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Laptops losing weight, gaining strength; a guide to selecting laptop computers.


A guide to selecting laptop computers.

The urge that 10 years ago caused engineers to reduce a computer from a room-size object to one the size of a suitcase is still not satisfied. Today, engineers have removed weight and size from that desktop computer so that it fits comfortably on your lap or in your briefcase.

These smaller computers--known as "laptops"--are approaching and, in many cases, surpassing the power, storage and graphics capabilities of today's desktop personal computers (PCs). As they do, more and more people in the accounting profession are discovering they prefer such a slim, compact, portable PC to a computer that weighs more.

To qualify as a laptop, a computer must be a fully capable PC that weighs less than around 15 pounds. Several outperform any desktop computer you're likely to have, including the millions of XT-class and AT-class PCs still in use. Built around the 80386 chip, these "light heavyweights" offer megabytes (megs) of memory, massive hard drives and high-resolution displays.

But while many of today's laptops offer enough performance to meet virtually any accountant's requirements, there are differences between them that you should consider before buying one.


A number of laptop offerings require a power cord. This can limit accountants who work on airplanes, in waiting rooms or in field locations without power.

The batteries that power other laptops have come a long way in the last two or three years. Battery packs in many systems now weigh less than a pound and can provide power for three to six hours without recharging. One battery manufacturer has announced a 20-hour battery pack that should appear in some laptop PCs later this year. Some laptops save power by shutting down the hard disk, the screen and other subsystems when they're not in use.

Make sure any laptop you acquire has enough battery power to work when and where you need it. If you nearly always will be near an electrical outlet, you shouldn't pay for or carry batteries for long-lived operation. If you work mainly away from plug-in power or need to move quickly from room to room (for example, for a physical audit of inventory), you will want a strong battery system. You may want to specify a removable battery--not all laptops have them--so you can slip in a spare if the power runs out.


The measure of any PC is the amount and scope of work it will do. Laptops with high-performance 80386 (MS DOS) or 68000 (Macintosh) processor chips and math co-processors, many megs of memory, 20-meg and larger hard disks and 640 x 480 dot screens compute with the best desktops.

Higher prices generally buy more computing power and less bulk. That means extra performance doesn't require extra weight. Installing a couple of megs of memory may add a few ounces, but a 40-meg hard drive is not necessarily any heavier than a 20-meg one. The superfast, superpowerful 80386 chip weighs only a few grams more than less powerful ones.

The cheapest, lightest computers (equivalent in processing speed and power to desktop PCs or XTs) contain a single drive, a simple processor and a text-only display. These are fine for simple spreadsheets and word processing applications. More expensive, somewhat heavier laptop PCs contain more advanced processor chips and two disk drives, possibly including a 20-meg or larger fixed disk. These suit situations that demand more sophisticated computations with larger data files. You will need one of the most expensive, highest performance and generally heaviest laptops only to perform extremely extensive computations, to display detailed graphics on-site or to store and manipulate extremely large data files.

One good aspect of many laptops is that you can upgrade them as needed, adding more memory, a math coprocessor, additional or larger drives and better display capabilities. If you think you may eventually want to use your laptop in more demanding situations, evaluate its potential to accept modular upgrades.


Laptop computers come in two basic shapes. The "lunchbox" variety, which tends to be heavier, sits best on a solid table or desk. One broad side folds down to become the keyboard and reveal the display screen. A "clamshell" laptop is shaped like a phone book. It works well laid flat on either a table or your lap. Half the top flips up and folds back to reveal the keyboard and become the display screen.

Consider shape carefully. The clamshell can fit more easily into your briefcase and on your lap than a lunchbox shape, which centers the weight and can be difficult to balance on your knees. But bear in mind that lunchbox laptops are often heavier because they have more computing power, more storage and better display screens. Eventually, performance distinctions between lunchbox and clamshell computers will disappear. Some of the newest and most powerful laptops--with 80386 chips, gas plasma screens and 100-meg hard disk drives--have the slimmer clamshell design.


An important element of any computer system is the display screen. You will look at the display screen nearly all the time you are operating the PC.

Early laptops had low-resolution screens, but many are now coming to market with better-resolution displays. Although they are monochromatic, these displays provide more than enough visual detail for most financial work.

Unlike desktop PCs with their heavy, AC-powered, television-like screens, laptops use advanced technologies to produce high-quality displays with minimal weight and power drain. One technique for minimizing both is to diminish the size of the screen. The typical laptop's 10- or 11-inch screen is 20% smaller than the average desktop's display. But some laptops provide only half-screen or quarter-screen displays, which are shorter and/or narrower than the standard "80 character by 25 line" screens on desktop PCs. Few accountants do much with on-screen graphics, which is fortunate because the shortened laptop screens distort graphics. But even with the usual numbers and letters, an abbreviated display may slow you down and cause productivity problems.

Some laptop displays rely on liquid crystal displays (LCDs) that work by reflecting room light, which saves considerably on battery power. But ordinary LCDs can be hard to read and, if you are working in too dim a light, can even appear blank. A common solution is to add backlighting to the display. Newer types of screens use gas plasma or electroluminescent technology, which causes the display to glow brightly, to offer excellent detail and good readability in almost any lighting conditions. Further refinements of these technologies, soon to reach the market from GRiD and other vendors, promise even better-quality displays on laptops.

At present, most laptops have only monochromatic screens. NEC Technologies already offers a color laptop and in 1990 other laptops with color capabilities will be introduced. But these color screens can be murky and full of shadows, scrolling can be unsatisfactory and the screen may only look good from a few angles.

Make sure your laptop can display the level of text and/or graphics you normally use and that you can see this information easily in the lighting you will have available on the job.


