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June 10, 2008, 2:13 am
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Y ou can take a laptop computer just about anywhere to work or play --
even to browse the Internet and send and receive E-mail -- whether
outside on your deck or clear across the country. This flexibility is
undeniably appealing. The number of laptops sold in the US is expected
to exceed the number of desktops for the first time ever in 2008,
according to research firm IDC.
But before jumping on the laptop bandwagon, consider that the
differences between laptops and desktops extend beyond portability.
Laptops no longer cost a great deal more than desktops -- the price
difference might be less than $100 for a comparable, mid-priced
machine when the cost of a desktop monitor is added in -- but you will
notice a bigger monetary difference if your computer ever breaks. A
tech-savvy family member or someone at the neighborhood computer store
can solve most of the problems that pop up with desktops.
Laptop problems can be more expensive to correct. Many of their
components are integrated, meaning you cannot replace the part that
has broken without also replacing other components. Laptop parts also
tend to be proprietary, so replacements must be purchased from the
manufacturer, which generally means paying a premium. Often only
authorized service centers can handle laptop repairs. Repair bills of
several hundred dollars or more are not uncommon.
On the other hand, a laptop can be the money-saving choice if buying
one portable computer means you do not have to purchase separate
desktop computers for multiple residences.
Monitor size and clarity
Today's desktop computers typically come with flat-panel, wide-screen
LCD monitors as large as 30 inches, measured diagonally. Laptop
screens are rarely larger than 17 inches, and many of the most popular
models have 15.4-inch screens. The smaller screens mean smaller text
and additional eyestrain, though you can increase text size on a small
screen if you are willing to scroll down more often.
Desktop monitors also are significantly sharper and brighter than
standard laptop screens... and they have better contrast and more
adjustment options for precise fine-tuning.
Helpful: There are several options if you need a portable computer but
find reading laptop screens difficult...
Add a desktop monitor to your laptop computer. At least you will have
an easy-to-read screen when you use the laptop at home. This can be
done simply by attaching the monitor's cable to the appropriate laptop
Be careful when considering a laptop that claims to have a "high-
contrast" screen (often called UltraBright, XBRITE or BrightView).
Their shiny coatings can make the screens highly reflective and hard
to read. More traditional matte-finish screens are easier on the eyes.
Increase your text size. Choose "Display" in your Windows control
panel, then "Appearance." Select "Large" or "Very Large" under "Font
Size." Also click the "Effects..." box, then choose "Use Large Icons."
With a Macintosh laptop, you will have to decrease resolution to
increase text size. (Or increase text size separately in each of the
programs you use.) In System Preferences, click the "Displays" icon,
then select a lower resolution.
Select a laptop with a high-resolution screen. A typical laptop screen
might be 1,024 pixels wide by 768 pixels high, versus 1,600 by 1,200
pixels for a high-resolution screen. More pixels means a sharper image
-- but note that it also means a smaller image, meaning there is even
more reason to increase text size.
Laptop keyboards tend to be smaller than desktop keyboards, and not as
ergonomically designed. They have no tilt, padding or split-keyboard
design to reduce wrist strain. They have less "key travel," meaning
there is less tactile feedback when a key is struck. Because laptop
keyboards are built into the computers themselves, they cannot be
placed on height-adjustable keyboard shelves. Together, these
limitations mean that a laptop might not be the best choice for
someone with poor circulation... hand or finger problems, such as
arthritis... or so-so typing skills.
A laptop also is a questionable choice for those who frequently type
long numerical sequences, because laptop keyboards rarely have
separate number pads.
Helpful: You can attach an external keyboard to a laptop computer, but
this will detract from its portability... Lenovo laptops have the
highest-quality laptop keyboards, though they are still not as good as
desktop keyboards (866-968-4465, www.lenovo.com).
The "mice" used to move the cursors of desktop computers are easier to
operate than the touchpads and "eraserhead" devices -- tiny, pencil-
eraser-sized controllers typically located in the middle of the
keyboard -- that take their place in laptops. Laptop touchpads and
eraserheads require precise movements, which can be frustrating and
time consuming for those with limited dexterity or limited experience
with the technology. Possible solution: Connect an external mouse
(wired or battery-operated wireless) to your laptop.
Hard drive size
Many desktop computers now come with more than 300 gigabytes (GB) of
hard drive storage space... the typical laptop, around 100 GB. Even
100 GB is sufficient for most users, but not for those who own digital
video cameras and use their computers for video editing. You could add
an external storage device to your laptop to get the storage space you
need, but this would not perform as well as an internal hard drive. It
takes computers a bit more time to access outside memory than internal
For obvious reasons, a laptop computer is significantly more likely to
be stolen than a desktop. If you really want or need a laptop, of
course, this shouldn't stop you from buying one. But keep in mind that
if your computer is stolen, replacing the machine might be the least
of your problems. The thief could gain access to sensitive information
stored on the computer, leading to identity theft. Cable locks that
fasten laptops to nearby furniture make theft more difficult, but
certainly not impossible.
A laptop usually is the best choice for those who need access to their
computer files while away from home, but it is not the only choice.
Example: Avvenu Access 'n Share (877-665-4266, www.avvenu.com) is a
free service that provides access to files stored on your home
computer from any other Internet-connected computer... personal
digital assistant... or even certain cell phones. Your home computer
must be turned on and have Internet access for Access 'n Share to
work. Or get remote access to your files even when your computer is
turned off by signing up for Access 'n Share Anytime Files for a fee
of $3.99 per month. With Anytime files, files you select are saved on
a "secure cache" on Avvenu's servers as well as on your home computer,
so they're always accessible.
Bottom Line/Retirement interviewed Alan Stafford, San Francisco-based
technology journalist and executive editor of PC World, monthly,