Laptops Losing Weight, Gaining Strength; a Guide to Selecting Laptop Computers

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LAPTOPS LOSING WEIGHT, GAINING STRENGTH

A guide to selecting laptop computers.

The urge that 10 years ago caused engineers to reduce a computer from a room-size object to one the size of a suitcase is still not satisfied. Today, engineers have removed weight and size from that desktop computer so that it fits comfortably on your lap or in your briefcase.

These smaller computers--known as "laptops"--are approaching and, in many cases, surpassing the power, storage and graphics capabilities of today's desktop personal computers (PCs). As they do, more and more people in the accounting profession are discovering they prefer such a slim, compact, portable PC to a computer that weighs more.

To qualify as a laptop, a computer must be a fully capable PC that weighs less than around 15 pounds. Several outperform any desktop computer you're likely to have, including the millions of XT-class and AT-class PCs still in use. Built around the 80386 chip, these "light heavyweights" offer megabytes (megs) of memory, massive hard drives and high-resolution displays.

But while many of today's laptops offer enough performance to meet virtually any accountant's requirements, there are differences between them that you should consider before buying one.

SOURCES OF POWER

A number of laptop offerings require a power cord. This can limit accountants who work on airplanes, in waiting rooms or in field locations without power.

The batteries that power other laptops have come a long way in the last two or three years. Battery packs in many systems now weigh less than a pound and can provide power for three to six hours without recharging. One battery manufacturer has announced a 20-hour battery pack that should appear in some laptop PCs later this year. Some laptops save power by shutting down the hard disk, the screen and other subsystems when they're not in use.

Make sure any laptop you acquire has enough battery power to work when and where you need it. If you nearly always will be near an electrical outlet, you shouldn't pay for or carry batteries for long-lived operation. If you work mainly away from plug-in power or need to move quickly from room to room (for example, for a physical audit of inventory), you will want a strong battery system. You may want to specify a removable battery--not all laptops have them--so you can slip in a spare if the power runs out.

PROCESSING POWER

The measure of any PC is the amount and scope of work it will do. Laptops with high-performance 80386 (MS DOS) or 68000 (Macintosh) processor chips and math co-processors, many megs of memory, 20-meg and larger hard disks and 640 x 480 dot screens compute with the best desktops.

Higher prices generally buy more computing power and less bulk. That means extra performance doesn't require extra weight. Installing a couple of megs of memory may add a few ounces, but a 40-meg hard drive is not necessarily any heavier than a 20-meg one. The superfast, superpowerful 80386 chip weighs only a few grams more than less powerful ones.

The cheapest, lightest computers (equivalent in processing speed and power to desktop PCs or XTs) contain a single drive, a simple processor and a text-only display. These are fine for simple spreadsheets and word processing applications. More expensive, somewhat heavier laptop PCs contain more advanced processor chips and two disk drives, possibly including a 20-meg or larger fixed disk. These suit situations that demand more sophisticated computations with larger data files. You will need one of the most expensive, highest performance and generally heaviest laptops only to perform extremely extensive computations, to display detailed graphics on-site or to store and manipulate extremely large data files.

One good aspect of many laptops is that you can upgrade them as needed, adding more memory, a math coprocessor, additional or larger drives and better display capabilities. …