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Picking a computer for the road

I first considered a laptop over a desktop computer last year as power and battery life rose and prices fell for mobile computing.

This year that trend continued. For $1,000, or less if you're prepared to take a closeout machine, you can get a computer that's worthy of both your lap and your desk.

But make sure you know why you want a laptop in the first place. "Because it's cool" is usually not the best reason considering there are instances where a laptop just won't do.

Avid game players scoff at the seemingly slow refresh rates of the screen. Games push computer hardware to the limits, especially the video card. It's not an issue, though, if you're scrolling to the end of a word processing document instead of blasting mutants from Mars.

Another issue for laptops is expandability. You'll generally have one or two PC Card slots (formerly known as PCMCIA slots) with your mobile computer, and there's a surprising variety of these PC cards with which to expand the beast. For example, these credit card-size devices allow your computer to edit video or connect to a wireless network.

If you've decided a laptop is for you, you have to make a few simple decisions before pondering the hard stuff. Many of these are similar to what you should weigh before buying a desktop, and you can find definitions of these terms in the glossary on page XX:

+ How much random access memory (RAM) you buy is not so much a decision as a question of finances. The bottom line is buy as much RAM as you can afford. The good news is that RAM is relatively cheap now. If your laptop comes with the new Windows XP, you'll kick yourself if you're working with less than 256 megabytes. And Macs running OS X are a lousy experience with less than 192MB.

+ Hard drive: Less than 10 gigabytes (GB) could leave you feeling cramped for storage space quickly. If you do opt for a smaller drive, you can stretch your storage dollars by budgeting for a removable disk technology such as Iomega's Zip or Jaz drives.

Then come the subtle choices.

+ How fast you want your machine's central processing unit (CPU) to run depends on what you plan to do with your computer. Those who concentrate on word processing and browse the Internet probably can settle for the cheapest processor they can find. It might sound like an odd recommendation, but today's slowest CPU was a high-price screamer a little more than a year ago.

If you have a genuine need for speed and are not rolling in riches, pick a processor that's a notch or two slower than the top speed. For instance, the difference between a 1.2-gigahertz (GHz) and the slower 866-megahertz (MHz) mobile Pentium III was about $500 recently. That difference will buy you a lot of RAM and disk space and maybe even keep some money in your pocket.

Another consideration on the processor is power-saving features. Intel Corp. recently released a line of mobile-optimized Pentium III processors, following Transmeta Corp., whose power-efficient chips have found a niche in some small machines.

+ Picking a screen is a where the fun ends, but it's one of the most important concerns. The screen makes up about half the cost of a laptop.

The most common term you'll hear is active-matrix liquid-crystal displays, also called TFT (thin film transistor). You may find passive-matrix or high-performance addressing displays on some closeout machines. If it says XGA, it can display a resolution of up to 1,024 by 768 pixels; lesser SVGA screens top out at 800 by 600.

Most laptops allow you to change the resolution of the computer's screen at will. For instance, if your computer displays a resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels, you probably can change it to 800 by 600 or even 640 by 480 pixels. This displays less graphic detail on the screen but can make the type and image size in some programs more readable.

But the technology used in most laptop screens gives you less choice than you might imagine to adjust the resolution to your liking once you get your new computer home. Laptop screens are based on what's known as a liquid crystal display (LCD). Its crisp display means that one, and only one, resolution will display really well. The other resolutions will be approximated by using one or more pixels to take the place of a single pixel. Think of it as an impressionist's painting: It's fine for hanging on walls but pretty lousy for peering at spreadsheets.

Another way manufacturers make up for this disparity in resolution is just placing the image in the middle of the screen, pixel for pixel. The bad news is the resolution is actually the same. You've now got an ugly black border around your tiny view port and aren't really any better off than with the large format display.

Bottom line? Pick a resolution you like that is easy on your eyes.

+ You also have to think about size and weight, maybe the most important considerations for a mobile computer.

Laptop computers can range from 2.5 pounds to more than 8. If you'll rarely leave the house with your computer and perhaps want an easy way to move it from room to room, a 7- or 8-pounder isn't an issue. You'll probably enjoy the heck out of that huge 14- or 15-inch screen, which should make up for the larger size.

Road warriors often balk at anything over 4 pounds. They're happy to pay more money for portability and a smaller screen. The extra mobility and lack of visits to the chiropractor have to be worth it.

+ Avoid machines with built-in wireless capabilities such as Bluetooth or 802.11b (or WiFi as it's sometimes known). If you plan on having your machine for any period of time, these emerging technologies are soon to be supplanted by something cheaper, faster and possibly more secure.

A PC Card-based wireless adapter can be popped out and easily upgraded. Something that's hard-wired into your laptop is like bad luggage: You're stuck with it for life.

+ Few people really want to sit at home and stare at a feature film on their computer screen. But you might want a DVD-ROM so you can watch movies while traveling. DVD-ROMs also read CD-ROMs. A device to record CDs (known as CD-RW) or DVDs (DVD-RW) may not be the best investment on a laptop, unless it's doubling as your desktop at home.

+ Last, but certainly not least, you have to consider pointing devices and keyboard size. Some machines have trackpads, where you move your finger around a small area to make the cursor move. Others have a pointing stick, a pencil eraser-like button usually in the keyboard that controls the cursor. Go to a store and check each out to determine which you like.

Keyboards can range from about half the size of a desktop to maybe 80 or 90 percent. If you are nimble, the smaller ones shouldn't bother you. Again, it's a good idea to try one out before spending your hard-earned cash.