Category: Buyer’s Guide

Laptop Buyer’s Guide–2016-2018

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop at Rydges Melbourne hotelYour old computer is going slow and you are thinking of your next computer. But what do you get? Perhaps, you may be thinking of getting someone a laptop computer as something that could go a long way towards their computing life especially if they move around a lot.

But you want to be sure you buy the right portable computer that suits your needs properly and are gaining the best value for money out of the new equipment. It is becoming more so with the way laptop computers are offering similar levels of functionality to traditional desktops, where you are able to buy high-performance machines that can excel at graphically-intensive tasks like gaming or high-end professional graphics. This is while most of the mid-tier computers offered nowadays are able to do what was expected of last generation’s high-performance computers.

Today’s laptop computers are moving towards areas that were considered by some to be previous off-limits to this class of computer. For example, there is an increase in the number of high-performance laptop computers that can appeal to people playing high-end games or dabbling with advanced computer-graphics work. As well, the Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connection is opening up paths to high-performance computing thanks to the ability to plug in external graphics modules.

What should I pay attention to

There are certain specification that you need to pay attention to when you choose that laptop or 2-in-1 computer so you can be sure it is up to the job you purchased it for.

Pay attention to the class of CPU your computer is equipped with and its expectations. Here, you will find that entry-level processors the Intel Pentium and Celeron processors will get by for most basic computing tasks, perhaps with some casual gaming or video / audio playback thrown in. Expect that Intel Core m or i processor families and their AMD equivalents will do most computer tasks without stressing with the Intel Core i5 being able to suit most tasks effectively. If you are after performance for advanced gaming, workstation-grade graphics or heavy number-crunching, you may need to look towards the Intel Core i7 processors.

The amount of RAM memory in your computer will affect how many programs you can have running concurrently alongside including the ability to have one or more of these programs work with large files. In the case of your Web-browsing efforts, it will affect how many Web pages you can have open at once whether as separate tabs or browser sessions. This is without the computer slowing down or using up battery power because it has to swap memory data out to the hard disk because you, for example, are running Google Chrome with many Websites open along with Microsoft Word which you are using to make that “magnum opus” document that is based on your Web-based research.

Another factor to pay attention to is the amount of storage you will have on your computer because you don’t want to always be moving your files in to or out of the computer via something like a USB hard disk or rent a large amount of space on an online storage service. As well you don’t need to be regularly thinking of what programs or data to be getting rid of all the time.

Choosing to have your laptop computer equipped with either integrated or discrete graphics can affect how well it performs if you end up doing a lot of graphics-intensive work like advanced games, photo/video editing or workstation-grade graphics. It can also affect how well it performs with some other tasks like video transcoding or playback.

A trend that is surfacing with this generation of portable computers is that an increasing number of these computers may have the ability to be connected to an external graphics module to “bump up” the graphics performance when you need it. In most cases, these modules will be sold as an option you can purchase at a later date.

Most often, the screen size has an influence on how portable your laptop will be and whether it can suit certain tasks while on the road. This obviously influences how large the computer is, thus influencing factors like the ability to have larger storage or the kind of keyboard you can work with. Let’s not forget that it can also affect how much workspace you can have at once especially if you are a multitasker.

From my experience while reviewing laptop computers for this Website, I had found that a computer having a screen size of between 12”-14” was able to offer the best balance between comfortable use for content creation while being portable enough to be carried in a shoulder bag or small briefcase. It also is the smallest screen size for a computer that  provides a keyboard that is big enough for comfortable typing, especially of you are a touch-typist.

It is also worth paying attention to the screen resolution for your laptop’s integrated screen because this can be a trade-off between how sharp and detailed your display looks and how much battery power your laptop needs to run during the day. In a lot of cases, you may find that those laptops with too high a screen resolution for their screen size can become unbearable to use unless you spend a lot of time adjusting your operating system’s user-interface settings because the text and shell icons may be too small for comfortable use. It is although the newer operating systems do factor in the “dot-per-inch” settings for the higher-resolution displays and maintain that same level of visibility.

In most cases, you can get by with a screen that natively uses 1366×768 as its maximum resolution when you are on a limited budget or use a screen less than 13”. On the other hand, you can use a Full HD (1920×1080) screen resolution in most other situations because this resolution puts up a sharp display without draining your laptop’s battery too heavily.

Key trends to look at

There are a few key trends that are coming strong in the recent crop of laptop computers in addition to faster processors, increased RAM and storage capacity including use of solid-state storage, and integrated graphics subsystems that rival baseline discrete graphics cards.

USB Type-C connectivity

USB-C to be the key connection trend for the current laptop generation

An increasing number of laptop computers released during the 2016-2018 model years will be equipped with a USB Type-C socket. It is being considered as the single pipe that serves power connection along with high-speed data transfer. Some of these USB Type-C connections are also working as another high-speed data conduit like a DisplayPort or Thunderbolt 3 connection which I will be talking about next.

At the moment, this connection is appearing mainly on premium models but is trickling down to mainstream and low-cost computers. It is appearing as a sole connection type on some of the ultraportable computers including some low-end varieties because this connection type is very conducive towards a slimline design. But it will appear on a range of traditionally-designed laptops including most ultraportables and mainstream designs as an extra input-output port alongside the USB Type-A ports.

The USB Type-C connector is also being used as an external DisplayPort-compliant display connector and if you want to connect an existing monitor or projector to these computers, you will have to use a USB Type-C adaptor that is compliant to DisplayPort specifications and support “DP alt” mode.

You can connect existing USB-equipped peripherals to computers that have only these connections by using a USB-C adaptor cable or docking station (expansion module) that suits your needs. Some of the adaptors that have their own power supply even provide USB Power Delivery support so you can charge your laptop or avoid compromising its internal battery’s runtime while using external accessories – this is a feature you must look for if you want to get the most out of your laptop and adaptor device. Here, you can buy these accessories at most office-supply, consumer-electronics or computer stores.

External Graphics via Thunderbolt 3

Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port on Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

Thunderbolt 3 ti open up paths for external graphics on this Dell XPS 13 2-in-1

The USB Type-C connector will serve as a way to provide a Thunderbolt 3 connection which is being exploited not just for direct-attached storage, but for external-graphics modules. Here, this connection is appearing mainly on premium-grade laptop computers including some ultraportables and will end up as a product-differentiating feature

What this allows for is that a person could buy an external graphics module that can be connected to their computer for improved graphics performance. This will come in two forms – a module with an integrated desktop graphics chipset or a “card-cage” where you can install a desktop graphics card.

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 "card cage" external graphics module - press image courtesy of Akitio

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 “card cage” external graphics module – to hot up the Thunderbolt-3-equipped laptops graphics abilities

At the moment, these devices are being pitched primarily at gamers who are wanting to “hot up” their gaming laptops but I would see them as something that permits a portable computer to work in a higher-performance manner for gaming / workstation / multimedia use  at your main usage space. NVIDIA even made it possible to allow workstation-grade graphics setups to work in this context, thus opening up the door towards situations like mainstream laptops heading towards mobile workstation territory.

Solid-state storage as the preferred option

Increasingly, solid-state storage is being implemented on more portable computing devices. This is either as a sole storage device or alongside a separate mechanical hard disk.

The driver for this technology is the the fact that this storage method isn’t demanding on battery power which is very important for portable computing. As well, the typical solid-state drive occupies less space in the computer than a traditional hard disk and is lighter, also making it conducive towards portable use. Let’s not forget that solid-state storage is quicker and more responsive.

But the “cost per byte” for solid-state storage is still more expensive than the traditional hard-disk technology, and is more so when it comes to capacities in the order of 500Gb or more. Typically, this will lead to 15” or larger mainstream laptops being equipped with a 1Tb hard disk as the base option with a 128Gb or 256Gb solid-state drive as a “high-speed system disk” option. Or you may come across a solid-state disk up to 512Gb as the sole integrated secondary storage option as a common specification for most laptop computers.

USB external hard disk

High capacity USB hard disks can be a godsend with laptop computers that have small solid-state storage capacities

If you value what solid-state storage offers in the form of high performance, reduced battery consumption and a lightweight computer, you may find that something around the 256Gb mark may hit the spot. But you would need to consider using a USB external hard disk of at least 1Tb as an “offload” storage device for your data especially if you expect this computer to be your main or sole computer. On the other hand, if you value a combination of performance and storage capacity, a laptop that uses a 128Gb SSD system disk and a 1Tb hard disk as the secondary disk could serve your needs better.

Integrated graphics with the same performance as baseline discrete graphics

Intel has pushed the HD Graphics and Iris Graphics integrated-graphics chipsets to offer the same graphics-performance prowess as an equivalent baseline discrete graphics chipset offered by AMD or NVIDIA. This would be represented by a “budget” desktop graphics card that you would equip a “workhorse” desktop PC with if the motherboard has no graphics chipset on board.

Here, they are investing in the integrated-graphics chipsets due to the fact that they don’t draw too much current and don’t yield too much heat thus being suitable for portable-computer use. This is more so with computer configurations that use 8Gb or more of RAM and they use some of that RAM capacity to “paint” the screen images. What these chipsets are offering is the ability to answer everyday computing including casual gaming or occasional photo and video editing work.

Let’s not forget that nearly all recent-issue laptops that are equipped with discrete graphics are also equipped with integrated graphics. But these setups switch between the graphics chipsets automatically dependent on the software you are running and on whether you are using the laptop’s internal battery or external power as well as how much battery power is left in the internal battery. These automatic-switchover setups are known by trade names like NVIDIA Optimus or AMD PowerPlay and, in most cases, work behind the scenes.

Improved sound reproduction

Most of the computer manufacturers are providing improved sound reproduction for their portable computer products, save for the low-tier models. This is in answer to a problem associated with the way these computers are designed where the sound came out being tinny or lifeless.

Initially the sound functionality in a computer was to provide audio prompts like the familiar “ding” tone but computer users are asking a lot more out of these computers. This is to allow them to enjoy music and video content on these systems thanks to file-based or streaming media delivery; along with being able to use IP-based voice and video communications platforms to talk to distant people.

This trend is being fulfilled by the computer manufacturers working with respected home or professional audio brands to “tune” their products for better sound reproduction. Examples of this include HP initially working with Dr. Dre’s Beats Audio but subsequently working with Bang & Olufsen; or Lenovo and ASUS partnering with Harman, known for JBL speakers or Harman-Kardon home audio, to “tune” some of their products.

System classes

Nearly every one of the main laptop manufacturers are following the same playbook that every one of the popular vehicle builders have followed when it comes to segmenting their product ranges. This is where a particular class of vehicle would be targeted towards a particular driver type such as the standard family cars being targeted towards the typical everyday driver.

Low-tier portables

These are a group of small notebooks that have followed on from the “netbooks” offered around 2009-2011 and have a very similar focus to those computers – a “cheap and cheerful” system that doesn’t have much. One could see these computers as being equivalent to the low-tier small cars that offer a baseline seating capacity of up to four normal-sized adults, a feature set that doesn’t offer much along with a powertrain that isn’t considered to be powerful.

Typically they will have an 11”-14” screen served by integrated graphics and will have a low-powered processor like an Intel Pentium or Celeron. The RAM memory will be this side of 4Gb while the storage will be up to 128Gb. Some of these computers will come as a 2-in-1 design of the detachable kind or, perhaps, a convertible kind rather than the traditional “clamshell” form factor. You will most likely see these computers offered in a bright colour so as to increase their appeal to children especially.

Units with a storage capacity of 32Gb to 64Gb and an 11” screen are being pitched as a Windows-based alternative to an Android tablet or an iPad. This is a way for Microsoft to “cut in” to the market traditionally held by Apple and Google when it comes to personal tablet computers.

Personally, I would see most of these computers serve as a baseline portable secondary computer for those of us on a budget and don’t expect to do much with them. Families could even see them as a “first-computer” option for lower-secondary-school (US: middle-school) students.

If you are expecting them to be your budget option for your only computer, I would recommend looking towards something with 128Gb storage and a 13”-14” screen and, perhaps, making use of an external hard disk. This may be more so for people like the older generation who just want something for basic computing and online-communications tasks but don’t want to shell out much.

Mainstream laptops

Lenovo Thinkpad G50-70 Laptop

Lenovo G50-70 – an example of a mainstream home laptop

This class of laptop computer is seen as the “bread and butter” for consumer and business portable computing ever since these kind of computers became popular as a viable alternative to the desktop personal computer. Over the last two decades, they got to a point where most households and businesses preferred to buy a laptop computer over a desktop computer for regular personal computing requirements.

In the same context to cars, they could be considered as being equivalent to the common family cars, typifying medium-to-large size vehicles that have the ability to seat four or five people comfortably, have a wide range of options and are powered with a powertrain that suits city and highway travel. Like these family cars where vehicle builders offered a range of model varieties with different powertrains (engine and transmission combinations), body styles or feature sets, the laptop manufacturers would provide a large product selection and options list for this class of laptop with some offering the ability for you to “build your own computer” where you have a system with the right product mix that suits your needs.

These computers will have a heavier and thicker chassis and will have plenty of connectivity options along with a larger battery for portable use. Essential features for this class of computer, whether home or business, are a 15” screen with some offering a variant with a 13” or 14” screen for portability or a 17” screen for a large workspace. Here, these screens would be mainly driven by integrated graphics although premium varieties will use discrete graphics.

The horsepower for these machines will typically come from any processor in the Intel Core i family with i3 or i5 being of choice for value-priced variants. AMD A4 or A6 may also be offered as a processor alternative for cheaper options. There will be a minimum of 4Gb RAM with newer machines offering 8Gb at least, and storage will be either in the order of at least 500Gb on a hard disk or 256Gb on a solid-state drive along a good chance of them being equipped with a read/write optical drive, most likely a DVD burner. Some of these systems may come equipped with a 128Gb or 256Gb solid-state drive alongside a 1Tb hard drive. This will be set up with the solid-state drive being your system disk where the operating system and applications are kept, thus allowing for quick starts.

There will be some premium variants that have discrete graphics, a high-performance processor like an Intel Core i7, 8Gb or more of RAM and 1Tb hard disk or solid-state storage. You may come across with some of them being equipped with a Blu-Ray drive as their optical drive. These models will end up being pitched for multimedia (photo/video editing, AV playout, etc), workstation or gaming use. and will appeal to this kind of application. Again, this is equivalent to higher-specification family cars which come with all the desirable options.

Mainstream home laptop

Mainstream laptops that are pitched as home computers will typically have some attention paid to their aesthetics but will miss out on durability, security or manageability features that business laptops would be equipped with.

They will also be sold through department stores, consumer-electronics stores and similar outlets that “Average Joe” would come across. Sometimes the office-supply stores or specialist computer stores may offer these computers as something for ordinary households to benefit from.

Here, you can get by using these computers as a portable household computer which most likely will be one that you can easily stow away in a drawer when not in use. It can also appeal to senior secondary or tertiary students as their first computer that they take with them when the leave the family nest. Some small-business users can get by with using them as their business computer, perhaps with having the operating system upgraded to a “professional” variant like Windows 10 Pro.

Mainstream business laptop

Expect this class of computer to be pitched towards office or field use in the workplace.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook

A traditional business laptop represented by the Lenovo ThinkPad lineup

There will be most of the features and specifications associated with the mainstream home laptop computer although there will be a lot of emphasis on durable construction, security and fleet-level management. For example, there will be the use of fingerprint readers on a lot of these machines allowing for “sign-in with your finger” while there are chipsets associated with data encryption and authentication, including the use of Trusted Platform Modules. You may find that computers equipped with a fingerprint reader would come with a baseline password-vault program of some sort that is tied in with the fingerprint reader so you could sign in to Facebook or Gmail using your fingerprint.

Some of the manufacturers like HP and Dell offer different ranges of mainstream business computers. This is while other companies like Lenovo and Acer offer some models with the mainstream business product lineup, typically the entry-level models, that are focused towards the small business user.

Dell Vostro 3550 business laptop

Dell Vostro 3550 business laptop – an early example of what the Dell Vostro small-business laptop is about

Product ranges like the HP Probook and Dell Vostro range have a feature set very similar to the mainstream consumer laptop except that they would come with the “pro” edition of Windows, increased connectivity including VGA and Gigabit Ethernet ports along with TPM module and fingerprint reader security features as an option at least. With these systems, it is typically assumed that the IT team for a small business or community organisation consists of whoever owns or manages the organisation, along with IT-astute members of their community, and the retailer who supplied them the equipment or business-IT solution.

