Laptop computers are compact, lightweight alternatives to full-size desktop machines. Your laptop is a self-contained system that can easily fit into a briefcase or backpack. When you arrive at your destination (or when you want to use the computer along the way), you can open up the clamshell case, turn on the power switch, and start working or playing a game just as soon as Windows completes its startup routine.
A laptop computer might be easy to carry around, but that convenience comes at a price in ease of use and repair, cost, and security. If you expect to move your computer often, a laptop is the obvious choice. But don't spend the extra money for a laptop until you consider the drawbacks of a portable system.
The whole point of a laptop computer is easy transport. If you're a frequent traveler, or if you expect to use a single computer at the office or school and at home, a laptop is far more convenient than a desktop system. A laptop weighs less than a desktop machine with similar performance, and it comes in a smaller package.
Because laptop computers can use batteries, you can use them almost anywhere. Combined with a wireless Internet link, you can work on your own computer or connect to the rest of the world without the need to find a source of AC power for a few hours.
A laptop computer is a self-contained package. In addition to the central processor, memory, and data storage that are common inside a desktop case, a laptop computer also includes a keyboard, a video display, and a substitute for a mouse in the same convenient package. Therefore, you don't have to buy those devices separately, and you don't have to connect them to the case before you can start using your computer.
If laptop computers were better than desktop machines in every way, nobody would bother with a desktop system. However, the same small size and reduced weight that makes a laptop easy to move around often makes it more difficult to use.
The screens on most laptop computers are no more than 15 inches from corner to corner, often as little as 12 or 13 inches. This compares to the most common desktop monitors, whose screens measure anywhere from 17 to 21 inches or more. When a desktop monitor and a laptop screen are set to the same resolution, the images on the laptop are always smaller. And the same text on the smaller laptop screen is almost always more difficult to read. A few laptops with larger screens-some more than 20 inches-are available, but they're extremely expensive, and a screen that big makes the whole computer less compact and portable.
The size of a laptop computer's keyboard is limited by the width of its case. Except for a unique unfolding butterfly keyboard that IBM tried and abandoned in the mid-1990s, a laptop keyboard cannot be any wider than the lower half of the clamshell. Even though laptop keyboards don't include all of those extra keys that appear to the right of the traditional typewriter keys on a desktop keyboard, the individual keys on a laptop are often smaller and closer together than those on a separate keyboard.
If you're a touch-typist who is used to a traditional keyboard, this can have a huge impact on your speed and accuracy. All those typing exercises in high school and all those years of text and data entry have conditioned your fingers to expect to find each letter in the same place on any keyboard. You don't have to think about finding a letter; your brain automatically takes your fingers to that key. But when the keys' locations are slightly different, you either hit the wrong key more often, or you type more slowly in order to direct each keystroke to the right location.
The standard hard drive in a desktop computer has one or more 3.5-inch platters inside the drive enclosure. A laptop has space for only a single 2.5-inch drive. Because the laptop's disks are smaller, they can't hold as much data. If you expect to use your computer to record audio or video or to store other very large files, this difference in capacity means that you must either connect a second, external drive to the laptop through a USB or FireWire port, or transfer the files to another computer for permanent storage.
In an airport, a railway station, or a library, an unattended laptop computer can easily disappear within minutes. For all the same reasons that make laptop computers convenient to carry, they are also extremely attractive targets for theft. They're easy to grab and hide, and easy to sell to an unscrupulous bargain hunter.
Worse, the information stored on a laptop's hard drive can be even more valuable than the machine itself. Business records, thesis notes, and other information stored in data files can be difficult or impossible to reconstruct. And you've probably seen news reports about banks, credit bureaus, and government agencies losing confidential information when their laptops were stolen.
Of course, you can and must take precautions to protect your laptop. If you travel with a laptop, you must never let it out of your sight. If you use it in a public location, use a cable lock to secure it to a table. If you leave it in a car, be sure to put it in the trunk where nobody can see it.
Chapter 48 of this book offers many more ideas about keeping your computer secure.
When you buy a laptop computer, you pay something extra for the added convenience of a lightweight portable system. The price of a laptop computer is always higher than a desktop system with similar performance. That added cost is a combination of more expensive design (you can't just assemble a new model out of common components), non-standard parts, and an expensive battery in every computer. A laptop also has to be more durable than a desktop system.
