Language Selection

English French German Italian Portuguese Spanish

Seeing Through Laptop Lingo

Filed under
Hardware

An amazing thing has happened over the past decade: Laptop computers, once expensive niche products, have become commonplace devices. By one estimate, they outsold desktops for the first time in the United States in the second quarter of this year. Many people now buy laptops that will never leave a desk, just because they like having all of the computer in one unit.

But as laptops have reached this mainstream status, they have not become a simpler purchase to make. That is to say, they're marketed just like most other electronic items: Manufacturers routinely skimp on features and capabilities -- to save themselves a few dollars or so they can "upsell" you other products and services -- and it's up to you to spot what got left out.

The biggest area of compromise these days is the battery. It's bad enough that many laptop vendors act as if a machine's battery life is either a state secret or a mystery -- there is no EPA estimate or Energy Star certification for this sort of thing.

But several of these companies seem to have also adopted one of the worst habits of the digital-camera business.

Just as some digicam manufacturers bundle "starter" memory cards that accommodate only a handful of photos, some laptop makers -- including Dell, Gateway and Hewlett-Packard -- now ship computers with batteries that will expire before you can finish watching a movie.

If you want a longer run time, you'll have to upgrade to a heavier, sometimes larger replacement battery. If you don't think to do this as you order the machine online, you wind up paying for two batteries, one of which will be doomed to collect dust in a closet somewhere.

Laptop weights are another area where customers can be led astray. The problem isn't with the many "desktop replacement" models that weigh seven or more pounds and aren't made to be taken anywhere (trust my shoulders, even six pounds is more than you want to lug around all day); the problem lies with laptops advertised as "thin and light."

Once you set it up for any kind of portable computing, that featherweight may have bulked up. Those optional longer-life batteries can add half a pound by themselves, as can the AC adapter -- many tip the scales at almost a pound, even though the adapters included by more thoughtful manufacturers weigh less than half as much.

Laptop screens can have their own quirks to consider. A larger screen may not show any more detail than a smaller display with the same resolution; it will just make the text and icons on the screen look bigger and slightly duller. Apple's plus-sized 14-inch iBook is the prime example of this, with a screen that shows no more detail than the 12-inch LCD on its smaller sibling. (Note that a machine with a widescreen LCD will provide a better movie-watching experience and will likely fit better on the tray table of an airliner.)

Just as in desktops, it's easy to buy too much processor in a laptop. For most uses, even the slowest processor available runs more than fast enough. Do not let yourself get spooked by the relatively low clock speeds of many laptop processors, because these no longer effectively measure performance. A Pentium M, for example, computes just as quickly as a Pentium 4 with a much higher gigahertz figure.

Memory is more important overall; spending $50 to double a computer's memory from 256 to 512 megabytes will usually yield a greater speed-up than dumping $100 on a faster processor. If you're buying a Windows laptop, be wary of those with "integrated" graphics accelerators, which borrow memory from the system -- often up to 128 megabytes -- to draw three-dimensional graphics when you play games.

Laptops now advertise hard drives of 60, 80 or 100 gigabytes, but you always get less than that. First, everybody in the industry uses a definition of "gigabyte" that artificially pads out the size of the drive by about 7 percent. (The laptop reviews on Page F7 list the correct figures.) Second, many vendors of Windows laptops use some of the hard drive to hide a set of system-recovery programs, including a backup copy of Windows, instead of providing those on separate CDs or DVDs.

Third, a few Windows machines now include a separate, simpler software environment that you can run instead of Windows when you only want to watch a movie or listen to music. That eats up a little more disk space of its own. (It also should induce no small amount of angst at Microsoft, which has worked for years to make Windows the environment of choice for watching movies and listening to music.)

CD-burner drives long ago became standard on laptops as well as desktops -- aside from the very cheapest models -- but DVD-recordable drives are often an option. They are worth considering, if only to make it easier to back up your data.

Most non-Apple laptops include a slot for the memory cards used in digital cameras, handheld organizers and cell phones, but -- unlike on desktops -- these slots rarely accommodate every card format. If your portable gadgets use SD Cards, the most popular type, you should be fine. Otherwise, you'll have to check the fine-print specifications for a laptop to see what cards it does accept.

Communication and expansion -- how you get data in and out of the machine -- are, by contrast, refreshingly straightforward to decipher. The more USB ports, the more gadgets you'll be able to plug in, from printers to a digital camera to a digital-music player. A FireWire port can accept an iPod or a camcorder, should you want to make some home movies on the laptop. A modem, Ethernet jack (for a wired network) and WiFi (for the wireless kind) are all pretty much standard.

