Apr 062012

All those little laptop accessories that may need or just want to improve your laptop experience. Two categories of accessories listed below, Must Have’s (in my opinon), and Might Be Useful/Usage Specific.

Must Have Laptop Accessories:

Laptop Carrying Case or Bag

If you plan to travel around with your laptop then the purchase of a carrying case is a no brainer. Besides shielding your laptop from bumps and scratches most carry cases will also have space for your accessories, CD’s, and DVD’s.
There are many different sizes and types of cases so you can get a one with a more professional briefcase look or a backpack type case, some are even waterproof.

USB Flash Drive

Also known as Thumb drives. You may have noticed many small or thin laptops don’t include a CD/DVD burner so if you still need a convenient place to store data off of your laptop then you may want to consider getting one or several of these.

External USB Mouse or Trackball

When you work on flat surfaces you will appreciate having a regular mouse to use instead of the touch pad. I could never get as comfortable or efficient using the small square touch pad and my thumb would regularly touch it which resulted in a change of cursor position on screen, but that’s just me. You can choose from wired or wireless but you will need/want spare batteries for a wireless mouse.

Might Be Useful or Usage Specific Laptop Accessories:

CAT5 Network Cable

Having one of these is convenient when you need to connect to a network that doesn’t have wireless access(or if you don’t have a wireless adapter). 5 to 10 feet is all you should need.

Number Keypad

You will notice that very few laptop computers have full sized keyboards and don’t include the number keypad found on the right side of a standard keyboard. You may want an external keypad if you do work which involves a lot of number entry.

USB Notebook Light

A little light source that plugs into your USB port to illuminate your keyboard in the dark. Especially useful if you don’t touch type very well or if you need to get some work done while travelling by plane or bus.

Apr 062012

Laptops use smaller 2.5 inch hard drives for data storage due to limited physical space for the standard size 3.5 inch drives you would buy for a desktop PC. The 2.5 and 3.5 inch measurements refer to the size of the circular disk platters inside the housing.

The small physical size limits storage capacity because of smaller surface area per platter and fewer platters. Fortunately the capacities of these smaller profile drives come close to matching what is available on 3.5’s which is great for multimedia storage and games.

Higher RPM, or rotations per minute, really helps give that snappy feeling when opening applications or booting up your laptop. 2.5 inch are available in all the common speeds from 4200 RPM to 10,000 RPM. Manufacturers have to consider battery usage and noise so many laptops come with the drives using slower rotational speeds of 4200 RPM or 5400 RPM however.

An SSD or Solid State Drive is also a great option if you want pure speed. The pro’s of using an SSD for your laptop are low power consumption, silent operation due to no moving parts, and incredibly fast. The downside is cost per gigabyte is currently much higher than conventional disk drives.

Then there are Hybrid drives with a combination of SSD and mechanical parts. These aren’t as common but you get a good amount of the SSD speed but also the larger capacities and lower price of regular hard drives.

Upgrade Laptop Internal Drive or use External Hard Drive?

Upgrading the internal hard drive of your laptop is great for an overall speed boost when increasing RPM and platter density (more gigabytes in smaller area). Adding a second internal drive might also be an option for the bigger laptops out there, this way you get more speed, more space, and the same mobility.

If you just need more storage space then an external hard drive that links up through either USB, Firewire, or Thunderbolt ports. This option allows you to get much larger drives and even share the contents with your other laptops or desktops by just plugging into those machines.

External storage drives will almost always need an AC adapter rather than being powered from the Firewire or USB port directly, this may hinder mobility in some cases but these ports just don’t provide enough power. Some of the slower RPM or smaller capacity external hard drives can be powered directly from these ports but the price starts to go up because these are usually 2.5 inch laptop drives housed in an external enclosure.

Apr 062012

Laptops traditionally have not been required to have good 3D graphics performance because they used to be predominantly in the realm of business where it was all dull spreadsheets, e-mail, word processing, and power-point presentations. Other factors were the power requirements, heat output, and physical size of a decent 3D graphics card.

Fear not! Things are much better now. Laptops are replacing desktops for everything these days and it’s not uncommon to find laptops with great 3D gaming performance.

It is important to have an idea of what you’re buying so you don’t end up spending an extra $150 to $400 premium for a good laptop video card if you don’t need it, likewise, if you’re a gamer it’s also important to not get something below your expectations.

Much like laptop processors, the 3D graphics performance of laptop video cards range from “pitiful” to “OMG this is a laptop?!” but unlike main CPU’s you can run into compatibility issues in games depending on the hardware features of the graphics chip.

