Little goes a long way

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 August, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 August, 1995, 12:00am

THE notebook computer is perhaps the fastest changing area in personal computing. Look at what was considered small, fast, light, and powerful last year and look at the machines available today.

It is possible to get a notebook computer today that is more powerful than the majority of desktop machines on the market and the notebooks are getting cheaper as well. It is even possible to get a fully working multimedia system in a notebook.

So what is a poor notebook-seeker to do when he pops into Star House or Windsor House to buy a notebook? The range is simply mind boggling.

A great many notebooks today can do the job. In fact, they are probably more similar than they are different. I had the pleasure of taking 10 notebooks and subnotebooks with me on the ferry from Silvermine Bay to Central and then on the various trains needed to get to Tai Po. This has given me a very good idea of what it is like to carry a notebook all the time and how little differences can become important.

Every notebook I took with me would be a contender. The ability to put together a good notebook is now in the hands of many companies and for the most part they are all producing excellent little machines.

It is very important to know exactly what it is you want to do with the little thing and how much you are willing to spend.

There is a big difference between the reporter who is barely computer-literate and needs a word processor and a communications device and the multimedia expert who goes to offices in the territory trying to show businessmen how a super multimedia program will help them sell more of their products.

There are a number of areas that need to be looked at.

The screen is obviously important because it is what you will be looking at all the time.

The best possible screen will be in bright colour and allow everybody who sits next to you to read what you are doing. It will also add a fair amount of money to the price. Many machines today come in various models, allowing you to choose the screen you want.

If you are the only person who will ever be looking at the screen then you need not spend a lot of money for the best active matrix. On the other hand, if you are often in a situation where you want other people to see the screen at the same time you are working on it, you may well need the best there is.

Keyboards, unlike screens, are usually not interchangeable.

Obviously you will want something that you feel comfortable using, but there are other considerations as well. A colleague of mine uses his subnotebook almost every minute of the day. Although the keyboard is relatively quiet, it does make enough noise for him to be heard and singled out at a press conference. This does disturb some people and it would be worth looking for a quiet keyboard if this is important. One should be aware, of course, that trying to listen to a keyboard at Windsor House on a Saturday afternoon is likely to be a bit difficult.

The size and weight are obviously important and this is a difficult area. Many of the notebooks I picked up were, I thought, quite light. But after lugging them from the ferry to the MTR to a taxi several times, I was less convinced of their lightness.

This is one of the most difficult things to judge in the shop, as you really need to travel about with it to get an idea of its weight. If there is any way that you can borrow a machine and take it with you on a typical day's work, do it! The only people who need not worry so much about this are those who only ever move it from a car to a building and never walk very far.

Battery-life is another important area to be concerned about. Batteries are getting better, but they still only last a couple of hours if the machine is being used full time. If you really need long life, consider getting a second battery that you can keep charged and ready to bung into the machine when the other one fails. This will, of course, add more weight.

Disk-space is an important consideration. If you have any experience with computers you will know that you can never have too little disk space or too little random access memory (RAM). Not long ago 170 megabytes (MB) of disk space was considered a good size for a notebook. Today they are just beginning to come out with a minimum of 500 MB and it is possible to get over a gigabyte (1000 MB). Less than 300 MB would seem very small indeed.

Another area worth considering is the size of the external power supply unit. If it is big, it can be a problem to carry around. Think about buying an extra cable or two so you can leave one at the office and one at home.

It is very important to tune the machine to your needs. I know that for me the ultimate notebook would have to be cobbled together from about five or six machines. However, this is unlikely to be possible for quite some time, so it is necessary to compromise.