This is compared to the premium business product ranges like the Dell Latitude and HP Elitebook ranges where these computers come with a wider range of security and manageability features either as standard equipment or as options, along with the increased connectivity options. These machines are typically sold under contract to government departments and larger businesses who have their own IT staff or contract with an IT service provider to look after their computing and communications needs.

The HP Elitebook 2560p – an earlier 13″ example of a corporate-grade business laptop

The mainstream business computers will primarily be sold through specialist computer outlets whether online or “bricks-and-mortar”. It is more true for those outlets who place their focus on selling to the business market with a “solutions-based” approach where there is a strong support cycle. For example, you may approach one of these providers when your shop “grows up” from the old cash register to a fully-computerised point-of-sale system.

The question that may be raised when buying the mainstream business laptop is whether the manageability features that these will be supplied with are a waste of money or not. This also includes whether your supplier will use these features as part of them providing  after-sales support for your system.

Personally, I would place importance on a mainstream business laptop if you value system durability and security for your data or a strong relationship with your IT supplier, which is important for the typical “work-home” laptop that you take around frequently.

But with this class of computer, be careful of your potential supplier over-specifying your system. This is more so when your small business or community organisation is being sold management functionality that isn’t really necessary for their operation. Here, I would ask if they are using any of these features as a tool to provide remote support or for you to have the right level of security over your data in your business’s context.

Ultraportables

Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook on tray table

Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook – one of the first Ultrabooks that defined this class of ultraportable computer very well

The typical ultraportable computer is designed to be light and occupy less space in your bag or briefcase, while running for a long time on its own batteries. A lot of manufacturers even invest a lot of money in developing these models and positioning them as the “beauty queens” of their product lineup. But these ultraportables will offer a level of performance very similar to what most of the mainstream home and business laptops will offer.

Some of these machines that fit Intel’s preferred specifications for an ultraportable are described as Ultrabooks but the others in this class are simply described simply as being ultraportable, thin and light or something else that describes their beauty. There has been an increase in product development in this class of computer due to the fact that everyone else wants to compete against the Apple MacBook product lineup that exudes itself in the beauty stakes.

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook – the latest example of an ultraportable clamshell laptop

Such computers could be seen in the vehicle world as being equivalent to the sporty-looking coupés and convertibles which have improved performance but are styled in a way to exude their beauty – a car to be seen in as well as to drive.They can also be seen as being equivalent to the luxury cars where there is an emphasis on the luxurious driving experience.

Most of these will end up with a screen size of between 11” and 14” with some larger variants coming with a 15” screen. The screens will typically have a resolution of up to QHD (3200×1800) and work from the computer’s integrated graphics processor. As for the horsepower, this will come most likely from Intel Core m or i processor families that are optimised for reduced power consumption and heat output. As for RAM, this will be typically 4Gb-8Gb RAM depending on the model with some premium models offering 16Gb RAM. They will also have a storage configuration of up to 256Gb on a solid-state drive or 500Gb on a hard disk with some top-shelf models offering 512Gb to 1Tb on a solid-state drive.

A lot of these computers will appear in the traditional “clamshell” form while an increasing number of them are appearing as a detachable or convertible 2-in-1 form. As well, most of these computers will be styled to look very elegant, more as fashion accessories and something you can impress others with. This will include use of finishes like rose gold or champagne gold on some of the premium models.

These computers will appeal to those of us who can afford the premium offered for a system that provides mainstream-grade performance in a very lightweight chassis. Units equipped with low-tier processors like some Core m varieties and have low-capacity storage will appeal as “portable-use” secondary computers rather than as main-use or sole-use computers.

High-performance laptops

The laptop is now showing itself as a computer type that doesn’t have to be an ordinary old low-performing unit for pedestrian computing tasks. Increasingly, the manufacturers are offering mobile computing systems that could relate to the high-performance cars of this world whether for work or play and they are being offered under one or two separate product ranges or even as separate brands.

High-performance mainstream laptop variants

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop

The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming laptop – a high-performance variant of the Dell Inspiron laptop computer lineup

This is in addition to mainstream consumer and business laptop variants that have been specified for performance like being equipped with high-performance CPUs and discrete graphics processors, along with plenty of RAM. The high-performance variants are typically identified as “gaming” or “workstation” packages but they still have the same conventional look as one of the regular mainstream laptops, perhaps with some detailing that underscores the performance.

These computers are portable computing’s equivalent of the high-performance variants of a vehicle builder’s common family-car products. Such cars are identified with names that have sport or GT connotations and are referred to as “sports sedans”, “hot hatches” or something similar. These cars are typically equipped with a high-performance powertrain and have exterior and interior detailing that conveys the sporting image.

Gaming laptops

Alienware gaming laptop

An Alienware gaming laptop that can benefit from the Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module

Gaming laptops are being pitched towards the young gamers who expect performance while they play the advanced games. They carry on from the “gaming rigs” – the aggressively-styled desktop computers that gamers tune up for performance during their gameplay.

They will have a highly-strung discrete graphics chipset integrated in to them, typically one of those GPUs that is tuned to work with fast-paced games. As well, they use extra RAM with this being in the order of 8Gb to 16Gb if not more, and a highly-powerful processor like the Intel Core i7 family. There will even be the ability to tweak more performance out of these components through the use of desktop software while they use high-performance hard disks or solid-state storage for their secondary storage. As for the screen, the size will typically range between 13” to 15” with the resolution being at least 1080p Full-HD quality.

Expect most of the gaming laptops to be designed to look aggressive because they convey the image of one of the American or Australian muscle cars that were popular through the late 60s to early 70s; or a car from one of Europe’s well-known sports-car marques. These were vehicles designed from the outset for high-performance driving.

Mobile workstations

Dell Precision M2800 Mobile Workstation courtesy of Dell USA

Dell Precision M2800 – a mobile workstation that also bridges performance and portability

This class of computer will typically be constructed for business performance and will have particular components that are designed to get the most out of a CAD, engineering, statistics, animation or similar highly-powerful business program. A significant number of these systems will be described as “certified” workstations in that they are certified by Autodesk or a similar software vendor to run their software reliably at best performance.

These business-class computers will be at least 15” with high-end business-focused discrete graphics and will use a processor like the Intel Core i7. The RAM memory will typically be at least 8Gb and using particular high-reliability chips while there is a high-performance hard disk and/or solid-state drive on board. Some of these systems will even be serviceable so that the components can be upgraded or replaced at will.

Some, if not most, of the mobile workstations may offer the features associated with a mainstream business laptop such as a fingerprint reader, a TPM module or manageability features. This is especially for those of us who are dealing with plans or blueprints that are considered highly-valuable intellectual property.

What to remember

Should I buy a laptop or a desktop computer?

This question will come up more frequently with those of us who are buying a computer as the main or only personal computer that we use rather a computer we intend to use as a secondary computer.

I would recommend purchasing a laptop or similarly-portable computer if you place emphasis on the portability factor.

For some of you, this may be about having to regularly store your computer away while it is not in use or to move it around the house as required. One of these situations is to use the dining table or kitchen bench as a desk, something you will be asked of if you live in a small home or apartment. It may also be about an aesthetic requirement to stow the computer away when you aren’t using it, even if you maintain a separate home office. This may be of importance where you expect to have your home office serve as a spare bedroom (think of that sofa-bed or something similar you have in there for guests), or you integrate your home office as part of a main living area.

On the other hand, you are taking your computer between two or more locations. For example, you have that “work-home” laptop that you use in the office then take home so you can do further work there. As well, you may be travelling a lot including frequently using public transport or using a café as your “second office” or “office away from the office”. It will also include those of you who are likely to live a nomadic lifestyle where you don’t expect to live at the same address for the long haul, such as people who are on work placements for example.

Setting up a dedicated workstation with your laptop

You can set up a dedicated workstation that is based around your laptop computer so you can work much better at your regular desktop working locations. This practice can work well with the mainstream laptops along with ultraportables and performance-grade computers where you expect to use these computers as a main-use or sole-use computer. It will also be of importance for those of you who have decided to move away from using a desktop computer as your main computer.

Typically, you establish this workstation by installing at least one larger monitor, along with a full-sized keyboard and a regular mouse on your desk and connecting them to the laptop computer. In this context, when you use a large monitor in this way, you may find yourself being able to use two screens (the laptop’s screen and the larger monitor) as a large display space.  You may decide to add better speakers or connect the laptop to a sound system like that old hi-fi amplifier and those old speakers for improved sound reproduction while you could add extra local-storage opportunities like a USB hard disk or optical drive. As well, you may take advantage of a wired Ethernet connection for assured network-connection reliability. Then you disconnect these peripherals from your computer when you take it between locations.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook in tent mode

Tent mode – one way you could set up a 2-in-1 as part of your workstation

Some of you may use a bracket which allows you to hang your laptop computer so it becomes one of the screens in your multi-screen setup. Such brackets will typically anchor to your monitor so you effectively have a contiguous large-screen display and they can apply to the 13”-14” computers. Similarly, a 2-in-1 set up in a presentation-viewer or tent mode can provide a very similar experience.

Minix Neo-C USB-C Multiport Adaptor press image courtesy of Minix

One of the docking stations or expansion interfaces that can be part of your workstation

Most of us would simplify this process using a docking station, which is a fancy name for an “expansion interface” module that simplifies how you connect these peripherals to your computer. Most of these devices simply plug in to a USB 3.0 port while the USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 port on newer equipment allows for a simplified high-speed data-pipe between the expansion module and the laptop computer. As well, an increasing number of these USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 docking stations also provide power to the host computer. It is also worth noting that some of the larger display monitors may offer the docking-station functionality  as a differentiating feature where they have, for example, an integrated multiple-port USB hub. This can save on the cost of another docking station if you are buying that large screen as well if the screen offers the same kind of connectivity that you want.

You could set up one of these peripheral-based dedicated workstations for each regular workspace that you use with the ability to spend more on equipping the workstation you use the most with the better peripherals. As well, you could even get away with “pushing down” peripherals to less-often-used workspaces when you equip your main workspace with better peripherals. This is like what most people have always done with refrigerators or colour television sets where the newer better one ends up where they use it most while older units end up continuing to give service in secondary areas.

To gain best advantage out of these setups, it is a good idea to use a docking station to connect the wired peripherals to the computer. If your computer is relatively new and implements a USB Type-C / Thunderbolt-3 connector, make sure that the docking station has this same connection. If you have a Thunderbolt-3-equipped computer, you could use a USB-C dock as something to start with, then see a newer Thunderbolt-3-equipped dock as something to use in the main workspace.

As well, make sure you buy one with at least all of the connections that you need for your desk-bound peripherals. If you are thinking of using a wireless mouse or keyboard, look towards any of those input devices that use Bluetooth rather than a proprietary connection that takes up a USB connection for its receiver dongle.

The laptop computer as a secondary computer

There are those of us who may find that we can get by with two computers – a fully-specified desktop or large laptop that has all the performance and capacity we need as the primary machine; and an easy-to-transport laptop that doesn’t have all of the specifications but is capable of being a portable-use secondary machine. Examples of these would be the budget portables, most affordable 2-in-1s, or the lower-specified models in a manufacturer’s ultraportable lineup.

Here, we cam shift data and synchronise files between the multiple computers using  shared folders on a NAS; a cloud storage service like Dropbox; removable media or sharing a “file-transfer” folder on one of the computers via your home network. As well, you can install on these computers a reduced complement of software that fulfills the essential tasks that you want to do on the road.

Thunderbolt 3 on this kind of secondary-use computer may also appeal to a range of users who may occasionally seek extra display performance from these computers and simply hook up an external graphics module for this purpose. This may be to turn out a “there-and-then” rough-edit of video taken during a location shoot that is part of your video project; or to “work through” a high-end game while on the road.

This kind of setup would appeal to those of us who want to do some computing work while away from our main home or office location, but keep that location as where you do most of your work.

Should I use a mobile-platform tablet or a laptop as my secondary computer?

Some of you may think that a mobile-platform tablet like an iPad or Android tablet is all you need for a secondary computer device, rather than you purchasing a laptop. The same question can also be raised by some people like those of the older generation who want to purchase a personal computing device like a laptop or iPad but don’t see themselves using it regularly.

This can hold true with those of us who do a lot of content consumption and create very little content while away from your main workspace. Examples of this may just be you writing a small amount of text such as short replies to email or writing up notes. But you may find that using a keyboard accessory like one of the many keyboard cases may have you able to create more content using a mobile-platform tablet.

It can also hold true if you do make use of software that is written for desktop (regular-computer) platforms. Here, the software that is written for these platforms comes with more abilities compared to similar software that is targeted towards mobile platforms and you will find yourself being able to work more productively with this software.

Here, if you are primarily doing activities like Web-browsing, viewing video content, playing casual games or answering a small amount of email, you may get by with a mobile-platform tablet. On the other hand, if you do frequent amounts of content creation including answering many emails or make heavy use of highly-capable regular-computer software, the laptop would earn its keep.

It is also worth noting that the “2-in-1” computer that can double as a laptop or a tablet may offer a bridge between these two conundrums. Most of these computers run Windows 10 and will run the commonly-powerful office software if you are thinking of using them to work on that magnum opus document, with the 13” varieties having a full-sized keyboard so you can type comfortably. This is while you can engage in social media with most of the social media platforms having their own Windows 10 apps.

 

Should I buy a gaming laptop or a mobile workstation as a high-performance personal computer?

Increasingly, most computer manufacturers are offering a range of high-performance computers in their product lines, whether as performance-optimised variants of their mainstream products or units designed from the ground up as gaming laptops or mobile workstations.

But you may be dabbling with high-end games, or high-end-graphics and video work and are considering this kind of equipment. What kind of high-performance computer should you really go for?

Those of us who are working with high-end games or are doing video editing, computer graphics or animation as a hobby may find that high-performance mainstream laptops or gaming laptops may be the way to go. It can also apply to students who are putting their foot in the door when it comes to architecture, engineering and allied courses. You would be on a winner if the computer you are after is equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 connector because you could buy an external “card-cage” graphics module and a CAD-grade high-performance desktop graphics card at a later state when you can afford it.

On the other hand, a mobile workstation would earn its keep when you head full-time in to the world of advanced graphics, especially if you are using the computer as your “axe” to make regular money.

Which system for whom

Expected computer role

Main or sole computer

You may be upgrading your main “workhorse” computer and wanting to use something a bit more portable. The system could be your “main” computer that you use in your primary working area while you use another computer as your “on-the-go” secondary computer. Or it could just be your only computer that you have.

Here, I would recommend a mainstream laptop computer or, if you can afford something more luxurious, an ultraportable if it’s your sole computer you are taking with you a lot or a high-performance machine for other situations. In all cases, place emphasis on the computer’s storage capacity and RAM memory and buy a system with as much of this as you can afford. You may find that if you are saving towards your computer, a stretch goal you could apply is for a machine that has more RAM or storage capacity than what you initially budgeted for.

Those of you who make light use of a computer like using it just for Web surfing, online communication (email, Social Web and some Skype) and some word-processing may find that you can get away with one of the entry-level laptops. The word-processing application may be the deal-maker that has an entry-level computer overtake an iPad or similar tablet especially if your idea is to create a memoir or some other magnum opus. It can also apply if you are wanting to head towards creating that small-time Website or blog. This is because of these computers having a keyboard more conducive to this activity and being able to run a fully-fledged word-processing or similar program.

Some of you may find that you may not be able to have a lot of storage on your main or sole computer, such as if you are on a budget and are buying a low-tier laptop, or are buying that ultraportable because of your travelling. In this case, I would make sure that the computer you are getting is equipped with at least one USB 3.0 Type-A port or a USB-C port and purchase a high-capacity USB hard disk as a data-offload solution.

Secondary computer

If the laptop or other portable computer you are buying is simply something you are intending to use as a supplementary computer while you keep using your main computer, you may be able to look at different factors here.

In most cases, you may be considering this computer for use while you are travelling while your main computer stays at home or in the office. Here, you place importance on the portability factor. This is where you could consider an ultraportable computer, whether in a clamshell or 2-in-1 form. If you are on a budget, you may find it worth looking at one of the entry-level 14” variants powered by a low-end processor. In this situation, you can skimp on storage capacity if you are sure you can offload data to your main computer.

Some of you may use a secondary laptop at home, perhaps as a “family computer” that you can store away when it isn’t used. Similarly this would be a laptop computer that you may give to your “better half” as a gift and have them keep their data on it. In the same context, you may be considering a “private” computer that you use for your personal data so you don’t store any of it on your business computer. This is more so for those of you who have your laptop supplied and managed by your workplace or rent or lease the IT your small business needs on an ongoing basis.

