Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Lame Duck Or Mobile Jack-of-all-trades: Cheap Laptops

A simple search on Internet price comparison engines turns them up: new laptops available for as little as 600 dollars. But what is the consumer getting for that price - a high- tech PC for general use or a lame duck that will barely live out the season?

"Laptops in the entry-level class for 600 to 800 dollars are best used as advanced typewriters or for surfing the Internet - but not for daily mobile use," says Thomas Rau from the Munich-based magazine PC-Welt. His opinion is based not least upon the fact that their heavy weight of around three kilogrammes makes them uninviting for constant carrying.

These low-priced portable computers are most likely to please buyers who do not expect extreme performance out of them: "Normal users can - at least in terms of processing power - bring home a plain laptop without any concerns," says Michael Wolf from the German consumer testing organization Stiftung Warentest in Berlin. "The only ones who need the processing power found in expensive laptops are those who play very quick 3D games or who want to do special applications like professional video or picture editing or hard disc recording."

Affordable and expensive laptops perform differently because of the components used inside: the most important differences involve the processor, the main memory, and the size of the hard drive, explains Alexander Brand, product manager at Hewlett-Packard (HP). The software is another way to differentiate between the chaff and the wheat. The cheaper devices often offer Microsoft Windows XP Home as an operating system, whereas the higher price class tends to offer XP Professional.

No new laptop should have less than 512 megabytes (MB) of RAM, feels Michael Wolf from Stiftung Warentest. Double that amount is called for if videos are to be edited. The hard drive should hold at least 40 gigabytes (GB), says Thomas Rau.

The most important difference between the laptop price classes can be seen in the CPU and graphics processors. Expensive units work with Pentium M or dual core chips, while cheaper devices use slower chips like the Intel Celeron or the AMD Sempron. "They have a lower processing speed of 1.7 to 1.8 gigahertz, but not all of the energy saving functions," says Thomas Rau. That old nugget about energy- guzzling desktop processors being built into cheaper laptops has not been the case for a few years now, however, the expert reports.

A quick graphics card - essential for 3D action games - can only be found in significantly more expensive laptops. "The cheapest often have only simply graphics solutions, but for current office and multimedia applications that's quite acceptable," explains Michael Wolf.

Another cost factor is the size and quality of the monitor. The bigger, the more expensive, the rule of thumb goes. Fifteen inches is standard for entry-level devices. "A laptop of that type can be placed on a writing desk or held under your arm," Wolf says. Mobile computers in the 800-dollar class are less well suited for "computer aided field work," however: a display must be very bright and be of high quality to provide good images outside in summer.

Those who intend to use the laptop frequently on the road should consider buying a light subnotebook with a 12 inch screen, Wolf recommends. "Subnotebooks or notebooks with a particularly low weight are typically found in the upper price classes, however," says Alexander Brand from HP. Miniaturization costs money.

One stumbling block in the evaluation of laptop power is the battery. The customer is often working blind here, since the data provided by manufacturers is not always to be trusted: "There are scores of laptops that can't even make two hours under realistic conditions," recounts Michael Wolf of his experience with laptops. If the manufacturers list the battery life at 2 hours, then the risk is high that the actual figure isn't long enough to watch a video DVD.

The influence of the processor on the battery life amounts to maximally 15 to 20 per cent, says Thomas Rau. "If you turn down the brightness or turn off the WLAN, you can save more energy than with a thrifty processor."

By Arnd Petry,

$10 laptops for children?

If MIT's Nicholas Negroponte can try and sell laptops to children at $100, Indians are aspiring to better him many times and sell similar laptops at an unbelievable price of $10, or Rs 450 each.

Having rejected Negroponte's offer of $100 (the real price was coming to $200) for children of less developed countries, HRD and telecom ministry officials and experts from IITs and Indian Institute of Science met last week to devise a roadmap for the indigenous laptop.

One official who attended the meeting said: " No one had any doubt about the feasibility of the project. Everyone is enthusiastic and wants a quick rollout. But we have given ourselves three years before the first $10 laptop comes out."

When the $100/laptop proposal had come in April, Ashok Jhunjhunwala of IIT, Chennai, had not only pointed out various problems relating to cost and technology but also offered to devise a much cheaper but equally advanced computer for schoolchildren.

As a first step, the meeting identified critical challenge areas and set up six anchor groups which would be in touch with experts in these critical areas and remove bottlenecks.

Institutions like IITs/IISc have been identified as anchor institutions for the project and entrusted with the task of research and development of cheap laptops.

The critical area that needs to be stressed is creating a low cost device which works towards digital literacy for all. Explaining digital literacy, one official said: "We are working on the premise that if illiterates can handle television and other electronic equipment, why not computers?"

The other critical area is training of mothers. "If the mother is trained, the entire family can become computer literate," the official said. The final critical area relates to standardisation of content and methods for vetting it. Officials working on the project say cheap laptops would mean nothing without a good bandwidth connection.

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