The only options to ponder here are Bluetooth, which can link a laptop wirelessly to some newer cell phones and handheld organizers, and a PC Card slot, which you'll likely need only if you plan to use a cellular data service such as Verizon Wireless's BroadbandAccess.

You can ignore the typical software bundle, as most (Apple's excluded) leave out such essentials as spyware defenses, a decent photo album program and a modern Web browser. Fortunately, those three items are all free downloads.

Finally, there are the manufacturers' service and support policies. Everybody offers a minimum period of warranty coverage when you can call for help and not be charged, but those periods vary -- by default, Dell's warranty runs only 90 days on some models. Afterward, how much you'll pay can be all over the map. Most companies charge a "per-issue" fee -- you pay once to get a problem solved, no matter how long that takes.

Gateway, however, earns a dishonorable mention for charging $2.95 a minute for out-of-warranty calls.

As an option to these a la carte fees, vendors are pushing service contracts and warranty extensions. It's comforting to think that, by paying an additional $300 or $400, you've eliminated all risk from your computing purchase.

But you'll also wind up spending a large fraction of the computer's value in the process. And at some point, the laptop will outlive its usefulness anyway. Unless you think you're going to abuse the laptop heavily, you're better off setting that money aside for the next computer -- or spending it to get whatever the vendor left out of your current machine.

By Rob Pegoraro
The Washington Post

More in Tux Machines

today's leftovers

  • Last gasp: Microsoft updates Get Windows 10 nagster, KB 3035583, yet again
    With nine days to go, Microsoft really, really wants you to claim your free upgrade to Windows 10. Come to think of it, Microsoft has really, really wanted you to upgrade your Windows 7 or 8.1 PC to Windows 10 for more than a year, and backed it with the GWX subsystem -- first installed by KB 3035583 in March 2015, 15 months ago.
  • AMD FireRender is now the open-source Radeon ProRender
  • NWM: An X11 Window Manager Written In Node.js
    In case you ever wanted to have a Node.js window manager, there's now one that works for X11 environments that works on Chrome OS, Debian, and friends.
  • We’ve come a long way from where we began!
    After working for several weeks on our WikiRating:Google Summer of Code project Davide, Alessandro and I have slowly reached up to the level where we can now visualize the entire project in its final stages.
  • Bringing your kids to GUADEC 2016
  • GNOME Keysign - Report #2 GSoC 2016
    More than a week ago I blogged about the new GUI made with GtkBuilder and Glade [1]. Now, I will talk about what has changed since then with the GUI and also the new functionality that has been added to it. I will start with the new "transition" page which I've added for the key download phase. Before going more in depth, I have to say that the app knows at each moment in what state it is, which really helps in adding more functionality.
  • Introducing: openSUSE heroes
    During the last weeks, the openSUSE board and others expressed their concern about the current state of some openSUSE infrastructure: especially the reaction times to change something in the setup were mentioned multiple times. Looks like we lost some administrators and/or contact points at SUSE who helped out in the past to eliminate problems or work together with the community. As result, there was a meeting held during the openSUSE Conference 2016, including some SUSE employees and openSUSE community members to discuss the current situation and search for some possible solutions. The discussion was very fruitful and we’d like to share some of the results here to inform everyone and actively ask for help. If you want to join us, the openSUSE heroes, do not hesitate to contact us and join an incredible team!
  • Artila Releases New Cortex-A5 based industrial embedded Linux computer

Server Administration

  • Open Source Docker Monitoring & Logging
    Docker is growing by leaps and bounds, and along with it, its ecosystem. Being light, the predominant container deployment involves running just a single app or service inside each container. Most software products and services are made up of at least several such apps/services. We all want all our apps/services to be highly available and fault tolerant. Thus, Docker containers in an organization quickly start popping up like mushrooms after the rain. They multiply faster than rabbits.While, in the beginning, we play with them like cute little pets, as their numbers quickly grow we realize we are dealing with a herd of cattle, implying we’ve become cowboys. Managing a herd with your two hands, a horse, and a lasso will only get you so far. You won’t be able to ride after each and every calf that wonders in the wrong direction. To get back to containers from this zoological analogy—operating so many moving pieces at scale is impossible without orchestration—this is why we’ve seen the rise of Docker Swarm, Kubernetes, Mesos, CoreOS, RancherOS, and so on.
  • DevOps: A Pillar of Modern IT Infrastructure
    A massive transformation is underway in the way we manage IT infrastructure. More companies are looking for improved agility and flexibility. They are moving from traditional server stacks to cloudy infrastructure to support a new array of applications and services that must be delivered at breakneck pace in order to remain competitive.
  • The one big change in IT
    Yet Bob does not believe the devops hammer should be used on anything that looks remotely like a nail. Accounting systems, supply chain management systems, warehouse management systems, and so on do not benefit from the constant modification enabled by devops. Those are bound by precise, interlocking processes along with granular permissions and regulations. Here, continuous change invites disaster of the type that ITIL-huggers and OCM (organizational change management) proponents fear most.

