Hardware

The computer - how to buy

How to buy a computer

When buying a computer, choose the one that satisfies all your current and most of your future needs, all within a sturdy construction and solid 3-year warranty offered by the manufacturer to last well into the future you had in mind for it.

This means looking at the right computer manufacturers and the software that will be around for a long time.

If you are not sure of the right computer system, look at the system requirements at the back of the software box for an idea of the type of computer system you will need. Also be aware of future trends such as new upcoming operating systems. For example, Microsoft was anout to release in 2007 Windows Vista. If you think Windows XP is fine now but later discover Windows Vista is better suited to your needs, make sure your computer can handle this future requirement. Check the Microsoft web site for details. Once you know the computer system you will need now and want in the future to handle new software, choose a computer that will not break down easily or will require regular repairs.

For example, Apple computers were noted as products able to break down more quickly than they should due to excessive heat emitted by the microprocessor and graphics accelerator chip and poor choice of cheap Asian components (e.g. poor display hinges, metal casing that bends too easily etc) to build the products. This could be seen as an incentive for anyone buying an Apple computer to spend extra on an extended 3-year warranty instead of the standard 12 months so you can think it is worth buying an Apple computer.

The reality is, every quality computer manufacturer should be able to give you for free the extended 3-year warranty or longer without hesitation. Those computer manufacturers that charge you extra for it are there to make a bigger profit.

And every computer should be built to last no less than 5 years and ideally for as long as the customer wishes to use the computer (which could potentially be a lifetime).

What should I look for when buying a computer?

In general, you should look for:

  • A reliable and sturdy machine built to last.

    Who knows? Perhaps your kids may inherit it one day or may turn out to be of historical value if it works, or maybe you are happy with older software doing the job you want for the rest of your life (until emulation software can allow you to run them on the latest computers). Otherwise it might as well be used as a coffee cup holder — in which case it is better to throw it away (or better still, have it recycled)!

  • The highest speed performance that you can afford.

    A microprocessor speed of 1GHz with backside cache is more than adequate for all the personal things you are ever likely to do with a computer. Hence the reason for manufacturers selling webbooks. For commercial video editing and 3D animation specialists, the fastest machine possible is preferred. But if you only want it for writing letters, going on the internet, and perhaps play a few high-quality non-violent 3D adventure games, you won't have much choice. Computer manufacturers are only prepared to sell the very latest 1.5 to 3.5GHz heaters machines designed to have a short-life due to the extra heat generated by these faster computers. Look at what you intend to use a computer for for the next 5 years and ask yourself do you need to buy the very latest, fastest and best computer. If not, choose a cheaper version. But always make sure it is well-built and there are positive reviews about the cheaper system.

  • The most memory capacity by way of hard disk space and RAM.

    The absolute minimum hard disk capacity should be 20GB for text and basic 2D EPS graphic work (fine for writing a top-notch thesis or writing a new Bible or encyclopedia without movies and very few graphics), or over 80GB for serious video and photographic production and 3D modelling/animation work). But with the advent of bigger software tools, movie recording and editing, and world-class 3D modelling and animation, 500GB or higher is recommended. On the RAM side of things, it depends on the operating system you have and software you want to run. For pre-Windows XP and Mac OS Classic 9, a minimum of 128MB is necessary. For the latest OS, 1GB is required and more for running the latest software packages. When the latest Mac OSX "Snow Leopard" and Microsoft Windows 7 operating systems came out, your RAM should be no less than 2GB (and more for running the latest third-party software).

  • Adequate software for all your immediate and future needs.

    Older software is perfectly fine if it can run on the latest computers (look at the available emulation software tools on the internet). The newer variety of software merely have more features and will help to automate common tasks which you may find useful compared to older software. But keep in mind the cost to purchase the latest software.

  • Adequate expansion and communication ports.

    You need an expansion port to, well basically, expand the capabilities of your computer should you require it. It is all about future-proofing your system and stopping those greedy computer manufacturers asking you to fork out more money so soon for another computer system when in truth you really don't have to.

The need for speed. A couple of computer geeks try to increase the speed of their once-advanced microprocessor - Intel's 686 chip - only to have the chip and computer melt under the extreme heat and stress. Source: Mehlman 2000, p.112.

This is too expensive. Is there a cheaper alternative?

Understandably, this can turn out to be an expensive proposition. You can send a "Thank you" letter to the computer manufacturers later for thinking about your budget next time you are in the market for a new computer.

