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looking for laptop designed for students

by phrot / February 15, 2008 10:49 PM PST

I am in the market for a new laptop for my soon to be college student daughter (major - science) next fall. Budget is less of an issue than versatility and future proofing.

What are the best laptop chips?

Is a 64bit processor worthwhile?

Will there be more 64bit apps? (I'm thinking Dragon Naturally Speaking here.)

Is DualCore preferable to 64bit? Why?

Do laptops offer built-in Bluetooth for mouse and extra keyboard? (Sync a future iPod/MP3 player?)

Which laptops have a built in camera that takes video of the teacher/dry board on the opposite side of the laptop screen?

Will there be a new WiFi standard beyond "draft n" and will laptops incorporate them? Many of todays laptops seem stuck on "g".

Are there laptops that have higher maximum memory beyond 2 or 4 gigs? (Probably not necessary today by every year new apps seem to require more memory.)

Which laptop brands allow generic memory chips for expansion latter?

Which laptop brands allow generic replacement batteries so I don't have to pay for proprietary batteries?

Do some laptops come with some built in security feature to prevent a thief from using it or some LoJack feature? (It would be nice not to packup the laptop just to go to the library rest room.)

It seems no single laptop offer these features that I can find. Is there a class of laptops that I can search for in the next months that will minimize my seach? I've looked at university bookstores and they mostly offer inexpensive generic laptops less geared to students than to budget buyers.

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No single laptop offer these features.
by R. Proffitt Forum moderator / February 15, 2008 11:17 PM PST

You could add LoJack later.

But let me explain why you can't find this laptop. The market is not demanding such a thing. But as you see with LoJack, there is a demand for that. There are also CONFIGURE TO ORDER laptops from the major players.

Or just get a Mac.


PS. As to the analysis of the CPU, today you can pick a Core2Duo and you'll be in the right zone.

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Advice for your daughter's notebook
by electronista / February 16, 2008 12:20 AM PST

I'll answer your questions in bundles.

1. The best mobile processors are currently from Intel's Core 2 Duo family, though you'll want to watch for certain elements: right now, the better processors have an 800MHz system bus (these usually run at a 2GHz core speed or higher). Right now, if you get a dual-core processor, you'll get 64-bit by default -- but note that most Windows Vista notebooks are running 32-bit software, so you won't see the benefit unless you replace the OS later (Mac OS X Leopard is always 64-bit). Right now, the main advantage to 64-bit code is the ability to recognize a full 4GB of RAM or more; many apps won't see a speed benefit from 64-bit technology, just more complex math.

2. Many PC builders will let you add Bluetooth, though Apple is the only one I know that makes it standard on every model. Don't expect Bluetooth to be used for wireless iPod sync, however: it's a fraction the speed of even Wi-Fi (which itself is slower than USB).

3. Speaking of Wi-Fi: every "draft N" system you can buy today will be upgradable to the final 802.11n Wi-Fi spec through software when it's ready. Don't expect any support beyond that as I haven't even heard of future specs reaching the draft stage.

4. No, there are no notebooks that have expansion beyond 4GB. This is partly because of RAM technology (I haven't seen individual 4GB memory sticks for notebooks) but also because there's rarely room for more than two memory slots. Almost all notebooks will accept third-party memory; the only ones that don't are usually ultraportables where the memory is built-in because of size requirements (see: the MacBook Air). 2GB is the comfortable minimum, but memory is cheap enough now that you should just hit up, find your notebook manufacturer, and order two 2GB sticks to max out the memory. Don't upgrade RAM at the computer manufacturer's build-to-order section.

5. Many common notebook brands often have third-parties making compatible batteries, including the big names. You may not see a real price advantage, however, so check the official option first.

6. Dell, I believe, offers a LoJack-like option, but most notebooks often have a Kensington lock slot that lets you chain the system to a desk or include a motion-sensitive alarm. A determined thief can break this lock, but it's enough to prevent casual theft -- i.e. the "I was only gone for five minutes" kind.

There are a few notebook makers I'd single out. My bias is towards Apple, but see if you can learn whether your daughter's future school will need any Windows-only software. There are ways to run Windows on a Mac (dual-boot, virtual environments), but if she needs to use Windows most of the time, that'd be unnecessarily expensive. If it's OS-independent, a MacBook may be an option as it checks all the boxes and would also mean you could skip buying antivirus or anti-spyware tools. There's scientific notation software out there for the Mac, though I haven't had enough of a need to hunt it down myself.