Even though you can recharge it when you run the computer on external power, your computer's battery won't last forever. The life of a laptop battery depends on the way you use the computer, but you probably need a new one at least every couple of years.
Repairs are another potential expense. As the next section explains, a laptop computer is more likely to need service than a desktop machine, so that's one more item to add to the total cost of ownership. The alternative is an extended warranty, which is really a bet with the manufacturer that the computer will need service during the life of the warranty. If the computer breaks, you win the bet. If it works perfectly, you lose.
Don't forget to add the cost of essential accessories when you're estimating the cost of your new computer. At a bare minimum, you need some kind of carrier bag or a backpack for your laptop, and maybe some additional memory, and a cable lock or other security device.
Chapter 25 describes many other accessories you might also want to use with your laptop.
If you're considering a laptop because you want to carry it between home and work, but you don't care about portable operation, there's another possible option: Think about two inexpensive desktop systems and an external hard drive, instead of a single laptop. The total cost of the two desktops could easily be less than a single quality portable.
It's easy to understand why a laptop computer is more likely to need repairs than a desktop machine if you consider the way people treat them. The owner of a laptop grabs it off the desk, drops it into a bag or a briefcase, and throws it over a shoulder or onto a baggage cart. Then it gets shaken around for a couple of hours, until the owner stops into a coffee shop and fires up the computer to check for e-mail. Oops! Was that hot coffee and warm milk you spilled into the keyboard? Oh well, use some napkins to soak it up and put it back in the bag.
On the other hand, a desktop computer in an office or at home is set up and assembled just once, and it sits in the same place for months or years at a time. Maybe a heavy-handed typist might wear out a keyboard, or a hard drive might crash, but most of the time the box just sits there without any serious abuse. If a keyboard or a mouse, or even an internal component fails, it's just a matter of unplugging the old one and installing a replacement.
Even if you handle your laptop computer carefully, it may still be exposed to more hazards than a desktop system: laptops run hotter, they are turned on and off more often, and they're subjected to more physical abuse.
Of course, a laptop machine is designed to absorb a lot more abuse than a desktop, but eventually, all that bumping and all those spills can take a toll. Some manufacturers and certain models have excellent track records for survival, while others are almost notorious for breaking down, so it's important to do some homework before you decide which one to buy. It's worth spending more for a reliable machine.
If a manufacturer controls the market for replacement parts, they can charge whatever they want. If you need that part, they have you over the proverbial barrel. A few laptop parts such as memory modules and hard drives are common among more than one manufacturer, but case parts, motherboards, mounting hardware, keyboards, and screens are all unique in just about every make and model.
Spare parts are often expensive, but if you stick to well-known brands, they should be easy to find. In order to identify the exact part your computer needs, you must consult a service manual, where you probably have to consult an exploded parts diagram. Your local computer parts emporium probably doesn't keep parts for every popular laptop type in stock, so you have to order the thing directly from the factory.
If you keep using the machine long after the manufacturer stops supporting it, you eventually have to venture into the world of used and surplus parts to keep it alive. There's probably somebody out there in an industrial park someplace who has a warehouse full of parts for your beloved machine. All you have to do is find the person (the Internet is your friend; search for the part number and you can probably find what you need). If you're very lucky, he or she won't insist on a minimum order of $150 when you only need a $3.75 circuit board.
It sometimes seems as if the design of laptop computers is based on the Trash Compactor method. That's the one where you lay out all the parts on a big table and then squeeze everything down until it all fits into the case. The parts inside a laptop clamshell are tightly stacked and combined in order to fit all the same features and functions that are available inside a much larger desktop case.
This makes it a lot more difficult to work inside a laptop case. The parts are smaller and closer together, and they are often held together with teeny tiny screws and connectors that are easy to lose. It's often difficult to locate a disconnected cable or a loose screw because there's another component in the way. Without a detailed set of instructions from a service manual or a manufacturer's Web site, you might not even get the cover open without damaging something.
This also means that things that might have been on separate pieces in a desktop, such as the graphics controller and the sound card, are all integrated into the motherboard, so you can't upgrade or repair your laptop by simply swapping out an plug-in circuit board. Instead, you must either accept the original specifications or get yourself a new computer.
Of course, this might not be an issue if you don't expect to repair or modify your own computer. The major laptop manufacturers all encourage their users to send their computers back to a factory service center for repairs. Factory service can be expensive, but when the repaired computer comes back to you, the service center usually guarantees its work.