A question that I received several times over the last week (now that "grads and dads" season is upon us)

"What kind of a computer should I buy? We're looking for a new computer for our home/son/daughter..."

This weekend, I found a special article on buying a new computer in the Personal Technology section of the Seattle Times. I was going to forward a link to the online version of the story, but wasn't able to find it on the Times' site.

But thanks to Brier Dudley, tech and business writer at the Seattle Times, I now have the link (having already recycled my paper). "glad you enjoyed the story. It looks like we forgot to include attribution, ouch. We took it from the wire, the original source is Mike Himowitz, Baltimore Sun."

Mike Himowitz is a columnist at the paper, and wrote the article "Sticker tells shopper key parts of a laptop" in which he covers "the specific components of a portable PC."

"Like automobiles, computers have "stickers" that tell you what's inside. It will be posted on the retailer's shelf, on a technical specifications screen if you're shopping online, and usually on a real sticker attached to the computer itself. Here's what to look for..."

This is a follow on to his article "Laptop better for college students."

"This year, for the first time, I'm recommending laptop computers for most college students.

"For $1,200 or less you can buy a portable with enough horsepower for everything but high-end gaming or professional video editing. And that price tag includes the most important component of every college student's PC - an extended warranty.

"A well-equipped laptop still costs $400 to $500 more than a desktop machine with similar capabilities. But the overall price of technology has declined to the point where the portability premium is barely a blip on the total bill for a four-year degree."

$1,200? I beg to differ. If you are a careful shopper, you can find some very good prices on the latest offerings, especially during key sale seasons like, well, now, and back to school in the fall.

Himowitz suggests (excerpted) the following (with a few of my own suggestions):

  • The screen: "General-purpose laptops have screens in the 15.4-inch range, with an aspect ratio (width to height) of 4:3 - the same as a standard TV or desktop monitor. These are fine for most purposes... Wide-screen laptops, with a more rectangular, 16:9 aspect ratio, are gaining fans because they're shaped more like theater or HDTV screens."
  • Keyboard: "There's a secret, industrywide competition to find the most awkward and illogical positions for these. So try to type on any laptop - or a model with the same keyboard - before you buy it."
    My experience: I like Lenovo, Toshiba and Dell laptop keyboards but preferences vary.
  • Microprocessor: "Laptops generally use mobile versions of processors from Intel or Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). Look for a PC with a dual core processor."
    My suggestion: buy the fastest Intel "Core 2 Duo" or dual core AMD Turion processors ("X2") you can afford.
  • Memory: "Microsoft recommends 1 gigabyte of internal RAM for its Vista operating system, and Apple serves up 1 gig in its basic MacBook line. I recommend 2 gigabytes - particularly if your student likes to play games in those rare moments when he or she is not studying."
    My suggestion: If you're buying Vista Home Basic, 1GB may be fine unless the RAM does double duty powering your graphics (AKA "shared" memory). In that case, go for 2GB, often after market (meaning you install it yourself) if there's a premium to pay for the model. If you're not handy with a Philips head screwdriver and an anti-static band, then have the pros do it. (I found that several laptops come configured these days with 1 to 2GB).
  • Video: "The computer's video adapter determines what appears on the screen. Even when they're displaying moderate detail, games and high-end graphics programs can strain a PC's video processor."
    My suggestion: This is one of the areas that is difficult if not impossible to upgrade later (as you can upgrade memory and hard drives fairly easily), so buy the best you can afford. These days, that means a video graphics adapter from ATI or nVidia with at least 128MB of dedicated memory.
  • Multimedia: "A DVD/CD-RW, which records audio and data CDs and plays DVD movies, will do fine. But a drive that can also burn DVDs is a nice extra."
    My suggestion: if you don't have an external hard drive for backing up, consider a CD/DVD SuperMulti drive with Double Layer support that reads/writes DVD±R/RW, DVD-RAM, DVD±R Double Layer, and CD-R/RW. It's a must if you burn videos for DVD playback.
  • Hard disk storage: "Laptop drives are generally smaller than desktop models, so get at least 80 gigabytes of storage."
    My suggestion: 80GB is fine, as external drives are generally 25-30 cents a GB. But if you are into high resolution art, photos or video, bigger is better.
  • Ports: "The more USB ports your laptop has, the better."
    My suggestion: if you work with digital video or consumer electronics, look for an IEEE-1394 (or DV) connector for hooking up to digital camcorders and some hard drives.
  • Wireless networking: "Many laptops come equipped with wireless network adapters... make sure it meets the industry's 802.11g standard."
    My suggestion: get a 802.11g or better, 802.11b/g wireless card: many hot spots are still 802.11b.
  • Pointing device: "Most laptops use touch pads to replace the mouse, although a few use trackballs or little buttons in the center of the keyboard."
    My suggestion: I agree with Himowitz: Get a mouse. I love my Microsoft wireless notebook mouse, much more than my (too touchy) trackpad on one laptop. But I often find that I use both for many tasks. 

A recent look online illustrates that there is something for everyone, at all price points:

For under $500 at one of the big box office stores (after rebates ;), you can find a name-brand notebook with a 1.73GHz Dual-Core processor (T2080), half GB of memory, an 80GB drive and a double layer DVD Burner with Microsoft Windows Vista Home Basic. Plus you get 802.11b/g wireless, 100Base-T Ethernet, 56K baud modem, 4 USB 2.0 ports and an S-video out port... but the 128MB shared memory graphics card (spend an extra $50 on upgrading the memory). For many general computer applications (surfing the 'net, writing term papers, listening to music and watching DVDs) this would fit the bill.

For around $1,000, you can get a good desktop replacement notebook with a 17" widescreen with a Core Duo Processor (T2350), 2 GB of memory, 120GB hard drive, DVD SuperMulti drive, 5-in-1 media card reader, wireless (802.11a/b/g/Draft-N), 4 USB 2.0 ports and 1 FireWire (IEEE 1394) port, an S-video out, built-in webcam and microphone and 256MB shared memory video card. All running on Windows Vista Home Premium. Ouch.

If you are looking to Apple, there's the MacBook (starting at around $1,100) with a 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 1GB of memory, an 80GB hard drive and a Combo (CD/DVD) drive. Or there's the more powerful MacBookPro, starting at around $2,000 with a 15 inch screen, 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2GB of memory, a 120GB hard drive, SuperDrive and dedicated graphics card with 128MB of memory.