The categories of a laptop graphics cards:

  • High End – 3D gaming enthusiast and everything else!
  • Mainstream – 3D Gaming in general and everything else, inconsistent FPS in high action scenes but otherwise… not bad.
  • Low End and Integrated Graphics – This one is a mixed bag but an improving mixed bag! Grainy textures, lousy lighting, weird texture flashing, and slow performance are some of the things you can expect from many of the low-end and integrated graphics offerings BUT some of the newest graphics cores are built right onto the same chip as the CPU rather than the motherboard chipset giving a huge boost from unbearable to bearable/decent 3D graphics performance. (eg: Intel HD 3000 found in most Ultrabooks)

Why would anyone want an integrated graphics solution if the performance is so poor? It really only applies to the 3D performance while everything else would most likely be unnoticeable. Some of the benefits of integrated graphics include:

  • Increased battery life
  • Slimmer laptop designs
  • Accelerated HD decoding and encoding
  • Cheaper

Laptop 3D Graphics Hardware

Graphics hardware performance relies on several components of its design to deliver speedy visuals. The main components to look out for are:

  1. Core Clock Speed
  2. Memory Bus Width and Clock Speed
  3. Number of Stream Processors (which is not directly comparable between different architectures such as Nvidia and AMD)

Depending on the target market and price range the manufacturer may offer up a higher clocked core and memory speed but at half the memory bus width which would likely negate the increase in clock speed. Some include its own discrete memory while others may share the system RAM which is much slower.

The general idea is if you are comparing video cards or graphics hardware of the same brand and architecture you can estimate the expected performance based on the above three criteria. One component can’t be considered the most important factor but clock speeds are usually within the ballpark of each other while the biggest differences can be found in the memory bus width (64 bit, 128 bit, 256 bit) and number of stream processors.

You will notice the more expensive and fastest options have higher memory bus and more stream processors.

Apr 062012

The screen or display is one of the most important features of the laptop since you will be using it 100% of the time that you’re using the laptop. It’s one of those things where if it’s not up to expectations or causing an issue you will notice it!

Laptop screens are usually defined by resolution and other marketing hyperbole like how bright or vivid or clear it is (or all of the above). Unfortunately other technical details like response time and display type are not readily available for most laptops and even if they were it’s not like you can pick and choose exactly what kind of display you want (yet!).

Power saving features of the screen hardware itself boil down to size and what kind of backlight is used. Bigger laptop screens use more power but having LED back lights can help reduce power consumption without compromising performance and brightness.

One last detail, laptop computer screens are measured diagonally from the corners and this should not include the bevel.

Laptop Screen Resolution

Laptop screens these days are commonly touting HD or high definition, be it HD or HD+ or Full HD (FHD), but there are many other terms describing laptop screens where HD specific resolutions are not used such as XGA, SXGA, WXGA, or UXGA. The most common are listed in the following table:

NameResolutionAspect Ratio

There are a few considerations when choosing screen size vs resolution:

1) Choosing a laptop with a 15 inch or smaller screen with Full HD or any other high resolution will make many people squint as they try to decipher the puny text from a reasonable viewing distance. Everyone has different eyesight so it’s all subjective… but be nice to your eyes.

2) If you are a gamer you should also consider that higher resolutions usually mean lower frame rates in your games, especially on lower end or middle of the road mobile 3D acceleration hardware.

3) FHD screens may add additional cost over a similarly configured laptop with a regular HD screen. If you wanted to compromise you could always use a much bigger external monitor/TV for 1080p movies (Blu Ray).

4) FHD is more commonly found on the larger laptops meant for desktop replacement. This means more weight and less battery life.

5) You can lower the resolution in software but LCD screens have a specific native resolution and provide the best clarity or sharpness at that resolution. Using lower resolutions that stretch to fill the screen can have unwanted side effects such as distorted looking images or blurriness.

6) Playing HD movies which are normally 16:9 aspect ratio on laptop screen that is not 16:9 can result in black bars at the top and bottom of your movie instead of filling the screen entirely. This effect is much more pronounced on the 4:3 screens and not as noticeable on 16:10 screens. See next section about aspect ratio’s.

Laptop Screen Aspect Ratio

The aspect ratio refers to the width vs height of the screen. 16:9 would mean 16 units wide and 9 units high indicating the common wide looking screen whereas 4:3 or 5:4 would be much closer to a square shape. The latter are more common on older laptops and rarely, if at all, used on today’s laptops.


Wide Screen WXGA Laptop Display
Laptop with 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratio wide screen shown above.
Laptop with standard 4:3 aspect ratio screen shown below.
Standard Screen XGA Laptop Display

Apr 062012

As of January 2010 Intel has changed the Centrino brand to represent only their wireless products. 2009 was a transition year where they moved away from Centrino towards the Core i3/i5/i7 processor as a brand to look for in laptops.

Centrino is mainly a mobile platform and branding effort by Intel, the full name being “Intel Centrino Mobile Technology”. It is not a specific component of a laptop such as the screen or processor, but a group of components.