It is important to evaluate the keyboard of a laptop computer. Trying to trim weight and size from their laptops, manufacturers often skimp on the number of keys, their size and the distance between them. They also rearrange and require double duty of critical keys such as "control," "shift," "alternate," the function keys and the arrow and number keypads.

The result, in many cases, is a cramped, awkward keyboard that slows you down. An accountant who is used to punching in long columns of numbers on a 10-key pad may hate the laptop's arrangement of numbers on the keyboard. Virtually all the habits brought over from full-size keyboards can lead to mistaken keypresses.

Unfortunately, there are no easy ways to measure or describe a keyboard. Major variables you should consider include the feel of the keys, the layout, the size and interkey distance, as well as the number of keys on the keyboard.


When laptops were rudimentary machines, professionals used them mostly as "terminals"--devices that communicate over telephone lines with the computers that actually hold and process the user's data. But today's laptop PCs can hold and process plenty of data on their own, so they can be extremely useful even without any communications capability.

For example, many laptops can use spreadsheet, word processing and other software required by the accountant. Therefore, they can be taken to a client's office for balancing the books, performing a complete audit or writing a report without communicating with another computer.

Nevertheless, you may want to communicate with other computers. Some accountants use their laptops to enter data at a client's location and then ship the data files over telephone lines to a more powerful computer for highly elaborate processing or consolidation with data from other periods or operating units. Other accountants save keystrokes and eliminate errors by importing data to their laptops from clients' computers.

The most common method of communicating with a laptop computer is through a modem, a device that talks to other modems over ordinary telephone lines at speeds of 300, 1200 or 2400 bits per second (bps). A measure of how quickly computer data can be transferred, bps is often used interchangeably with baud (it takes 10 bits to communicate one letter or number). Higher communications speeds become important with longer files. For example, 100 kilo-bytes of data, which represents a good-sized spreadsheet, can be sent from a laptop to another computer in about 30 minutes at 300 bps; this takes only about 7 minutes at 2400 bps.

If you decide you need communications in your laptop, you'll find that many of the new machines have room for an internal modem. Even if one does not, you can connect to an external modem, provided the computer has a serial port--the standard modem connector.


A math coprocessor is a second chip that teams up with the computer's main processor chip to greatly speed computations required by large spreadsheets, graphics and other math-intensive operations. The math coprocessor can extract square roots, perform trigonometric functions, plot graphics and solve math problems much faster than the computer's general purpose processor chip can. Installing a math coprocessor also lets the computer's main processor continue with other operations and ignore many mathematical chores.

Programs such as Lotus 1-2-3, dBASE IV and Windows can run math-related operations up to 15 times faster with a math coprocessor installed. But although many accounting or spreadsheet programs work better with math coprocessors, not all do.

Many accountants believe a math coprocessor increases productivity enough to be a good investment. If you think you will want to install one in your laptop, make sure there's room for it. Then consider the cost of the chip (from $100 to $1,000) specified for each machine. Sometimes a slower and thus cheaper math coprocessor will still improve the overall performance of your laptop significantly.


A highly capable laptop PC weighs 7 or 8 pounds; one that really cranks through voluminous financial data probably weighs at least 10 pounds. Many practitioners report that certain computing add-ons--such as modems and plug-in peripherals--are easily worth an extra pound or two of metal and plastic.

The better laptops allow you to upgrade and add on extensively. Once you have the math coprocessor and communications, a common avenue to further improve performance is to add user memory. Some laptops can hold up to 10 megs. The extra memory supports more powerful application software with larger data files. It also can shorten some processing times.

The next addition is usually more storage, by means of either internal or external disk drives. Adding a 20-meg or 40-meg drive boosts weight only a pound or two but eliminates the need to switch among floppy disks containing data and programs and allows manipulation of very large data files. A few laptop users like to plug into better quality add-on displays, even though these external devices are usually far less portable than the laptops.

One approach to expanding a laptop's power is to make it the centerpiece of a combined portable/stationary computing system. Rather than switch between a desktop and a laptop computer, an accountant may prefer to use his or her laptop in both the home office as well as at the client's office.

To facilitate this, a few laptops, notably from NEC and GRiD, have special expansion trays and docking stations. The laptop is self-contained when unplugged from the tray or station, which can contain AC power, desktop-quality video displays and standard expansion slots (which allow you to plug into networks and add memory, full-size disk drives and other peripherals). It remains on your desk when you take your laptop with you but lets the laptop operate with the capacity of a desktop PC when you are working in your office.


If you travel frequently with your computer, two other products may simplify your life. One is a carrying case with room for the cords, spare batteries, data disks and other small items that you want when you're away from your office.

The second one is file transfer software. These special utility programs can shuttle data directly between your laptop and another computer far faster than a modem can. File transfer software is so valuable that several laptop vendors bundle it with their computers.


Laptops still carry price tags hundreds or even thousands of dollars higher than those of comparable desktop PCs. Because computer prices should continue to drop, professionals who can benefit from carrying their computers between locations may be able to justify this pint-size PC acquisition more easily. Even if prices hold steady, the future will bring laptops with more power and less weight.

Users of desktop PCs will continue to notice--as their computing needs outgrow their present machines--that now they can get all the power and storage needed in a package about the size of a phone book.

PHOTO : The size of laptops has become so small, they will easily fit in a briefcase.

PHOTO : Laptops can be taken to a client's office to assist in the audit, write a report or even perform a complete audit.

ROBERT A. MOSKOWITZ is a business consultant based in Woodland Hills, California. He writes frequently about productivity, office automation and technology.
COPYRIGHT 1990 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Moskowitz, Robert A.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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