Here, most mainstream computers with modest specifications may answer your needs. If you are expecting it to be a personal alternative to that “work-home” laptop, you may then have to place emphasis on storage capacity for this application.

Particular usage cases

Highly nomadic user

There are some users who will have a “sole-use” laptop computer but are likely to move between many different locations. These may range from people working in the merchant navy or on oil / gas rigs where they are likely to spend a significant amount of time on that ship or rig; through people who are engaged in placement-based work where they are never sure if they will be in the same work location; to students who are mainly living in temporary accommodation like college dorms / residence halls or short-let housing.

Here, the laptop computer can suit your needs very well. At the moment, most mainstream computers would suit your needs especially if you find that they offer a large amount of storage. This is important for you because you may end up piling music, photo and video content on the hard disk before and during your travels. If you are a gamer, you will most likely be storing all the data related to the games you regularly play, be it the game files or information about your progress in that game.

You may be interested in the high-performance variants like the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming that I previously reviewed if you value performance for gaming or entry-level workstation tasks.

If you are expecting to transport your computer around your destination location such as, for example a college student living in a college dorm who then takes the computer between classes, the library and the dorm, you may want to consider an ultraportable laptop or a 13”-14” mainstream laptop. Such systems can easily be stored in a backpack or other day luggage without taking up much room and they are relatively light compared to the traditional 15” mainstream laptop.

The use of a small-sized high-capacity USB external hard disk may satisfy your needs if you have to buy a computer that doesn’t have enough storage for your needs such as an entry-level laptop. Here, you can easily stow this hard disk in your luggage without it taking up too much room if you need to transport it. This hard disk can simply serve as a backup or offload storage device while you keep what you are working with on the laptop’s own storage.

Similarly, having a computer that implements the Thunderbolt 3 connection and works properly with the external graphics modules can appeal to this class of user.

Work-home use

A more common scenario for those of you who regularly work away from home is to take the same computer between your home and your workplace. Some of you may also be likely to use this same computer for your personal computing needs.

Here, consider the purchase of a mainstream business laptop with as much RAM and capacity as you can afford. The 13”-14” varieties appear as a sweet spot for portability if you use it on the go, but you may have to look at an ultraportable if you are travelling a lot with it.

They also benefit from the “dedicated workstation” approach and should have at least a USB 3.0 port. Personally, I would even go towards a computer with at least a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 port, then use a dock with a similar connection and the desirable peripheral connections for your main workspace.

Conclusion

The first thing to be sure of when you buy a laptop computer tis that you are buying the right unit that suits your usage requirements.

Here, this is about making sure you have a computer that has the right amount of horsepower, storage space and RAM capacity to suit your needs yet is light enough for the portability that you need out of it. For those of you buying a computer for your business needs, you also need to be sure that you aren’t being forced to buy the more expensive overspecified model that can end up being complicated to deal with.

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Buying a projector for your small business

Some of you may be buying a projector for the first time such as to add large-screen video display to your organisation’s presentation abilities; or you are replacing your existing video projector that has got a bit long in the tooth.

Praise and worship at church

Choosing the right projector can allow a church or other organisation to gain the most mileage from it

But when you are considering the purchase of a projector, take time to consider where you are intending to use it and what you are using it for.  This will make sure you are going to end up with a machine that can satisfy your needs exactly by projecting the brightest and sharpest image where you are using it.

What to look for

There are certain attributes that you need to look for when buying that projector such as its brightness and contrast-ratio specifications along with factors that affect how you can install your projector.

How your projector’s image will look

Brightness (lumens)

This specification affects how bright the images that appear on the screen will be. A projector with more lumens is also able to deal with competing light sources like room light easily. Today’s office projectors will typically end up with a brightness of at least 3000 lumens.

It is worth noting that a projector will yield the quoted brightness when it is using a relatively-new lamp and set to operate at full brightness.

Video and photo material along with games places more demands on the visibility of the image especially in existing light compared with graphic material that changes infrequently. This may call for a projector to have increased brightness. As well, you may have to look for a projector with increased brightness if you aren’t able to control the ambient lighting especially for video or photo content such as with rooms that have a lot of natural lighting.

The rule of thumb here is to buy the brightest machine you can afford no matter how small or brightly-finished the room is. This is more important if your room has large windows and you have a view to using the projector there during the day such as hospitality applications; or you intend to run the projector with the room’s lighting switched on which is the reality with most business or worship applications.

Contrast Ratio

This specification identifies how dark the black parts of an image will be and how white the white parts of that same image will be. It may influence the “perceived sharpness” of the projected images.

How your projector will “fit in” to your venue

There are certain specifications that concern how far back you have your projector from the screen or wall you are projecting the images on in order to have the largest useable image.

Throw Ratio

Projector setup diagram with distances

Throw distances and ratios explained in a projector setup

The projector lens’s throw ratio determines the effective size of the projected image in relation to the “throw” which is the distance between the projector’s lens and the screen. A lower figure allows for the projector to be closer to the screen for the same image size than a higher figure.

A projector that has a zoom lens, like most of the equipment pitched at small businesses and community organisations, will be specified a minimum and maximum throw ratio that is determined by the focal length you set the lens to. The zoom lens may help you with getting your image “just right” for your setup after you position the projector for best image size.

The “standard” throw ratio for most office and classroom projectors will come in at between 1.5 and 2.0 while a short-throw projector will come in at between 0.5 and 0.7. The newer ultra-short-throw projectors typically have a throw ratio of 0.3, allowing you to position them very close to the screen.

When you choose your projector, a short-throw projector can earn its keep in small rooms or for portable / temporary setups. These machines can earn their keep if you want your projector to be “ahead” of your audience. There are environments where an ultra-short-throw projector can come in handy like a small room such as a classroom, or a permanent installation for a space which gets crowded very quickly like a bar. Similarly, you may find that your venue has a bulkhead near the screen’s location where you can feasibly mount your projector, which may call for an ultra-short-throw model.

Projection Distance

Manufacturers will also provide a minimum and maximum projection distance specification in order to specify how close to or back from the screen the projector should be to yield a useable bright image.

But your setup’s “throw distance” will be based on the throw ratio of your projector’s lens multiplied by the width of the screen and this should be within the distances specified for the projector you are using. Once you know this figure, you can then determine how far back the installation’s ceiling bracket should be positioned.

Aspect ratio and Resolution

A projector, like a digital camera, is specified with a native aspect ratio which is the aspect ratio for the actual LCD or DLP image panel that realises the pictures. As well, they have a maximum native resolution that the LCD or DLP can handle for best results.

The "pillar-box" effect when you show 4:3 material on a natively widescreen display

The “pillar-box” effect when you show 4:3 material on a natively widescreen display

They can handle other aspect ratios but will yield “letterboxed” or “pillarboxed” images which have the black borders at the picture’s edges. You may have noticed this effect when you watch television and you watched some newer widescreen content on your old TV or you watched older TV content on your newer flat-screen LCD TV. In this case, you would need to determine your screen size based on the projector’s native resolution.

A projector with a wide native aspect ratio like 16:9 makes better use of wide screen areas whereas a projector that uses 4:3 as its native aspect ratio may work well for narrower screen areas including “traditional” screens.

Native 16:9 projectors are important if you are regularly showing live TV, movies or other video content turned out in this ratio; as well as yielding that wide look that easily impresses. You can get away with a native 4:3 projector if you occasionally show video but show a lot of graphics material or digital photos prepared in this ratio. It is also worth knowing that projectors that have a native 16:10 aspect ratio may allow for some flexibility between allowable screen area and what you show and is a go-between for 4:3 and 16:9 as well as accommodating scanned 35mm slides and prints.

As for the resolution, I would work towards projectors with a vertical resolution of at least 768 lines even for business applications. 16:9 projectors with the 1920×1080 “Full HDTV” resolution would earn their keep with most of today’s TV and video content, especially if you are running them with an HDTV set-top box or Blu-Ray player.

This is important because your audience will want to see a very sharp clear picture and the eye is less forgiving about fuzzy or blocky images on the big screen.

Connectivity and Functionality

Essential Connections

Economy data projector with VGA input sockets

Nowadays a projector should have an HDMI socket for newer computer and video equipment as well as a VGA socket for legacy equipment

Make sure that the projector that you are after has at least an HDMI input with HDCP for today’s computer and video equipment along with a 15-pin “VGA” RGB input for older computers that don’t use this connection.

If you intend to use your projector with consumer video equipment especially the Apple TV box or pay-TV services, make sure that the HDMI connection supports HDCP content projection. As well, a projector that implements HDMI-CEC control functionality can be a real boon with providing “one-remote” operation with most consumer electronics equipment especially Blu-Ray players.

HDMI is now par for the course for computer display connections

HDMI is now par for the course for computer display connections

Integrated image/video projection functionality

An increasing number of projectors are being equipped with the ability to display images and video footage held on a USB memory stick, onboard memory or other media which can make them become today’s equivalent of the old movie and slide projectors. This feature can be used for “there-and-then” applications or where you can’t connect a computer to the projector and is highly relevant to portable applications.

Sony BDP-S390 Blu-Ray Disc Player

Most recent Blu-Ray and DVD players can show still and video material from USB storage devices

On the other hand, if you don’t want to use a computer to show pictures or file-based video content, you can use a recent DVD or Blu-Ray player, network media player or similar device to fulfil this role.

Wireless and network projection

Another feature that is available with an increasing number of video projectors is the ability to project images from a computer or mobile device via a network, a dedicated Wi-Fi link or a Bluetooth link.

Most of these implementations are very dependent on the client device running particular software or the purchase and installation of certain interface devices. At the moment, Miracast and Intel WiDi are considered stable standards in this space but you need to be sure if there are other implementations that are able to work across devices offered by multiple manufacturers.

On the other hand, there are video-peripheral devices like the Apple TV and the Google Chromecast which can answer this role effectively. This is more so if you want native network-projection support from iOS and Mac OS X devices in the case of the Apple TV or Android and Chrome OS devices in the case of the Chromecast.

Audio

Most projectors will have an integrated amplifier and small mono speaker for sound reproduction and many will have an audio DAC if they are equipped with an HDMI connection. This is good enough at a pinch but I would rather use a powerful sound system such as a hi-fi, home-theatre or PA system for reproducing the sound.

It is also worth knowing that most of the projectors with an integrated amplifier and speaker will have a stereo line-out connection, typically in the form of a 3.5mm stereo phone jack. This comes in to its own with HDMI-equipped projectors that reproduce the sound from the HDMI connection and earns its keep if you have the sound system located close to the projector so you can keep a short unbalanced analogue audio link between the projector and the sound system’s amplifier.

If you want the sound to be reproduced independently of the projector such as to play music without a visual display, you may have to either connect your computer directly to the sound system or use an HDMI audio-extractor also known as an HDMI audio adaptor or HDMI DAC for best results with your sound system.

Lamp life

A projector will have its lamp life rated based on how long the machine will continuously operate before the lamp is half as bright. This is against the common logic of rating the lamp life based on how long it will operate before it “blows” (burns out). But I still factor in the reliable operation angle in that same equation. This specification is based on having the projector run at full brightness but being treated properly.

But most of today’s projectors implement lamp-management logic to effectively run the lamp for a longer service life. Examples of this include offering an “eco-mode” or similar setting to run the lamp at reduced brightness, tapering the lamp’s brightness slightly when the projector is showing the same image for a long time or some even adjusting brightness based on room lighting.

Problem can still surface with some projectors where the lamp lasts a long time but hits the end of its useful life and a good quality replacement isn’t available for that machine anymore. This can happen when a manufacturer makes equipment that is less “parts-common” with prior models when it comes to user-replaceable parts and it could be more financially viable to replace the machine with something of a similar or better standard when the bulb comes up for replacing.

Solid-state lighting (“lamp-free”) projectors

An increasing number of manufacturers are offering projectors that implement solid-state projection lighting which implements LED and/or laser-diode lighting technology. This is compared to the common practice of using a bulb-based lamp and allows for lower maintenance requirements. Manufacturers call these projectors “lamp-free” by virtue of not having to factor in the risk of the projection lamp “blowing” and stopping the show or you having to keep a spare lamp on hand.

These projectors offer best value for installations like displays where you are likely to have the projector running constantly. In other cases, you can get by with a projector that implements the regular light-bulb technology.

Buying guidance

When you choose your new projector, buy a projector which has as high a lumens rating as you can afford and look towards units with at least 3000 lumens. This is more important if you intend to use it in settings where you intend to run video content or show photographs in ambient lighting or your environment is brightly finished or has plenty of natural lighting.

Look towards purchasing projectors that support a 16:9 or 16:10 native aspect ratio unless you are using a narrow wall space as your screen.

Short Throw or Ultra Short Throw projectors earn their keep with small rooms or where you want the projector to be in front of the audience.

If you expect to frequently run your projector for long sessions, like a display, a worship scenario, or a bar that is showing the big sports fixtures every weekend, look for equipment that has a very long lamp life. If you can afford it, you may want to consider a projector that implements solid-state “lamp-free” technology.

Making sure your projector lasts a long time

You will typically get around five to seven years useful life out of a good-quality projector if it is operated and maintained properly.

To achieve this, make sure that the machine is on a sturdy surface before you turn it on. This also is of importance if you are using something to raise the front of the projector slightly to get the picture right. As well, transportable projectors have to be handled gently especially when they are on or just been turned off. If you are setting up an integrated installation, make sure you are using a good-quality mount kit and that it is anchored properly to the mounting surface.

At the end of each session, make sure that the projector is properly shut down so that the lamp, image panel or electronics isn’t damaged by excessive built-up heat. This procedure is more important for transportable or other small projectors, or units that are in an installation where they can be enclosed when not in use like “drop-down” installations. Here, you have to turn off the projector using the standby button on the unit’s control panel or its remote. At this point, the lamp and the circuitry associated with the projector’s signal path are turned off but the fan will continue to run for a few minutes. Depending on the machine you are using, an indicator light on the projector will flash or glow to let you know that this is taking place. This cool-down process is completed when the fan shuts down and only the “standby” indicator glows or no lights glow depending on the machine. Only then you can unplug it from the AC power.

Avoid the temptation to turn the projector on and off too frequently because this can shorten the projection lamp’s lifespan. Here, if you need to have nothing on the screen such as when loading up subsequent content, use the “Mute” or “Blank” button on the unit itself or the remote; or a similar function on your display computer’s software to achieve this goal.

If your projector uses filters, make sure you change them on a regular basis. As well, it is a good idea to clean the ventilation grilles to stop dust building up in them. This may simply be a case of running your vacuum cleaner’s crevice nozzle over these grilles; and is more important in dusty areas.

Be aware of how your projector fan sounds when you are using your projector. If you hear excessive grinding or squealing noise, this is an indication that the fan’s bearings are on the way out and it could cease to do its job. It leads to unreliable operation and heat build-up which could shorten the lamp’s lifespan. This may be a time to send the projector to a repair workshop and have the fan replaced.

The screen you use for your projector

The other factor that you also have to consider when you buy a projector, especially for the first time, is the screen on which your projected content will appear. This may not be of concern if you are simply replacing an existing projector with a newer model.

Fixed Screens

Some of you may use a white wall or whiteboard as a fixed screen for your projector when you are on a budget or, in the case of a whiteboard, you intend to implement an interactive-whiteboard display.

On the other hand, you may purchase a dedicated fixed screen that mounts on the wall or on an adjustable bracket.  Wall-based setups will occupy wall space even when they aren’t used and you may use doors, shutters or curtaining that complement your décor to conceal the screen when it is not in use. The adjustable-bracket setup will earn its keep with classrooms, worship applications and the like where you have a main focal point of attention.

Here, it would be preferable to have a fixed-screen setup if you have a permanent setup or can keep unencumbered wall space available for a screen.

Retractable and Portable Screens

But, if you don’t have that wall space, you may find that you have to purchase a retractable screen of some sort.

Portable screens

These come in a portable form that either is the classic tripod screen that most of us are familiar with or a “pull-up” screen which is a simpler larger form with the screen coming out of a large tube that sits on the floor or table. Some of the “pull-up” screens may be designed so that they can be attached to a wall, bulkhead or other similar feature on a temporary basis so they are effectively portable pull-down screens.

Fixed retractable screens

Presentation shown on retractable screen

A presentation shown on a retractable screen

On the other hand, you have fixed retractable screens that have a roll that is permanently mounted.