Linux 4.7

  • Collabora contributions to Linux Kernel 4.7
    Linux Kernel 4.7 was released this week with a total of 36 contributions from five Collabora engineers. It includes the first contributions from Helen as Collaboran and the first ever contributions on the kernel from Robert Foss. Here are some of the highlights of the work Collabora have done on Linux Kernel 4.7. Enric added support for the Analogix anx78xx DRM Bridge and fixed two SD Card related issues on OMAP igep00x0: fix remove/insert detection and enable support to read the write-protect pin. Gustavo de-staged the sync_file framework (Android Sync framework) that will be used to add explicit fencing support to the graphics pipeline and started a work to clean up usage of legacy vblank helpers.
  • The new Linux Kernel 4.7 is now officially released
    For users who are running some form of Linux, this should come as welcome news--the final version of the Linux Kernel 4.7 is now finally released. Linux founder Linus Torvalds said of the announcement, “Despite it being two weeks since rc7, the final patch wasn’t all that big, and much of it is trivial one- and few-liners. There’s a couple of network drivers that got a bit more loving.”
  • Linux 4.7 lands

Leftovers: Software

  • OpenVZ 7.0 Becomes A Complete Linux Distribution, Based On VzLinux
    OpenVZ, a long-standing Linux virtualization technology and similar to LXC and Solaris Containers, is out with their major 7.0 release. OpenVZ 7.0 has focused on merging the OpenVZ and Virtuozzo code-bases along with replacing their own hypervisor with that of Linux's KVM. Under OpenVZ 7.0, it has become a complete Linux distribution based upon VzLinux.
  • OpenVZ 7.0 released
    I’m pleased to announce the release of OpenVZ 7.0. The new release focuses on merging OpenVZ and Virtuozzo source codebase, replacing our own hypervisor with KVM.
  • Announcing git-cinnabar 0.4.0 beta 2
    Git-cinnabar is a git remote helper to interact with mercurial repositories. It allows to clone, pull and push from/to mercurial remote repositories, using git.
  • FreeIPA Lightweight CA internals
    In the preceding post, I explained the use cases for the FreeIPA lightweight sub-CAs feature, how to manage CAs and use them to issue certificates, and current limitations. In this post I detail some of the internals of how the feature works, including how signing keys are distributed to replicas, and how sub-CA certificate renewal works. I conclude with a brief retrospective on delivering the feature.
  • Lightweight Sub-CAs in FreeIPA 4.4
    Last year FreeIPA 4.2 brought us some great new certificate management features, including custom certificate profiles and user certificates. The upcoming FreeIPA 4.4 release builds upon this groundwork and introduces lightweight sub-CAs, a feature that lets admins to mint new CAs under the main FreeIPA CA and allows certificates for different purposes to be issued in different certificate domains. In this post I will review the use cases and demonstrate the process of creating, managing and issuing certificates from sub-CAs. (A follow-up post will detail some of the mechanisms that operate behind the scenes to make the feature work.)
  • RcppArmadillo 0.7.200.2.0
    The second Armadillo release of the 7.* series came out a few weeks ago: version 7.200.2. And RcppArmadillo version 0.7.200.2.0 is now on CRAN and uploaded to Debian. This followed the usual thorough reverse-dependecy checking of by now over 240 packages using it. For once, I let it simmer a little preparing only a package update via the GitHub repo without preparing a CRAN upload to lower the update frequency a little. Seeing that Conrad has started to release 7.300.0 tarballs, the time for a (final) 7.200.2 upload was now right. Just like the previous, it now requires a recent enough compiler. As g++ is so common, we explicitly test for version 4.6 or newer. So if you happen to be on an older RHEL or CentOS release, you may need to get yourself a more modern compiler. R on Windows is now at 4.9.3 which is decent (yet stable) choice; the 4.8 series of g++ will also do. For reference, the current LTS of Ubuntu is at 5.4.0, and we have g++ 6.1 available in Debian testing.