Apr 062012

Not everyone wants to spend too much on a brand new or top of the line laptop, fortunately there are many cheap laptops available. Wondering what the difference is between refurbished and recertified? Below will explain and offer some tips when buying these laptops.

Refurbished Laptops

These are practically better than new, usually a customer has returned the product after using it briefly and deciding it’s not exactly what they wanted or the laptop may be an off-lease if it is a much older model.

Buying a refurbished laptop can possibly be better than buying new because flaws have been found and fixed by the manufacturer and once it is deemed to be in good working order it is repackaged to be sold at a lower price.

The warranty on refurbished laptops can vary widely from 90 days to 3 years(including extended warranties). Check the warranty conditions when buying a refurbished laptop.

If the laptop is a much older model sold as refurbished, check to see if the battery is the original or has been replaced. A 2-3 year old battery may be on its last legs even though it still holds a good charge.

Beware of is stores or retailers listing or selling returned items as refurbished when it hasn’t been looked at by the manufacturer or a certified repair/warranty center for that model/brand. Returned items should actually be labelled “open box” or “used” or something similar depending on how old the item is.

Recertified Laptops

Recertified usually means the product was returned unused for various reasons such as shipping error or incomplete transaction(not accepted on delivery). The manufacturer inspects for damage and missing items and offers them as recertified.

Although recertified laptops can be considered “like new” the warranty period may not be as long compared to a new one. There are times where resellers may used recertified and refurbished interchangeably, either way these laptops should have been tested little more thoroughly than a brand new one to be labelled this way.

Budget Laptops

New laptops made with fewer features or slower/smaller/older components but carry the important longer warranties available with new purchases. Components may include:

  • Smaller and/or slower hard drives
  • Slower range of mobile processors (Core i3, Celeron, Atom, Sempron, V series)
  • Less RAM
  • Smaller screen size such as 10 inch or 12 inch

These type of laptops make great tools because of these components, they are also usually thin, light, and have long battery life.

Used Laptops

Although there are great deals when buying used laptops, you must keep an eye out for a few things. The saying “if it is too good to be true…” should be kept in mind.


When buying from an individual person the laptop will likely not have any type of warranty or a very weak warranty that goes only as far as working condition upon receipt. This is an important consideration because the mobile nature of laptops can really inflict some wear and tear and having to spend $50 or more every time you need repairs done will eat into any savings you may have made in the first place.


When you buy a used laptop online and all you get to see are pictures showing a great looking exterior there still are a few things to be wary of:

  • maybe the battery lasts only 15 minutes because of age. Replacement batteries are not cheap!
  • what is the condition of the hard disk, any funny noises, how many bad sectors and has it been increasing?
  • does the screen have many dead pixels or any other problems?

Unless you can inspect the laptop yourself I would be very careful about buying used laptops from individuals, especially if they are sold “as is” or do not have a “dead on arrival”(DOA) warranty. Ask as many questions as you can about the condition of a used laptop before purchase.

Software & Drivers

There is the issue of not having drivers available for components specific to the laptop when you need to re-install the operating system. Check to see if you can get these drivers online from the manufacturers web site or if the seller will provide original driver disks or CD.

Make sure the software you plan to use falls within the hardware specs of the used laptop you’re looking to buy (check software requirements). Sometimes there may not even be anything installed so you have to install your own operating system and software.

If the used laptop does include an operating system and/or several programs be sure to get all serial numbers or registration keys and disks or CD’s each program may require for re-installation.

Exercise some caution when buying online and you may find a great used laptop for a fraction of what you would pay normally. If the price difference compared to a similar brand new laptop is marginal then consider buying the new one for the warranty, tech support, newest operating system, and software bundle.

Apr 062012

Docking stations and port replicators both add connections and/or ports your laptop may not have built-in or have few of. They connect via USB or a special docking connection at the bottom or back of your laptop.

Common features may include:

  • Extra USB, Firewire, eSATA, and Ethernet connections
  • VGA or DVI output to use larger screens
  • Audio connections (in/out/mic)
  • PS/2 for older mice and keyboards

A full featured docking station may:

  • act as a stand to provide better cooling and screen height
  • charge the battery
  • include bays to accommodate extra CD, DVD, or hard drives
  • have built-in speakers

They both allow you to use many more peripherals and accessories without having to deal with the cable spaghetti you get when connecting so many devices at once to the laptop itself.