These screens, commonly described as “roll-up” or “pull-down” screens, are pulled down like a traditional roller blind when they are needed. They can be mounted with the tube that the screen rolls into exposed or this tube can be concealed, whether in the ceiling or a specially-built pelmet with the screen emerging from a slot in the ceiling or pelmet.

There are some more expensive varieties that extend and retract under electric control but are more suited to permanent installations. These may look more elegant and opulent but you will also find that they last a lot longer because they are less subject to the manhandling that a typical manual roll-up screen is subjected to. I would recommend this type of pull-down screen for those venues where the equipment is expected to gain a lot of regular use.

What to look for here

Here, you need to place importance on the screen’s build quality because this affects both durability and image quality. This is more important with retractable and portable screens when your screen will be set up and put away by many different people such as what happens if you have a high turnover of staff or volunteers.

As well, when you buy that portable screen in a “bricks-and-mortar” retailer, try to set it up and pack it up yourself before buying it. This will allow you to identify if it is well-built and can be easily set up or packed up by an inexperienced person, something expected of in volunteer-driven organisations like churches, or businesses like bars or cafés which have a high staff turnover rate. You also have the chance to see how stable the screen is once it is assembled in order to be sure of a high-quality picture and less need to adjust the projector during a showing.

It is worth paying attention to the fabric that the screen is made of. A heavy fabric or a lighter fabric that uses tensioning at the edges leads to high-quality images especially when you intend to use it with ultra-short-throw projectors. You can get away with a matt-white screen finish when you are using today’s video projectors so avoid being sold the exotic finishes like glass-beaded surfaces if you want to save money.

Conclusion

Whether you are replacing an existing projector or are buying a new projector and screen setup for your organisation, it pays to take some time to purchase the right equipment for your needs rather than rushing in to it. This will allow you to see a highly-reliable setup perform for many years of use.

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Buyer’s Guide–Headphones and earphones

A situation that may easily come your way is that you may need to purchase a set of headphones for use with your MP3 player, smartphone or laptop. Similarly, a pair of headphones may come in handy as a gift idea for most people who travel or use the mobile or portable computing and audio equipment a lot.

Headphone acoustic-design types

Headphone driver-positioning arrangements:

Intra-aural: This type has the speaker driver placed within or on the ear canal and is typically represented by the classic hearing aid or the common earphones supplied with most personal-audio equipment. Some intra-aural headphones use a hard U-shaped headband that hangs around your neck, similar to the cheap “pneumatic” headsets that used to be used for airline inflight entertainment.

Circum-aural: The speaker driver in this kind of headphone sits outside the ear but has the ear enclosed with a sound-proof foam ring wrapped in vinyl or leather. This type is commonly used with aviation headsets and with headphones until the late 1970s.

Bang & Olufsen Form 2 headphones

Bang & Olufsen Form 2 headphones – An example of a premium supra-aural headphone design

Supra-aural: With this type of headphones, the speaker driver is wrapped in foam and is intended to just sit on the ear.

Headphone enclosure or housing types:

A pair of headphones that uses a circum-aural or supra-aural driver positioning arrangement can either have a closed-back or open-back housing.

Closed back: This type does not have any perforation or venting on the drivers’ housings. It is known to provide a focused sound with less sound leakage and improved bass response.

Open back: Here, the enclosure is vented or perforated or the headphones are designed as if the driver mounted freely on the bracket that is attached to the headband or ear clip. These typically can yield an accurate sound with good drivers but cannot be heard easily in noisy environments and can suffer sound leakage where other can hear the content.

Headphone Styles

There are three common styles of headphones that you can choose from.

Earphones

Earphones typically describe the class which plug in to or clip on your ears and don’t have any headband of any sort. Earlier versions used to plug in to your ears like a set of earplugs or a hearing aid, but these evolved over time. For example, Sony ran a set of earphones which were a supra-aural type that had the speaker sit on your ear and they clipped on like the arms of a pair of glasses.  But most of today’s earphones typically have a small speaker that just faces in your ear with the unit resting in your ear.

Traditional headphones

Voyetra Turtle Beach M3 gaming headset

Voyetra Turtle Beach M3 gaming headset – an example of a circum-aural-style headphones

Then you have traditional headphones with a headband that sits over your head. This style has existed ever since this class of device was invented and most of the good-quality heavier-design closed-back types typically used a padded headband.

Compare this with lightweight supra-aural designs like the types that were popular when the Walkman came on the scene. These typically had either a lightweight aluminium or plastic strip serving as the headband with their earpieces anchored on to plastic brackets.

Street-style headphones

Another style that has started to appear in the late 90s is the “street-style”  where the headband wraps around the back of your head and the set rests on your ears in a similar vain to a pair of glasses.

Other points of interest

Headsets

A headset describes any class of headphones that have a microphone either on the cord or as a boom that is attached to one of the headphone housings. Denon has integrated the microphone in to one of the earcaps in some of their headset designs rather than using a separate microphone on a boom or the headset cord.

These are used for communications applications like smartphones, forum chatter in online games, business call-centre telephony or Skype / VoIP telephony. They are also being considered useful with voice-activated assistant software of the Siri, Google Now and Cortana kind that is becoming part of desktop and mobile computing.

Wired headsets typically have a four-conductor 3.5mm plug which may work with some devices like laptops or iPhones but may not work with other devices. These may also come with a breakout cable to plug in to a microphone jack and a headphone jack.

Noise-cancelling headphones

Most manufactures are selling a range of “Active Noise Cancelling” headphones that are pitched for travel use. Here, these headphones, typically traditional closed-back circum-aural types, use battery-operated circuitry that feeds a form of “anti-noise” to combat the low-frequency noise that you hear when in a plane, train or bus. You are still able to hear voices from around you such as announcements that come over the vehicle’s or aircraft’s emergency-announcement system and these headphones can play program material coming from any audio device that you connect to them. Here, you have the ability to hear the program material in relative peace and quiet without the drone of the vehicle’s or aircraft’s engines distracting you.

Wireless headphones

Some manufacturers supply wireless headphones that use an infrared or radio link from the audio source to the headphones.

There are some of these headphones that require that they work with a manufacturer-supplied transmitter that connects to the audio source. It may allow for special functions like headphone surround-sound or as a cost-saving measure for very cheap setups. These are more applicable if you intend to use them with a regular TV or music system rather than a computer or mobile device.

On the other hand, most of these headphones and headsets work using Bluetooth standards. This is in order for them to work with your mobile phone as a hands-free communication device. But they can work with Windows 7 and MacOS X Snow Leopard computers for communications or entertainment; or they can work with a Bluetooth transmitter for a wireless link to existing audio equipment. As far as traditional desktop computers go, you may need to use a Bluetooth dongle to bring this wireless functionality to these computers.

If you do buy Bluetooth headphones, make sure that they comply to Headset Profile, Hands-Free Profile for headsets that have a microphone; and, in the case of those that have stereo headphones, A2DP audio profile. If the headphones or headset implements a form of media control, they should implement it to the AVRCP profile.

Questions

Do you need to have two or three pairs of headphones “on the go”?

You may think it is unnecessary to have more than one set of headphones in your possession and ready to use. But this may be an advantage where you want to have a particular set of headphones suited to a particular kind of audio content or listening environment.

For example, you may use a pair of earphones or circum-aural headphones for listening in a noisy environment or to hear the detail in a piece of music whereas you may use a pair of lightweight supra-aural headphones when you go jogging so you can hear the traffic.

What kind of headphones suit your needs best?

If you are doing a lot of walking, you could benefit from a good-quality set of lightweight supra-aural headphones because they are not tiring to wear and you can still be aware of the traffic and other sounds around you.

A pair of closed-back circum-aural headphones, perhaps equipped with active noise cancelling can come in handy if you use public transport, especially planes, buses, diesel-powered trains or underground trains (subways) frequently. This can cut out the droning noise associated with these public-transport options and let you focus on your programme material.

Similarly a DJ or someone who likes to do a lot of recording could benefit from a good-quality pair of circum-aural headphones. Some of these headphones that are targeted at this application may be described as “monitor” headphones because you are after the high-quality sound that you want to use as a reference while not hearing outside noises or allowing sound to leak out thus causing a feedback loop with a public-address or broadcast application.

When you want to hear an accurate sound while listening to music or other content especailly when alone, you could benefit from a good-quality pair of supra-aural headphones that have large drivers like the Sennheiser range. This may be of importance with classical-type music, some kinds of jazz music or a lot of the down-tempo music classes like easy-listening / lounge or ambient / chillout music.

On the other hand, closed-back headphones can yield improved bass response which is important for popular up-tempo music, especially jazz, funk / soul, dance music or rock.They can also be handy if you want a distinct weighty impact from sound effects in video or games content.

What to look for with headphones

Things to look for to see long service life

When you buy a set of any headphones that you use a lot, make sure that you can purchase replaceable earpads or foam rings for the headphones. This is important that as you use a set of headphones, the earpads or foam rings do tend to tear or come apart over the years of use and you still want to have your headphones comfortable to wear.

Headphones that have a “single-sided” cord have an advantage because the cord comes in to only one housing with the other housing being serviced by a cable that passes through the headband. This cuts down on cable entanglement and can avoid the situation where you could ruin one earpiece due to the cable being tugged on that earpiece.

Some premium headphones do have the cord detachable from the earphone housing. The advantage here is that you can replace the cord if it gets damaged, which is something that can easily happen as you use the headphones out and about.

Conclusion

When you choose the right sets of headphones for your private-listening or communications needs, you will be in a better position to enjoy them better in the application you have bought them for.

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Buyer’s Guide–Buying a laptop or notebook computer

Introduction

You might be moving away from a desktop computer as your main conputing device so you can have a compact workspace. On the other hand, your existing laptop or notebook computer might be at that point where it is painfully slow and you are staring at that “doughnut ring” or “beach-ball” cursor for too long while the hard disk is chattering away. Similarly you may be wanting to use a portable computer as an auxiliary computer while you travel but use your favourite desktop computer when you are back at your home or office.

Sony VAIO Z Series ultraportable

Sony VAIO Z Series premium ultraportable laptop

This buyer’s guide is about the “clamshell-style” portable computers commonly known as laptops or notebooks. Here, it is to update the information that existed in the previously-published buyer’s guide in order to encompass the newer technologies that have affected this product class over the last two years such as the Ultrabooks; as well as my reviewing of laptops that encompass these new technologies.

A common practice with computer purchasing is to buy the cheapest laptop available without working which kind of laptop computer will suit the target application. Here, you may end up buying a machine that is too heavy or with computing credentials (processor, RAM, secondary storage) that don’t really match the targeted use.

Notebook computer classes

Netbook (10”-11” screen)

HP Mini 210 netbook

HP Mini 210 netbook

This class of computer was inspired by the “One Laptop Per Child” computer-education project and was based around a low-cost low-power computer model for Third-World countries. They have primarily been sold as auxiliary computers for home or travel use, nut their function has been supplanted by the 10” tablet which runs a mobile operating system such as Android or iOS and can be connected to a small external keyboard either directly or via USB or Bluetooth.

Here, these computers have a 10”-11” screen and use a low-capacity hard disk or solid-state drive as their secondary storage. Most of them run on the Intel Atom processor but there are a handful which run on full-system processors.

Subnotebook / Ultraportable (12”-14” screen)

These computers are the smallest size of portable computer that have a full-width keyboard which allows you to touch-type comfortably on them. They also have a footprint similar to the older small portable typewriters that journalists loved using before portable computers came along.

They end up in two classes – a fully-functional unit; and a reduced-functionality highly-portable unit.

Sony VAIO S Series

Sony VAIO S Series

The former class will, in most cases, be thick and have a range of functions like an optical disk drive, large hard disk and plenty of sockets along the side. The latter class is typically very thin and engineered with a long-lasting battery. They will typically have a small hard disk or solid-state storage and eschew integrated optical drives and extra connectivity options.

This encompasses the new class of “Ultrabooks” which are intended to be very thin and light as well as starting up very quickly. They are modelled on the Apple MacBook Air lineup of computers and emphasise an accessible beauty about them.

On the other hand, most manufaturers are supplying 14” fully-functional notebooks that have the functionality of a regular laptop computer but use a smaller screen. They are really positioned as a “bridge” between a highly-portable unit and the fully-functional regular laptop.

 

Regular laptop computer (15” screen)

Toshiba Satellite L750 laptop

Toshiba Satellite L750 consumer laptop

The most common class of laptop computer is a thick unit that has a 15” screen, a mid-tier processor, a hard disk of at least 500Gb, an integrated DVD burner and plenty of connections. These typically can perform most computing tasks adequately and often spend some of their time as entertainment machines.

They can be used on public transport but do take up room in this scenario and the battery typically may not last the distance. Typically these computers work as a “transportable” class of computer that is stowed in one’s briefcase, laptop bag or backpack during travel and used primarily at fixed locations.

Desktop-replacement computer (17” screen)

These computers are very large and typically have a 17” screen. Most such units will have functionality that is close to a desktop computer such as a hard disk in the order of 750Gb or above; discrete graphics chipset as well as the connectivity that is expected of a 15” regular laptop. Some of these units may not come with a battery and are thus pitched as transportable “desknote” computers that are just used at fixed locations.

Sony VAIO EJ Series 17" desktop replacement

Sony VAIO EJ Series desktop replacement

Here, I would recommend them for use as a quick-stowaway alternative to a desktop computer; especially if you always need to set up and pack up your computing environment. They can also earn their keep if you are in a situation where your workspace at home is the dining or kitchen table.

Product Positioning

Consumer

The typical consumer-grade laptop has a design that is focused on aesthetics and is typically optimised for multimedia. It will typically run a consumer-optimised software package that is focused around entertainment and basic office tasks and the operating system will typically have functionality that is suited for a small network.

They will typically be sold through large consumer-electronics and home-appliance stores or the electrical departments in department stores.

Business

Business-grade laptops are typically pitched for office use in the large business and are sold through value-added resellers or independent computer stores. Yet they are still of value to the small business owner and some consumer groups.

Dell Vostro 3550 business laptop

Dell Vostro 3550 business laptop

They are typically finished in a conservative dark-grey finish and have a software package that is optimised for manageability and data security. The operating system may be a “professional” or “enterprise” variant that can integrate with sophisticated business networks and support this same management. There is also a greater chance that these computers will be equipped with security-enabling hardware like a fingerprint scanner, smart-card reader or “trusted platform module” chipset.

<Dell Vostro, Toshiba Tecra >

Premium / Multimedia / Gaming

Just about all of the laptop manufacturers will run a few model ranges that are focused at the top end of the market or are tuned for multimedia work or enthusiast-grade gameplay. The computers in these ranges will typically command top-dollar prices and there are customers out there who are willing to pay this kind of money for their portable computing experience.

These computers place importance on aesthetics and performance and are sold at a price that fits this market position. Typically, they will offer the high-performance processors and discrete graphics chipsets and will most likely have the sound subsystem “worked” be someone in the music recording and reproduction industries.

HP Envy 15-3000 Series laptop

HP Envy 15-3000 Series Beats Edition multimedia laptop

It is also known that the multimedia class of Windows-driven laptop computer is being pitched as a way to “snap at the heels” of the Apple MacBook Pro series, a computer considered to be the graphics and multimedia standard. As well, these computers will come with hardware and software that is optimised for the creation and playback of audio-video content.

Most of the premium computers will typically be styled in a manner that makes a user think of luxury, such as implementing styling cues from luxury cars, premium clothing and accessories; and similar products. This may include the product being named after one of the exotic Italian sports cars. Gaming computers may implement an aggressive styling to match the desktop “gaming rigs” and not look out of place at a “LAN party”.

What to watch for

Touchscreen laptops

Fujitsu Lifebook TH550M convertible notebook

Fujitsu Lifebook TH550M convertible touchscreen notebook

There are a few portable computers like the Fujitsu Lifebook TH550M reviewed on this site, that are equipped with a touchscreen and most of these are sold as “convertibles” where the screen can be swivelled so they become a tablet computer. Some newer variants may use a detachable keyboard or have the screen fold over the keyboard in a pantograph manner. But they are typically sold to the business market and are very hard to come by.

The situation may change with Windows 8 where the touch-optimised user experience may bring this feature in to the mainstream for consuner and business-class computers.

