Choosing A Notebook Computer; Indispensable Tools For Photographers

If you think a notebook computer is a scaled-down compromise with a cramped keyboard and tiny screen, think again. Notebooks have become an indispensable tool for photographers. Choosing the right one is easy--there are a few core components that determine how well a computer will perform over the long haul. Here is what you need to know:

Size Matters
Before you can decide how powerful a machine you want to buy, you must first decide what physical size best suits your needs, since size somewhat limits features. While some notebooks are truly notebook-size and slip easily into a briefcase, others are categorized as "desktop replacements" and offer as much power and capacity as you'll find in most office models. The best of both worlds, perhaps, is a portable PC used in conjunction with a docking unit. The docking unit stays tethered to a full-size monitor and full-size keyboard. Disconnect the PC from the docking unit and you can easily take it--and all of your files--on the road with you. But back at home you have all of the advantages of a desktop PC.

CPU And Clock Speed
The CPU is at the heart of any PC and is rated by its clock speed. The higher the speed, the faster the chip performs--just make sure that you're comparing apples to apples and comparing two of the same CPUs. Although there are several processors to choose from, the Intel Core 2 Duo is the most popular. Apple uses this CPU in their latest MacBook Pro notebook computers. The Core 2 Duo has two computational engines on a single die. Conventional processors have only one. When used with the right software, multi-core processors can perform parallel execution of multiple software threads simultaneously. In other words, they can do two (or more) entirely different things at once. The operating system recognizes each core as a separate processor. The benefit: a significant increase in computational speed. The computer power does not double but the increase in performance is substantial--in fact, Intel claims that the increase in performance of the Core 2 Duo compared to the original Core Duo is approximately 40 percent.

RAM: Never Enough?
Next in importance, the total amount of RAM in your system. A photographer's PC should have at least 1GB of memory--preferably 2GB. More is better and there is no such thing as too much. Most notebook computers have two sockets that hold memory chips. If both are filled it's obviously necessary to remove one (or both) to add more RAM. If you buy a PC that has 1GB of RAM that has been installed as two 512MB modules you cannot increase the total memory without displacing at least one of the existing units--a wasteful and costly procedure. On the other hand, if your PC has a single 1GB module installed in one of the sockets and the other socket is empty you can simply add another module. Best bet, buy as much RAM as you can afford in the beginning.

Hard Drive

Don't buy a notebook that has a hard drive smaller than 100GB. If you plan to edit digital video you'll appreciate a much larger drive. Remember, it's always more economical to specify a large hard drive as part of your original configuration than it is to add a large drive later. No one ever complains that their hard drive has too much space.

A 13 or 15" display is okay for casually browsing images, especially if you use your notebook extensively on the road. For serious photo editing, a 17" monitor is more suitable. The current crop of LCD displays are widescreen, and if your roots are in smaller formats that might take some getting used to.

If your notebook offers a DVD burner as an option, go for it--you'll never regret it. Having a DVD writer built-in makes it much easier to create backups or share images on the spot. The most common configuration is an 8x Double Layer that reads and writes all formats. If yours can handle DVD-RAM in addition to +R and --R, consider that a plus.

Other Options
Some notebooks offer features that won't be found on their boxy big brothers. Tablet notebooks, for example, read your handwriting as you jot notes on the screen. Having a memory card reader slot built-in is handy. Even more important, though, is the number of Hi-Speed USB (USB 2.0) and FireWire (IEEE 1394, a.k.a. iLink) ports that are available. Check the fine print and make sure that the notebook you choose has the I/O ports you need to connect to your external drives, card readers, and camcorder.

A Laptop Sampler
Here's a sampling of some notebooks we consider apt for on-the-go digital photographers:

Apple's MacBook Pro
Apple's latest offering is the MacBook Pro. The top model has a 17" display and is powered by an awesome 2.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, Intel's second generation dual-core CPU. It comes complete with 2GB of Double-Data Rate (DDR2) RAM, a 200GB hard drive, and Mac OS X Tiger. It also has an 8x SuperDrive DVD writer, FireWire 800, DVI, and digital audio capabilities built into a profile that's only 1" thick and weighs but 6.8 lbs. Price is $2899, directly from Apple.

Courtesy of Apple.

Lenovo's ThinkPad
The Lenovo ThinkPad T60p has one of the most comfortable keyboards around. Lenovo will custom-build yours to suit your taste and budget. A typical, under-$2000 configuration--complete with 15" SXGA+ screen--can include an Intel Core Duo 2GHz CPU, 2GB RAM, a 100GB hard drive, 8x dual-layer DVD writer, and ATI Mobility Fire GL graphics (256MB). You also get an integrated fingerprint reader, all for only $1923.