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WHICH COMPUTER TO BUY TODAY?


September 1, 2001
By Pulp & Paper Canada

We have discussed choice of computer several times over the 18 years I have been writing this column. The trend is always towards faster and better, with the price of the best machine to buy usually h…

We have discussed choice of computer several times over the 18 years I have been writing this column. The trend is always towards faster and better, with the price of the best machine to buy usually hovering around $5000. When we needed a computer for a son’s school, the first thought was one of the under-$1000 models so heavily promoted by the major manufacturers. However, detailed study of the offers rapidly revealed that a workable machine, which will not be laughably obsolete within a year or so, would cost much more, so we decided to give him my 2.5-year-old laptop, which is still a better machine than the latest $1000 specials. In addition, it is portable.

The other deciding factor was the significant increase in power in the current crop of laptops over the 1999 models, and the opportunity to upgrade operating systems and Microsoft Office suite simultaneously.

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In most circumstances, I feel that it is better to buy only high performance computers, with a view to passing them down the line to less demanding (or less fortunate) users, than to ever buy low-end computers. The high-end machines probably have a useful life of over five years, without being upgraded, while low-end machines will probably have to be retired or (expensively) upgraded earlier due to obsolescence.

The price gap between laptops and desktop computers has narrowed to the point that I feel that the laptop is normally the best buy for business or technical use, unless there is absolutely no advantage in portability, or a fixed location is preferred, such as for a network server.

VIDEO DISPLAY

For me, the most significant improvement in the current laptops is that one can now buy an “Ultra XGA” display, which has 1600 by 1200 pixels on the 15″ screen. This gives a clearer display than my current 1024 by 768 pixel display. I can see up to about 60 rows of a spreadsheet, or a full page of text on screen, which is always a great help in getting work done easily and quickly. Many people dislike such fine resolution, due to the small characters displayed. The solution is to this the “zoom” feature of most software to obtain the size you like. For the windows menus, Windows Explorer etc, you can adjust the text size as described in the sidebar.

A second feature to look for in a laptop is support for the ability of Windows 98 and Windows 2000 to spread the display across several screens. Most laptops have in effect two video driver cards installed, one for the integrated LCD display and one to drive an external monitor plugged into the video outlet. This allows you to have the main files you are working on visible in on a large desktop display and auxiliary software such as Email, Windows Explorer, or live updates to stock market quotes on the second display. You mouse transfers smoothly between them.

You can even drag one application display, such as Excel, to spread across both screens, but the gap between the screens is a nuisance.

Not all laptops support double-monitor operation, so it is advisable to ask questions before buying.

MEMORIES

Computers running simple tasks do well with 128 Mb RAM, but 256 Mb is better, and is necessary for good performance if you run multiple applications simultaneously.

Hard disc space is fairly cheap today, and the newer software requires ever more space, particularly if your kids run games. I would not buy under 10 Gb disc space, and actually bought 20 in my new computer. If the computer has an IEEE 1394 port, there are some remarkably cheap drives up to 70 Mb capacity advertised.

CONNECTING

A modem and network connection is necessary for most computers, and there are plenty good quality adapter cards on the market. One nuisance with many laptops is that these cards require special plugs, which can be bulky and are easy to lose. For most people, a standard Ethernet card and 56Kb V90 modem is appropriate, but is it of course necessary to consider compatibility with the other equipment you wish to communicate with.

A CD drive is necessary to install software, and to take advantage of all the various databases, maps etc available. Today, for an additional cost of about $400, you can have a drive that also writes CDs and reads DVD discs. The latter discs have not become vary popular for computer data, but some interesting software is available. For example, Encyclopedia Britannica (about US$50) on DVD contains several times as many pictures as the paper or CD versions.

WEIGHT

I use my laptop as my principal computer, so am prepared to carry the weight of the relatively heavy machine described above, but much lighter ones area available, particularly if you are happy with external plug-in CD and floppy drives.

Setting video displays

As usual with Windows, there are several ways of accomplishing any task. The easiest way to the video configuration dialogs is to right-click on the desktop (the screen background, in non-computerese). Select “Properties” then “Settings”.

The display resolution can be set on the sliding bar. If you set it too high, you will seen only part of the whole display on your screen. This is usable, but I do not like working with it.

With Windows 98, if you have two monitors connected, or just the driver software for two, you will see two monitors in a picture, with a drop-down box below them. Click on the “down arrow” on the right hand end to see a list of the monitors the computer knows about. Select the number 2 monitor. You should see a check box entitled “Extend my windows desktop to this monitor”, in the lower left of the dialog box. Check it. You can then drag the picture of the No. 2 monitor to the location that corresponds to its physical location on your desk.

With Windows 2000, click on “Advanced” after reaching “Settings” as described above, and then select the “Twin View” tab and follow the instructions.

Many users eschew the finer resolution setting available on their computers because the text in the Windows menus is too small. To change the size of text in Windows menus, Explorer etc., start from the above mentioned “settings” screen and click on “advanced”, then “General”. You can choose between “small fonts” and “large fonts”. Normally the latter are best for high resolution screens. You can also define font size.


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