To minimise the costs when purchasing a computer, consider:

  • buying a second-hand machine from reputable resellers, government auctions (including eBay.com) or from the classifieds of your local newspaper;
  • purchasing a new basic machine with the option of expanding all of its capabilities at a later date as your needs and finances change over time;
  • checking those IT companies that are giving away new, dirt-cheap computers when selling their products or when acquiring trained IT professionals as part of their workforce (you may wish to get a job in the IT industry or join an IT course); or
  • obtaining software from second-hand software shops, browsing through the classifieds of your local newspaper, visiting your local trash n' treasure markets, going on eBay.com, or checking out every month for some of the older types of free full version commercial or new freeware software on computer magazines or downloadable from some software sites on the Internet or elsewhere.
  • Choose a computer whose microprocessor speed is fast enough to achieve what you want (not what other people with a vested commercial interest in selling the computers want).

More about microprocessor speeds

A computer having a microprocessor running at a clock speed of 1000MHz does not necessarily make for the fastest machine. If two computers are identical in all respects except that one runs at 500MHz and another at 1000MHz, then the 1000MHz is the faster machine. However, if the 500MHz machine can process a greater volume of information (i.e. the microprocessor can run, say, a 64-bit processing core instead of 32-bits, such as Motorola's PowerPC G4 microprocessor) and can more quickly retrieve information for processing using a large and efficient "backside cache", the 500MHz machine will run faster than a 1000MHz machine.

The only way to test the true speed of a computer is to run "real world" processor intensive tests using a software package like Adobe Photoshop (e.g. try to measure how long it tasks to process a fairly large 30MB CMYK graphic image using a number of different special effect filters).

Alternatively, try running a large application like Microsoft PowerPoint 2004 or Word 2004 and see how quickly it loads up.

UPDATE
December 2002

AMD and Intel have up the ante on microprocessor speeds to well over 3.6GHz. While it had been rumoured Apple Computer will not immediately update the Motorola PowerPC G4 microprocessor throughout much of 2003 and so will remain at a top speed of around 1.2GHz, it is likely PC computers will run faster than a Macintosh computer (unless Apple Computer decides to use two microprocessors inside a Macintosh computer). Perhaps in late 2003, Apple Computer may use the new and expensive IBM PowerPC 970 microprocessor released by IBM in October 2002. Such a chip (known as G5) would allow a Macintosh computer to run at speeds of 1.8GHz or more and thus may reach and even supercede microprocessor speeds on a PC computer. Before purchasing a G5 computer, make sure you wait until the computer has been fully updated and improved to help reduce the high amounts of heat generated by the processor. Heat is a killer and will shorten the life of your computer.

UPDATE
January 2006

Too much heat and difficulties in quickly updating the Motorola PowerPC chip has meant that Apple has settled on the Intel Duo Core processors running at between 1.67GHz and 2GHz for their computers.

UPDATE
May 2010

Moving to the Intel chips allows Apple to be poised to make a switch at any time to selling its OSX to PC users. But while Microsoft and Apple have made a secret gentlemens' agreement not to impinge on each other's market share, Apple will only sell OSX to Mac users, and Microsoft will only sell Windows 7 to PC users.

In the meantime, Intel improves its microprocessor to the point where 3.06GHz i7 processors are now the most energy efficient, low heat emissions, and fastest processors available for consumers today.

Do I need the extra microprocessor speeds?

But then again, why would you need the extra speed to do whatever it is you want from your computer right now? Approximately 90 per cent of computer users will rarely ever use the full raw processing power of the latest computers except for the professionals working in 3D animation, digital video editing, and the more serious power users running the latest 3D adventure games. Unless you are running the incredibly slow MacOSX (has improved since Tiger came out, and is better under Snow Leopard) and therefore need to spend money upgrading to the fastest microprocessor speed possible to make everything move fast enough again, a 500MHz computer with MacOS8.6/9.2.1 or Windows 98 is more than adequate to run programs as big as Adobe Photoshop 7.0 or Apple Final Cut Pro 2.0 and do everything you'll ever need to do in the digital world.

Having the latest computer with the fastest microprocessor is not necessarily going to make you a millionaire or famous overnight in whatever you wish to do with your computer if a 500MHz machine can do the same tasks just as well. You are only making computer manufacturers richer if you do.

UPDATE
January 2003

You may not have much choice nowadays except upgrade to a faster computer (and with it the latest operating systems) thanks to the profit-motivation shown by software and hardware manufacturers. Software is now being designed to work only on the latest operating systems and sometimes on a very specific microprocessor (e.g. Microsoft's latest Virtual PC 7.0 for emulating a Windows system on a Macintosh will not work on the latest Macintosh G5 computers, only the G4). Even though software manufacturers can make the products compatible with older and newer operating systems and microprocessors if they really wanted to (e.g. Insignia's RealPC 1.0.9 software for emulating the Windows environment will run on a Macintosh G2/G3/G4 and G5 computer), many choose not to for the sake of minimising costs and/or forcing customers to pay more for upgrading their computer, operating systems and general application software. A classic example of this can be seen with Adobe Photoshop 7 to CS3.

