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The search for the perfect laptop

Laptop or desktop? The wireless waves of data streaming across American campuses made the decision easy for our second college-bound child.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Laptop or desktop? The wireless waves of data streaming across American campuses made the decision easy for our second college-bound child. Her Midwestern liberal arts school belongs to a growing cadre of U.S. colleges that recommend notebooks with built-in 802.11b Wi-Fi. More difficult for us would be finding the right combination of features in a laptop lighter than your average Psych 101 text but powerful enough to maintain some pep come senior year. And it should be able to adapt to faster, emerging Wi-Fi standards with the same ease with which a college student changes majors. All for about $2,000.

We loked seriously at models from Dell, Gateway, Fujitsu, Toshiba and IBM —and wound up choosing the Thinkpad T40 from Big Blue. IBM was no shoo-in, however. It prevailed on a Web special.

Shoppers should know that most laptop components come from the same pool of chips and circuits, regardless of brand.

Our decision would then be based on reliability, support, design and durability among models of similar performance.

The basic requirements were:

Pentium M mobile processor, the best combination of power and battery-saving downcycling when the machine is idle

Microsoft Windows XP Professional

512 megabytes of random access memory (RAM)

Combination CD burner/DVD ROM drive

No heavier than 5 pounds

32 megabytes of video memory

14.1-inch screen

Battery life of at least 3 hours

At least two USB 2.0 ports in addition to the usual parallel, audiovisual, Ethernet and other inputs/outputs.

We spent a few months sampling a number of laptops with Pentium M processors and built-in Intel wireless chips.

The Dell Inspiron 600M and Gateway 200XL were both strong performers, meeting the basic qualifications.

The Fujitsu S6000 Lifebook, meanwhile, was even lighter, at 3.7 pounds. But its screen was too small and its keyboard too cramped for my daughter Maya’s tastes.

All three models had 1.6-gigahertz microprocessor clock speeds.

The Gateway was especially thin, shipped with a 60GB hard drive and performed well. I loved the wireless on/off button and the one that launches your Internet browser.

The Dell was thicker and heavier at just over 5 pounds. It lacked the capacious wrist rest but was solid and fast. Unlike the Gateway, the model I sampled came with built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi. The standard, finalized in June, transfers data far faster than 802.11b, and is backward compatible with its older alphabetical relative.

The Dell priced out at about $2,200 on the company’s Web site.

But alas, neither the Gateway and Dell feels as durable or as intelligently designed as a comparable IBM or Toshiba. And no laptop keyboard, in my experience, can match IBMs. I’ve long been a sucker for IBM’s Trackpoint pointing device, especially when compared to the trackpads that Dell and Gateway offer.

The Toshiba Tecra S1 that met my specs has both the trackpad and a pointing nub. It’s a fine machine but reached $2,400 with a 1.6 Ghz processor and 30 GB hard drive. That’s sticker shock for this father — especially as we wanted to be able to afford some peripherals.

So it was off to IBM’s Web site, where a combination of special offers proved irresistible.

A trademark black T40 with a 30GB hard drive, its microprocessor running at 1.3 Ghz, was on sale for just over $1,800 with my basic demands. An inch thick and just under 5 pounds, this would be perfect putty for Maya’s thoughts.

A Web special from Big Blue threw in a backpack and 64-megabyte USB flash memory mini-drive for free, and we bought a Mini Dock with an optical mouse (and additional power cord) for another $225.

We’ll attach a flat screen monitor, speakers, keyboard and an 80 MB external USB 2.0 hard drive to the Mini Dock to give the laptop a hassle-free dorm room home.

Oh, and we’ll also attach a $100 Logitech webcam with built-in microphone. That was my wife’s request.

It was either a webcam, or a fistful of plane tickets.