tight budget, choose more memory and a faster hard drive over a faster processor. The more memory you have, the more efficiently your notebook can open files and applications. If you can afford it, spring for at least 1GB of memory. A faster hard drive can enhance a notebook's performance noticeably (though it can also drain your notebook's battery more quickly). Look for hard drives with a speed of 5400 or 7200 rotations per minute, as opposed to 4200 rpm. For more about hard drive performance, see my column on upgrading a notebook's hard drive.

Get Ready for Vista

Make sure any notebook you buy is Microsoft Windows Vista capable. Windows Vista is Microsoft's successor to its Windows XP operating system. After being postponed for several months, Vista is now projected to arrive in early 2007.

Basic Vista requirements include a processor that runs at 800 MHz at the minimum, 512MB of system memory, and a DirectX 9-capable graphics processor. But don't be fooled: The key word in that previous sentence is "basic." If you want really satisfying performance, I'd recommend getting a notebook with a faster processor and more memory than these bare minimums.

Look for "Windows Vista capable" in the descriptions or marketing of any notebook you're considering. Also, Microsoft's system requirements for running basic and premium versions of Windows Vista are available online.

Before you shop, take a look at Senior Editor Yardena Arar's explanation of the various terms you'll see out there, "Get Ready for VistaSpeak."

Shop for Value

You don't have to spend a fortune any more to get a decent notebook. Some notebooks today cost $650 or less. Two examples are the Acer Aspire AS3003LCi ($639 when we reviewed it) and the Compaq Presario M2000 ($579). Both notebooks earned overall "good" ratings in our tests.

The Acer Aspire "could serve as a good family portable or even a lean desktop replacement," notes reviewer Carla Thornton. It offers a lot more features and performance than most other notebooks in its price range.

The Compaq Presario M2000 is "no speed demon, its pace is fine for word processing, e-mail, and light graphics work," Carla writes.

Another way to save money is to buy a refurbished notebook. In some cases, you can buy a refurbished unit that's exactly the same as a brand-new model, but for hundreds less. Dell has one of the widest selections of refurbished notebooks available online. For more information, read my column on the cost of notebooks.

For More Tips

Check out our online guide, "How to Buy a Laptop." In "Which Notebook to Buy?" I offer details on some notebooks that have earned consistently good reviews.

Check Back Next Week

Next week I'll focus on weight, battery life, entertainment options, and other buying considerations.

1 2 Page 1
Shop Tech Products at Amazon