What about for the small business operator?

Unless, as a business operator, you are in the professional desktop publishing, advertising and/or graphic designing business where extensive manipulation of graphics, video and sounds in the digital form are required, you are far better off with a less powerful, low-cost and reliable computer.

Most small businesses can pretty much do away with all the fancy technologies like a DVD drive and special graphics accelerator cards. What is more important to a small business is a simple, low-cost and reliable computer that will run the essential software needed to run a business.

This means any reasonable computer of up to say 10 years old should still be able to run many of the new, and certainly nearly all of the second-hand software like Microsoft Excel 5.0 or a ready-made spreadsheet such as MYOB for analysing one's business finances, a simple database like FileMaker Pro 3.0 for storing customer and business contact details, and a simple word processor like Microsoft Word 6.0 for creating letters, invoices, and simple text-based newspaper advertisements. (1)

If, however, as a small business, you want to create your own graphic-rich television and newspaper advertisements and want to go beyond the mere use of carefully-crafted text and personal presentation to sell yourself, you may need to consider purchasing a more powerful computer (up to 5 years old) in order to get enough speed to handle such things as digital video editing and specialised graphic designing software.

Should I get a desktop computer or a laptop?

Todays laptops now offer all the speed, connectivity and storage capacity of any desktop PC. The choice is therefore up to you.

The advantages of laptops:

  1. Its compact design makes for a more environmentally-friendly machine than desktop PCs, especially when you decide to get rid of the computer (a very tempting proposition given the direction society is heading with the technology);
  2. It is small enough and light weight to carry around to almost any location you like (useful for students, scientists and business professionals); and
  3. It can be safely used indoors in battery-operated mode during an electrical thunderstorm.

The disadvantages of laptops:

  1. The battery life per charge is very short. At time of writing this (i.e. 2001), you would be lucky to get up to 5 hours per charge (the usual claim by manufacturers when you first purchase a laptop and which you may enjoy in the first few weeks or months) of continuous use out of a laptop, before it drops off quickly to around 1 to 2 hours in 12 to 18 months. Now in 2005, with so many features being added to laptops, you would be lucky to get 3 hours of use. The truth is, after about a year of regular use, the Lithium ion battery found in most laptops give a maximum time of between 15 minutes and 1 hour;

    UPDATE
    August 2004

    The direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) is coming. DMFCs generate power by mixing methanol with air and water. The more methanol you can add to water, the more electricity the DFMCs will generate. The main problem with these cells at the moment is getting them to a suitable power-to-weight (and size) ratio for commercial use in battery-powered appliances. Rumours have it that these cells will be small enough in 2005 to run a laptop for at least 10 hours or more per charge. Samsung, Hitachi and NEC are planning to use these new cells in their latest mobile devices.

  2. The price of laptops is still hideously expensive compared to the desktop variety (mainly because the LCD screen and some of the fancy metals like titanium being used for the "box" to hold all the electronics inside are so expensive to make, and computer manufacturers keep wanting to add new energy-hungry features every year for consumers to pay for!).

    UPDATE
    August 2004

    The price of some laptops are getting below the A$2,000 mark. And those without a screen and keyboard/mouse (e.g. the Mac minis) can be below the A$1,000 mark. But do check on the quality of the flat-panel screens (they may have blown pixels/transistors). The screen will probably be of the standard 15-inch variety and the casing will look cheap. Also make sure the computer is not running too hot.

    UPDATE
    May 2010

    PC laptops with an Intel Core Duo processor can be purchased for under AUD$1,000. Apple MacBook Pro laptops are now starting for the 15-inch model at AUD$2,100.

  3. You have to look very carefully at what you are getting in a laptop from cheaper manufacturers. Some manufacturers may have just one USB port to save space or lose some other port which is standard on other laptops. Also check the wireless communication standards in use. The slower ones will use 802.11a, b or g standard when in fact it should be 802.11n.
  4. The keyboards on some cheaper laptops may look cramped and difficult for you to type.
  5. Laptops are built to break easily.

