Over the years, mobile phone prices have been falling steadily, but the prices of high-end models have remained unchanged. From $299 to over $2,000 with diagonals ranging from 11.6 inches to over 17 inches, the range of choices is virtually unprecedented. These prices can be reduced if you buy your used computer equipment. Nevertheless, the multiplication of the offer has some setbacks. So, unless you’re an expert in the field, it’s hard to find your way around the multiple versions of Intel and AMD processors. The same goes for AMD and NVIDIA graphics processors, which are essential for gamers. In addition to these performance-related questions, other questions arise: what about autonomy, connectivity, weight, etc.
To each his own use.
Not everyone has the same expectations of a laptop computer. If the “15.6 inch” format has become the great classic, it is because it can be used for so many different purposes. This diagonal presents the best compromise between height, weight, ergonomics (number pad) and mobility. In addition, in a laptop of this size, it is possible to install a powerful processor and a powerful graphics chip and thus offer a very versatile laptop.
However, some people prefer a large screen, especially to watch Blu-Ray movies in “Full HD”. To take full advantage of a Full HD video, i.e. in 1080p, you need a screen with this standard. Generally, only 16.4 and 17.3 inch laptops are equipped with a 1920×1080 screen perfectly adapted to this use. In addition, a 17-inch laptop can be equipped with the fastest processors and the fastest GPUs on the market.
Those who spend most of their time travelling know that every kilo ends up being felt at the end of the day. Under these conditions, many people prefer to sacrifice power for lightness. The main advantage of 13.3-inch and 14.1-inch laptops is their reduced weight, which ranges from 1.5 kg (without optical unit) to 2 kg (with integrated recorder). The computing power remains largely sufficient for all uses. There are even models in this category with a graphics card as powerful as that of a mid-range “15.6 inch”…
Designed for mobility, the ultra portables are limited to a diagonal of 11.6 inches. Compact and very light, they are less powerful than their big brothers but their weight barely exceeds the Kg. However, 11.6-inch ultra-portable laptops such as MacBook Air, Samsung 900X1 and other Asus UX21 should not be confused with netbooks. They are by no means luxury “netbooks” (meaning machines of very limited or even too limited power), but real ultra-light laptops capable of performing all common tasks under very good conditions.
The trio: weight, size and resolution
As you have noticed, laptops differ in large part by the diagonal size of their screens. The larger the diagonal, the larger the screen and the more pixels it can accommodate while remaining readable. With the generalization of the 16:9 format, until recently, laptops were in 16:10 (editor’s note: and even in 4:3 at the beginning of the century), three resolutions are in effect:
- HD: 1366×768. This resolution is found on computers from 11.6 to 15.6 inches. It is nothing more than a format inherited from HDTVs. Today it is the most common resolution but it is also the most “basic” resolution, the minimum union resolution.
- HD+: 1600×900. It is generally found on laptops of 16.4 inches and over, as well as on high-end 15.6 inches and even on 14.1 inches. HD+ is an excellent compromise between readability and workspace.
- Full HD: 1920×1080. This is the highest resolution available for laptops. It is sometimes available on top-of-the-range 15.6-inch models and tends to be a standard on 17.3-inch machines. The “1920×1080” allows you to enjoy the full quality of 1080p videos from Youtube, Blu-Ray movies and others.
If you are an observer, you will certainly have noticed that there are only 3 resolutions left in 16:9 compared to 4 in 16:10 (1280×800, 1440×900, 1680×1050 and 1920×1200). Let’s mention the netbooks (10 inches) that “stand out” from laptops with a current resolution of 1024×600 which fortunately gives way to 1280×720 on some models. 1280×720 is already an “HD” resolution, the HD standard requiring 720 pixels in height.
The weight generally goes hand in hand with the diagonal. Indeed, the larger the laptop, the more components it can receive (for example several hard disks, two SLI or CrossFire X graphics cards, etc.) and the heavier it can become. Typically, the “15.6 inches” weigh 2.5 kg, the “16.4 inches” 3 kg and the 17.3 inches 3.3 kg. They are therefore less convenient to carry than the 11 inches (1 Kg) and 13.3 and 14 inches (1.5 to 2 Kg). To get an idea of the weight, there is nothing like 1 and 1.5 litre bottles of water (1 and 1.5 kg respectively).
The mystery of autonomy!
The key to long battery life is a powerful battery. But the more powerful the latter, the heavier and more voluminous it is. To reconcile autonomy, weight and performance, manufacturers have developed solutions adapted to different uses.
- Fixed batteries: On more and more laptops, the battery is no longer removable. Instead of using cylindrical batteries placed in a plastic housing, manufacturers use “square” batteries mounted directly in the laptop. Without a protective housing, the entire volume dedicated to the battery is used for energy storage. More power in less space.
- Disengageable 3D card: Since all processors integrate a graphics chip, AMD and NVIDIA have developed technologies to disable their graphics chip if necessary. Thus, it is the graphics circuit of the processor that is used on battery to increase the autonomy while the dedicated 3D chip is only activated on demand (and/or on mains). More flexibility, less power wasted!
- Modular frequencies: This technology is the oldest, it allows the processor to reduce its frequency when it is not used to its maximum capacity. But recent multicore processors also have the ability to go beyond their frequency. If a task requires the activity of only one core, it can operate at a much higher Turbo frequency (up to 1 GHz more). To carry out a simple task very quickly would thus limit consumption according to Intel’s studies.
