Choosing a Laptop
by Jim Lengel, Dean of Faculty, Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, Boston (http://www.bu.edu/jlengel and http://www.lengel.net)
Every day, more questions arise from our faculty on the topic of laptop computers. We have recently started a program whereby teachers can be reimbursed for half the cost of purchasing their own laptop, as a way of encouraging them to move forward in their use of technology for instruction. (See Desktop or laptop? in this series.) Many teachers, from the kindergarten to the university, are finding that the portable computer enables them to ply their craft in new and interesting ways. The choices of laptops are many, their prices are dropping, and their capabilities expanding. This week's article does not tell you which brand or model is best; rather it describes some of the things you should look for and some of the tradeoffs you'll need to consider as you choose a laptop.
Size and weight
Most of us are drawn to laptops because it's easy to carry them from home to office to classroom. And experienced laptop users will tell you that small is beautiful -- the smaller it is, the more likely you'll take it with you and use it. The factors that make a laptop large, such as wide screens and floppy drives and old-style ports -- are seldom if ever necessary for most teachers. The difference between four and eight pounds may not sound like much, but you'll feel it the first time you have to carry it across town, or use it on an airplane, or fit it onto a crowded desk. In these situations, the smallest, lightest laptop is best.
The screens of laptops are measured in inches as well as pixels. The smallest on the market today are called 12-inch, and contain a 1024 by 768 pixel array. For most teachers, this is perfectly adequate. It may seem small when compared with the standard 15-inch desktop monitor, but remember that the laptop screen will be deployed much closer to your eyes, and thus need not be as big. And the 12-inch display allows smaller overall size, less weight, and longer battery life. And costs less. Larger displays, up to 17 inches, display more pixels, but for most of what teachers do these pixels serve no purpose.
Choose a laptop with built-in wireless network capability. All of the educational planners and network architects tell me that this is what schools are installing. Even if your school has yet to provide wireless ethernet, it will soon, and it's easier and less expensive and less cumbersome to have this built-in from the beginning. And until your school comes on board, you can use the wireless at your local Starbucks -- see Wireless Networks in this series. You'll find two wireless connection speeds available, called 802.11b and 802.11g. The latter is faster, but most of us will not notice the difference.
Speakers and Microphone
These, too, are better bought built-in. You may not think you need them, until someone sends you an interactive CD with sound, or until you want to participate in an online multimedia chat, or use voice-over-internet telephony. Even the smallest laptops can be had with built-in microphones andspeakers -- they are tiny, but they work.
Choose nothing less than 256 megabytes of RAM, and if you are a power user buy 512. It's better to get it shipped to you with all the RAM you need, rather than to try to install it yourself later.
Ports have changed recently. The new connectors are USB (Universal Serial Bus), used for mice and digital cameras and printers; and FireWire used for digital video and high-speed drives. Don't buy a laptop unless it has both built-in. Do not be tempted to look for a laptop with the old-fashioned ports, such as parallel and RS-232, unless you have a particular need for these. These make it cost more, weigh more, and add bulk. Not sure what to do with your old parallel printer? A new USB printer can be had for less than the cost of adding a parallel port to a new laptop.
Make sure the laptop also includes a built-in Ethernet connector, and a video-output connector for a projector.
CD and DVD drives
You need at least a CD reader drive built-in, to install software, play music, and read the multimedia projects your students submit. Most laptops come with this capability at the base level. If you want to create your own CD's, move up to a drive that reads and writes CD's, a good thing for a teacher to be able to do. For a few dollars more, you can get a drive that also plays DVD's (for showing Hamlet in the English class); and at the top end you can add the ability to create your own DVD's (for the mediaphiles). Again, it's much easier to get what you need built-in from the start, rather than to add external drives later.
The trackpad seems to be the technology of choice to replace the mouse. Avoid laptops that try to replace the mouse with a little pencil-eraser-like button in the middle of the keyboard. If you are an artist or a power user, or find the trackpad tricky, get a small and inexpensive USB mouse, and you'll be happy.
There's quite a difference in how long laptops last without recharging. Longer is better. Choose a laptop that goes to sleep automatically when closed or idle for more than a few minutes. And wakes up automatically when you open it. Choose one whose screen is easy to dim -- it's the light behind the display that uses most of the battery power. Buy an extra battery if you plan to use the laptop in cars, planes, boats, or places without easily-available electric power.
Forget the floppy drive. They are never necessary, and seldom used anymore. They add bulk, weight, and cost to your laptop. If you ever need to copy something to or from a floppy disk, you can purchase or borrow an external USB floppy drive. Instead get a high-capacity built-in hard drive -- at least 30 gigabytes. And if you need to save, copy, or exchange, use the CD drive.
Laptops today come in three possible systems: Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X. The last two are versions of Unix, an industrial-strength operating system that is relatively immune from viruses and hacking, and high on security. All of the common applications that teachers use, such as Web browsers, the Office suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint), email, multimedia applications, and so forth, are available on all three systems. Documents created in one system can be read by the others. So the choice is more open than it used to be. And I would not dare to make a recommendation here for fear of entering into religious warfare. You'll be OK no matter which you choose.
Most laptops come with at least some software applications already installed. If possible, choose a laptop with word-processor, spreadsheet, presentation, email, web browser, database, image-editing, video-editing, and music-playing software included.
As I write this, prices are dropping. We just purchased a brand-name laptop for the President of our institute, with all the features recommended here plus a CD-burner, wireless, 14-inch display, DVD, and a 60-gigbyte hard drive for less than $1200. A good laptop with the minimum features listed here is selling for less than $900. For most teachers, this level provides all they need.
Use this minimum-requirements checklist in your shopping.
Laptop brand and model:
small size, light weight
at least 1024 by 768 pixels display
wireless networking built-in
speakers and microphone built-in
at least 256 megabytes of RAM
video out connector
CD read and write
more than 2-hour battery life
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