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How to select a laptop computer.

The laptop is becoming the computer of choice for CPAs--replacing the bulky desktop machine. And for good reason: It's light--as little as four pounds and can be as powerful as any desktop personal computer. As a result, laptop sales are growing far faster than those of their big desktop cousins.

Just a dozen or so years ago the only powerful computers were room-size machines that generated so much heat they needed their own air-conditioning systems. Today, a laptop with equal or more computational and graphics abilities can be tucked into a CPA's briefcase and operated in a cramped airline seat at 37,000 feet or on a commuter train. After returning to the office, the CPA doesn't have to download the laptop's new files manually into a desktop machine. Instead, the laptop can be conveniently plugged into a small desktop component, called a docking station, that connects the laptop to the office network.

And for those who still want those big 21-inch screens or spacious keyboards, both can be plugged into the laptop while you're working in the office.


While the term laptop is commonly used to describe all small, lightweight portable computers, often the term notebook is used to designate an especially small laptop. Because there are no specific standards to differentiate a laptop from a notebook, this article uses both terms interchangeably.

Before the first true notebook was introduced, just a few years ago, the only option traveling accountants who wanted to bring along their own computers had was to lug around the so-called transportable computer, which weighed about 20 pounds and was the size of a large picnic cooler. It was affectionately called a luggable; however, some CPAs had less affectionate names for it as they hauled it through airports.

Today, the well-equipped, peripatetic CPA carries a slim notebook that contains an ample hard disk (which can be slipped out so another hard disk loaded with other applications and files can be used in its place), a CD-ROM drive and a modem for communications. If the CPA is really up-to-date, the laptop also will contain full stereo sound capabilities, a microphone, video capabilities (for presentations) and cellular phone or beeper features.


To fit so many features into such a tiny space, laptop designers continuously apply the latest technologies. Thus, shopping for a laptop today is a bit more complicated than shopping for a conventional desktop machine. This article, while not focusing on any one make or model, provides the essential information you need to shop wisely.

Until this year, the price gap between laptops and their desktop cousins was wide, with laptops carrying about a 20% price premium. Now that laptops have become so popular, computer component developers are designing special equipment for them rather than trying to adapt desktop components (which not only inflated prices but also made the laptops unnecessarily heavy and bulky). As a result, prices have fallen, the machines have become leaner and their power has soared.

The CPU: The brain of a computer--and its most expensive component--is the central processing unit (CPU), which is a credit-card-size electronic device. The fastest are based on Pentium-class electronic chips. Pentium is Intel's registered name for the chip; the generic designation is 586, the label usually used by Intel's competitors. Speeds (also called clock rates) of laptops generally range from 75 to 133 megahertz (MHz), but expect higher speeds (150 and even 200 MHz) to be introduced soon. In general, faster is better, but it's also more expensive.

Bottom line: Try out machines at different speeds and see if your applications really need the fastest speeds. As a rule of thumb, speeds less than 100 MHz are uncomfortably slow. For perspective, only a few years ago, 33 MHz was considered fast.

Bus boards: A bus board is a Critical component that affects a computer's speed. It's the physical link between the CPU, which does the thinking, and the hard disk, which stores the program applications and raw data for the CPU. Think of it as a highway over which data flow from the hard disk to the CPU. The Windows 95 operating system, for example, allows computers with 32-bit bus boards to transfer data in 32-bit bundles, twice the size of older operating systems. Thus, independent of the clock rate, 32-bit systems operate inherently faster since they are capable of moving twice the amount of data. However, if the computer's bus board can handle only 16-bit data bundles, even a CPU with a fast dock rate will function sluggishly.

Bottom line: Look for a computer with a 32-bit bus board.

Cache: One of the big advances in computers is cache (pronounced cash) memory--a component that adds an extra burst of speed to an application. Cache is an auxiliary memory device that temporarily stores only the 'most recently used data and, when required, delivers it to the CPU very quickly. Instead of wasting time accessing the flower hard disk repeatedly for the latest data, cache memory is able to dish it up quickly.

Bottom line: Look for Cache memory of between 128 and 256 kilobytes. More is better and not much more expensive.