    UPDATE
    September 2006

    Panasonic has released a new laptop designed to meet US military durability requirements. Known as Panasonic Toughbook CF-51, it is water-proof and shock resistant. Casing is made of a magnesium-alloy. Coming with a removable (for security) 80GB hard drive, and have the optional extras of fingerprint and smart-card readers.

What are the better types of computers to purchase?

Look for a computer with real stability, reliability, solid construction and a respectable amount of flexibility. The standard built-in features should be of the latest versions for maximum speed, stability and reliability. Although a number of lesser-known and smaller computer manufacturers can produce the odd one or two very good, low-cost quality computer products such as the Dionysus machine from DCS which, according to the September 2000 edition of PCPlus, was described as:

"...DCS is obviously looking at the longer term with this one."

and

"This is an amazing machine at the price point.

In almost all areas, it offers something above and beyond the specification of its competition - so much so, we had to double-check the price.

It caters for everything you might want to do in a home or small business office now, but offers huge scope for expansion, too. As you expand your business, the Dionysus could be used in many different ways, ensuring it will have a long and valued life." (2)

we recommend that you go for solid brand names with consistently good quality products from major computer manufacturers like Dell, Compaq, IBM, Sony, and perhaps even the new range of tried and tested "titanium" laptop workhorses and some of the latest G4 desktop machines running at a solid 1GHz from Apple (but don't jump to buying the newest G5 computer or new laptop series model until all the bugs in the OS and hardware problems are ironed out).

Alternatively, visit the library or newsagent and read computer magazines discussing reviews done on various computers. And check web sites such as MacFixIt.com to determine the problems users find in their computers.

For example, the Dell Dimension 4300S computer priced at AUS$1999 (as of January 2002) was a particularly good buy from a major hardware manufacturer if you're interested in the desktop variety of machines (as opposed to the mobile laptop variety). For the price you'll get a solid machine with an Intel Pentium 4 microprocessor running at 1.4GHz, a 20GB hard disk, 128MB RAM (absolute minimum), a 48X max CD-ROM, a 16MB ATI Rage Ultra 4X AGP Graphics Card, integrated audio system, Microsoft Windows XP (Home Edition), and a 15-inch Flat Panel (i.e. LCD) colour monitor. Considering that LCD monitors can cost nearly A$1000, this is an interesting offer. But you will have to look carefully to see if Dell can keep to the same price over time.

If you want a blisteringly fast PC computer and money is no object, go for an Armari RH860HT. This computer was released in March 2002 and comes with two Intel Xeon 2.2GHz microprocessors which act as though the computer has four processors working at the same time thanks to its hyper-threading technology. DVD/CD-RW combo drive and Soundblaster Audigy sound card are included as standard features. The monitor is still the old cathode-ray tube variety, but the computer itself is an absolute beauty. You would be looking at A$8000 for this machine.

UPDATE
March 2005

PC manufacturers are looking into the idea of having several low cost, low-powered microprocessors inside one machine to gain the extra speed instead of one very fast, and extremely hot microprocessor doing all the work. Apple has only just started in October 2004 to introduce two PowerPC G5 chips in one PowerMac to increase speed. But the problem is the heat emitted by the chips (not likely to last very long), the cost given the fact they are new chips, and they are not quite as fast compared to the Armari computer mentioned above. Perhaps Apple is incrementing the speed progressively to give the impression they are working hard to give consumers a faster machine when in actuality they may be trying to milk the consumers of their money for all they are worth. PC manufacturers, however, are thinking about redesigning older chips and using several of them in one chip to produce a fast, low-powered and cooler PC for the consumer market. What happens if Motorola decides to create a multi G3 or G4 chip at a slower speed to replace the motherboards of older Apple computers?

What about warranty?

When purchasing a quality computer or other computer-related products from any reputable company, consider spending an extra couple of hundred dollars in getting a three-year, next-business-day onsite support warranty. Even better, you should look for those companies like Hewlett-Packard who are prepared to give you a three-year "complete replacement with no questions asked" warranty at no extra charge if you should find a fault with any of their products. This is a good sign of quality.

And with Dell, as of June 2006, upgrading from a 1-year warranty service to a 3-year deal will include a free 1-year theft insurance cover for laptops.

When buying a computer, don't confuse technical support with warranty. Warranty is a period of say 12 months from the date of purchase (or 3 years for the extended warranty) when your machine may develop hardware faults through no fault of your own other than the standard wear and tear (be careful of manufacturers who try to use the wear-and-tear excuse to avoid applying warranty to obvious design and manufacturing faults — we hope Apple is listening to this one!) in which case the manufacturer should repair or replace the computer. Technical support is merely the after sales support for problems of a minor nature such as how to install your system software or modem device on your computer. No repairs, replacement or refunds are done through technical support.