You just have to place the laptop into the dock and connect via a single connection to get all the functionality of your peripherals and accessories. To disconnect you just unplug the cable or pop a latch/press a button to release and off you go while leaving everything in place for when you come back.

Docking Station Cost vs Convenience

Do you already own a really nice monitor and prefer using a full size keyboard? Ever have the touch pad get in the way? Perhaps hitting it with your thumb or rest your palm on it and inadvertently start typing in the wrong spot of your spreadsheet or document?

These days you may be wondering if you need a docking station or port replicator since many laptops today already have the same functionality built-in. The exception may be for small laptops or sub-notebooks which do not have room for many ports or lack optical drives and an extra internal bay for another hard drive. Maybe 4 USB ports isn’t enough or you need a port you don’t have built in such as Firewire or eSATA.

When considering a docking station or port replicator there are two main types available:

  • universal – which connects via USB
    • price and features vary widely so there is an option for everyone
  • manufacturer/model specific – available for HP, Compaq, Dell, IBM, Toshiba, etc which may have a proprietary connection slot.
    • becoming rare or only for older laptops with the special docking connection. Many of the newer branded stations are USB anyway.
    • Can be more expensive.

They all do pretty much the same thing and differ mainly how they look or how many features they offer. Manufacturer specific models may blend well aesthetically when connected to a laptop it was designed for but may not be useful if you have more than one laptop from more than one manufacturer.

There is also the option of going wireless for many of your laptop accessories so you end up plugging in only a few cables directly to the laptop anyway.

Apr 062012

If you’re an engineer or graphic designer or specialize in digital content creation you will benefit from a workstation laptop.

Many people use laptops as a convenience and rely on a desktop machine to handle the heavy duty graphics workstation type tasks since they can’t be beat if you require top end performance. Workstation class laptopsĀ  are becoming quite powerful and depending on your requirements you may be able to take your workstation wherever you want.

Laptops for the Photo and Video Editor or 2D Graphics Artist/Designer

Graphics and photo editors such as Photoshop can be demanding on the processor and memory but less so on the video card. Due to this you can normally use a regular high end laptop with lots of RAM and a fast CPU. Otherwise you’re good to go as long as it also has all the connectivity you need for your various digital devices such as USB 2.0/3.0, Firewire (otherwise known as iLink or IEEE1394), and Thunderbolt.

Laptops for 3D Design and CAD Engineers

There isn’t a laptop that can compete with a desktop workstation designed for 3D modeling and rendering, but there are options if you really want to do this type of work on the road and want the convenience of bringing your workstation to and from the workplace.

A workstation class graphics card will be needed besides the obvious requirement of a fast processor, large amount of ram, and large hard disk. These do exist!

The two major manufacturers are the familiar AMD with their FirePro line and Nvidia with their Quadro line of hardware.

All graphics cards or chips are based on mainstream counterparts from each manufacturer but are optimized for professional applications. These optimizations are mostly through ISV (Independent Software Vendor) certified drivers which provide stability and accuracy in specialized software applications. Workstation class graphics solutions are faster than the mainstream counterparts when it comes to professional 3D applications.

Workstation Screen Characteristics to Look For:

  • Large high resolution screen so you can see more of your work without having to scroll up/down/left/right all the time.
  • IPS or at least RGB LED/B+RG LED type of screen for better color gamut.
  • Tablet PC’s available which are laptops with screens you can rotate, flip back down, and use a pen type input device.
Apr 062012

The best part of having a laptop is the mobility, which of course requires battery power. There used to be different battery types used for laptops but these days laptops come with a Lithium Ion battery (also known as Li Ion or LiON) due to the higher energy density in smaller packages.

Unfortunately there is a stigma surrounding rechargeable batteries which do not apply to Lithium Ion, most notably concerning the “memory effect”. The memory effect is widely used to explain why any battery doesn’t deliver its full capacity, to counter this people have charged their batteries in certain ways to avoid or try to fix it.

