Lightweight Laptop To Travel

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Copyright 2010 by Morris Rosenthal

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Netbooks And Super Light Laptops for Business Travelers

If you've read my page about getting a good deal on a laptop, the only bit of it that applies when you're shopping for a lightweight laptop is to keep your eyes open for rebates. When it comes to laptop pricing, weight is what you pay for, and for business laptops, less weight means more price. I paid about three times as much for the Toshiba Satellite I'm typing this on as I would have for a cheap laptop that would have been two inches wider and weighed two pounds more. But that two pounds is 50%, moving from 4 pounds to 6 pounds, and the one I bought is a pretty powerful little machine. It's also a business expense for my tax year, and I really doubt I could have have justified spending $1400 on a notebook unless I knew I would be getting nearly half of it back as a write-off. The good new is that this particular Toshiba turns out to be an excellent choice for business travel, and wonder of wonder, the battery actually hangs on for a good 4 hours if I don't abuse it by pumping the screen brightness up to the maximum while catching a wireless connection in the street.

But the lightweight laptop scene has been completely rewritten in the last couple years by the appearance of the netbook. Netbooks are just stripped down versions of super light laptops, with a less powerful (and low power consumption) CPU, and a few parts missing. But unless you are crunching major spreadsheets on the road, you don't really need the processor power. Netbooks only have two major drawbacks in for the business traveler, which are the cramped keyboard and (frequently) no DVD drive. So unlike regular laptops, where you can practically buy anything and assume it will work, with netbooks, you have to pay attention that it actually has all the features you require. After all, if you want to watch your own movies on the plane, what good is a ten hour battery life if it doesn't have a DVD player built in?

You can comparison shop for netbooks running between around $275 and $450 on Amazon. Asus has some of the most compelling models in terms of battery life, over ten hours, but their keyboards and screens are surprisingly small. All the majory manufacturers except Apple now sell netbooks, so if you have a favorite brand, you can stick with them. But if you're looking for a true business laptop for travel, prices start around $800 and go well up over $1000 on Amazon.

I did quite a bit of shopping before purchasing my last Toshiba Satellite, the exact model being a U205-S5022. My first criteria was getting away from those big screen monsters that sell for under $500 and use up the whole space in the laptop carry bag, or on the cafe table, for that matter. You won't find a lot of choice for true travel notebooks when you check your local big box retailer, though they'll usually have some midget Sony Vaio for over $2,000 and some version of my Toshiba. I don[t remember if I actually bought from Circuit City or CompUSA in the end, but like a good citizen, I bought local and paid 5% sales tax on top. I did shop them all on the Internet, but when you're going to pay decent money, it's nice to get your hands on one to see how the screen and the keyboard work for you. Externally, keyboard and screen are the two main creature features you're going to have to deal with. In the case of the super lightweight Sony's I saw, the keyboard wasn't full size. I'm typing impaired enough as it is without hitting two keys at once, so a full size keyboard was one of my must haves. Thanks to a friend, I saw the miniature Dell as well, and his model also had the slightly reduced keyboard. What you gain by purchasing the Sony or the Dell is another pound, dropping from 4 pounds down to around 3 pounds, and for many people, the 3 pound range is the definition of a lightweight laptop.

But there's no magic to making laptops that light. In all the models I looked at, including some beauties from Lenovo (previous IBM ThinkPad line), the super light laptops got there by leaving out important bits, like DVD drives and decent size and performance hard drives. The Lenovo X Series ThinkPads look terrific at first glance, the weights start in the sub-3 pound range, but the base prices for all models is over $1500 and they came without a DVD and just 512 MB RAM. The largest standard hard drive was 60MB, and only a couple models came with the built in fingerprint scanner that came with my Toshiba. One impressive feature of the Lenovo is an extended life battery that gets the operating live up over 10 hours and connects through the docking interface. You can carry it in the same accessory bag as the DVD:-) I didn't see a 5-in-1 media reader, so you'll have to hook your digital camera up by USB if you're taking pictures.

The lightweight Dell Latitude (I looked at the D420) is appreciably less expensive than the Lenovo line, but you do need the media base to use a DVD. While it adds less than a pound and a half to the weight of the laptop, it gets you right back into the range of the light Toshiba. Like the light ThinkPads and the Satellite, the screen is 12.1", which is about as small as you can get a laptop body before you have to start shrinking the keyboard. The hard drive options were 30, 60 and 80 GB, which is respectable, but you pay as you add. I wanted to check out all of the current Sony models on their website, but I'm writing this while on dial-up, and their idiotic website design takes too long to load. Based on the models I've seen in stores, the Sony's are a little over-engineered, veering away from standard laptop dimensions in the lightweight models and extremely pricey.

The Toshiba I bought came with a 100 GB hard drive and 1 GB of RAM as standard with the model. It also has the built in DVD recorder and the 5-in-1 memory card support, so when I want to go somewhere and do some work, I don't have to carry a bunch of extra external options with me. Yes, it's 4 pounds rather than just under 3 pounds, but the 4 pounds includes everything. I haven' bothered talking about USB ports, Firewire, 100/1000Base-T or any of the other standard laptop motherboard connectors because the high-end notebooks all have them all. The other thing they have that the business traveller will need is wireless, but using wireless on the road may come as a shock to the unitiated.

If you are traveling for a big business, it's entirely possible that they provided you with a true cellular modem from the likes of Sprint or Verizon, which get's you broadband Internet access as long as you're in a coverage area, which includes most of the heavily populated corridors in the US. The cellular Internet connection has nothing to do with the built in wireless support of the 802.11G variety that you'll see everybody using in coffee shops. The reason they are using their laptops in coffee shops is because that's where the free connections are. You don't need to purchase a laptop with a built in 3G cellular modem, you can always add a USB 3G modem with no contract as I did after the fact. Oddly, you may find that a cheap motel offers free wireless, while a pricey hotel offers wireless that you have to buy a subscription to use. The important point to realize is that all of these non-cellular wireless solutions are very short range. On a flat street with no obstructions, coverage from the broadcasting antenna may extend a couple hundred feet, but for a good connection, you'll need to be in the same building (small building) as the broadcasting router. or standing in the street in front of the window.