Make sure your computer manufacturer can supply good quality technical support on the web site or by telephone. If not, the company is only interested in saving money for a bigger profit at the end of the financial year.

Remember, a computer system that comes with a 3-year warranty or longer at no extra charge is usually likely to be a well-contructed machine designed both for the consumer and the professional markets. If you find a computer that has only a 1 year warranty (e.g. Apple computers) and you have to pay extra for a 3-year extended warranty, they are usually described as "consumer" products and therefore not likely to physically last as long as a machine with a guaranteed standard 3- or 5-year warranty. For example, if you were to decide on purchasing for the first time either an Apple PowerBook G4 or an Intel MacBook Pro laptop for A$4000 and a Dell Latitude C810 for about the same price, you would be better off with the Dell machine because of its 3-year warranty (Apple can only guarantee a 1-year warranty on all its products for the price unless you are prepared to cough up more money to extend the warranty — why?), excellent construction, and good value for money for the features it has included in the "box".

Furthermore, you should insist that the computer comes fully installed with an operating system (together with a CD backup of the entire operating system and all other standard software), full documentation (preferably in printed form although it is acceptable nowadays for the documentation to come on a CD), and simple installation instructions when setting up your computer.

NOTE: Do not buy a computer that claims it comes with everything and then find you have to go online to download the complete help files or extra "crucial" software which should have been on the CD supplied with the machine. Apple's original and very first G4 iMac flat-panel computer with its OSX 10.1 software and looking more like a desk lamp when it first came onto the market was notorious in not supplying the full MacOSX help files on the computer (e.g. it wouldn't provide information on how to network the iMac with older classic Mac computers for some reason until you go online to get it). This was so that consumers could be enticed to set up an Internet connection where your registration details can be automatically sent to Apple in secret and to figure out why you want to hook up to your older Mac (Oh doh! So we can get the friggin files off the old hard disk. What do you reckon?).

How do I look after my computer?

This is getting pretty hard to do with many of the latest and complex-looking computers on the market. The more features and parts there are in a computer, the more likely something will go wrong. It also does not help if computer manufacturers decide to include some form of obsolescence into your computer in an attempt to force you to buy another one.

For an example of this, we suggest clicking here to learn how Apple Computer, Inc. goes about its business of creating obsolescence in the original PowerBook G3 Series "Wall Street" computer.

And did you know the latest technique of getting you to buy a new computer every three years or less involves making computer's so hot with the help of the latest microprocessors and low-current hard disks that eventually the computers will fail to function properly and will cost too much to repair it regularly with the help of locally-approved technicians?

At any rate, your computer, if it is of good quality, should last you a lifetime. Or if the computer is a relatively ordinary one, you should get at least 20 years use if kept in very good condition unless the manufacturers have deliberatly forced you to upgrade the computer because of excessive heat problems and inherent manufacturing and design faults (we won't be pointing any fingers at anyone, will we Apple?).

A computer should last a lifetime mainly because the actual computer itself (i.e. the motherboard) has no moving parts to wear down over time. The only parts you may need to take care of and perhaps repair or replace every 5, 10 or 20 years are those components that have moving parts like the floppy and CD drives, the internal hard disk, the mouse, and possibly even the keyboard. (3)

Fortunately many new computers nowadays allow for the easy removal and replacement of these quick wearing components. But if you wish to preserve your computer and all its peripherals and components attached to it for as long as possible, keep in mind the following points:

  1. Always use a surge-protected power board to protect all your valuable electronic equipment;
  2. Provide adequate ventilation for your computer as too much heat will stress the electronic components inside your machine and ultimately reduce the lifespan of your computer;
  3. Additional electronic pollution emanating from magnets and untidy power cables running over your monitor or computer may cause your computer to behave adversely and/or may cause your valuable data on the hard disk of your computer to be damaged or lost. So keep your power cables and magnets neatly tucked away from your computer;
  4. Put your magnetic disks in a safe, dry place, away from your computer. The computer is also a source of electronic pollution (i.e. it creates electromagnetic fields) and will damage some of your disks (in particular, the magnetic variety such as floppy and Zip disks, but not the optical variety such as a CD-ROM) if the pollution has enough energy to penetrate the media (e.g. if the disks are placed at close range to a computer and are not well protected inside a metal cage to reduce the energy);
  5. Every week or so, give your computer, keyboard and monitor a quick wipe with a clean cloth or feather duster to remove dust. Otherwise a build-up of dust over time may eventually interfere with the operation of your computer, especially those components with moving parts;
  6. For personal hygiene (i.e. to reduce the likelihood of you getting infections and colds), clean your computer properly at least once a month with a non-abrasive and slightly damp cloth dipped in alcohol (i.e. methylated spirits is fine although we are told Apple's old iBook G3 used poor quality plastics designed to react with the alcohol resulting in the appearance of a cloudy scratched-like surface, a bit like the way turpentine eats away on soft plastic). Take particular attention to the keyboard and mouse (or trackpad), for this is where most people tend to touch when using a computer;
  7. When cleaning your monitor or LCD screen (about once a month), use a highly quality spectacles cloth and a quick-drying "streak-free" alcohol spray as used by optometrists for cleaning eye glasses (composed mainly of ethanol). This will prevent leaving behind a streak on the screen and minimises the chance of scratching the surface of the monitor or LCD screen;
  8. Avoid eating and drinking while using your computer. Any food spills you create might cause permanent damage to your keyboard or, worse still, your computer (especially if it is a laptop!