Lithium Ion batteries do not suffer from “memory effect”, a poor performing laptop battery may be caused by damage or age which means time for a new one. (doh!)

Some would have you believe you need to fully discharge a laptop battery before you recharge it, which you should NOT do. Lithium Ion laptop batteries have a limited amount of charge cycles(cycle = fully discharged and then fully charged) so if you fully discharge your battery every time before charging then you greatly shorten the life of the pack.

Fully discharging a battery through actual use of the laptop is not a problem because you’re actually using the power. Discharging fully just for the sake of keeping your lithium ion battery “healthy” is detrimental.

Make Your Laptop Battery Last Longer (in use)

  • Make sure the power saving features are enabled when using the laptop on battery power. These features may be disabled manually for many laptops if you absolutely need the maximum speed setting for a task, don’t forget to turn power saving back on.
  • Turn off the wireless connection if there are no WiFi spots nearby. Some laptops have a switch to do this while others are done through software or the control panel.
  • Find the lowest screen brightness you’re comfortable with.
  • Keep USB or other external accessories unplugged if not being used.

Extend Your Laptop Battery Service Life

Does “limited charge cycles” have you worrying about replacing batteries often? Lithium Ion batteries have anywhere from 300-600 charge cycles which is 2-4 years of use for the average user.

To get maximum use out of your laptop battery there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • If you are not going to use the battery for a long period of time then try to store it in a cool dry place at about a 40% charge level. Do not freeze!
  • When using the battery, try to charge it as often as possible as soon as you can.
  • Don’t forget your laptop or battery in your vehicle on a hot summer day and make sure to keep the cooling vents unobstructed and clear of dust or debris. Heat is your battery’s worst enemy!

You should consider buying a spare pack only if you find yourself running out of battery power often while away from a convenient wall plug and not buy one to have “just in case”. Lithium Ion packs start to age as soon as they’re produced and can irreversibly lose around 20% capacity per year even when unused. (note storage tip above to minimize this)

Apr 062012

Laptop memory (otherwise known as RAM) is where programs reside while in use so having a good amount of it will help provide a good user experience with regards to how smooth applications and/or games will run. The more memory you have the less often the operating system will have to swap to a much slower hard disk to make room in RAM if you launch another program or have several running at once.

Not to be confused with storage space, both memory and storage are defined by the same units such as GB or gigabytes. If you’re reading the specs of a laptop in a brochure or online and you see both “8GB” and “500GB” in the same line the smaller number will most likely be the one referring to the amount of memory the laptop comes with. If you see “1TB” it means 1 terabyte and refers to storage space.

Laptop memory modules are similar than the ones used on desktop PC’s but come in a smaller form factor called SODIMM (or SO-DIMM) which stands for Small Outline Dual Inline Memory Module. Other than the small form there is also the limitation of how many memory slots are available to add more modules.

Laptop Memory SODIMM
Laptop memory module or SODIMM

Desktop Memory DIMM
Desktop memory module or DIMM

Tips for Upgrading Laptop Memory

There are several types of memory available and speeds within those types. Your laptop will only be compatible with a specific type up to a certain speed.

Say, for example, your laptop motherboard only supports DDR2 memory then you must buy DDR2 because other types would not work either due to motherboard support or having a physically different slot (DDR3 204 pin vs DDR/DDR2 200 pin).

You will also encounter various speeds of memory available when buying. The speed is normally defined in megahertz (MHZ) by the number following the type of memory: e.g. DDR2 800 or DDR3 1333.

There shouldn’t be any issues using higher speed rated memory in place of your original slower modules as long as they are also the same type such as DDR2 800 in a slot originally occupied by DDR2 667.

DDR2 800 should work in place of DDR2 667 but it would only operate at the DDR2 667 speed if that is the maximum your laptop motherboard supports. If you mixed memory which are rated for different speeds they would only operate at the speed of the slowest module installed or the maximum speed allowed by the motherboard.

Always check to make sure upgrading the memory yourself will not void any warranty, get the right type, and check the manual or manufacturers website for proper upgrade instructions.