Power considerations: Today's notebook CPUs are somewhat different from their desktop counterparts, especially in their ;electrical design. Because they are portable and therefore battery-dependent, laptop CPUs are engineered to run on less voltage and to be miserly in using the available stored electricity. For example, notebook CPUs can be programmed to recognize when their workload is light, alerting them to go into an electricity-saving idle mode; once the workload increases (when you evoke an application or save a file to disk), idle switches to full power. Laptop CPUs also can turn off other electricity-draining components--such as sound and the modem--when they are not being used. In addition, most laptops have other programmable power-conservation features that can be toggled to different defaults.

To recharge their batteries or to run off wall-socket alternating current (AC) power, laptops come with small electrical transformers that convert the AC power to a battery's direct current (DC). Most notebooks use an external AC adapter--sometimes called a power brick because it's usually shaped like a small brick. The bricks have to be carried with the computer for recharging. However, some laptops have a built-in AC power adapter--a decided advantage because there is less to carry.

Bottom line: Look for a computer with a built-in adapter, or at least one that is very small and lightweight.

Batteries: There are three types of laptop batteries: nickel-cadmium (NiCad), nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) and lithium-ion. Of the three, NiCad batteries have the least storage capacity and are susceptible to a problem called memory effect. If the NiCad battery is repeatedly recharged before it is fully drained, the battery eventually interprets a partial charge as a full charge and refuses to store any more electricity--a decided disadvantage. NiMH batteries can store more electricity than NiCads and are not as sensitive to the memory-effect problem.

Lithium-ion batteries, relatively new entrants, are the best. They are about half the weight, deliver about the same amount of power, can be recharged faster and are least susceptible to memory effect. They also are the most expensive. Although manufacturer claims vary considerably, one can reasonably expect between two and three hours of full-power use from most lithium-ion batteries. Some of the newest laptops, with very effective power management features, claim much longer lives. Many such claims are advertising hype. If long battery life is important to you, ask the vendor for battery life documentation or an opportunity to test the machine. Also, consider buying spare batteries and carry them with you when you travel.

Much research on batteries is under way, but a light-weight, long-life, inexpensive battery remains elusive.

Bottom line: Stick to lithium-ion batteries; the price differential is worth it.

Random access memory (RAM): Most new laptops come with a standard 8 megabytes (Mb) of RAM. It's wise to add at least 8 more, for a total of 16 Mb. However, if you really want the machine to perform extremely well, especially if you use many intense applications and multimedia, boost RAM to 24Mb or 32 Mb.

Screens: There generally are two types of laptop screens: The less expensive and less attractive is a passive-matrix, dual-scan screen; the more expensive and higher quality one is an active-matrix screen, which produces more accurate colors, greater contrast and wider viewing angles. Although screen sizes range from about 9 inches to 12 inches, the larger screen is becoming standard.

Caveat: If you use your notebook for presentations and it has a 640 x 480 VGA (an industry designation for screen design) resolution, in most cases that is the best quality you can get through the projector or light panel. However, if you opt for the higher quality 800 x 600 SVGA resolution, presentation quality will be considerably enhanced, but you'll pay more for it. Also, seek a machine with a local bus video (a direct pathway, or bus, to the screen); it enhances the computer's graphics performance.

While there is much research focusing on screen technology--mostly to make the screens thinner and more power efficient--it will take a major breakthrough to improve on the current active-matrix screens. Even the best active-matrix screens lack the sharpness and refresh rate (the ability to display fast motion without delay and blur) of desktop screens.

Bottom line: Look for an active-matrix screen, SVGA resolution and local bus video.

Hard disks: The data storage capacity of notebooks has increased considerably over the past few years. Currently, drive capacities ranging from about 500 Mb to 1.2 gigabytes (Gb) are affordable. Sizes ranging from 1.6 Gb to 4 Gb are available, but the extra cost makes them somewhat unappealing at this time. Purchase a hard disk that meets your needs; bigger is not necessarily better.

There are cheaper options: As mentioned earlier, some of the newer laptops allow users to snap out one hard disk and replace it with another.

Bottom line: The best value seems to be a 800 Mb hard disk.

CD-ROM drives: Many laptops now come with slots for CD-ROM drives. However, many still use the old, slow CD technology--2x speed. Both the faster 6x and 8x models are very power hungry and tend to produce blurred images on laptop screens, as do all speeds in excess of 4x.

Bottom line: Hold out for 4x speed.