    NOTE: There is one laptop on the market designed to be spill resistant over the keyboard area.

  9. Don't regularly switch on and off your computer. It will only increase the stress to the electronic components inside. Try to leave the computer switched on for as long as possible until you have to switch it off (e.g. when a thunderstorm is present outside, or when you have to take the computer with you during your travels). If you need to switch it off, consider using the Sleep mode. This will help to preserve the power to your computer and protect your machine for longer periods of time; and
  10. Don't overstretch or twist cables or they might break inside (which you may never be able to see). Keep the cables straight and within comfortable reach, and if you must fold them up, keep it simple, loose and tidy to ensure their long life.

    NOTE: It is also possible for the cables of some computers to be of a poor quality (i.e. stiff and prone to metal fatigue if bent regularly) such as the original black AC adapter supplied with the Macintosh PowerBook G3 Series computers. If the problem repeats, this is a manufacturer's fault and should be replaced free-of-charge irrespective of whether your computer is under warranty or not.

What about palmtops?

Want something more portable than a laptop? Want to avoid wasting pen and paper in our environmentally-sensitive world? Try a palmtop!

Palmtops (or PDAs) was originally designed to replace traditional notepad and pens for business executives. Now the palmtops have reached a level of power approaching a 1998 model 416MHz laptop without the bulky keyboard and a very large screen. Of course, if you want a bigger screen and a keyboard, there are palmtops capable of doing this if you want.

Prices for palmtops vary from A$500 to A$2000. Our most recommended model as of 2005 for its features at a reasonable price has to be the Palm Tungsten T3 for A$799. The model has a large colour screen, 64MB of memory, a 400MHz XScale processor, a virtual keyboard on the screen, handwriting recognition technology, Bluetooth wireless communication technology, and can run Microsoft Word and Excel documents without having to convert them first. Another interesting addition to this model is the ability to rotate the screen for easier viewing.

Now if only the palmtop could have 128MB of RAM, offer a biometric finger scanner technology for securing data on the palmtop (e.g. HP IPAQ Pocket PC H5550 for A$1299), have a built-in 1.3 megapixel camera (e.g. Sony Clie PEGNX80VG (NX80) for A$999), and be able to call someone like a mobile phone, and this would have been an absolute beauty for under the A$1000 mark.

If you don't want all the bells and whistles, you should be able to get a basic palmtop for $199 (check out the latest Zire).

UPDATE
3 June 2006

Palmtops or PDAs have come a long way. Our recommended choice for 2006 are O2 Xda Atom for A$1,229, and the Blackberry 8700g for A$959.

The O2 Xda Atom comes with a large 6.8cm colour display, tri-band phone connectivity, built-in 802.11b Wi-Fi, FM radio and stereo speakers, the best 2-megapixel camera on the PDA-market capable of handling a wider range of lighting conditions, and a zippy 416MHz PXA272 processor running Windows Mobile 5.0. It is quick enough to breeze through Microsoft Word and Excel. Pictures, videos and sounds are easily organised with its one-touch access to the multimedia centre.

The latest Blackberry 8700g is quite an exceptional handheld device. It is considered legendary in the email handling department according to users. And it can easily browse the internet, store photos and comes with a built-in keyboard. Has all the usual organising tools such as a calendar and the works. Screen size of 6.5cm colour is highly respectable for what is considered one of the best quad-band PDA devices on the market. A popular hit in the US and certain to turn heads in other countries.

If you buy yourself the latest PDAs, spend an extra A$159.95 for a 2GB miniSD memory card from SanDisk as of June 2006. Because prices for RAM have dropped again, you can max out your PDA to the full.