<Fujitsu TH550M>

Dual-mode graphics

An increasing number of standard laptops are being equipped with dual-mode graphics where there is a discrete graphics chipset as well as the integrated graphics functionality offered by the newer Intel and AMD processors. These are able to switch between the graphics chipsets as a way of allowing for increased power economy or increased graphics performance.

This is either done using a hardware or software mode switch or the ability to have certain applications enter a particular graphics mode. But computers implementing the NVIDIA Optimus functionality and some that will use the next generation of the AMD graphics chipset use an automatic changeover mode that doesn’t require any rebooting or other hands-on procedures to perform this changeover.

Issues to consider

Primary usage scenario

It is important to think of how you intend to use this laptop computer so you can choose the right amount of functionality.

Main or sole computer

This kind of use may include the “new computing environment” where the laptop is the preferred home or office computer; or can encompass a student’s “college” computer, a work-home laptop or a highly-mobile worker who often is out of home.

Here, the purchaser must place importance on capacity and functionality. This includes looking towards high-capacity secondary storage, an optical disk burner, and plenty of connections like USB ports.

This would primarily cover most 15”-17” laptops like most of the computers reviewed here. On the other hand, you could prefer one of the highly functional 13” – 14” computers like the Toshiba Satellite L730, the Toshiba Portege R830 with higher-capacity hard disks, the Sony VAIO S Series or the HP Pavilion dm4 Series Beats Edition. These could be used with a large-screen display, large accessory keyboard and regular mouse for a better working environment at your main home and/or office location and I have seen some people have these computers on a laptop stand in order to have a dual-screen setup.

Secondary computer

Here, there is assumed to be a primary computer, typically desktop or high-end laptop, in place at one or more locations where most work is done and data is stored. The secondary laptop computer is used primarily as a “travel” or “portable” computer when away from this primary location.

The purchasing focus for these computers is to be on portability with less worry about functionality or capacity. Typically the data created on these computers would he held on their secondary storage (hard disk / solid-state drive) then shifted to the primary computer’s secondary storage when the user returns home with these computers. This is in addition to the user using their email, their cloud-driven Internet services or their remote-desktop services with these computers.

Travel with computer

Another question to raise is the kind of travel the user would be performing with this computer. It would also include the likelihood of the user using this computer while travelling. This would determine whether or not it is important to purchase a small lightweight computer.

Primarily public transport including air travel

Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook on tray table

Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook - suits air travel very well

A person who flies a lot or makes heavy use of commuter public transport will more likely be wanting to use the computer through their journey. They also will be needing to carry the computer around with them while they complete the journey, especially as there is an increased likelihood of the user changing between different transport vehicles or modes of transport.

In the case of long-distance air travel, there will be the requirements to carry other luggage, deal with security checkpoints and, in the case of international travel, deal with passport control and customs.

Here, I would recommend a lightweight computer like a netbook, subnotebook / ultraportable or a “thin-and-light” notebook. Netbooks, including 10” tablets with detachable keyboards may be good for increased reading and ad-hoc email work. But the 13”-14” computers, including the Ultrabooks, would work well if you intend to create a lot of content.

Toshiba Satellite L730 ultraportable on coffee bar

Toshiba Satellite L730 full-function ultraportable

The “standard” 13”-14” notebooks which have the full functionality like integrated optical drives, especially the 14” varieties can be of value if you do place importance on functionality while you travel or you intend to be away for a long time. These may also work well when it comes to playing DVDs on those long flights with low-cost carriers.

Primarily Car travel with occasional public transport and air travel

You most likely will be driving between locations and may occasionally engage in some public-transport travel or air travel.

On the other hand. you may be buying a laptop computer because it is the kind of computer that you can quickly stow away in to a cupboard or drawer at home or work. Similarly, your desk may be one of those types that can be easily closed up in to an elegant piece of furniture, and you may want to store the laptop there.

Here, you won’t need to care about portability; and you could prefer to buy any of the 15”-17” laptops. They will excel on the functionality and connectivity; and you could even go for the 17” desktop-replacements if you valued the large screen.

Application Guidelines

Student’s first notebook

Your child may be doing their senior-secondary or tertiary studies and it may be time to consider a decent laptop computer for them.

Dell Inspiron 15r laptop

Dell Inspiron 15r laptop

The computer will typically undergo a fair bit of rough treatment at the hands of students as they take it between classes, study opportunities, parties and home. This will include travel in older cars which will be likely to have worn-out suspension, As well, the hard disk will typically be the place where school-related data shares space with music to have playing at the next party as well as plenty of digital photos.

Of course, cost will be an issue especially if the student is buying the computer themselves or you are unable to subsidise the purchase of the system in a significant way.

I would recommend a good-quality 15” midrange consumer or low-end business laptop for a student’s computer and prefer those computers that implement any “shock-proof” hard-disk technology. This is a feature that most newer laptops are being equipped with as manufacturers consider the realities with these machines,

If you have to place weight on features when choosing a laptop, place the weight on hard-disk capacity due to the fact that a lot of data would end up being stored on these computers.

If the student is doing a course that is centred around the creation of graphical works or multimedia works, you should look towards a multimedia-specified computer with a discrete graphics chipset. This allows the computer to perform properly when turning out the graphics elements and doesn’t bog the student down when they create their graphics or multimedia assignments.

Refurbished ex-business equipment

HP ProBook 4520 Series laptop

HP ProBook 4520 Series business laptop - you could find this as a refurbished ex-business machine

If the cost is an issue to you, you may want to look for recent-issue refurbished or rebuilt ex-business hardware. These are hardware which a business has done away with as part of their IT-upgrade process, ex-demo / ex-review computers that a manufacturer has taken out of the review and promotion circuit, or ex-lease computer equipment that computer financiers have previously leased or rented to businesses.

They will typically be available online or through independent computer stores. Similarly, if you were leasing your business laptop and have come to the end of that lease, you could pay out the residual in order to own the equipment; then have it overhauled by a computer-repair specialist. This could then be a possible solution for providing a student with a decent laptop for their early years at college / uni.

But with these deals, it would be worth finding out whether there are new batteries available for these laptops and whether the hard disks in them can be upsized for larger capacities. Similarly, you should also find out whether you can have the latest version of the operating system and office productivity software installed on these computers.

Travel-dependent and nomadic working environments

This class of user; which includes air or sea crew, oil-rig workers, overseas charity volunteers or business people involved in project-driven establishment work; are often asked to live and work away from home for significant time periods. Typically their home may be the cabin on a ship or oil rig, a hotel room or short-let house / apartment or camping-style accommodation; and they only stay in these areas for the duration of their placement or layover.

What they desire is a computer that is easy to pack away and something that is expected to be a computer, music player, video player or whatever. A lot of these users won’t be likely to use the computer through travel except if they are on a ship and are “off watch”.

HP Pavilion dm4 BeatsAudio Edition laptop at a Wi-Fi hotspot

HP Pavilion dm4 Beats Edition - a 14" full-function laptop

The emphasis here would be on portability and functionality and they should look towards a 14”-17” standard laptop with the integrated optical drive. This class would allow the user to cut down on the number of accessories they have to put away when they shift location yet would be able to play optical media they acquire from local sources. The Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity on these computers would let the travellers connect to any network that provides broadband Internet on site. Of course, they would have to make sure they have a high-capacity hard disk and specifications commensurate to their preferred activity.

Bloggers, journalists and other content-creators

These are people who are expected to create content while they travel. It can also includes those of us who are writing books or constantly preparing manuscript for material like catalogues or newsletters and want to do this work while travelling.

It is so easy to think that a netbook or a 10” tablet with accessory keyboard could answer a content-creator’s needs but the main problem with these solutions is that the keyboard doesn’t really allow for fast comfortable typing. This is something of importance when you are creating a lot of text and, in the age of the blog, you may be required to “live-blog” an event i.e. type up details about the event as it happens and publish those details to a blog post or social-media feed immediately.

Toshiba Z830 Ultrabook in cafe

Toshiba Z830 - An Ultrabook with full connectivity options yet can be taken on the road

The 13”-14” subnotebooks / ultraportables, including the Ultrabooks offer the ideal of a compact travel-friendly computer yet have a large screen and a keyboard that allows for the fast and comfortable typing. Typically they can be accommodated on your lap without overwhelming you and can occupy the economy-class airline tray table with room to spare for a drink or notes.

Here, you could go for a full-function computer like the Sony VAIO S Series or the Toshiba L730 or R830 if you use this as your main computer or are likely to place emphasis on functionality. On the other hand, one of the new Ultrabooks can suit your needs better if you have a primary computer at home or work and you intend to just use it for travelling.

The laptop’s secondary-storage capacity is very important if you do take photos or video footage as part of creating your content. Here, you could go for a unit with a hard disk in the order of 320Gb to 500Gb whereas if you are thinking of primarily text-driven work, a solid-state device in the order of 128Gb to 256Gb can suit your needs better.

Work-home laptop for small business

These users will typically be taking the computer between their home and their workplace, usually by stowing it in a briefcase that is slung over one’s shoulder or thrown in to the car boot for the work-home journey. This may include some users who use the computer at the client’s location when they visit their clients.

A 15” business laptop could suit this kind of user because these computers offer better protection options for the data held therein. It may be also worth investigating a 17” business “desktop-replacement” if you just simply take the computer between the office / shop and home; and value that extra screen size.

Moving towards the “new computing environment”

Toshiba Satellite P750 multimedia laptop

Toshiba Satellite P750 multimedia laptop - an example of one that can suit the new computing environment

If you are moving away from the traditional desktop computer towards a laptop-based “new computing environment” where portability is the focus, I would suggest that you look towards a unit that has capacity and performance that answers the original desktop’s main functions.

Here, most 15”-17” laptops would fulfil this need, with the 17” desktop-replacements satisfying this need closely. Most householders could get by with a mainstream consumer laptop or a low-end business variety for their household’s use while a mainstream standard business laptop can satisfy most small-business owners’ needs especially where business security and continuity is imperative.

But I would recommend that anyone who is dabbling in heavy graphics and multimedia work prefer a multimedia laptop. This also includes people who are using their computers as part of DJ work. It is because these computers are typically optimised for the workload and expectations that heavy graphics and multimedia work can ask of a computer.

Conclusion

Once you have gone through this buyer’s guide, you will be able to choose the right laptop that will work perfectly to your needs.

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Buyer’s Guide–Component Network Media Adaptors

Introduction

Western Digital WDTV Live network media adaptor

Western Digital WDTV Live network media adaptor

There was a trickle of component network media adaptors which provide media playback from the Internet or home network to an existing audio-video system but this trickle has now become a flood over the past few years with equipment being offered at varying functionality and cost points.

For video content, most of these devices including some of the current-model Blu-Ray players may offer “over-the-top” TV services to existing TV equipment and this may avoid the need to buy a “smart TV” for this kind of content. This would appeal to those of us who would rather spend money on equipping our home theatres with a video projector or top-notch high-performing LCD TV rather than buying a “smart TV” to keep up with the Joneses. Similarly, these devices can expose a secondary TV like the one located in the secondary lounge area or master bedroom to the plethora of online content.

Similarly, you may want to invest in an audio-based network media player so you can enjoy Internet radio or music held on the network-attached storage through the hi-fi system. This is becoming more so as high-grade audio files of classic and contemporary albums are being made available for sale and file-based audio content has now achieved hi-fi credentials.

What are these devices

A component network media adaptor like the Western Digital WDTV Live is designed to connect to existing audio and video equipment and show network-derived content on such equipment. Of course, they will work as a gateway to some Internet-hosted media services like IPTV / video-on-demand or Internet-radio services; and a few may work as a terminal for popular interactive Internet services like the Social Web.

If the manufacturer keeps investing in the device’s platform, there may be the ability for newer content services to be added to an existing device. This typically is being achieved through a continual firmware update or an app store that works in a similar vein to a mobile platform’s app store.

 

Sony BDP-S380 Network-enabled Blu-Ray player

Sony BDP-S380 Network-enabled Blu-Ray player

Some of these adaptor devices also have functionality for access to legacy media like a radio or TV broadcast tuner and/or an optical disk player. An example of this is the Sony BDP-S380 Blu-Ray player which I had reviewed. But these devices also have a USB port, iPod dock and / or memory card slot so that content held on any of these locations can be played through the device. Similarly, the Microsoft XBox 360 and the Sony PS3 games consoles are able to serve as component network media adaptors as well as satisfying marathon TV games sessions.

A selection of these devices have an integrated hard disk and are able to work also as a media server. Some of them may allow you to add the media files by “ripping” from supported optical discs or recording broadcast material from an integrated tuner as well as accepting the content from the network or USB memory keys in a similar vein to the typical network-attached storage device.

Two main classes

NAD C446 Media Tuner

NAD c446 Network Media Tuner

There are two main classes of these component devices and the class they fall in to is based on the content they are designed to reproduce.

Video-optimised

A video-optimised network media adaptor is designed primarily to reproduce video or still-image content on an attached TV or projector.

Key identifiers for this class of device include the presence of video connectors for a display device. These are typically HDMI, component or composite sockets alongside the audio sockets.

Another identifier is that there is a very small display on the unit itself which only shows content running time, or no display at all. The user is expected to operate the device using the remote control and looking at the attached video display device for visual feedback. This is common with very-low-end DVD players that don’t have a track/time display and I once saw one of these players in operation at a party and the hosts had the TV on so they know which tracks to play on a CD.

Of course, if they have a legacy media source, it will typically be something like a DVD/ Blu-Ray player or a digital-TV tuner. The online services available to this device would typically be the IPTV / video-on-demand / advanced-TV services and it may also work as a terminal for video-conferencing (with an add-on camera), interactive TV or the Social Web.

Audio-optimised

Linn Majik DS network preamplifier

Linn Majik DS network preamplifier

An audio-optimised network media device is designed primarily to reproduce audio content, especially music.

These devices have no video connections at all or they may use any such connections for a secondary purpose. It is augmented by the device having a display and controls on its front panel for selecting and playing content or a remote control with an LCD or OLED screen as its primary control surface. This means that the device won’t be dependent on the use of an external video display for its operation.

If the device supports legacy content, the will use either a radio broadcast tuner and / or a CD / SACD player. They will also have access to audio-based Internet content sources like one of the Internet-radio directories like vTuner, Pandora or Last.FM.

What to look for

Ethernet connectivity

A component network media adaptor should have an Ethernet connection in order to provide for reliable playback of high-quality network and online content via Ethernet or HomePlug AV. You may get away with Wi-Fi wireless for Internet radio, CD-quality audio content, still images or standard-definition video content.

UPnP AV / DLNA

As well, the device should support UPnP AV / DLNA functionality. The basic level of support for this functionality is to find and play media held on DLNA media servers using the device’s control surface. On the other hand, a better-equipped device is able to play content that you push to it from another UPnP AV / DLNA control point like a lot of smartphone media-control software such as TwonkyMobile.

It also allows your device to be future-proof and is of importance whenever you look towards running specialist media-server equipment such as network PVRs on your home network.

Internet-media services

Most low-end video-optimised equipment will support fewer Internet-video services but the mainstream-priced equipment from the big brands will offer access to the popular TV services in your territory like the catch-up-TV services and the big-time video-on-demand services like Netflix.

If a device has access to online interactive services like Facebook or Picasa, only one person will be able to operate their online service on the device at a time. This functionality may just be useful for showing pictures held on the user’s online-service account but activities like updating the status comment on the service or simply logging in may be very difficult. This is due to the limited user interface that these devices offer as I have previously talked about.

Devices complementing each other

Some of these network-media adaptor devices can complement each other. For example, you may use a newer adaptor that provides access to newer content services while you have an older adaptor that the manufacturers have given up on still able to provide some of the online and network-sourced media that you are after.

Similarly, you could use an audio-optimised network media adaptor for playing radio and music sources while you have an Internet-enabled TV or video-optimised network media player coming in handy for image and video content.

Conclusion

The component network-media adaptor, whether in the form of a Blu-Ray player, set-top box or network-enabled tuner, can expose existing audio-video equipment to the world of online or network-hosted entertainment content.

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Buyers’ Guide–Network-Attached Storage

Introduction

Netgear ReadyNAS

Netgear ReadyNAS as a music server

A new class of hardware has been brought about by the networked home and small office environment. This is in the form of the network-attached storage device which works simply as a hard disk that is attached to the small network, sharing its resources using common network protocols.

Description

A network-attached storage device or NAS is an appliance that connects to your home or small business network via Ethernet to serve as a communal storage device for that network. This is instead of purposing an older computer for this role of a common storage device.

