I Want a Notebook Computer
by Shannon Jacobs
Back when I worked on the fourth floor at Sofmap's Chicago store, many customers would arrive with the fuzzy idea of getting a laptop computer, and would ask which one they should buy. This article is an attempt to summarize the advice I usually offered.
Trying to answer this question simply isn't so easy, however. Perhaps the main problem in shooting for a simple answer is that the advice changed - hopefully matured - quite a bit over time. The main input for me was probably talking with customers about their experiences with various computers, but my own playing with the machines, reading the brochures, and even just watching the changing models and changing prices had a lot of effect, too.
First you have to remember that there are several dimensions involved in any attempt to answer such questions. Probably the most important dimension measures what the customer wants to do with the computer, and that usually determines a particular style, usually offered by several makers. Often customers approach it from the dimension of price, either in terms of overall cheapest or overall best value. Many customers start with other constraints, such as particular makers they like or dislike, or special conditions like travel plans or desire for an English OS.
For laptops, there seem to be two main goals. Some customers are focusing on portability, while others are looking for a general purpose machine. In general, if they are looking for a general purpose machine, I'd recommend they consider a desktop machine instead, but... Well apartments in Japan are small, and portability is attractive, too. They pay more and get less computing power and less flexibility with a laptop, but still many customers prefer them.
If the customer is hoping to buy a single machine that is going to address most computing needs, they are usually looking at one of the A4-size machines with a built-in CD. Almost all the makers have machines in this class, so this one can actually be a rather complicated choice with subtle differences between ostensibly similar machines. But some of these subtle differences can produce big changes in the price or value. For example, a one-inch larger TFT display makes a really big change in the price against an otherwise similar non-TFT model.
The best value is kind of hard to predict, though often I'll recommend an NU-series Fujitsu here. Fujitsu usually offers the best bundled software, good solid hardware, and usually a pretty aggressive price, a combination that makes for a good value. NEC is usually close, a bit weaker on the software, but perhaps stronger on the engineering, and sometimes very aggressive with the price. IBM is usually a weak third (or lower) in this class, but that's probably because a lot of their software bundle seems inferior to my taste. However, I also feel like IBM's laptop machines have usually been too expensive and too problematic for the expense. (IBM's desktops are okay, however.) Some Sharp and Toshiba models are on the edge of this group, though usually their software bundle is kind of weak (though often still better than IBM's, I think).
If software is only a minor factor, the choices get much wider. Almost all of the makers have some interesting offerings in this class. I lean toward the 700-series Sonys... They seem to be very well designed (including a unique feature or two), aggressively priced, and if they had better software bundles... Well, Sony seems to be working on that part of it. One problem with the Sonys is that they're too new to have a track record (but that's a place where Sofmap's five year warranty can help). On track record, the clear winner is Toshiba, though their machines are, on the average, more expensive. Still, for people who travel a lot, it's hard to recommend another brand. Toshiba also has an excellent worldwide warranty, but the nice part is that you probably don't need it. I don't really want to say bad things here, but I'm afraid that my current opinion of Compaq is that you're just too likely to need the warranty service, and over time I've become less and less likely to recommend a Compaq. It's worth noting here that NEC sometimes has some very attractive models without software. Most Sharps have been sort of on the edge of this group.
There are a number of other makers that I haven't mentioned here. "When you can't say anything nice..." Well, I'm afraid that's true in a couple of cases, but for some makers it's just that there's not much to say. The smaller makers are usually competing on price, but it's hard for them to get much of a leg up on the big guys. There are advantages to size in this business, and my feeling is that a small difference in price that gives you a big decrease in reliability probably isn't worth it.
There are three main groups here, but I'm going to give short shrift to two of them, so easier to start there. First are the Windows CE machines. I don't like them and don't want to recommend them. Yeah, some of them are very small. Some of them even have decent keyboards, but.... That's NOT what CE was designed for, and it basically doesn't do a very good job of pretending to be Windows 95 (or 98). CE was basically given a lobotomy, but the CE PDAs are trying to disguise it. Maybe that's not a fair assessment, since I haven't used the new version of CE that much - it arrived just as I was transferred to the third floor. But the whole idea of CE was to make a small OS that could be used modularly for special purposes where Windows wouldn't fit. CE was intended to run toasters and VCRs (maybe the two extremes in terms of comprehensibility); it was never intended to be a replacement for Windows.
Next are the Libretto-class machines, mostly running Windows 95. Actually very nice, and very portable, and Toshiba had a good thing here except... The keyboard is basically unusable. Just too small. I wanted to make special gloves with long pointy fingertips so I could touch type on the Libretto. Still, Toshiba's Librettos and NEC's Libretto clones are real computers and may suit some people's needs for high portability and relatively high general-purpose functionality.
But if portability is your aim, my favorites are the new thin B5 machines, clearly led by the Sony 505s. Sony's machines have really shaken the market up, and only recently have competitors come out with their first ones. This style seems to me to be both portable and usable - and I'm not the only one to think so. They've been doing very well ever since they appeared. No, it isn't quite clear to me why this is such a good balance - there were machines with many similar features before - but it is clear people like them, and of all the machines I've seen since I've been working in Akihabara, these are the ones that filled me with lust as soon as I saw them. Not much else to say, except maybe to summarize the clones (to date). I don't trust the Sharp clone yet - too often in the past their new models have had glitches. The new Toshiba 3000-series clones look good, and I like Toshiba's engineering, but the machines seem to run pretty hot, and that worries me a bit... NEC has a nice-looking clone, but Idon't have an opinion about it yet, though, as already mentioned, I think their engineers are very competent. However, all of the clones seem to have been pegged at Sony's prices, and since Sony responded by cutting its prices... Well, if I can't control my lust any longer...
In the long run - which seems to mean less than ten years in this business - my feeling is that the capabilities of the laptops are going to get to the point where normal users can't push the machines anywhere near their limits. At that point, the "real" difference between laptops and desktops will mostly disappear, though I'm confident the desktops will still have the edge. I guess the basis for choosing will be different...
But that's basically pie-in-the-sky, and for now that's about the best I can do in summarizing laptop shopping. I'm not really that involved in it these days, except when I'm called up for foreign customers. I mostly work with software on Chicago's third floor now, still on Wednesdays and weekends. But coming up on my anniversary there, so maybe something will change. And I'm still glad to hear your reactions to these ramblings, either at work or via email - firstname.lastname@example.org for English. Ja, mata.
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