Laptop manufacturers couldn’t use the term “Centrino” and benefit from Intel’s massive ad campaign and branding effort unless they included the required components listed below:

Third Generation Centrino 2 Components (2008):

Intel Core 2 Processor

Intel Mobile Express Series 4 Chipset

Along with faster processors and front side bus speeds comes support for DDR3 memory on this chipset. Each chipset listed as part of the Mobile Express Series 4 supports most or all of the features above it in the list below.

  • PM45
    • 667 Mhz, 800 Mhz, 1066 Mhz front side bus
    • Supports DDR2 at 667 or 800 Mhz and DDR3 at 667, 800, 1066 Mhz
    • Dual Channel Memory support
    • Max of 8gb
    • 16x PCI Express
  • GM45
    • Additional CPU support: Pentium and Celeron on 45nm technology and a few other Celeron CPU’s on 65nm
    • Supports integrated graphics (Intel Gen 5.0 integrated graphics engine) or 16x PCI Express graphics
  • GS45
    • Supports Core 2 Solo/Duo and Celeron CPU’s based on 45nm technology
    • Low power configuration
      • 800 Mhz front side bus and DDR2 memory at 667 Mhz and DDR3 at 667 or 800 Mhz
      • Internal Graphics engine at 320 Mhz
    • High performance configuration
      • 800 and 1066 Mhz front side bus with DDR2 at 667 and 800 Mhz and DDR3 at 667, 800, and 1066 Mhz
      • Internal Graphics Engine at 533 Mhz

Intel WiFi Link 5100 and 5300

WiFi Link 510011 / 54 / 300 Mbps802.11a / 802.11b / 802.11g / 802.11n(draft)
WiFi Link 530011 / 54 / 300 / 450 Mbps802.11a / 802.11b / 802.11g / 802.11n(draft)

Second Generation Centrino Duo and Centrino Pro Components (2006 – 2007):

Centrio Duo and Pro are basically the same with the latter implementing Intel vPro technology for enhanced security and management for businesses.

Intel Core Duo Processor

Intel Mobile 965 and 945 Express Chipsets

There are several variations of each and listed below are the major features:

  • Mobile 965 Express (All):
  • 533 Mhz and 800 Mhz front side bus
  • Supports dual channel DDR2 memory at 533 Mhz and 667 Mhz
  • 16x PCI Express
    • GM965
      • Integrated graphics – Mobile Intel GMA X3100
    • GME965
      • Integrated graphics but no MacroVision support
    • GL960
      • Supports Intel Celeron processors
      • DDR2 memory at 533 Mhz only
      • Integrated Graphics
      • PCI Express graphics disabled
      • Some power management features disabled
      • GLE960
        • Same as GL960 but without MacroVision support
  • Mobile 945GM/GME Express:
  • 533 Mhz and 667 Mhz front side bus
  • Supports single and dual channel DDR2 memory at 400 Mhz, 533 Mhz, and 667 Mhz
  • 16x PCI Express support
  • Integrated graphics – Intel Gen 3.5 Integrated Graphics Engine
    • 945PM
      • does not support integrated graphics
    • 945GMS
      • Only single channel DDR2 memory at 400 Mhz and 533 Mhz
      • 945GSE
        • Same as 945GMS but without MacroVision support

Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG and Intel WiFi Link 4965AGN

PRO/Wireless 3945ABG11 / 54 Mbps802.11a / 802.11b / 802.11g
WiFi Link 4965AGN11 / 54 / 300 Mbps802.11a / 802.11b / 802.11g / 802.11n(draft)

First Generation Centrino Components (2003 – 2005):

Intel Pentium M Processor

Intel Mobile 915 and 855 Express Chipsets

Not only designed to take advantage of all the great power saving features of the Pentium M, the chipsets themselves are also highly optimized to save power.
A laptop will come with one or the other(915 or 855), the main difference is the 915 Express supports newer technologies such as PCI Express, DDR2, Dual Channel Memory, Serial ATA, Intel High Definition Audio, and 533 Mhz front side bus.

The three variations of the Mobile 915 Express are:

  • 915GM with integrated graphics and dual channel memory support
  • 915GMS like the previous but with single channel memory
  • 915PM features 16x PCI Express for third party graphics such as ATI or Nvidia

The three variations of the Mobile 855 Express available are:

  • 855PM features a 4x AGP interface for third party graphics
  • 855GM includes integated graphics capability
  • 855GME like the previous but supports faster memory

Intel PRO/Wireless 2100, 2200, or 2915ABG Networking Card

A WiFi network card with power saving design in the form of five selectable power states that let you choose between battery life and performance.

PRO/Wireless 210011 Mbps802.11b
PRO/Wireless 2100A11 / 54 Mbps802.11a / 802.11b
PRO/Wireless 2200BG11 / 54 Mbps802.11b / 802.11g
PRO/Wireless 2915ABG11 / 54 Mbps802.11a / 802.11b / 802.11g