Notebook for Christmas

A friend recently asked me about buying a notebook computer for Christmas. This is a good question, so I will answer it here. This is strictly opinion: constitutionally protected free speech. Use at your own risk. I haven’t mentioned Apple notebooks in here but they are my favorite for the “over $1,000.00” category. Please comment to share your shopping experiences.

I look on NewEgg.com, ZipZoomFly.com, or TigerDirect.com among others for pricing and features. Frankly I buy a lot of stuff from NewEgg: for one thing I really like the fact that I can see how many people bought that item (if no one bought it, there must be a reason) and I can read reviews by people who have purchased that item which tells me how they liked or hated it. You can shop in the local stores, note what models you like, then buy on-line for significantly lower prices. That’s not ‘dirty’: store management can look on-line and give you a competitive price anytime they want to. You can also offer a price lower than what they are asking: they’ll probably say ‘no’ but a few will say ‘yes’ or meet you in the middle. Never be afraid to offer to negotiate. If you want to shop on-line but you are not sure of what you are buying, grab a friend who does know. On-line prices tend to be about $100 lower than in the stores, or watch the FortWayne Newspapers for notebook computer sales. In all cases, BUYER BEWARE. Usually you can return a computer to a local store, but you cannot necessarily return a purchase from an on-line store.

Support can be a real hassle. There seems to be about a 50% chance that any given notebook computer will break, so figure an extra $100 for ‘service protection’ into your planning. This is terrible reliability, but they are not made in America by American Union Labor. If you buy from a local store here in Fort Wayne, such as Stone Computers, you will pay a little more but you will definitely get knowledgeable help selecting a computer and service will be taken care of. You can also buy “service protection” from retail stores, such as Staples, Office Depot, and Best Buy. If you don’t pay the extra $100 (or so) for the “service protection” you will have a much harder time getting it fixed.

Here is a personal trick I use to avoid getting stuck with defective equipment but use this information at your own risk: I turn on and leave on any new electronics purchase for 4 days and watch it run. Most small electronics comes with a manufacturer’s warranty for about 30 days. They calculate this statistically based upon how soon they expect the device to fail. Most electronics will be used only a fraction of each day, and 30 days figures out to about 39 hours of use. I screen all my small electronics immediately upon purchase because I know from my experience in Aerospace that 86% of the semiconductor devices that are going to fail will do so in the first 40 hours of use. Over 96% of failures will occur in the first 80 hours. If you simply use the computer continuously for at least 40 hours (1.66 days) it will probably break right then if it is ever going to break. If you let it run 80 hours (4 days) and it keeps on running there is a 95% chance it will never break on you. This allows you to return bad computers to the store for replacement before the factory warranty is up. It works with TV’s, radios, and any other small electronics. Be sure the device is being used normally so far as air circulation and such.

What to buy what to buy! The key to selecting a mobile computer is the resources in the computer, not just the price. If you need to travel with your computer and just want Internet and email, a NetBook may be most cost effective for you. If you want to do a little on-line gaming too, a NoteBook would be better. If the computer is going to stay in one place, a Desktop has more performance for the same money.

NetBooks are the newest thing: they start around $250, their battery will last maybe 9 hours, but they are designed for email, Internet, some word processing, and other office work. They are not designed for on-line gaming, so they are slower. Their screens tend to be 10″-12″ which is kind of small for watching video but makes them easier to carry around. If the NetBook comes with an 8 Gigabyte SD hard disk instead of a 160G mechanical hard disk it will start almost instantly when you touch the power switch.

NoteBooks have been around for a while as a compromise between a desktop computer and mobility: they start around $350 on sale, their battery will usually last 2 hours (in spite of seller claims), and are fast enough to do some on-line games. NoteBooks were created to be a compromise between portability and a desktop PC. Their screens also tend to be 14″ or 17″ which is nicer for watching movies but makes them bulkier to carry around.

Resources to look for:
NetBook: 1G RAM and 160G hard disk or 8G SD RAM HD.
NoteBook: 2G RAM and at least 160G HD, hopefully 250G HD. Should also look out for slow CPUs in notebooks, otherwise a NetBook would perform the same for much less money. Look for at least a 1.8GHz CPU clock and dual core, either AMD or Intel is OK.

Operating Systems:
The operating system is the part that makes the PC work when you turn it on. It is usually either Microsoft Windows 7 or Ubuntu Linux. Both are nice. Ubuntu is free and naturally hardened against the viruses which infect Microsoft computers. They work equivalently but you cannot play Linux games on Microsoft, and playing Microsoft games on Linux requires a few special steps. If you really like Microsoft Office better than Sun Open Office, then you will want a Microsoft PC.

Virtual Computing
If you like new things, you might want to try a Linux OS and download the free VMWare ‘virtual computing’ software. Basically, you download the free ‘VMWare Reader’ from VMWare.com and one or more ‘Virtual machine’ apps (free or for money). The ‘virtual machine’ behaves like a computer, so you can ‘play’ a Microsoft Windows virtual machine when you want to use MS Office. If you pay money to buy the VMWare Workstation instead of the Reader then you can make your own virtual machines. Be sure to honor all license agreements if you are making virtual machines that include commercial software, such as Microsoft Windows or Office.

Prices:
NetBooks range from about $250 to $500: if they come with Microsoft instead of Linux it is about $100 more.
NoteBooks range from about $350 (deep sale) to $1,800 and mostly they will all have Microsoft Windows 7.

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