Notable Notebooks

3/15/2008 5:00:00 AM

from Technology & Learning

A rundown on the how, the why, and the latest in laptop computers.

A December 2007 study by market research firm IDC reported "the emergence of notebooks as the dominant PC form factor over desktops," predicting they would outsell desktops this year. With built-in wireless networking, mobile charging carts, and one-to-one programs, more schools are relying on laptops for access to computer networks and the Internet. Here are features to consider when deciding which laptops work best for your school.

Laptop or Tablet?

Some schools are choosing to purchase tablet computers as an alternative to standard laptops. These models allow you to rotate the screen, lower it on top of the keyboard, and use a special stylus to "write" directly on the screen. Handwriting recognition software interprets your writing as text. The stylus also allows users to create drawings and diagrams.

Battery life

Battery life is an important factor for school-based laptops, as we don't want students' machines to suddenly go dead during an Internet-based research assignment. Also, managing a set of classroom laptops—keeping them charged, distributing them, collecting them—are tasks to be minimized.

Weight and size

Each day, laptops are removed from their classroom storage or cart, distributed to students, and then returned for charging. This process can be a burden with larger, heavier laptops; if students have that responsibility, they may need lighter machines.

Networking

All standard laptops include both wired Ethernet and built-in wireless networking. Some are now also including broadband networking (requiring a subscription Internet service).

Walking laptops

If your school loans laptops to students or teachers, you may be interested in security features that help recover lost or stolen machines. CompuTrace and CyberAngel are two such services, both of which use the Internet to send information about a laptop's whereabouts to a central reporting location.

Mobile wireless cart packages

Although you can purchase mobile wireless carts from vendors such as Datamation and Bretford, laptop manufacturers (such as HP, Lenovo, Apple, Dell, and Toshiba) may offer affordable all-in-one bundles. Carts may include features such as printers, wireless routers, and displays in addition to secure storage and charging capability for your laptops.

Price

Laptop prices range from $500 to $3,000. Factors determining pricing include choice of microprocessor, memory and storage size, and options. Additionally, many states have contracts with manufacturers, creating possible state-to-state pricing variations. You can frequently determine your state's pricing directly on a manufacturer's Web site or through your department of education or purchasing.

What does more money buy you?

Typically more dollars may buy you:

  • a faster processor
  • more memory
  • a larger hard drive
  • a lighter and thinner laptop
  • a longer battery life
  • additional features such as a card reader, broadband wireless networking, BluRay disc support, Bluetooth support, built-in Webcam or microphone, or a DVD burner. Note: These are optional and are not available on all brands or all models.
What can you get for $1,000?

The answer: It varies. I compared laptops from a variety of manufacturers, looking for a target price of about $1,000. I took basic configurations and added options with some brands, while others came in just at (or slightly above) the target amount. Looking over configurations and options shows that for $1,000 you could get anything from an 80 GB to a 160 GB hard drive; Windows Vista Business or Home for the Windows machines; Macintosh Leopard for the MacBook; Intel Core Duo processors from 1.6 to 2 GB; memory of 1 or 2 GB; a read-write DVD; and sometimes one or more of Microsoft Office or Works, a card reader, a built-in camera, or an antivirus subscription. The choice is yours. (Prices given do not account for periodic sales or specials, bulk purchase pricing, or purchase under statewide or regional contracts.) All Windows machines listed have 15.4-inch monitors; MacBook's monitor is a 13-inch.

Jeffrey Branzburg is a contributing editor and columnist for T&L.

Apple

mac book

The MacBook comes in a dollar below our target price, $999. It is the only laptop of the group with a smaller screen (13 inches), a different operating system (Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard), and its 80 GB hard drive is smaller than the rest (though Mac programs take up significantly less space than the same programs on a PC). It does have the same processor, the Intel Core 2 Duo, running a little faster at 2.0 GHz, and includes 1.0 GB memory, a built-in camera, and a combo DVD with a CD-RW drive. www.apple.com

Dell

dell

From Dell, I chose an Inspiron 1525 for $899. It comes with a processor similar to HP's (Intel Core 2 Duo 1.66 GHz), with 2 GB memory, a similar DVD, an integrated Webcam, Microsoft Works, and a 15-month antivirus subscription. www.dell.com

Gateway (Gateway/ MPC)

gateway

The Gateway M-151S has a base price of $800; at that level you are buying Windows Vista Home Premium, the Intel Pentium Dual Core processor 1.60 GHz, 2 GB memory, a 120 GB drive, and a DVD-RW. In addition, it has a 5-in-1 media card reader for memory cards such as Memory Stick, MemoryStick Pro, MultiMediaCard, Secure Digital and xD-Picture Card, and an integrated 1.3 megapixel Webcam. Add Microsoft Office Home and Student for $150 to bring the cost to $950. www.gateway.com

Sony

sony

The Sony VAIO FZ VGN-FZ290 CTO ($789) has a built-in camera and microphone, in addition to technical specs similar to the others—Windows Vista Home, Intel Core Duo 2 processor 1.5 GHz, 1 GB memory, 120 GB hard drive, DVD-RW. In addition, this model is optimized for multimedia, with embedded A/V controls. www.sonystyle.com

Lenovo

lenovo

The ThinkPad line of laptops (formerly from IBM), is now offered by Lenovo (with IBM continuing warranty service and support). The ThinkPad R61 ($982) comes with Windows Vista Business, Intel Core Duo 2 processor 2.0 GHz, 1 GB memory and an 80 GB hard drive. www.lenovo.com/us/en

Toshiba

toshiba

The Satellite A200-ST2043 for $783 arrives with Windows Vista Home Basic, Intel Pentium Dual- Core processor 1.73 GHz, 1 GB memory, and an 80 GB hard drive, which can be upgraded to 120 GB for $40. A Webcam and microphone are built in, as is a 5-in-1 card reader. Toshiba offers Microsoft Office 2007 Basic Edition for $149 or Small Business Edition for $229, but I would purchase Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007 ($149) separately. Toshiba offers an upgrade to Home Premium for $20, bringing the total to $993. www.toshiba.com

HP/Compaq

HP Compaq

The $948 HP configuration consists of the HP Compaq 6720s model RM323UT# ABA ($799) plus either Microsoft Office Basic 2007 (media-less) for $149, offered by HP, or Office Home and Student, which can be purchased separately for $149, bringing the total to $948. It has Windows Vista Business, Intel Core 2 Duo processor 1.6 GHz, 1 GB memory, 120 GB hard drive, and a DVD-RW optical drive. http://government.hp.com/index.asp

Note: Quoted prices are either "street" price or from the manufacturer's Web site. Special education pricing may be significantly lower.

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