Laptops – what do we need?
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Date: 24 August, 2004

Laptop

 


 


'I would suggest that you think again and work through the real reason, and in fact need, for a laptop.'

 



 

If you're thinking of buying a laptop for your church then Richard Armiger offers some advice.

Where do we start?

This is not a cop out question: it is more a statement of fact. Doing a simple search on the Internet shows that there are hundreds of laptops available to buy. Different brands, different models within brands, all offering slightly different options and specifications.The prices for laptops can range from £600 through to over £2000. So where do we start?

We could have selected a limited number of laptops and simply rated them against various areas of functionality. However there are hundreds of variations in brand, make and model of laptop and so we have decided to take you through the decision-making process of deciding on what laptop is the right one for you.

Through this article we will take you on the journey towards making the decision of what laptop to buy in terms of specification and features leaving you the choice of exactly what make of laptop to buy. We will consider a number of questions along the way to making a decision to buy a laptop.

Why?

This may seem like an obvious question to ask and you may be thinking ‘I already know that I need a laptop so why ask me why?’ Well the danger is that the answer may simply be ‘because I want one’. If that is the case I would suggest that you think again and work through the real reason, and in fact need, for a laptop.

The danger is that we do not think the reasons through prior to purchasing our laptop. I remember being in a well-known computer store and overhearing a customer asking for advice on buying a laptop. I heard the member of staff ask the fatal question ‘How much do you want to spend?’ and continue to tell the customer why they needed the most expensive laptop in the shop. Whilst I know that this may not be the approach that all shop staff take, it is one to be wary of. The starting point should always be:

Why do I need a laptop?

It is sensible to take time to write out the reasons why you need a laptop as this will help you on the way to deciding what laptop to buy. These are in effect your motive for buying a laptop. The only person who can truthfully answer why you need a laptop is yourself. If you are tasked with buying a laptop for your church ask those who have approached you ‘why do we need a laptop’ and you will again have the starting point for deciding what laptop to buy.

Good examples might be:
we are about to buy a church video projection system for use in worship and for mid-week activities in our church premises
we need to have a portable system that can be moved from room to room
we also want the flexibility to operate the computer from the front and rear of the church.

This may well be a situation where a laptop is better suited rather than a desktop PC as the laptop will provide the portability required. Also as a follow on to this it will not be essential for the laptop to be ultra lightweight as it will not be moved/carried on a daily basis. One of the areas that can significantly increase costs for laptops is the weight – the lighter and more portable the laptop, the higher the price.

What do I want to use the laptop for?

After answering the ‘why’ question, the next step is to consider what it is that you want your laptop to do. Think through the work that the laptop will be used for:
word processing
spreadsheets
databases
presentation software
playing DVDs
digital photography
video editing
playing and editing music.

If in answering this question you only require the laptop for the first three uses above then you will almost certainly not require a high-end laptop and an entry model will suffice.

If you are planning to use presentation software such as PowerPoint which will include pictures, graphics, sounds, movies, or for playing DVDs or manipulating digital photos then you will require a mid-range laptop with sufficient processing power and memory to cope with these additional demands. You will also need a DVD-Rom drive on the laptop to play DVDs.

If you want to be able to carry out video editing or multimedia authoring on the laptop then you will most likely require a high-end laptop otherwise you may find it grinding to a halt! You will also need suitable interface connections such as IEEE1394 or ‘Firewire’ ports to enable you to ‘capture’ the video for editing.

Input/Output options
When choosing a laptop for presentation or multimedia use, the following output options should be considered:

Dual monitor support – this is present in a large number of laptops. This enables you to display separate information on the 15 pin VGA output of the laptop than on the LCD screen of the laptop. There are normally 3 display options that you can select on your laptop – Disabled (turns off the VGA connector on the back of the laptop), Simultaneous or Mirrored (projector or second monitor connected to VGA connector shows the same thing as the laptop's screen), and Dual or Extended window (the VGA connector is the same as using a second video card and the windows desktop is extended onto this output).

Most laptops have a 15 pin video out connector – however this does not guarantee ‘dual monitor’ support so you should always check before you buy!
If the laptop you have chosen does not have dual screen support you will need to buy a PCMCIA VGA card such as the 'Display To Go' card by Margi. Costs for this type of card vary but would normally cost between £150 - £200.

