Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Renee F. writes:

>>I am looking for a PC laptop and I thought you might be able to lend some expertise. I've always been more of a Mac girl, increasingly so over the past few years, and feel out of touch with what I should be looking for in a PC—especially in terms of processor speed. I need something that will (1) be functional for years to come and (2) run the basic software, with several (or even many) applications open at once. Any advice?<<

The Reluctant Geek responds:

I'm still hoping that someday they will make a computer (whether PC, Mac or whatever) that actually works (sigh). That said, I think it behooves you to buy the most advanced machine you can within your budget.

Both Dell and Gateway are no longer my friends because of poor technical support. Now that I have bought a Toshiba (Portege 3500) they are becoming not-my-friend also, as my initial tech-support experience has been poor. However, I am a terrible customer and extremely demanding. You will probably be less demanding and easier for a manufacturer to get along with, as you are not nearly as neurotic as I am.

I have heard that Sony is a good company to deal with and that their customer service is good and that the Vaio is a great machine. They also have the added advantage of having never had me as a customer. I didn't get a Sony this time, as they did not offer a tablet computer, which I wanted.

That said, here are the features I would try to get, as long as you can afford them, in order to have a laptop that will still be working 3-4 years from now:

1. Pentium 4 processor, if possible. I got a Pentium 3 this time, as they don't yet make tablet computers with P4. In any case, you want the fastest processor you can afford. My P3 is 1.33 GHz.

2. Get the maximum RAM memory your computer can take. My new machine has about 1 GB.

3. Get the largest hard drive you can afford. I wanted the 60 GB drive on my Toshiba, but settled for 40 GB to save some money. You need a large hard drive to handle the bloated software programs you're going to need.

4. Operating system: Windows XP Professional is much better and more stable than the old quirky Windows 98. I don't actually like XP, but it doesn't crash nearly as often, and it becomes schizophrenic much more slowly than Win98.

5. Warranty -- I like to get a 3-year warranty. On my Dell laptop, I had to get the keyboard replaced three times in three years. Dell had to pay for it -- heh-heh. Obviously a keyboard (or any other hardware component) should last three years, but you just can't count on that.

6. Tech support -- You should find out what's included. I'm pretty much convinced that no PC manufacturer is going to provide decent support for its product. The main problem is Windows. It's hard to use, and things are going to go wrong and you're going to need somebody to call. If you find that the manufacturer isn't helping you, you will have to call Microsoft and use their pay-per-incident support. Last time I did this it cost $35 per incident. I have used that service about a dozen times, and have found that their people are great and they will keep working on the problem until it is fixed. If you have the same problem and have to call back, you will have an incident code number so they will keep helping you without new charges.

7. You will also need to think out such issues as external media drives -- CD or DVD? Do you want to have an external floppy drive?

8. I think you should figure on getting wireless network capability built in, in addition to a regular network cable connection. Intel has come out with a new Centrino technology that is supposedly designed more for wireless access -- I recommend checking that out. Warning: Wireless access can be tricky -- this still does not work correctly on my Toshiba, and I'm having a hard time getting Toshiba to help me with it -- like most manufacturers, they want to pass the buck (their computer doesn't work right, but it must be somebody else's fault). I'm gearing up for a Microsoft pay-per-incident call.

9. As far as bundled software, it's probably worth it to get the MS Office XP Professional suite. Bundled software purchased with the computer is probably the best deal you're ever going to get on Office, so you might as well do it in the beginning. (First check with ISAT to see whether you can get an academic discount.)

10. It's also probably a good deal to try to get the sales rep to come down on the price -- many of them have the flexibility to do that. You can whine and cry the blues about how expensive this is getting and how you've never paid this much for a computer. They might have mercy on you -- and they would rather make the sale than have you go elsewhere.

Hope that helps and doesn't scare you too much!

Al B.

Al Bredenberg
Reluctant geek