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Laptops

Laptops
Date issued: 21/10/2008

Overview
Laptop sales are booming, with industry analysts predicting that up to 70-million units will be shipped in 2006. The figure's seto to rise by over 15% in the next 3 years, so laptops are seriously big business. What's more, laptops now retail in various forms at similar price points, so making a buying decision is harder than ever. This TekSpek's brief is to define and evaluate the various laptop/notebook options that exist for potential buyers in Q1 2006.


The Technology
Laptop computers have been around for almost as long as their desktop counterparts. Laptops, or notebooks as they are commonly referred to, offer the user a similar PC experience as desktop models, yet do so with a mobile form factor. The basic requirements of a laptop haven't changed in the last 20 years or so, still requiring a chassis, screen, keyboard, motherboard, CPU, hard drive, memory and, usually, a single optical drive.

The evolution of the laptop, though, has brought about the creation of three distinct (yet sometimes overlapping) categories into which any laptop can be placed. An understanding of each category will offer the prospective buyer a better understanding of which kind of laptop fits their intended usage best.

Desktop-replacement laptop
At the upper end of the scale, both in terms of price and size, is the desktop-replacement laptop (DTR). The DTR's primarily role is to mirror the performance of a desktop as closely as possible. The use of larger chassis allows manufacturers to house 17-inch, wide-aspect screens that offer resolutions up to 1920x1200 pixels.

DTRs, by dint of their very size, also tend to offer high-end, discrete mobile GPUs, usually from ATI and NVIDIA, whose performance closely resembles that of a cutting-edge desktop's. Add to this a multi-purpose optical drive, capacious hard drive(s), and high-end processor(s), either mobile- or desktop-derived, and a decent DTR laptop offers performance that only the very best desktops can surpass.

The downside to sheer performance is a lack of mobility. DTRs often weigh in at 4kg+, making day-to-day transport a difficult task. Power requirements ensure that battery life is generally poor (sub-2hrs) unless your undertaking low-intensity tasks. DTRs, in the main, are designed to be run off the mains power supply and are best-suited to users who need power, be it 2D or 3D, above all else.

General purpose laptop
Right now a general purpose laptop can be defined as one that effectively mixes power with portability, making intelligent compromises between the two with respect to every component. It's the kind that's most prevalent today. Weighing in at between 2-3kg and sporting a 14/15-inch screen, either in standard 4:3 or, lately, a widescreen aspect, it's usually based on established mobile CPUs. Intel's Centrino (single- and dual-core models) and AMD's low-power K8 range spring to mind.

High-end laptops (£750+) in this division ship with discrete, midrange graphics cards, large hard drives, a multi-format optical drive, 1GByte of system memory, and, often, wireless connectivity in the form of 802.11g WiFi and Bluetooth. The combination of reasonable weight, decent chassis size and respectable battery life, allied to satisfactory all-around power, makes them the choice for most business and home users.

Thin-and-light laptops
At the other end of the weight spectrum are thin-and-light laptops. The very name highlights the advantages. Offered in a sleek package just an inch or so thick, TAL laptops usually tip the scales at under 2kg. Designed primarily for the business user who needs to be on the road on a daily basis, power is sacrificed for portability. TALs tend to run with a maximum screen size of 12 inches, powered by graphics that are integrated into the laptop's core logic.

Ultra-low voltage processors and a sensible choice of low-power components give TAL notebooks a battery life that can exceed 4 hours, and the very lightest forego the inclusion of an optical drive, thereby saving further on weight and providing a slimmer form factor. USB-powered optical drives and port replicators are often available as optional extras.

The modular nature of modern laptops allows users to upgrade key components with relative ease. Decent laptop design allows for simple CPU, hard drive, memory and wireless communication access and upgrades to be undertaken by novice users, although tinkering with any laptop is sure to invalidate the warranty.


The Market
The laptop market has been steadily changing over the last 5 years, and it is possible to buy a basic laptop for £350, encroaching on the pricing space for low-end desktop models, and powerful enough for the type of applications that most users will require a laptop for. Paying more money buys you better components, obviously, but spending over, say, £1,000 brings fewer gains in performance.

The rise of home networking, particularly WiFi, has lead to a demand for lower-priced laptops that all the major players are only too willing to fill. It's of no surprise that in developed markets laptop sales are growing faster than desktops'. We expect this trend to continue and basic laptop prices to fall throughout 2006. The market is dominated by a few large players but smaller laptop integrators are still flourishing by providing a wide range of user-customisable models and bespoke features that larger manufacturers/distributors don't.


The Players
Everyone wants a piece of the rich laptop pie. Think of any big-name PC desktop manufacturer and it'll have a substantial laptop catalogue, too. Toshiba, Dell, Sony, Compaq/Hewlett Packard, IBM, Acer, Fujitsu-Siemens, to name but a few, have top-to-bottom SKUs that incorporate the three classes of laptop discussed above. Each company provides competing products, usually with near-identical internal components, at similar prices. Savvy users then need to cut through the hyperbole and decide which laptop is best for them. Volume sales, however, ensure that larger players can more effectively tap into the burgeoning sub-£500 market.

Smaller integrators tend to buy-in chassis from ODM (Original Design Manufacturer) and therefore have similar chassis to one another, differentiated by the choice of internal components and price. Higher buy-in costs tend to push smaller integrators into retailing laptops at above the crucial £500 price point.

Summary
Buying a laptop in 2006 requires more than just a budget level. Distinct laptop categories target models at different user groups. Users need to determine their usage pattern before embarking on any purchase. Those with a real need for mobility will be best served by the plethora of thin-and-light laptops currently available, mainly through the larger players. Most users will find that a general purpose laptop will fit the bill, in terms of size, power and price. Users whose criteria list puts power over portability should look towards destkop-replacement models.

Laptop purchase is an expensive business. Users should, if at all possible, view a large number of models before committing. Price should only be one factor in the decision-making process. Warranty, upgradeability, and fitness for purpose all need to be taken into account.

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