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Size, weight, storage options determine laptop selection

Ultra-portable laptops have their advantages, but storage factors, such as internal DVD drives as well as dual drives, contribute to the selection of a desktop replacement laptop.

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In most organizations, it's the network administrator's responsibility to order computer hardware for the users. After all, controlling the acquisition process is the only way you can guarantee that your staff will be able to support the new hardware. When it comes to ordering desktop workstations, the "one size fits all" approach usually works, unless a particular department has a specific need. But this is not the case for laptops. Although any laptop will usually get the job done, some laptops will meet your users' needs better than others.

The key factor in choosing laptop hardware is how the employee will be using it most of the time. This is because there are big tradeoffs between performance and portability.

Laptop form factors

The three primary laptop form factors are ultra portable, standard size and desktop replacement. Each form factor has its pros and cons when it comes to usability.

Ultra portables laptops are small laptops that weigh less than four pounds. The big selling point for these machines is their small size and weight, and they are especially useful for road warriors.

Ultra portables can be used almost anywhere. Years ago I bought an ultra portable for writing when I was on an airplane. It worked out fine, but when the time came to replace the ultra portable, I wanted more power, so I opted for a standard-sized laptop. I soon found that on some flights, the rows of seats are so close to each other that it's impossible to open a standard-sized laptop all the way. A frustrating discovery, to say the least. Even so, my current laptop has an even larger form factor, because for me, performance is far more important than portability.

Another reason I made the transition to a desktop replacement laptop is because of its full-sized keyboard. Sure, you can plug an external keyboard into just about any laptop, but what traveler wants to tote an extra keyboard? And if you're like me, and do a lot of typing or have large hands, a full-sized keyboard is something you'll appreciate.

A desktop replacement machine's screen is another plus. Since most laptops can be connected to an external monitor or a projector, screen size isn't an issue for everyone. But if you give presentations to small groups directly off a laptop, having a large screen will mean you don't have to bring a projector when you travel. (Another advantage to a large screen comes if you use your laptop to play movies in your hotel room.)

The smaller the laptop, the fewer features it will have compared to a larger one. Ultra portables are ideal for users with a limited set of applications. If some employees only use their laptops to check email, browse the Internet or compose the occasional Microsoft Office document, an ultra portable is ideal, because none of those functions require a great deal of processing power, memory or disk space.

Ultra portables are also ideal for users who connect to an organization that has terminal servers, which run the applications and send screen images to the workstation. Since, in a terminal server environment, the laptop is only acting as a thin client, the limited hardware capabilities of an ultra portable machine aren't an issue.

For most users, standard-sized laptops are a good fit. They're larger and heavier than ultra portables, but have more features. Few ultra portables have internal DVD drives, but internal DVD drives are a standard feature on larger laptops. Also, standard-sized laptops typically come with larger batteries than ultra portables. Keep in mind that larger batteries do not necessarily translate to longer battery life. Standard-sized laptops have larger screens than ultra portables, and larger screens consume more power. The larger laptops usually come with faster processors, too, which also consume more power.

Drive options on desktop replacement laptops

Desktop replacement machines are typically packed with even more features than standard-sized laptops. A "normal" user might not appreciate these extra features, but those who spend their lives on the road might relish them. Me, I love the fact that my desktop replacement laptop contains two hard drives. Not two volumes, but two physical drives. I use one of the drives for operating systems and applications and the other one to store data.

Having two physical drives on a laptop may sound like overkill. But since I never know when an editor may ask me to revise an article, having copies of pretty much everything I've ever written stored on the data drive is very convenient. Between the articles and the screen captures, there's nearly enough data to fill the entire drive. Having an equally large primary hard drive gives me the option of installing several operating systems, which is handy because I never know what I'll be asked to write about.

Granted, not many people out there have the same needs as I do, but that doesn't mean that some users may not benefit from desktop replacement machines. Desktop replacement machines also benefit users who perform computationally intensive tasks or who generate lots of data. I know an architect who uses a desktop replacement machine because it has plenty of power for running AutoCAD (a demanding application) and because the large screen lets him view small details on his drawings.

Another friend, who does a lot of photo and video editing while on the go, uses a desktop replacement machine because of its fast processor and its storage space.

About the author: Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server, Exchange Server and IIS. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. He writes regularly for SearchWinComputing.com and other TechTarget sites.

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