Multimedia: Many notebooks are designed to handle a variety of multimedia applications. In addition to CD-ROM drives, 16-bit sound boards and video-compression capability (called MPEG, and pronounced m-peg) are becoming standard features. Multimedia laptops also come with built-in stereo speakers and a microphone. Newer machines have 32-bit sound cards, but the price premium is high.

Bottom line: Unless multimedia enhancements are vital, consider skipping them.

Pointing devices: There are three types of pointing devices available on notebooks: integrated (built-in) trackballs (an upside-down mouse), touchpads (the controlling finger moves on a built-in fiat, pressure-sensitive surface) and integrated pointing sticks (a small movable button usually situated between the g and h keys). Some models come with an integrated pointing stick and either a trackball or touchpad. Often the trackball and touchpad are interchangeable. It is difficult to recommend one pointing device over the other since this decision is very subjective.

Bottom line: They all work well, so try each pointing device before deciding which to purchase.

Expansion slots: The workhorse peripherals of laptops are credit-card-size cards (dubbed PCMCIA cards) that are snapped into the computers expansion slots, which are usually situated in the side or back of the laptop. They serve many different functions: fax/modems, solid-state hard disks, local area network (LAN) adapters, sound generators and many more. They come in three standard designs and the technology is rather complex. Surface it to say that for maximum flexibility, be sure your laptop contains an expansion slot that can handle either a Type II or Type III card; the Type III card provides the most flexibility but is also more expensive. Type III cards will fit in a Type II slot, but not vice versa.

Bottom line: After deciding on the peripherals you want, ask the dealer which slots you need to accommodate those cards.

Modularity: Many manufacturers design their laptops with the greatest flexibility. For example, a single bay (a large slot inside the computer) can handle a spare battery, a floppy drive, a hard drive or a CD-ROM drive. These components can be switched as needed so a user can tailor the configuration to suit the immediate situation. Modular bays also can serve as a way to upgrade, say, to a faster CD-ROM or a larger hard drive.

Bottom line: Look for at least one modular bay.


Other features to consider:

* Ports. Look for at least one each of the following ports: parallel, serial, external monitor and PS2. Some notebooks have a built-in SCSI II port, which greatly enhances the ability to add on other peripherals.

* Port replicator. This great feature allows you to connect, say, a printer, a LAN connector card, an external monitor and a desktop mouse into one side of the replicator while the notebook plugs into the other side. In this way, you can quickly plug and unplug the notebook into the replicator without messing with all of the device connections.

* Docking station. Much like port replicators, docking stations can do even more. For example, one can hold extra slots for expansion cards and additional drives (hard, floppy and CD-ROM).

* Carrying case. Invest in a strong, well-padded case. It allows room to carry extra components and provides protection against those inevitable bumps.


*THE LAPTOP IS BECOMING the computer of choice. It's light and small and can be as powerful as any desktop personal computer. Laptop sales are growing far faster than those of desktop machines.

* HERE ARE THE THINGS to look for when shopping for a laptop:

* Select a machine with a Pentium or 586 chip and a clock rate of at least 100 MHz.

* Insist on a 32-bit bus board; the standard 16-bit boards slow down the computer even if it has a fast clock rate.

* Be sure the laptop has at least 128 kilobytes of cache memory--256 is better.

* Avoid nickel-cadmium and nickel-metal-hydride batteries. The best bet is a lithium-ion battery: It lasts longer and doesn't suffer from memory effect as badly as the other batteries.

* Buy at least 16 Mb of random access memory.

* Stick to an active-matrix screen, SVGA resolution and local bus video.

* Don't buy less than a 800 Mb hard disk.

* Hold out for a 4x speed CD-ROM drive; for laptops, faster is not better.

* Skip multimedia components unless you absolutely need them. They are power hungry and add weight to the machine.

* Be sure the laptop has at least one modular bay to plug in a new component.

* Buy either a port replicator or a docking station to make office use more convenient.

* Invest in a strong, well-padded carrying case.

JAMES E. HUNTON, CPA, PhD, is assistant professor of accounting at University of South Florida, Tampa. He is a member of the American Institute of CPAs and the American Accounting Association.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Hunton, James E.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Nov 1, 1996
Previous Article:A letter to the profession.
Next Article:Reinventing the CPA.

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