One main advantage of these devices is that these devices don’t demand as much power as a regular desktop computer running as a server and they make less noise than the typical ATX desktop tower computer. Therefore they need less power to run and don’t need to have a constantly-running fan. This also leads to a device that is quiet and energy-efficient, values that are being asked of in this era.

The devices are typically very small, often ranging in size from a pair of cassette tapes through a small book to the size of a kitchen toaster for the small-business units.This means that they don’t take up much desk space and can even be hidden behind other computing devices, which also puts them in the good books with those who value aesthetics. This small size also wins favour with those of us who want a data storage to serve multiple devices but that can be quickly shifted to a location at a moment’s notice; as I have seen for myself at the Australian Audio and AV Show with a few of these devices working as DLNA-compliant media servers for demonstration hi-fi equipment. Infact the pictures of the Netgear ReadyNAS and the Seagate GoFlex Home NAS units are images of fully-operational units serving this aforementioned role, with the Seagate single-disk unit being photographed on the floor and it being slightly higher than the skirting board.

Disk Storage

Single-Disk NAS

Seagate GoFlex Home NAS as music server

Seagate GoFlex Home single-disk NAS

Cheaper consumer-focused NAS units are typically equipped with one hard disk with a few of these units like the Seagate GoFlex Home being a network bridge for a removeable hard-disk module that is part of the manufacturer’s modular-hard-disk system.

This also includes the portable NAS units like the Seagate GoFlex Satellite that are their own Wi-Fi network and are intended to work as a data offloading device for tablet computers.

But on the other hand, there are some single-disk NAS units like the QNAP range that can excel as highly-capable network storage hubs. In the case of the QNAP, these units are able work as full-flight Web servers suitable for serving intranets or “proving” Web-site prototypes; or pull off other advanced network-storage tricks.

Multi-Disk NAS

On the other hand, the better units will support two or more hard disks which work the installed hard disks as a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) that facilitate either extra capacity, higher data throughput or increased fault tolerance.These multi-disk units can be set up to have two hard disks of equal capacity “mirroring” each other as a safeguard if one disk fails or to facilitate high-throughput low-latency data transfer. On the other hand,the disks can be seen simply as a large volume of data. Units which support three or more disk drives can support disk setups that combine failsafe data storage and increased data capacity.

Some multi-disk units like the Netgear ReadyNAS units have the ability to support in-place volume expansion. This is where you can add extra hard drives to the NAS while it is running in order to build up redundant failover storage or increase system capacity. But other systems will require the NAS to be taken out of service if you intend to evolve the multi-disk RAID volume.

User-installed disks and upgrade options

Most of these NAS units have the hard disk integrated, which is at a known capacity whereas others, commonly known as BYOD enclosures, come simply as an enclosure where you buy the hard disk separately and install it yourself. A variety of multi-disk units do come with a single hard disk but you upgrade them to the RAID resilience or extra capacity by installing a hard disk in an empty disk bay. This kind of installation typically can be done without the need for tools in all of the recent implementations.

Of course, the cheapest single-disk NAS units don’t allow you to upgrade or replace the hard disk yourself, so you have to replace the unit if that hard disk fails or you outgrow the hard disk capacity. On the other hand, the better units permit the user to upgrade or replace the hard disk, thus providing for a long device lifespan.

External connection ports

A lot of NAS units have one or more USB ports so you can copy content off a thumbdrive or external hard disk, use an external hard disk as extra storage or a backup device for the NAS or use other peripherals. Some of them may use an eSATA port for the same purpose, especially to add storage or maintain a backup device.

It is also worth knowing that these ports may be used as a way of extending the functionality of the NAS devices through the use of various device classes; especially if subsequent firmware upgrades take place. Example applications include working as a print server for a USB-only printer to a camera server for a Webcam.

Functions

Network-central backup location

Most network-attached storage devices typically provide the ability to be a network-central backup device for all of the computers in that network. This is typically facilitated through manufacturer-supplied software or backup utilities that are part of a regular-computing operating system such as Windows Backup or Apple Time Machine.

Network-central file storage and drop-off point

They also work as a data-drop-off point where users can “park” redundant data or data being moved between computers and hard drives. This is facilitated using standard SMB/CIFS, FTP or HTTP machine-to-machine data transfer protocols which these operating systems can support natively. The computer may run a manufacturer-supplied “assistance” shell to help with locating the device or linking it to the computer.

In the same extent, the NAS may work as a shared data library for software and data that is needed across the network. This would include utility software, device drivers, updates and patches as well as documents of common interest.

It is being extended to mobile computing devices like smartphones and tablets through the use of manufacturer-supplied or third-party network-file-transfer apps for the common mobile-computing platforms like iOS or Android. I have covered this topic in an article about moving data between your NAS and your smartphone.

Media server

This now covers the ability to share media files like digital images, music and video files to every computer and DLNA-compliant media device across the network.  This is facilitated through an integrated DLNA media server for standards-compliant devices and an iTunes-compatible server for iTunes media managers including Apple iOS devices.

But some manufacturers are targeting some of their consumer-focused NAS units at the distribution of media files across the network. These will typically have software that provides for low-latency transfer of audio and video content as well as an improved DLNA media server. Some of these DLNA media servers may support content-metadata aggregation where they index all media held on every DLNA server in the network and become the single point of reference for that media.

Some of the NAS units like RipNAS, ZoneRipper or Naim UnitiServe may even have an integrated optical drive to allow you to “rip” CDs to the hard disk or allow you to connect an optical drive to their USB port so you don’t have to power up a computer to “rip” new CDs to your media collection.

Remote access and the personal cloud

A new capability that is being promoted by NAS vendors such as Western Digital and Iomega is remote access, commonly marketed as a “private cloud” or “personal cloud”. This requires the NAS to have server software that exposes its location to a cloud service on the Internet and manage access to the data from Internet-based users. It works alongside client software available for regular or mobile operating systems to enable users to transfer the data outside their home network.

Variants of this software, such as what Iomega offer, may support peer-to-peer data transfer between multiple NAS units installed at different locations. This could cater for multi-site content replication or simple offsite data backup requirements.

Platform NAS systems

An increasing number of high-end NAS units have the equivalent of an app store, where the manufacturer can provide free or paid file-handling programs that load on to these devices. These can include a simple photo-viewing intranet app, a DVR for video-surveillance apps, an email server or a download / Bittorrent manager amongst other things.

Some systems like the QNAP units deliver every function in one “hit” when the user purchases the NAS devices whereas others just maintain the “app-store” or “download-point” for users to add the functions on at a later time.

What should you get

A single-disk NAS can serve a typical household well as a data drop-off point and media server. It can also augment a small-business’s server by fulfilling low-risk tasks such as DLNA media-server functionality thus keeping the server for business-critical needs. The high-end varieties of these single-disk NAS units like what QNAP sells would work well for those of us who want more functionality such as a Web-development workbench or a DVR for an IP-based video-surveillance system.

If you end up with more devices in your home and you want to be sure of continuity or expandability, a multi-drive system would fit your bill. You may go for a multi-disk system that has one hard disk installed so you can upgrade to resiliency or extra capacity at a later time.

Small businesses should consider a good multi-disk MAS that has what it takes to support increased resiliency. In some cases, a small business may operate the multi-disk NAS as a backup or file-archive device for their site’s main operational server; as well as a media server or similar application.

It is also essential to look at an offsite backup option for these units, such as the ability to connect a USB external hard drive for the duration of a backup job or the ability to backup to another NAS or cloud service via the Internet.

Mandatory features

For basic functionality, the NAS should support the SMB/CIFS and NFS network file protocols and have an integrated DLNA and iTunes media server. The computer-NAS backup options can be hosted with manufacturer-supplied software bout should work with Windows Backup or Apple Time Machine options.

I would also prefer that the NAS supports a continual software upgrade path for its functions. This is where the manufacturer keeps the firmware up to date as new standards come about, thus opening up the door to newer functionality and better performance.

The connection to the networks should be at least one Gigabit Ethernet port in order to support higher data throughput. You may not get this throughput with your existing router but if you upgrade to a newer router that has Gigabit Ethernet ports, you will end up with significantly higher throughput which would benefit applications like movies or high-quality music files.

Conclusion

Once you have a network-attached storage device in place, you will never know what capabilities these devices will open up to the connected home and small business. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a backup location for your computers or a media server or just simply a “file parking lot” for your home network.

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Buyer’s Guide – Giving your portable computer equipment better sound

A very common criticism that I have heard concerning laptop computers is that most of them don’t yield very good sound quality. Here, the sound quality is very weak and tinny, which can impair your enjoyment of music or movies on these systems. Similarly a lot of popularly-priced tabletop Internet radios give sound quality that is comparable to a 1970s-era portable radio or cassette recorder.

How can we improve the sound quality of these devices. Firstly, I would make sure that the device has a headphone or line-out connection. All laptops and most Internet radios would be equipped with this connection and if I review an Internet radio and it doesn’t have that kind of connection, I would list that as a failure.

I will be using audio terminology through this article and if you are unfamiliar with these terms, have a look at this reference page that I have created.

Existing sound equipment

A lot of existing sound systems that have a line-level input for connection to other devices can help to improve the sound output of laptops, tablets, Internet radios and similar devices. Typically you would connect the source device to this sound system, select the input that your device is connected to on that system.

Then you would need to set the source device’s output level to a point where the sound will come through strongly and clearly and have any tone control on the source disabled or set to “flat”. You would subsequently adjust the sound volume and tone by using the controls on your existing sound equipment that your device is play into.

New life for older equipment

This practice is a common use for older hi-fi equipment that has been supplanted by newer and better equipment ever since computer audio came on the scene. In a similar way, the 1980s-era “ghetto blasters” continued to earn their keep even if the cassette mechanism failed by just becoming amplified speakers for computer equipment. These audio relics were simply dusted off and connected to the computer’s audio output and continued their service that way.

Connection types

Line-level connections

The line-level inputs are typically labelled “Tape”, “CD”, “Tuner”, “Aux” or something similar. But don’t use the inputs intended for direct connection to turntables that have magnetic-cartridge pickups, which are typically labelled “PHONO”.

There are some amplifiers that may have a PHONO input that is able to work with ceramic-cartridge pickups or magnetic-cartridge pickups by you flicking a switch between “CERAMIC” or “XTAL” and “MAGNETIC” or “MM”. In this case, you would have to select the “CERAMIC” option on this switch. This practice is also used with some “ghetto blasters” and other low-end equipment that uses a PHONO/LINE connection for one set of RCA inputs.

This is usually achieved through a 3.5mm-stereo-phone-plug – 3.5mm-stereo-phone-plug cable if the amplifying device has a 3.5mm input jack or the common 3.5mm-stereo-phone-plug to 2-RCA-plugs cable for most other equipment.

Digital connections

You may be able to use a digital link of some sort between the source device and the destination if both have a similar kind of digital connection.

SPDIF

This may be found on some Internet radios or some laptops, usually as an optical connection. As well, all home-theatre receivers and some high-end stereo receivers and amplifiers have this kind of input, either as a coaxial or optical connection.

The coaxial SPDIF connection is commonly in the form of an RCA socket but a handful of equipment from high-end audio manufacturers may use a BNC socket similar to what was used for the old-style coaxial Ethernet connections.

The optical connection typically uses a square “Toslink” plug for most mains-powered equipment but some laptops and other low-profile equipment may use a 3.5mm optical socket.

You may have to configure computer SPDIF outputs to pass PCM audio signals rather than a bitstream signal if the playback device is a device other than a Dolby-Digital-equipped home-theatre receiver. This setting is the lowest common denominator for all equipment such as stereo digital amplifiers and digital-analogue-converter components.

HDMI

This connection type is used on most recent-issue laptops and works with large flatscreen TVs and all recent-issue home-theatre receivers.

But there are catches with using this connector. Some low-end home-theatre receivers use these connections only to switch video sources to the connected TV screen without reproducing the sound that comes across this connection. Similarly, some DisplayPort-HDMI adaptors wont pass sound to the HDMI connector unless they have appropriate connections.

Extension speaker systems

Sony SRS-DB500 satellite speakers - extension speakers for computer equipmentYou can purchase amplified speaker systems for use with your computer or similar equipment. A lot of these speakers don’t have a volume control on them and are intended to be adjusted using the host device’s volume control, with the amplifiers being simply power amplifiers.

There are the two-piece speakers, known as 2.0 setups, which are simply a pair of amplified speakers. Examples of these include the B&O Beolab 4 PC or the JBL Duet II. A lot of them use a stereo amplifier on one speaker housing with the other speaker plugged in to the amplified housing whereas other better-quality units use separate amplifiers in each housing.

Another type of amplified-speaker system that is common for computers and similar applications is the 2.1 setup, exemplified by the Sony SRS-DB500 that I previously reviewed or the Logitech Z623. This consists of two small speakers capable of reproducing midrange and treble frequencies in stereo that are connected to a bass module, commonly known as a “subwoofer”. This module has the amplification for all of the speakers as well as the speaker for reproducing the bass frequencies. These systems are well known for very good bass response due to their separate bass module and typically have a separate bass-level control to manage that response.

A variation on this theme that I have noticed is a “5.1” surround speaker setup with five of the small speakers and separate input channels for each of the speakers. Examples of these include the Creative SRS-A520 and the Logitech Z506.These are typically pitched at games enthusiasts who want the full punch of the sound effects in their games.

Good-quality single-piece iPod speaker docks that I have mentioned previously in this site, like the Bose SoundDock speakers or the B&O Beosound 8 can work well as extension speakers in situations where speaker placement isn’t critical, such as music playback from a laptop or mobile device.

Most of the speakers are connected to the headphone output or line output of the sound sources. But more expensive variants of these speakers have integrated digital-decoding circuitry and connect to the sound source using a regular SPDIF or HDMI digital interconnect or USB connection.

As with buying hi-fi speaker systems, it pays to take your time, shop around and hear how the speakers sound if you want to buy a set that you will enjoy listening to. Keep an eye on the reviews in the computer and audio press and blogosphere so you can hear from other users about their experience. In a lot of cases, you will pay more for better-quality speakers.

USB and ExpressCard sound modules

Toshiba Tecra R950 - ExpressCard or USB sound-module connection options

USB or ExpressCard ports for external sound-module connections on a laptop

There is an increasing number of external sound modules available that connect to laptops using a vacant USB port or ExpressCard slot. Examples of these modules include  Creative’s Sound Blaster X-Fi Go Pro and Sound Blaster X-Fi Surround 5.1 Pro.

Most such modules work as full external sound cards which connect to a line input on an external sound system or a pair of powered speakers, with some having their own power amplifier so they can drive a set of regular speakers themselves.

But an increasing number of these devices have a coaxial or optical SPDIF digital output which passes a digital signal stream to a home theatre receiver, digital preamplifier or similar device either as a PCM or Dolby Digital bitstream. This connection is usually to permit playback of surround-sound content like game soundtracks through Dolby-Digital-equipped home-theatre receivers; but can allow you to exploit hi-fi-grade digital-analogue circuitry in the good digital-enabled sound equipment.

Select sound output in Windows Media Player

You can select a sound-output device for Windows Meidia Player

These devices present themselves to the operating system as an extra sound device and you would have to set your media-playback software to use these devices if you want the sound coming out of the speakers that are connected to these modules. This can be done through the “Options” or “Preferences” menus in the media playback software.

They, like the add-on sound cards installed in desktop computers, offer improved sound quality for most laptops due to having improved dedicated sound circuitry in them. Some of these modules are made for use with high-quality audio applications and may have input circuitry that also works with good-quality microphones, electronic musical instruments or good-quality equipment. They are usually targeted at professional musicians, production recording, broadcast and similar applications and are very dear; but are worth their salt if you place high value on sound quality.

Connecting USB speakers or external sound modules to your computer

Most of the USB speakers or sound modules present themselves as a “class device” to the computer’s operating system. This means that computers running Windows, MacOS X or Linux won’t need you to install driver software in order to have the audio device run. Some of the speakers or sound modules may require the use of manufacturer-supplied software in order to enable device-specific advanced functionality and this would be on a CD supplied with the hardware or available from the manufacturer’s site.

Playback Devices list in Windows 7

All sound-output devices in Windows 7

They will typically present themselves as another sound-output device or “sound card” which you can select in your operating system’s sound-configuration menus. It is also worth noting that most media-playback software and some games can allow you to choose the audio device that you want the program to use. This can allow you to use the regular sound setup like a laptop’s integrated speakers for audio prompts while a good-quality USB sound module connected to a good amplifier and speakers is used for music playback from Windows Media Player. Other programs may require you to change your default sound output device, which means that all the sounds, including the audio prompt sounds will come through the good-quality audio playback setup.

