Purchasing Laptop Computers or Tablet PCs

Considerations when deciding what kind of laptop to purchase

The sections below describe some of the considerations when purchasing a laptop computer. The relative importance of these tends to be very personal. Some users may find that screen size is their top consideration, others are most concerned with overall weight. When discussing the purchase of such equipment, try to consider which factors are most important to you. If you are consulting with CSCF personnel, please go through these issues and be prepared to comment on your preferences.

Note that many of these features are "diametrically opposed", eg: faster processor usually means lower batter life and higher cost; larger screen size will mean higher weight, etc.


  • Users often have a brand that they've been happy with and may prefer to stick with that name


  • Users need to decide how price-sensitive their purchase is. Faster processors and extra memory tend to drive up the price quickly. It is helpful to provide a price range when asking for assistance with quotes.


  • portability can be very important. However, lighter machines tend to make sacrifices in screen size, battery life, optical (CD-ROM) drives or other areas

Screen Size and viewability

  • Larger screens can typically support higher screen resolutions, but that is not always the case
  • minimum resolution is typically 1024x768
  • many Tablet PCs are limited to 1024x768
  • docking stations allow you to have increased resolution when attached to the dock and using a larger external monitor

Processor Speed and Type

  • Processor speed is a major factor determining price. A faster processor certainly helps, but make sure the system has enough memory - that can be a larger factor in overall performance. Consider getting at least 512mb RAM or even 1gb.
  • If you have a choice between Celeron and Pentium M, go with Pentium M - it is designed to give better battery life.


  • typical base memory is 256/512mb of RAM
  • usually one additional memory module can be purchased to bring the machine to 512mb or 1gb RAM
  • maximum RAM is typically 2gb

Optical Drive

  • Optical drives can read and/or write CD-ROM or DVD disks
  • some models do not include an optical drive at all, others have a bay that can be swapped between an optical drive, extra battery or even floppy disk
  • optical drives tend to add weight to the overall system
  • they can also be made available in a docking station, port replicator or external USB connection

Network connectivity / Wireless

  • most modern laptops include a 10/100mb LAN connection, some are now 10/100/1000
  • most laptops now have built-in wireless, which is highly recommended
    • on-campus we support 802.11b and 802.11g - these are commonly included with many laptops
    • some laptops also support 802.11a, but it is not used at UW
  • Bluetooth connectivity allows wireless access to peripherals such as printers, mice and keyboards

Tablet PC option

  • Tablet PCs allow pen input and a convenient format while teaching
  • Tablet PCs tend to be lighter
  • Typically, Tablet PCs add a 10% premium over traditional laptops with equivalent hardware
  • See also: The CSCF Twiki page on TabletPCs

Mouse pointer style

  • laptop keyboards include either a touchpad, pointer nib, or both
  • Tablet PC's also include a pen

Keyboard style

  • keyboards can vary widely in layout, "chiclet-style" keys, full-stroke or not, etc.

Operating System

  • Most laptops come pre-installed with Windows XP (Home or Professional). UW has a site-license that allows us to upgrade an existing Windows installation to Windows XP Professional
  • If you're interested in running Linux (either alone or using dual-boot), that is most likely possible, but some hardware drivers can be tricky. The CSCF Research Support Group has a fair bit of experience installing Linux on laptops.

Other options to consider

Application Software

  • Windows laptops will probably want some version of Office. Laptop vendors sometimes bundle Office (or make it available as a cheap option). If not, the UW site licence version can be purchased. We generally add Acrobat Pro and MicroX-XWin32 to our laptops. Both of these are available via UW site licences.

Docking Station / Port Replicator

  • Docking stations allow for quick "grab-and-go" capability. An external monitor, LAN connection, printer, CD drives, etc can all be plugged in
  • most laptop models have a corresponding docking station or port replicator available, but some do not

Spare battery

  • It can be useful to have a spare battery and charger for quick changing of the battery, if you don't want to use a power cord. Keeping a charger in your office with a spare battery allows you to stop by, switch batteries and go to your next meeting or class.

International/Travel power adapters

  • Power adapters can be purchased to allow you to power your laptop in a car or airplane or outside North America.

Laptop carrying case

  • Most laptops do not come with a carrying case. There are many styles to choose from. Remember that laptop cases themselves can be heavy and bulky, plus a high-capacity case will encourage you to bring "everything" along with you, which can greatly increase the weight you're carrying!


  • most laptops come with 1 year warranty, but can usually be bumped up to 3 year coverage. This is an excellent idea for machines that will be travelling a lot since they can get bumped a lot. Having international coverage can also be very useful when travelling out-of-country (eg: IBM and Apple offer these)

Product Samples


Acer tends to make cost-conscious laptops





IBM makes a highly respected line of notebook computers and a Tablet PC



Notebooks/Laptops/Tablet PCs by Type

Ultra-Mobile PC

A new class of machines being promoted by Microsoft

Light-weight, highly portable

Desktop replacement (high power, weight not an issue)

Other useful links

-- LawrenceFolland - 21 Jul 2005
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Topic revision: r10 - 2006-03-20 - LawrenceFolland
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