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Laptop labor of love

It’s a question that wise tech people hear often from friends and family: what kind of computer should I buy? Here’s one man’s odyssey through computer stores with the aim of helping a pal.

Because I’m perceived by friends as knowing everything there is to know about technology, I’m often called on to help them deal with the complexities of their computers. In the old days (late ’90s), this was the bane of my existence. Windows was far less stable than it is now, so my consultations typically followed the accelerating chain of pain: reboot, reinstall, reformat. Eventually I convinced my friends that I was no better than the nearest troubleshooting guide when it came to helping them with their problems.

While old friends stopped calling me after I burst their bubbles, I have made new friends, believe it or not. Some of these new friends are also finding out that I’m not a Windows wiz. When a friend asked me to change the passwords on a computer he was selling, I accidentally deleted the administrator in Windows 2000 Pro, ensuring that no one could use the machine. Oops. Reformat, reinstall, reboot. But I have managed to keep from shattering the myth of my expertise completely, which is why a buddy called me recently to help him buy a new laptop. Since I’m in the market for a laptop PC myself, I jumped at the chance to do some Web research and visit the nearest superstore with him.

My Web research told me that there has been an explosion of laptop sales in the past year, and manufacturers are responding to the increased demand with lots of new models. These days a desktop good enough for office applications costs as little as $600. For a few hundred extra dollars, most non-gamers prefer the mobility of a laptop. It’s actually cheaper to have one laptop machine with duplicate ergonomic monitors and keyboards than it is to have two desktop machines. And there’s no duplication of data with this set-up. Add such frills as built-in wireless networking and the ability to watch DVDs wherever you want, and the decision is even easier. No wonder laptops are outselling desktops in stores, according to a recent study by the New York City-based NPD Group.

My friend wanted a laptop so that he could take his e-mail home with him and answer it while watching the Cubs game. Outlook allows you to compose and save a lot of e-mail messages offline. When you hook back into the office Exchange server in the morning, it sends them all. He also wanted a machine that could hook into a wireless network in a coffee shop. He likes to write away from the distractions of the office, and he uses the Web to support his positions. Finally, he attends a lot of conferences as part of his job, and he needs something that would allow him to keep up with his office work from hotel rooms. For around $1,200, a middle-of-the road laptop with an Intel Centrino processor and Windows XP Pro should meet his needs for at least three years.

We looked at the usual suspects: Dell, Gateway, HP/Compaq, IBM, and Toshiba.

Every one of these manufacturers offers solid models in his price range. But none of them quite meets his needs. HP and Compaq (the two brands are like Ford and Mercury–same cars, different brand names) tend to focus more on the entertainment side, offering wide screens for letterbox DVDs and Harmon Kardon speakers. I didn’t want him to pay for stuff he wouldn’t use, and it also seemed that you pay a bit more for those brands in general. Toshiba focuses on younger users, with gaming graphics cards and high-end audio–again, stuff he doesn’t need. Gateway has a lot of deals, but when you stack them up against others, they don’t offer as much value. Plus there’s the service issue, which I’ll get into in a moment. Dell and IBM tend to focus on what matters most to him. They both offer a lot of value, but they tend to focus on corporate customers, which makes them less than ideal for do-it-yourselfers or small-office users who rely on consultants to keep their systems running.

The best value for his money was an Acer TravelMate. Unlike the above name brands, the TravelMate offered a machine geared towards mobile small-office users. It’s priced a few hundred dollars less than comparable name-brand machines. And because it doesn’t have all that extra gear, it boasts longer battery life.

Buying a new computer is not simply a matter of comparing spec sheets and prices. You also have to consider how the machine will be serviced. In my friend’s case, that means buying from the local store with the best service plan. He needs to be able to drop the computer off and pick it up the same day. It wouldn’t hurt to be able to get the machine fixed on the road, either. That means a well-represented chain, and Best Buy is the best in the business.

In the past five years, Best Buy has spent millions updating its service department, and it now has more service technicians than anyone in the business. Because of my disdain for extended warranties (they tend to cover stuff that only wears out in manufacturer’s warranty periods), I was reluctant to let my buddy sign on the dotted line for a $250 three-year extended service plan. But when the sales rep said the plan covers free battery replacement–a $250 item that does lose its ability to hold charge over an 18-month period–it made sense. At the very least, he could get two batteries for the price of one over the life of the plan.

My needs are somewhat different from my friend’s. I will do all kinds of creative work on my PC, so I might want more horsepower than the 1.3 GHz TravelMate. It will also be primarily a home machine, so I want to spring for more home entertainment features from either HP or Toshiba. I’m not just buying for today, but for the day when I integrate my PC in my home office with my home entertainment system in the adjacent family room. So I need a screaming machine that does Windows Media Center and other entertainment features. Though I can configure the HP Pavilion to the specs I need, a Toshiba Satellite P 25 has everything I need for less money than I’d pay for the HP.

Even though I think I found my friend the best laptop for his money, I still managed to burst his bubble. The unit features Windows XP Home Edition, which does not work with the version of Outlook/Exchange in his office. So he had to test his service plan before even using the machine. He dropped it off and within an hour the technician loaded XP Pro onto it.

Now he’ll probably be calling someone else when he needs computing help. Oh, darn….

Editor’s note: After this issue, James Mathewson’s Outfitter column will be appearing bimonthly. Look for the next installment in our February issue.

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