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High-Tech Specs, Part 2 - Laptop Computers

Computer stores and shopping sites bombard us with details about a device's speed, resolution, format, and other important-sounding information. Much of that data is less important than it may seem. The following are some specifications that are worth paying attention to if you’re in the market for a new laptop computer:

Battery Life - Notebook battery life continues to improve -- especially in the ultra-portable category -- but the times that vendors quote tend to be inflated by being measured under optimum conditions, with power-draining wireless receivers turned off, and often using an extended-life battery (which usually costs extra). In PC World Test Center reports, laptops equipped with a T7200 Core 2 Duo processor had a battery life ranging from a little under two hours to as long as five hours. The results depend on which of a multitude of components are draining power. Check the fine print to learn whether any notebook battery tests were conducted using a standard battery or extended-life battery.

CPU - Vendors slap an Intel (or AMD) logo on a laptop, cite a speed, and leave it at that. Rarely do they acknowledge that laptops with low-end processors can barely get out of first gear running Vista. Beware of processors that run at less than 2 GHz. Intel Centrino 2-powered laptops have tested very well. But don't expect Centrino performance out of Intel's Atom processor, a hamster-wheel CPU designed to run sub-$500 mini-notebooks.

GPU - Most laptops rely on basic integrated (on the motherboard) graphics chips. That's not an ideal component for playing 3D games or running high-end graphics programs. To handle those capabilities, look for a laptop with a discrete or “stand alone” nVidia or ATI graphics chip. Unfortunately, this type of extra graphics power comes with a catch: Laptops with discrete chips tend to be larger and heavier, thus adding heft to the laptop’s luggability factor.

RAM - Even though a laptop's RAM (memory) is relatively easy to upgrade, you should still buy as much memory as you can at the outset. Most laptops have two RAM slots, and it's not uncommon for a machine configured with 2GB of memory to have a 1GB module in each available slot. But if you start with this configuration, upgrading to 4GB of RAM later on means paying for two completely new RAM modules. By opting for a generous quantity of RAM from the get-go, you won't need to spend money down the line for upgrading memory.

Weight - Less-than-candid advertising often omits little things from a laptop's declared weight, such as the battery and power supply, which you'll likely carry with you, as most users do. Before you buy, ask what the total weight of the product is with these accessories included. Better yet, go into a store and do a few power-lifting reps with the machine in its road configuration and evaluate the weight yourself.

Screen - Though it certainly is important, screen size tells you nothing about how well you will be able to read text. Ask about the laptop's native resolution. Better still, view it for yourself. And while you're at it, test the screen coating, too. The very thing that makes images pop on the show floor can make it unusable in daylight. Some laptop screens bounce reflections like a mirror, which can make them very difficult to use outdoors. LED-backlit screens provide greater brightness, though they do increase the price.

Click HERE to read High-Tech Specs, Part 3 - Digital Cameras

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