- GPU Combination: The new AMD Llano processors are “APUs”, the combination of a processor and a powerful graphics card in a single chip. This is not a real innovation, Intel already offers this combination with all its Core i3, i5 and i7, but AMD goes further. The graphics part of an APU A6 or A8 can operate in Crossfire X with the dedicated Radeon graphics chip offering excellent 3D performance.
These numerous solutions all have the objective of modulating the power as well as possible in order to increase the battery life as much as possible without sacrificing the power on mains. On the other hand, it becomes very difficult to estimate the autonomy of laptops as it depends on the use. Thus, a laptop consumes between 7 and 10 watts at rest or in low use but this consumption increases to 12 or even 15 watts to play a Flash video. When a Core i3 or i5 processor is fully charged, the laptop’s power consumption approaches 50 watts. A laptop with a Core i7 “Quad Core” in sustained use consumes up to 60 watts. Finally, by using both the processor and the graphics card together, power consumption can reach 100 watts! Knowing that the typical capacities of the batteries are 48, 64 or even 84 Wh, the autonomy can vary between less than one hour and more than 10 hours. Finally, we can expect an average consumption of 15 watts in office automation or around 4 hours of autonomy with a 64 Wh battery.
Equipment and connectors
The majority of laptops are equipped with the following features as standard: Wifi, USB 2.0, webcam, audio input and output, Ethernet, microphone, DVD burner, VGA screen output and card reader. Particularly useful for connecting a monitor or TV, the HDMI connector is becoming more common. However, it is competing with the DisplayPort in its “mini” version. Unfortunately, USB 3.0 ports are still too rare, even though they only offer advantages: very high performance and compatibility with USB 2.0. eSATA connectors are still very rare and should disappear in favour of USB 3.0. Anyway, a USB 3.0 or eSATA port is a real advantage for those who often use an external hard drive for large transfers.
Among the new products of 2011, we can pinpoint WiDi and Thunderbolt. WiDi for Wireless Display is a feature offered by some Intel Centrino WiFi cards. The “HDMI” signal is transmitted via WiFi. Thanks to a Wifi receiver connected to a TV or monitor, it is possible to send sound and image without any wires thanks to WiDi. Thunderbolt is also an Intel technology. It is used in MacBook Pro 2011 and allows you to connect various high-speed devices: hard disk, screen, etc. Unfortunately, three months after the MacBook Pro was released, there is still no (affordable) Thunderbolt device.
Some technologies are disappearing. This is the case of the Firewire (competing with USB and eSATA) as well as specific ports designed to connect laptops to a docking station. USB 3.0 and especially Thunderbolt are perfectly capable of fulfilling this r\u00F4le while being universal.
Technologies: What performance to expect?
Considering the phenomenal increase in power achieved by the Core i3, i5 and especially i7 compared to the Core 2 Duo which were already fast, the current laptops have no limits. More precisely, the limit is not to be found in the processor’s cu00F4té. The poor relation of laptops remains the graphics card, whose performance is still far behind that of the models used on desktop computers. A Core i7 720QM (Quad Core with Hyper Threading) like the one on the high-end 2011 MacBook Pro is as powerful as a Core i7 870, the most powerful LGA1156 desktop processor launched in September 2009. Its nominal frequency of 2.2 GHz varies from 800 MHz at rest to 3.3 GHz in Turbo mode! Even a modest Core i3 2310 at 2.1 GHz but without Turbo is more than enough for many uses and even more so for basic use: internet, email, chat, social networks, etc. To simplify the Intel range as much as possible: the Core i3 is sufficient, the Core i5 is “comfortable” and the Core i7 almost too powerful.
When it comes to playing, nothing can replace a real graphic card. Today, the GeForce GT 520m and Radeon HD 6650 are enough for casual players, but the GeForce GT 540m and Radeon HD 6750, much more powerful, are a better choice. However, beware of misleading designations used by AMD and NVIDIA. They use the same nomenclature as for their desktop graphics cards by adding a small “m” for Mobile. With the exception of gamer laptops equipped with the fastest 3D cards, the best mobile GPUs in the world are entry-level and even mid-range desktop graphics cards. A GeForce GT 540m is therefore much less efficient than a GeForce GT 540.
The AMD Athlon and Phenom processors are to be forgotten. It is better to opt for the new “Llano” APUs, i.e. the A series (A6 and A8) that combine CPU and GPU on a single chip. Compared to Core i3 and i5, the A6 and A8 have less computing power but much higher 3D capabilities than their competitors. Indeed, the integrated AMD Radeon is much faster than the Intel HD Graphics 3000. In summary, without an external graphics chip to change the deal, the AMD A6 and A8 series processors benefit from a better balance between CPU and GPU power than the Core i3 and i5. They are therefore more versatile and open to more 3D possibilities (games).
There is still one point to discuss in terms of performance: SSDs. Compared to desktop computers, laptop hard drives are much less powerful. It is often their slowness that leads to unfairly judging mobile phones as being slow. With an SSD, a laptop becomes as powerful as a desktop computer. Windows 7 starts in less than 30 seconds and OS X in less than 20 seconds. Unfortunately, the cost of an SSD remains very high. With 400 $ for 256 GB, a “good capacity” SSD is more expensive than a first price laptop!
The last detail concerns memory. With 4 GB and Windows 7 64-bit delivered as standard on almost all laptops, there is little to worry about. The amount of memory is sufficient for many uses and 64-bit OSs can easily manage 4 GB (compared to ~3.2 GB supported by 32-bit OSs).