Conclusion

Once you know what to buy, you can then choose the right audio equipment to bring life in to your laptop’s, smartphone’s, Internet radio’s or other device’s sound output.

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Buyer’s Guide–Buying a printer for your small business

Introduction

You might be at that position where the computer printer at your small business is “on its last legs” or becoming impossible to run economically. On the other hand, you may find you are working your existing printer harder and need to consider a machine that is suited to your current workload.

Similarly, as the end of the financial year approaches, you will face advertising from computer resellers and retailers; and office-supply stores for technology like printers at very enticing prices, usually to allow businesses to buy capital equipment that can be quickly offset against their income for tax purposes. This can become more intense whenever the government announces significant tax breaks for business owners when they purchase capital equipment.

At this point, you could easily make a mistake concerning the purchase of a printer and end up buying the wrong machine for your needs. I have prepared this buyers’ guide so you can be sure you are getting the right printer to suit your business’s needs and be able to use a machine that gives you more “bang for the buck”.

Printer classes

Laser printers

HP LaserJet Pro 1560 printer

HP LaserJet Pro 1560 monochrome laser printer

A laser printer uses a xerographic dry-printing mechanism to print the image to the paper, in a similar way to how the classic photocopier worked. But they use a laser or, in cheaper printers, an LED to illuminate the photostatic drum with the computer-generated image to be printed.

Colour laser printers use four of these mechanisms to imprint the four colours and some cheaper versions may use only one drum and four toners to print the same page; which will take longer to come out.

This class of printer is typically known for printing many copies of “press-quality” documents and has started the “desktop-publishing” revolution.

It is worth knowing that some laser printers will use a cartridge which has an integrated drum as well as the toner supply while others like most of the Brother range will use a separately-replaceable drum unit. With the latter model, you may have to factor in the cost of the drum unit which will occur later on in the machine’s life; usually after 17000-25000 pages.

Business Inkjet printers

HP OfficeJet 6500

HP OfficeJet 6500 business inkjet multifunction printer

This class of inkjet printer is pitched primarily at business users and uses high-capacity cartridges and is optimised for a high duty cycle. They will also have business-target functionality like advanced fax functionality and the ability to work with advanced networks.

Consumer Inkjet printers

Canon PIXMA MX-350 multifunction printer

Canon PIXMA MX-350 multifunction printer with fax

Typically this class of network printer will be optimised for photographic printing and have inks that reproduce photos well. But on the other hand, they will be optimised for a low duty cycle with low-capacity ink cartridges. If they have fax functionality, this functionality will be very basic and as far as network connectivity is concerned, these printers will be suited to a basic small network.

Buying dilemmas that a business owner can face

As a business owner, you may face some buying dilemmas when you choose certain printers. This is especially as manufacturers design printers, especially multifunction printers, that effectively have similar capabilities to others of a different class. Here, the prices for the machines are similar and they may have similar print speeds or functionalities. But there may be certain key differences like the cost to run the machine or the machine’s prowess at particular print jobs.

The two main examples of this are: a high-end fax-equipped consumer inkjet multifunction like the HP Photosmart Premium Fax C410a ( an ePrint-enabled successor to the HP Photosmart Premium Fax C309a full-duplex inkjet printer) and a network-capable business inkjet multifunction like the HP OfficeJet 6500A Series; or a high-end business inkjet multifunction like the HP OfficeJet Pro 8500 Series and en entry-level colour laser multifunction like the HP Colour LaserJet Pro CM1415fnw.

High-end consumer inkjet vs a business inkjet

HP Photosmart Premium Fax C410 consumer inkjet printer

HP Photosmart Premium Fax C410 - a high-end consumer inkjet multifunction printer

A high-end consumer inkjet printer will be optimised for photo printing whereas a low-end networkable business inkjet will be primarily targeted at printing large runs of documents. This will affect ink-cartridge capacity, machine durability, functionality and printer throughput in many ways.

The former printer will typically have five or more inks and these inks will typically be in lower-capacity cartridges which need replacing more often than the four inks used in a low-end business inkjet printer. I would still suggest that businesses prefer the models with separately-replaceable ink cartridges because each ink can be replaced as needed.

As well, these consumer-level printers will typically have functions that make it easier to print pictures directly from a digital camera whether it’ is “tethered” by a USB cable or one takes the “film” (memory card) out of the camera. Some of these printers may offer the ability to print from a mobile phone via Bluetooth whether through integrated circuitry or an optional Bluetooth module.

HP OfficeJet 6500a business inkjet printer

HP OfficeJet 6500a - a modest-priced business inkjet printer

It may be worth knowing that some business-level inkjets are acquiring this kind of functionality but most of these printers won’t turn out the high-quality prints from digital cameras. Here, this functionality may be useful for applications where print quality doesn’t matter like hardcopy proofs that are used for “shortlisting” pictures for a project.

I would consider the premium consumer-level inkjet printer as a business printer if you rely on it for turning out high-quality digital prints whether from your PC or your digital camera and don’t do much printing on it. If you want the best of both worlds, you could get by with a dedicated photo-optimised printer for photographic jobs and a business-grade multifunction printer for regular business printouts.

High-end business inkjet vs an entry-level colour laser

An example of this situation is HP’s OfficeJet Pro 8500a inkjet and the HP Colour LaserJet Pro CM1415fnw.

HP OfficeJet Pro 8500a Plus multifunction inkjet printer

HP OfficeJet Pro 8500a Plus - a hign-end business inkjet multifunction printer

These printers have a similar throughput to each other when printing pages and also turn out a similar copy quality for the documents that are printed. It doesn’t matter whether the documents are ordinary text documents or documents filled with graphics. There may be some glaring functionality differences like the support for duplex operation or memory type. In this example, the OfficeJet Pro 8500a had “full duplex” functionality where it could print on both sides of a sheet of paper and scan both sides of a printed document whereas the LaserJet Pro CM1415fnw could only print or scan one side of a page. Conversely, the LaserJet Pro used flash memory for its fax-related features like no-paper receive, “fax vault” or send-later while the OfficeJet Pro used regular RAM memory for the same functions.

HP LaserJet Pro CM1415fnw colour laser multifunction printer

HP LaserJet Pro CM1415fnw - an example of an entry-level colour laser multifunction printer

The cost-per-page for an entry-level colour laser printer is slightly cheaper than a high-end business inkjet that is fed the high-capacity cartridges although manufacturers like HP are  implementing ink cartridges in these printers that have a similar or better cost-per-page to the laser printers.  On the other hand, the inkjet is more flexible with print media than the laser because it doesn’t use any heat to bond the marking material to the paper. This can make it useful for printing short-run documents to glossy material or printing out labels and transparencies.

Dedicated printer vs multifunction printers

An increasing number of printers on the market, like most of the printers I have reviewed on this site, are of the “multifunction” type with a built-in scanner mechanism. Here, these printers will be able to scan to the computer or work as convenience light-duty photocopiers. Most of the business-focused multifunction printers are able to work as fax machines and these units typically are equipped with an automatic document feeder.

Compare this with the dedicated printers which just print from a computer. This class of printer is typically represented by laser printers or some photo-grade inkjet printers pitched at the graphic arts users.

A multifunction printer can work well as an all-round “workhorse” printer for most office applications whereas a dedicated printer can serve “infill” requirements that the multifunction cannot achieve. For example, you could use a colour inkjet multifunction printer as the main office printer in a doctor’s office while you have a monochrome laser printer turning out health-insurance forms and accounts that are part of the workflow. Similarly, you could use an A3 colour inkjet printer for turning out plans, signs and similar documents while you use a regular A4 multifunction for regular printing needs.

Features worthy of note

Auto-duplex printing

A feature that is becoming common amongst a lot of printers is auto-duplex printing. Here, the printer is able to automatically “flip” the page to print on the reverse side of the paper. This has become popular as a paper-saving measure but some of us may find it of value as a desktop-publishing benefit.

This is demonstrably so with laser printers like the Brother HL4150CDN colour laser that I recently reviewed. Here, the printer can print “to the edge” yet work on both sides of the page. As well, laser printers don’t have to “dwell” for up to 15 seconds to allow the ink to dry, thus it doesn’t have significant impact on print speed. Infact the previously-mentioned Brother printer could work both sides of two pages at once and with this, there is effectively no throughput penalty if you intend to do duplex or booklet printing.

Some inkjet printers, namely HP printers, may require a non-printed margin at the top and bottom of the page for auto-duplex printing. This is perceived to permit reliable paper handling but can be a problem if you intend to print landscape documents or “work to the edge” in your documents. It is also worth noting that some printers such as cheaper high-throughput colour lasers may only be able to use this function for the common document paper sizes like A4 or Letter.

At the moment, it is worth noting that not many of these colour laser printers that have auto-duplex printing can print on both sides of small-page “flyer-size” documents like A5, DL or postcard. This is usually because the auto-duplex mechanisms are not able to reliably push the small sheets of paper through the colour laser printing mechanism in order to print on both sides of the flyer.

It may be worth knowing that some high-end A4 multifunction printers will be likely to have “full duplex” functionality. This means that they will have auto-duplex printing as well as an automatic document feeder that can scan both sides of a page. This typically leads to functions like automatic “both-sides” copying and faxing.

Use as the business fax machine

Brother MFC-7460DN monochrome laser multifunction printer

Brother MFC-7460DN monochrome laser multifunction printer

Firstly, most of the multifunction printers that appeal to the business user will have an integrated fax functionality. This can be of use if that old fax machine has nearly “had it” or is becoming costly to run due to its use of the thermal-transfer tape.

Infact, the purchase of a low-end plain-paper fax that uses this kind of printing is really a false economy because these fax machines will work through the thermal-transfer tape even if a page is partially written on. Instead, a fax-equipped multifunction printer uses the ink or toner when and where it needs to mark the document.

As well, it will save on bench space because you don’t have to have a separate machine to receive your faxes on. This is an important requirement for small offices and shops where this space can be at a premium.

It is also worth knowing that the inkjet and colour-laser multifunction printers that have the fax functionality are capable of receiving and transmitting faxes in colour to businesses equipped with similarly-capable equipment. Here, if you select “Colour Fax” on these machines, they will transmit the document according to “best-case” rules where if the receiving machine isn’t colour-capable, the transmission will succeed with the document being in monochrome. Other examples of these printers offering increased value for money as a small-business fax machine include the business class printers offering a “fax-vault” function where you can set the unit to hold received documents in memory and print them when required; or “print-to-fax” functions or “fax-to-computer” functions so you can fax a document from your computer or capture a faxed document to your computer without reprinting it.

Of course, these machines will have the expected fax functionality and can work with a dedicated fax line or a shared phone line, including support for “distinctive ring” dedicated-fax-number setups like Telstra’s Faxstream Duet.

What to be careful of

The two-cartridge colour inkjet printer

A lot of inexpensive consumer and small-business inkjet printers still use two cartridges for their printing setup. One of these cartridges is the black cartridge while the other is a “tri-colour” ink cartridge that houses the cyan, magenta and yellow inks in one plastic body.

The main problem with this design is that if one colour runs out in the colour cartridge, you have to replace the whole cartridge even if there is plenty of ink remaining for the other colours. It can become more exacerbating if you print material using your business’s trad dress which will be dominant in particular colours.

This may be OK for an occasionally-used printer but should be avoided if you use your printer frequently. Instead, look for a midrange printer that uses four or more ink cartridges with each colour in its own cartridge.

Wi-Fi-only network connectivity

Another feature common with inexpensive network multifunction printers is to provide Wi-Fi as the only network connection method. This is more so with the printers that are positioned at the consumer end of the market.

There are a few limitations with this setup. One is that you have to run a Wi-Fi network to obtain the benefits of network connectivity and this can be fraught with problems because of Wi-Fi being a radio based method. For example, walls made out of double-brick, cinder-block or reinforced concrete can play havoc with a Wi-Fi link; as can metal-reflective insulation. This limits the ability to connect the printer to your business network using alternative network technologies like Ethernet or HomePlug powerline networking.

As well, a lot of these printers require the user to configure them for the wireless network by connecting them to a host computer and running manufacturer-supplied software before they will work with that network. The exception to this rule for most of these printers is Wi-Fi network segments that use WPS “push-to-connect” setup, where you may push a button on the printer or select a menu option to start the configuration process. This is although the HP ePrint-enabled Wi-Fi-only consumer printers like the Photosmart Wireless-E B110a economy printer and the HP Envy 100 (D410) slimline printer do support configuration for non-WPS wireless networks from the control panel.

Recommendations for most businesses

General-office work

I would recommend a midrange network-connected business inkjet multifunction printer with four ink cartridges and auto-duplex printing for a “general-use” workhorse printer. It may be OK to use a high-end consumer printer or low-end business inkjet for low-traffic applications like a secondary printer.

A photo-optimised consumer printer like a Canon PiXMA or HP Photosmart may be good as a secondary printer for applications where you value high-quality photo prints with the full saturation. Some manufacturers may offer a dedicated photo-optimised printer but typically these can be very expensive and are pitched at the graphic-arts industries.

A dedicated monochrome laser printers can be useful for printing out forms or documents as what would be required of medical, legal or similar professions. Here, it would be wise to look for auto-duplex-equipped units if you turn out many multipage documents like most legal documents. As well, I would recommend that these machines are network-connected if you have or intend to have two or more computer workstations that will turn out the documents.

HP OfficeJet 7000 wide-format printer

HP OfficeJet 7000 A3 wide-format inkjet printer

If you don’t care about colour printing but turn out many documents, you could get by with a monochrome laser multifunction printer like the recently-released Brother units or the HP LaserJet M1212nf that I had previously reviewed. Then if you want to do colour printing at a later date, you could add on a dedicated colour printer like the HP OfficeJet 6000 inkjet; HP OfficeJet 7000 A3 inkjet or Brother HL-4150CDN laser “desktop-publishing workhorse”.

Promoting your business yourself

You may want to use a colour laser printer as a promotion tool for your business. I have infact written up an article about why it is worth considering these printers as a buying option. Here, it would be a good idea to stick to high-throughput colour laser printers like the Brother HL-4150CDN especially if you do a lot of your own short-run publishing, including “infill” print runs.

You may want to take advantage of the larger A3 page size as a paper size for signage and similar material. It may even come in handy within the office for turning out large spreadsheets or business charts that can have more detail. Here, you may look at a single-tray A3 multifunction like the HP OfficeJet 7500 for occasional A3 use or a dual-tray A3 multifunction like the Brother MFC-6490CW or dedicated A3 printer like the HP OfficeJet 7000 if you do turn out a lot of A3 material.

Brother MFC-6490CW A3 inkjet multifunction printer

Brother MFC-6490CW A3 inkjet multifunction printer

Conclusion

In simple terms, I would suggest that you check how much the printer will cost to run; such as the price of replacement ink or toner cartridges; the availability of high-capacity cartridges and the kid of cartridges used and other cost-saving practices like auto-duplex

Then make sure that your printer can suit your current needs as well as allowing for future needs.Here, you can then own and run the right printer that will serve your business’s needs for many years without being a drain on your business’s cashflow.

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HomeNetworking01.info’s guide to the Boxing Day Sales

Hi everyone!

I am writing this special article which will help you get the most out of your visit to the stores during the Boxing Day Sales. No doubt, you will have enjoyed your Christmas celebrations with your family and friends and are about to see the New Year in. Concurrently, you will be bombarded with print, TV, radio and online advertising by the big consumer-electronics stores and department stores concerning the deep discounts that are offered on computer and consumer-electronics equipment during the Boxing Day sales that will be on this week.

Here, the usual price ranges that you expect for certain classes of equipment may change due to the deep discounting that these retailers do but it is worth paying attention to the features that the equipment offers.

Beware that the “doorbuster specials” and other highly-promoted specials may not offer a good return on their value because they may be low-end equipment that doesn’t have the necessary features that you want out of the equipment. In the case of printers, you may find that you have two ink cartridges that are costly to replace when they run out.

Printers

I have started with this class of equipment here because most people end up making mistakes when they buy printers on price alone. Here, the very cheap multifunction printer will typically end up being costly to run and may need new ink very frequently.

When you buy an inkjet printer, look for printers that use four or more ink cartridges. Here, there is one cartridge per colour and if you run out of one particular colour, you just need to replace that cartridge.