If you're going to need/want Windows, I'd pick a Lenovo ThinkPad T61, preferably with the discrete graphics option (faster video performance in Vista). They're well-built and usually offer good after-sale support. Dell's XPS M1330 and M1530 notebooks are also solid choices, though I would definitely consider one of the on-site warranties so your daughter doesn't have to go through mailing the notebook to a depot if it breaks mid-semester.

One note for buying: if your daughter is registered with her future college, some companies (yes, that includes Apple) will let you order with an educational discount online, rather than just the campus computer store.

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a few extra questions
by phrot / February 16, 2008 5:08 AM PST

Thank you for your wonderful replies.

The campus is primarily PC. A couple friends with Macs on campus don't recommend them. For whatever reason it appears harder for the novice user on campus.

We can get inexpensive Windows OSs through campus. Does only Vista offer a 64bit option? The app I'm thinking about is Dragon Naturally Speaking. We've used the 32bit version but it wasn't as accurate as I would like. I was hopeing they would develop a 64bit version. If I get a 32bit machine I suppose I couldn't run this app. But you feel a Core2Duo would do this? Is this the same as a dual core?

Since we get the OS cheaply through the university, would it be worthwhile to get a laptop with say Linux, remove it and add the Win OS we want? Must a "build to spec" laptop come with an OS?

Re:WiFi. Virtually every laptop I see only mentions "g" not "n". Is there some issue here?

Over the next 8 months are there new features you expect to see?

Are there any build to spec manufacturers you would recommend? You mentioned Lenovo and Dell. I know Dell would do this but who else?


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Macs and wireless
by electronista / February 16, 2008 8:20 AM PST
In reply to: a few extra questions

On Macs:

Do those friends have explanations as to why they don't like them? If there's technical incompatibilities with the campus network, that's a factor, but actually learning to use the OS won't necessarily take that long. If you live near an official Apple store, they have regular free workshops on learning the OS.

On Linux and Vista:

There are very, very few notebook makers that offer Linux preloaded on systems, and in many cases it's not actually cheaper (visit for an example). Local mom-and-pop stores may have "white box" notebooks that you might be able to get without an OS, though watch out for how well they'll support them.

You can get both XP and Vista in 64-bit flavors. However, the 64-bit code has nothing to do with how accurately NaturallySpeaking works -- for a 64-bit operating system to be any benefit, your programs have to be 64-bit as well (and NS is a 32-bit app). A 64-bit native version wouldn't necessarily help, either. There are even known problems with NaturallySpeaking and 64-bit Vista, so you'd lose that program in the first place. I know that an upcoming program called MacSpeech will license the NaturallySpeaking engine, if just running that level of software at all inside a 64-bit OS is important.

Core 2 Duo is the brand name for the Intel processor. The "Duo" does indicate that it's a dual-core processor; you'll occasionally see "Core 2 Solo" on single-core ultraportable notebooks, and "Core 2 Quad" for quad-core desktops (and later this year, notebooks).

On wireless and future technology:

Many Windows notebooks are equipped by default with 802.11g, not 802.11n (which costs slightly more). That means that they can only support G and earlier speeds, and it's usually to lower the perceived price. Many PC builders will let you upgrade to an N chipset through an online order; I know Apple makes 802.11n standard on every notebook model (I apologize for bringing them up again - but it's true!). The expense to add it to the system during the custom order phase usually isn't much; it's usually $40 or less.

In eight months? You'll see the first quad-core notebook processors, though those will initially be reserved for large, desktop replacement notebooks because of power and heat concerns. I would mainly look for the introduction of Intel's "Montevina" platform around May or June: without delving too deeply, it's going to add better basic graphics (dedicated graphics will still be faster, if you want that) and add more support for future technology like DisplayPort (a successor to DVI) and WiMAX long-range wireless. Few notebook makers will advertise it as "Montevina," though! You'll probably only recognize it when you see them mentioning processors with a 1,066MHz system bus.

On build-to-spec:

Many mainstream computer companies offer custom orders if you visit their websites. HP, Apple, Sony, and Toshiba all let you do that on at least some systems, for example. HP is at least competent -- I do like their build-to-order system. I'd personally avoid Toshiba for most models because the designs tend to be thick and sometimes cheaply-built. Sony's custom process is good, too, though find out if any places nearby (including Sony stores) will handle official diagnosis; their phone support isn't that great. And yes, I like Apple's custom-order processes; their after-sale phone support is good and both official Apple stores as well as some Apple-certified resellers can do repairs in the store, though the help desk at an official store can be very busy.

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