Now all they need is a built-in GPS navigation system with maps and you have to question why you need to lug around a laptop these days?

Useful accessories: For PDAs that double as your MP3 player, plug in a Belkin TuneCast II Mobile FM Transmitter for A$79.95. With this device, you can listen wireless from your PDA to your car's stereo FM radio receiver. Power for the Belkin device is obtained from the car's cigarette lighter socket (if you have one!), avoiding having to replace the batteries (which we understand would be regularly with this nifty little product).

Need a PDA case to protect your investment? Visit Press Digital for above-average looking and quality PDA cases for various models.

Recommended laptops for 2010

If you take a quick look online at the latest range of laptops. you will notice a trend. The trend is the lower the price, the smaller the screen, processor speed, and RAM and hard drive capacity. It also makes for a smaller and lightweight laptop for the greater convenience of carrying around and even hiding it in a suitcase or travel pack.

These are the ultra small laptops known as palmtops with 13-inch or less screen sizes mainly for web use while travelling overseas. Don't be fooled by the size. They are more than powerful enough to run the latest Microsoft Office 2004 or 2008 edition if you require it. However once you get around the small 13-inch or less screen size, you will probably be wishing you had more "real estate" to see what you are doing, especially for preparing Word documents or working with spreadsheets.

If all you ever need is to do letter writing, write a novel, visit web sites and check emails, a small laptop priced US$429 or less would be more than powerful enough to do this kind of work. At processor speeds of 1 to 2.1GHz and with 1 to 2GB RAM, you will have plenty to do all your Word document processing work including editing, improving and adding photos, illustrations etc. Even at 1GHz and 1GB RAM on a Windows XP, you will be able to use Microsoft Office 2004 or 2008. However it is recommended you get a minimum of 2GHz minimum processor speed and 2GB RAM if the laptop comes with Windows 7. Hence the minimum should be a Compaq Presario CQ61Z series at US$429 with a free 250GB hard drive upgrade from the 160GB, which should give you plenty of room for the next 10 years or more.

Another good feature to have is a web-cam if you intend to communicate a lot with anyone in the world that has a computer and the internet. The HP G62t series at US$569.99 is pretty good in this regard. It has the latest Intel i3 Dual Core processor at 2.13GHz which is fast and is more energy efficient (i.e. the battery will power the laptop for longer). It also comes with free upgrade to 3GB RAM which can help to speed up processing of your documents and other tasks rather than rely directly on the hard drive. And it will also give you a decent and fast 7,200rpm 250GB hard drive.

When it comes to hard disk capacity, 160GB is the absolute minimum. A 250GB hard disk is better. However if you want to record digital TV broadcasts of selected documentaries on SBS and ABC HD which takes up about 4GB per 1 hour documentary, a 500GB hard drive is better for this kind of work and should last you for at least the next 2 to 3 years. Afterwards you may need to invest in a 1.5TB hard drive backup unit to store everything and free up the laptop for other work.

Also, for watching movies, animations and other moving graphics, it may be good to get a laptop with a built-in and independent graphics accelerator/processing card (e.g. from NVIDIA or Radeon) to keep the graphics moving fast and maintain reasonable sharpness. Take all this into consideration if you intend to purchase a laptop now and maybe, in the future, a little digital TV receiver to plug into your laptop for about $AUD120.

A good HP laptop for its price is the HP 671t series. There is a 17.3 inch screen laptop with 4GB RAM, 250GB hard drive, 2.1GHz processor and free upgrade to webcam and microphone for US$579.99 (after rebate). But it might be a bit heavy at 6.72lbs.

Anything above US$650 and you should get a 320GB hard drive. Anything above US$850 and you should get the more powerful and latest energy-efficient processors from the i5 and i7 Intel range, 320GB hard drive, 4GB RAM, and independent graphics processing card. And some laptops may also provide fancy features such as a screen that swivels in any direction (e.g. HP TouchSmart tm2t series).

Or you could go into the HP ENVY series of laptops at the US$1,400 and higher price range which merely provides better quality processors, better quality sound from the speakers, a lighter laptop to carry around, and with Wi-Fi and other features.

If you are prepared to pay a little more for a quality laptop, here are the top 5 laptops for May 2010:

  1. ASUS G51Vx-X3A1TB for AUD$1,799.00 including GST. An excellent PC laptop for the price. While it is designing for gaming experts with its tough design and quality features, it is more than powerful enough for business or personal use. It includes a fast and massive 1,000GB (i.e. 1TB) 7,200rpm hard drive, a decent 4GB RAM, a quality independent graphics accelerator card (NVIDIA GTX 260M), LED "low energy and brighter" 15.6-inch screen, 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, has the latest wireless networking technology (i.e. 802.11n), web cam and more. And comes with 2 years of warranty. In fact, this laptop makes other laptops from the competitors look expensive.

