Are Extra Laptop Features Worth It?

In the automotive world, the real money is made in the options packages. Fancy hubcaps, satellite radio, two-tone paint? Thank you very much, dealers will say, as they pocket sometimes more money than they made selling you the car.

Though buying a new laptop online doesn't involve engaging in negotiations with a dealer, you still have a number of options to choose from. And with business laptops costing as much as $2000, adding a few extras can push the price quite a bit higher. Some features are decidedly optional, while others are becoming de rigueur. Which are worth the money? Let's take a gander.

Solid-State Drives

With no moving parts, flash-memory solid-state drives (SSDs) operate silently and eliminate any risk to the drive from vibration or a sudden drop. SSDs are stunningly expensive at the moment. The largest capacity is just 64GB, and choosing one for your laptop can add from $900 to $1600 to the cost, depending on whether you select it as an option (such as on the base model of Apple's MacBook Air) or if it's available only with certain pricier models (such as with Lenovo and Sony laptops).

Our tests of SSDs showed mixed results. SSDs have exceedingly high read speeds, making system boots, application launches, and document loads much faster than with a conventional laptop hard drive. Write speeds aren't any better, however, and the overall performance is just a few percentage points faster than that of regular drives. Battery savings appear to be minimal, as well.

The value of an SSD may change dramatically in 2008, however, as 256GB and larger drives hit the market. The first 256GB drive will wholesale for nearly $6000, but like all storage costs over time, SSD prices should plummet as volume and capacity increase. In 2009, a 64GB drive might run just $200 to $300 over a 5400-rpm standard hard drive, and may boost performance and drop power use further.

Our verdict: Wait, unless you're in an industry in which vibration, read time, or the slightest noise matter.

Special Screen Coatings

Dell's TrueLife screen, with its promise of a bright, vibrant display, might seem a good option at the time of purchase, but at about $160 for an upgrade to a 17-inch LCD on a business laptop, its benefit is unclear.

Dell claims that TrueLife produces a 10 percent boost in contrast, as well as more vivid colors. Other manufacturers' options, such as Gateway's UltraBright, HP's BrightView, and Toshiba's TruBrite, are similar. (The names seem reminiscent of toothpaste advertising, but we digress.) See "Vibrant Notebook Screens" for an overview of what such displays have to offer.

Travelers who frequently work in awkward lighting conditions, where glare, dimness, or reflections abound, would appreciate this $100 to $200 upgrade. The enhanced screen is useful if you intend to watch DVDs or other video on the laptop, too. The screen technology used varies from company to company; consult PC World's laptop reviews for more insight about a particular offering.

Our verdict: If you spend a lot of time squinting at your current laptop display, it's worth it; otherwise, save your pennies.

Integrated Mobile Broadband

The network is everywhere! Or so AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and Verizon Wireless would like you to believe. Their third-generation (3G) networks are in most major cities, and in more than 1000 airports. But their cell modems for accessing the data networks are available only in a relatively small number of laptops.

The advantage of a built-in mobile broadband adapter is that it's one fewer thing you have to carry around. And ostensibly the manufacturer has built a better antenna by using the laptop's case to carry a signal. These cards can cost any amount from nothing to $300, depending on a carrier's subsidy and your term of commitment.

Technology changes rapidly in the cellular world, though, and an integrated, usually mini-PCI-format adapter is hard to upgrade for faster speeds. Such adapters are rarely user serviceable, and even laptop makers might not offer a swap-out program.

Currently, the Sprint and Verizon EvDO networks run at Rev. A, but some laptops still offer modems meeting the previous Rev. 0 standard. Sprint is rolling out WiMax starting this year, and that will mean a different PC Card. And AT&T's HSPA technology has already seen one boost (in the upstream direction); the downstream side could double in the next year to match top European speeds. (The one exception to the speed-enhancement trend is Qualcomm's forthcoming Gobi technology, which can switch between EvDO and HSPA; Dell will offer a Gobi option this fall.)

Our verdict: With the potential for enjoying faster service and avoiding outdated hardware, buying a stand-alone card--perhaps the USB type, for shuttling among computers--doesn't cost any more than choosing an integrated modem, and provides more flexibility.

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