Video out – denoted by a yellow coloured ‘phono’ socket on the rear of the laptop – usually provided on the higher-end models.· Firewire (IEEE1394) – used for fast access to external devices as well digital video formats.· Audio in/out – usually provided through a small 3.5mm stereo jack socket available on all laptops.

What specification do I need?

Once you have been able to answer the questions of ‘why do I want a laptop?’ and ‘what do I want to use a laptop for?’ you can progress to considering what specification laptop suits your needs.

I want to suggest the following minimum specifications for laptops in three categories matched to the uses above.

Entry Level – basic office applications
Mobile Celeron, Pentium 4-M, or desktop (Pentium 4) processors
At least 128MB of memory
Standard size hard drive (20-30Gb)
14-inch display or larger
Fixed or swappable CD-RW and/or DVD drives
USB1/2 connectivity
Wired and wireless networking
Ability to use external keyboard and mouse
Microsoft Windows XP Home
Microsoft Works Suite

Mid Level – basic office applications plus presentation software / digital imaging and DVD playback
Mobile Celeron, Pentium 4-M, desktop Pentium 4, or PowerPC G4 processors
At least 256MB of memory
Big hard drive to hold all those media files and large presentations (30-60Gb)
USB2 connectivity
DVD/CD-RW combined drive for playing DVDs and burning CDs
Wired and wireless networking
Ability to use external keyboard and mouse
Microsoft Windows XP Home or Apple Mac OS X
Microsoft Office XP Standard Edition or Office v.X for Mac OS

High Level – video editing and demanding multimedia authoring
Fastest Pentium M, Pentium 4-M or desktop P4, or PowerPC G4 processors
512MB to 1GB of memory
A 15-inch display or larger
Advanced graphics accelerator with 32MB or 64MB of its own memory
The largest and fastest hard drive available (60Gb plus)
Swappable CD-RW and DVD recordable drives
Multimedia connectors, such as S-Video, FireWire (IEEE1394)
External keyboard and mouse
Microsoft Windows XP Home or Professional, or Apple Mac OS X
Microsoft Office XP Premium, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premiere and more!

Whilst it is possible to argue about the exact minimum specification required (sometimes this is specified for you by the specific software applications) these outlines will get you in the right area.

Do I need to buy a brand name laptop?

Another consideration is whether to go for a brand name or not, e.g. Sony, Toshiba, Compaq, etc. The answer really lies more in the reliability of the product than whether it is a brand name or not. The likelihood is that a brand name will be more reliable than a non-brand name but this is certainly not always the case. If you already own electronic equipment of a certain brand and are happy with the quality and reliability then it may make sense to stick with that brand for your laptop.

Built-in Software
The following software is provided with the operating system on all laptops and may help in getting you off to a good start with your multimedia requirements:
Windows XP – Windows Movie Maker – simple to use video editing software (Firewire/IEEE1394 port required to import digital video).
Apple Macintosh – iMovie – simple to use video editing software.

Both of these built-in pieces of software whilst simple allow you to create your own video material.

Conclusion

As I stated at the start of the article, we were not planning to give you a list of laptops and run comparisons between them as this would not enable us to cover the breadth of choice that is available and there are places where you can already get this information such as:
http://www.laptopshop.co.uk/laptop-reviews.html and http://www.dooyoo.co.uk/computers/laptops/

Both of these sites provide access to information on group tests and more. Other sources of group test information are computer magazines such as What Laptop.

Once you have decided on why you need a laptop, what you want to use the laptop for and what specification you require and have checked out some of the group tests, the final decision is where to buy the laptop from. This in itself may be an obvious choice – ‘the cheapest supplier of course!’

Beware though the cheapest may not necessarily be the best. You will need to consider support issues such as ‘what do I do if my laptop goes wrong?’ It may be worth spending a little more money to buy from a supplier who you trust and who has a good reputation for support.

One final consideration is whether to buy new or second-hand. It may be that the laptop you require does not need to be the latest model and that a second-hand laptop would meet your requirements as well as save you money. Think carefully about second-hand laptops as the support and life expectancy of the laptop need to be considered and balanced against the price saving. There are several sources for second-hand laptops and again it is worth shopping around to find the best deal. One possible place to start is on ebay.

Richard Armiger runs his own training consultancy and media production company, Armadillos, and is a Co-Editor of eChurch Active. Tel: 0845 2268507 or vist www.armadillos.biz

 


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