    UPDATE
    1 June 2010

    Sorry, you may have missed the boat on the above ASUS model by the time you read this. The new model is now the ASUS G51JX range.

    Various models exist here. For example a tough and high quality laptop used by gaming experts is the ASUS G51JX-3D-IXO12X. But it is way too expensive at AUD$2,891.60. It mainly has a better graphics accelerator card, 8GB RAM, Windows 7 Pro and a special screen for displaying 3D images using 3D glasses (comes supplied).

    Getting away from the Windows 7 Pro and sticking to the Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit edition and less of the fancy features, you'll get a very similar laptop to the older model but within the ASUS G51JX range. For example, you can purchase one for AUD$1,828.00. There is no K-12 education pricing available in the ASUS range. It seems all G51JX models (except for the top-of-the-range model indicated above) comes with 500GB hard drive. Fortunately it will have the latest i7 Intel processor with a screen size of 15.6-inch like the older model. Blue-ray and DVD/CD RW combo drive, 6GB RAM, latest wireless network technology, and 6-cell battery rated at 2,400mAh for long-life power per charge are all looking standard at this stage. For an equivalent 17-inch screen version, you would have to go into the ASUS G73 range with 1TB hard drive and 8GB RAM for AUD$2,699 including GST.

  2. Dell Studio XPS 16 for AUD$1,999 including GST. This is the next most recommended laptop for features providing an acceptable 640GB hard drive, 6GB RAM, latest Intel i7 processor (1.6GHz tubo up to 2.8GHz with 6MB L3 cache), and decent screen size (15.6-inch full high-definition 1080p) with independent graphics accelerator card (ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4670 with 1GB). Comes with a Blu-ray disc and DVD read/write combo drive. A 17-inch screen size model with the same features may also exist if you check around at the official Dell web site. Good luck!

  3. 16.4 inch Sony VAIO F Series for AUD$1,799.00 including GST. It comes equipped with an Intel Core i5 520M processor providing 2.40GHz with turbo boost to 2.93GHz. Good design features including comfortable handrest and quality keyboard. Includes a 500GB hard drive, an independent NVIDIA GeForce 310M graphics processing unit. Wireless networking via 802.11a/b/g/n and bluetooth. Contains an HDMI output port.

  4. Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch for around AUD$2,225 including GST. Comes with 4GB RAM and a 500GB hard drive, a quality independent graphics processing unit and a more solid casing and construction design for more robust use. A pretty laptop. Only problem is the glossy widescreen display that can be difficult to see under bright lights (i.e. reflections). But otherwise a better machine than previous Apple pro laptops. Unfortunately this price is without 3-year extended warranty. You should be able to get the extended warranty for $A261 with the right Apple reseller, yet Apple wants AUD$463.10 through the online store. A good machine, but remains too expensive compared to PC laptops including the extended warranty.

  5. Toshiba Tecra P11 for AUD$1,980.00 including GST. Comes with the Intel i5 520M processor, 4GB RAM, a fast 7,200rpm 320GB, a 15.6-inch widescreen XGA high definition active matrix screen of 1,366 x 768 resolution. A reasonable machine, unfortunately not with a 500GB hard drive at this price. Perhaps ask for a 500GB 5,400rpm hard drive instead of the faster 7,200rpm 320GB hard drive and see what Toshiba says.

Except for the Apple MacBook Pro and Toshiba laptops, all laptops come with Windows 7 Home Premium edition. The Toshiba laptop comes with Windows 7 Professional edition. The Apple MacBook Pro comes with the latest OSX "Snow Leopard" and can run the latest Windows 7 under Boot Camp (you must supply the Windows installation disk).

Whatever laptop you choose, try to get one with a 2 or 3-year warranty for that extra piece-of-mind, and preferably thrown in for free as a sign of a quality laptop.

The future of laptops

While Apple is among the first to introduce the latest technologies (except they were slow with introducing the latest Intel i5 and i7 processors into the MacBook Pro), you can expect to see laptops getting very thin (e.g. MacBook Air), come with 250GB or higher flash memory storage (much more reliable, lightweight and stronger) to replace noisy moving disks and heads of a traditional hard drive, 64-bit processors, and with touchscreens (so long as the software can handle fat finger problems ie. display large buttons).

But these are all fancy features you will probably never need for the kind of work you do today.