As well, some printer manufacturers, most notably HP and Brother, sell multi-cartridge inkjet printers that can take high-capacity cartridges. Here, you benefit from the fact that during low-demand periods, you could get by with standard-capacity cartridges but can run high-capacity cartridges during the high-demand periods like end of school term for example.

A printer that is fully network-enabled can be worth its salt in situations where you have multiple computers or a laptop connected to the Internet via a wireless network. This is more important for a multifunction unit because the network-enabled multifunction units provide network access to the scanner as well as the printer with nearly all of them offering the ability to scan a document to a particular computer from the machine’s control panel. In the case of most of the recent HP (Hewlett-Packard) printers, you gain extra functionality like email-to-print or "print-app” functionality because of the fact that you have network functionality.

Network Infrastructure

Be careful when buying a router for your home network. There are two major classes of routers – a router, sometimes referred to as a broadband router, which only has an Ethernet connection on the Internet side and is designed to connect to a broadband modem; and a modem router, which has an integrated broadband modem, typically an ADSL2+ modem, or, in an increasing number of cases, a wireless-broadband modem for the Internet side.

If you are buying to replace an ADSL modem or older / failed ADSL modem router, it would be preferable to buy an ADSL2+ modem router. Similarly, you could buy an ADSL modem router as the core piece of equipment when you set up a new broadband service in a built-up area and have that service as a “BYO modem” or “wires-only” service, which attracts cheaper setup charges.

If your Internet service uses cable-modem, fixed-wireless, fibre-optic or similar technology and the provider provides a modem or “ONT” as the customer-premises equipment, you could get by with a broadband router connected to the modem’s Ethernet port as the network-Internet “edge”.

As for wireless routers, you may gain a better deal by looking at the 802.11n equipment because you can have them run with existing wireless-enabled network devices by using an 802.11g “compatibility” mode. This may not achieve the full high-speed throughput that 802.11n is designed for but still has a very good operating range for wooden or brick-veneer houses. You will still need to consider the second access point and wired backbone for houses with double-brick or masonry interior walls, including interior fireplaces and brick-veneer extensions built on to double-brick or masonry houses. 

Speaking of which, if you are buying HomePlug powerline equipment, it would be preferable to go for equipment that is based on HomePlug AV standards. Here, this equipment will comply with IEEE 1901 powerline-network standards and work properly with the newer HomePlug AV2 standards. As well, you will get higher data throughput and improved reliability across the powerline network.

Games consoles, TVs and consumer AV

The Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft XBox 360 can work beyond just being a games machine that is hooked up to the TV. These consoles, especially the PlayStation 3, can become very powerful networked media terminals that can benefit from media held on your computer’s hard disk, a network-attached storage device or the Internet.

It is also worth paying extra attention to DLNA-compliant network AV equipment. Here, you can start slowly towards the networked-AV world yet be in a position to play your pictures, music and video collection from your Windows or Mac computer through the use of cheap or free software. You may be able to use your smartphone or tablet computer as a media controller even if the media files are held elsewhere on the network. This can be achieved through the use of DLNA / UPnP AV media-controller software that is ether supplied on your phone or available through the phone’s application store for a modest sum of money or, in some cases, for free.

As well, you may find that an Internet radio may be an entry point in to the world of networked AV and also give you a chance to hear radio from distant lands. This is especially more so if you “cottoned on” to a radio station that you had heard on your travels and were enamoured by its programming. There may be some bargains out there that are worth considering as manufacturers move towards newer models of these radios.

Laptop, Notebook and Netbook Computers

Make sure that you buy the right computer for its role in your IT lifestyle rather than on the price. A 14” or larger laptop would work well as an easily-transportable alternative to a desktop or all-in-one whereas a netbook or 13” notebook would work well as a secondary computer that you use when you travel.

If the computer is expected to be the primary computer, look towards increased hard-disk capacity and RAM memory. Dedicated graphics may be important if games, multimedia and graphics are important to your computing life. Conversely, a 15” laptop with low-tier processor specifications may be useful for retirees who are going to use it primarily for word-processing, email or Web-browsing.

Conclusion

When you plan to take advantage of the Boxing Day Sales to buy your computer equipment, it always pays to know what you want and where you envisage your use of the equipment over the next two to three years.

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Buyer’s Guide – Buying a laptop or notebook computer

Introduction

I had previously posted a buyer’s guide about notebook and laptop computers but am providing an up-to-date version which reflects my experience with the notebook computers that I have reviewed over the last few months. It also will reflect what is part of the notebook-computer marketplace especially as the technology evolves and the cost of different specifications changes over time.

Notebook Computer Classes

Nowadays, it is becoming harder to place a notebook computer in a distinct class because of the fact that technologies are blurring these lines of division. For example, I am starting to see that most standard notebooks and desktop replacements and even the subnotebooks are appearing with 500Gb on the hard disk and 4Gb on the RAM. As well, I am seeing netbooks start to come with 250Gb on the hard disk through this year.

Netbook

Examples: Dell Inspiron Mini 10, HP Mini series, ASUS Eee series

HP Mini 210 netbook Dell Inspiron Mini 10 netbook

A netbook typically is of a small form factor, with a 10” widescreen display and works on a very low-end processor. It has a very low-capacity secondary-storage device like up to 160Gb or 250Gb for a hard disk or may use lower capacities with a solid-state storage device. The RAM memory will usually exist at 1GB at the maximum.

These machines are typically pitched as a secondary portable computer for people who do a lot of email or Web browsing “on the go” with a minimum of typing. They are also pitched for use in the home as an auxiliary computer such as in the kitchen or “Facebooking” in front of the TV.

Subnotebook / Ultraportable

Example: Dell Inspiron 13z, Apple MacBook Air series

A subnotebook or ultraportable computer is a larger computer that is typically designed for portable use and has a lot of emphasis on small size, thin profile and low weight. They may be optimised for long battery life.

Here, these computers will typically have a widescreen display of 13 to 14 inches and will have electronics optimised for low voltage operation. A lot of these machines may have a processor that has mainstream performance characteristics and will have a generous amount of primary RAM and secondary storage. The keyboard will still be large enough for you to comfortably type on and you may have a larger touchpad for navigating the screen. Some machines of this class may not have integrated optical drives and may not have high connectivity options such as a large number of USB sockets in order to allow for weight reduction.

Standard Notebook

Examples: Dell Studio 15, HP ProBook 4520, Sony VAIO E-Series, Apple MacBook Pro series

 Sony VAIO E-Series laptop  Dell Studio 15 Multimedia Laptop

The standard notebook computer is typically of large size and has average connectivity options. It will typically have a built-in optical drive, except some units that are built on a “thin-and-light” chassis. The screen will typically be a 15” widescreen type and these units will be built on a mainstream portable-use processor platform like the Intel Core platforms. An increasing number of these machines as well as the desktop replacements will be equipped with a full-width keyboard that has a separate numeric keypad so you can enter figures quickly.

Compaq Presario CQ42

There will be entry-level units like the Compaq Presario CQ42 which may be based on a processor platform like Intel Celeron and will have less memory, hard disk space and graphics performance than most of the standard notebooks. They will be pitched at students buying their first notebook computer or parents buying a notebook for their child who is starting senior school or university.

Desktop Replacement

A desktop-replacement notebook computer will be optimised for its role as an alternative to a desktop computer. It will have a large screen and have its processor, memory and hard disk space optimised for performance. It will rate highly with connectivity but will be very heavy and not rate well for battery runtime. Some machines may not even have a battery pack and will be sold as transportable computers or “desknotes”.

There are machines that will be optimised for multimedia activities like audio, video and photo editing and will have display and sound technology optimised for this activity. On the other hand, there will be gaming notebooks that are optimised for fast-response gaming “on the go”.

Product Positioning

Consumer

Examples: HP Compaq Presario laptops, Sony VAIO E-Series laptops

A laptop positioned at consumers will typically have a design that focuses on beauty and will be optimised for multimedia. They won’t have features that support reliability or security like fingerprint scanners, theft-recovery or data-encryption software or automatic hard-disk damage-limiters. In most cases, these units may be designed in a price-conscious manner because most consumers will end up buying on price alone.

There are exceptions to this rule where some manufacturers may try newer user-interface technologies on these computers or supply computers that are optimised for performance in the gaming or multimedia context.

Business

Examples: HP ProBook laptops, Dell Vostro laptops, Lenovo ThinkPad laptops

HP ProBook 4520 Series laptop

HP ProBook 4520 Series business laptop

Most machines made for this market are typically deployed by businesses, usually large businesses who buy a large fleet of these units for use by their staff during their tenure at the business. They have a different expectation to the consumer who buys a notebook for themselves.

A notebook positioned at the business end of the market will be optimised for reliability and security. For example, there will be various security technologies like fingerprint scanners or facial-recognition scanners built in to these machines. Manufacturers will also implement technologies like “free-fall” sensing on hard disks to safeguard data from being damaged by accident.

In most cases, there will be less emphasis on beauty or multimedia capabilities because the business market tends to adopt a more serious and conservative attitude towards machines that are “for the job”. This is although manufacturers like Dell are offering customisations for their computers that include different colour trims or improved multimedia capabilities.

Premium Models – the “Black-Label” end of the market

Examples: HP Envy series, Acer Ferrari series, ASUS Lamborghini series

HP Envy notebook computer

HP Envy 15 - an example of a premium notebook computer

An increasing number of laptop manufacturers are supplying at least one or more high-end laptop computer models that place emphasis on style and performance. The manufacturers will typically contract with a brand that is well-known for highly-desirable luxury goods to style the computer in the same image as goods associated with that brand, such as a Ferrari or Lamborghini “wet-dream” sports car. In some cases, other manufacturers, particularly those in the premium hi-fi or professional-recording scene, like B&O or Dr Dre’s “Beats” may contribute their technical know-how to a part of the computer’s functional design like its sound-reproduction capabilities.

These special computers will usually be pitched in a similar manner to luxury cars and are either for personal use or business use in a manner similar to how the company-funded executive’s car is used. Some of the machines in this class may not have the manageability and security functionality that a business notebook may have as standard but it may be worth knowing whether these feature are available as an option for that executive notebook that you are looking towards having.

These computers are worth their salt if you are considering using them for a significantly long time for both personal and / or business use but there should be a way of upgrading memory and hard-disk space on them or buying newer and better batteries later on down the track as you use them over the many years.

Questions

Do you intend to travel a lot; and how do you intend to travel?

If you do travel a lot, especially by public transport. you may have to give more focus towards portability. Here, you may have to consider either a netbook, ultraportable / subnotebooki or a “thin-and-light” standard notebook.

A netbook would be appropriate if you use it for ad-hoc emailing and other communications tasks but wouldn’t be suitable for long-term work. You would also gain better value out of it if you were using it as a computer that is supplementary to your main desktop or laptop computer.

An ultraportable or “thin-and-light” standard notebook may be more suitable if you intend to do a lot of work on this machine such as filing reports from the field. If you work with digital photos such as editing them, it may be worth looking towards a “thin-and-light” standard notebook for this work.

It is also worth investigating the possibility of opting-in higher-capacity batteries so you can obtain more run-time on the machine while you travel, especially by public transport. This is because not all public-transport options will provide access to ready power for charging.

Most standard laptops like the Dell Studio 15 may work well for those of you whose main travelling option is to pack the computer in to the boot (trunk) of your car. You won’t have to worry about carrying it around all of the time.

Do you use a desktop computer as your main computer?

You can place a lot of emphasis on portability and get away with lesser processor, RAM and hard-disk specifications if your are running a desktop computer or high-end laptop as your main computer. But you will need to make sure you have good network-connectivity options, preferably Ethernet as well as wireless so you can easily and quickly “check-out” data files from your main computer.

On the other hand, if you intend to use your notebook as your sole computing device, you should look towards performance, screen size, connectivity and hard-disk capacity as key deciding factors for your computer.  This also includes those people who prefer to buy a notebook computer over a desktop for their home computer because they have a small living space, prefer to stow it away when it’s not in use or want to move towards the “new computing environment”.

Application guidelines

These guidelines may sound too “pie in the sky” especially for small-business or consumer buyers who are used to buying the cheapest equipment available. But it is worth paying a bit extra for a machine that will cost less in the long run and have a long service life.

Student’s first notebook

If you are thinking of buying your child who is doing Year 11-12 (senior school / Form 5-6) secondary or tertiary (university, college (US) or TAFE) study their first laptop, you have to be sure not to short-change them. This advice may go against the commonly-accepted thought pattern of buying the cheapest laptop for a student because they may be more likely to damage the computer.

This class of students will use these computers for preparing their coursework that is part of their studies alongside online communications (email, social networks and instant messaging / Skype), games and multimedia such as being a jukebox for parties. They will be taking this machine between home, school / college and friends’ locations either by public transport, your car, a friend’s car or their first car which would most likely be a very old car which is likely to be very worn-out.

The processor, RAM and display subsystem are also of concern for all students, especially those whose work is graphically intensive, such as a design-based course or subjects that make heavy use of graphics or multimedia. This makes the machine more useable by the student because they don’t have to be waiting around for a task to complete on the computer.

The best choice for this class of user would be a standard notebook. Here, I would prefer for them to use a low-end business model, but with the highest-capacity hard disk that you can afford. The reason I would specify this is because the business models are pitched for reliability under the kind of abuse a student might dish at it such as frequent transporting, old cars with half-dead suspensions, perpetual party life and the like. I also specify the highest-capacity hard disk you can afford because there will have to be room for studies, digital pictures, MP3s and the like that will fill up the hard disk very quickly.

If cost is a real issue to you, you may find that refurbished or rebuilt ex-business computers may offer the right kind of value for this class of user. These would be available either online or through independent laptop specialists and these resellers would buy the older computers from large businesses or government departments who are upgrading their computer fleet on a regular basis or buy end-of-lease equipment from computer financiers. Then these dealers refurbish or rebuild the equipment before reselling it. With these deals, it may be worth finding out whether there are newer batteries available for these computers and / or whether they can upsize the hard disks in the computers to larger capacities. Similarly, you may have to raise the issue of whether you can buy an up-to-date version of the operating system and / or office software with the refurbished computer.

Blogger or journalist

This class of user will want to type wherever they are, such as when they are flying. They will also be needing to keep large amounts of data such as manuscripts or, nowadays, photos and video footage. As well, they need to be able to see the screen properly so they can edit their copy easily.

Here, a 13” ultraportable that can fit on the economy-class airline tray table, may work well for these users but they may have to investigate the possibility of buying extra power options like an “extra-power” battery when they do a lot of long-haul flights. In some cases, it may be worth looking towards a business-oriented ultraportable and use the security software on these units if they do a lot of controversial work such as reporting assignments in police states.

Work-home laptop for small business operator

If your laptop is going to be the “work-home”computer for your small business and you don’t have a computer at your small business, I would suggest a standard notebook or desktop-replacement computer. Here, these machines will have the performance that you need for your business life and enough storage capacity for your home and business life. Small-business users shouldn’t pass off the business-class notebooks and may find themselves benefiting from the features offered by this class of computer.

Moving towards the “new computing environment”

If you intend to move your home computing environment away from the desktop computer towards a laptop or notebook computer, it may be worth looking towards a computer which rates well on capacity and performance. This could lead to a mainstream consumer-rated standard notebook or low-end business notebook. Business users should move towards a mainstream business notebook if they want to move to the “new computing environment”.

On the other hand, if you want close-to-desktop functionality, it may be worth looking towards a mainstream business or multimedia notebook. Some of the premium-end computers could also suit this kind of user.

Secondary portable computer for a desktop user or regular notebook user

A 10” netbook could be useful as a secondary portable computer for emailing and other ad-hoc activities. On the other hand, if you do a lot of “typing up” on the go or do value a larger screen, you could go for a 13”-14” ultraportable computer because of its larger screen and keyboard. An alternative option may be a 14″-15″ low-specification standard notebook.  The hard-disk capacity may not matter much to this kind of use because you are likely to transfer the files from the secondary computer to the primary computer whenever you arrive at home or the office or transfer work-in-progress files to the secondary computer so you can work on them.

Here, you would have to make sure your secondary computer does well for connectivity especially as you are likely to connect it to your primary computer in order to transfer files. Here, you may have to make sure you have up-to-date networking requirements and at least a few USB ports so you can use memory keys as a backup measure.

Conclusion

The bottom line that you think of when buying that laptop computer is to factor what you are using it for and how you are using it so you can avoid shortchanging yourself by buying a unit that doesn’t meet your current needs or buying a machine that won’t see you through the long haul.

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