Replacement grade

Seven points to ponder when buying suitable laptops for replacing desktop PCs

For the growing number of buyers planning to exchange their desktop PCs for laptops, the timing couldn’t be better.

The difference in performance between the two platforms has narrowed significantly. Expanded memory and storage capacity also make laptops more attractive as desktop PC replacements. Add larger displays to the mix and users may not miss their old computing workhorses.

A laptop can readily perform the chores of the traditional office PC, while conserving space and offering mobility. That freedom is increasingly attractive as agencies allow more employees to telecommute, and they install wireless networks in the workplace to let office-bound employees move around more easily.

Booming laptop sales reflect those trends. In the first quarter of 2004, about one out of every five PCs shipped in the federal market was a laptop. By the fourth quarter of 2005, laptops represented one of every three PCs shipped, said David Daoud, an analyst at IDC. If the pace continues as expected, laptops will constitute half of all PC sales in the next couple of years or sooner, Daoud said.

Government agencies mulling the transition to laptops should keep a couple of factors in mind, however. For starters, they should carefully identify the computing needs of the user population. For example, employees who seldom work outside the office may want a large display, while their more mobile counterparts may object to the added weight.

In addition, organizations budgeting for laptop additions should consider the cost of docking stations, security options and other features that will increase the price. Buyers might also want to ensure that their purchases are compatible with technology innovations, given the upcoming debut of Microsoft’s Vista operating system.

The decisions agencies make ultimately affect thousands of technology users. To obtain their perspective, Federal Computer Week sought input from members of the Telework Exchange, an online community of federal teleworkers.

The following pages describe important considerations for replacing desktop PCs with laptops.

1. CPUs: Closing the performance gap
Organizations hoping to match desktop PC performance have a new generation of technology to consider: processing chips based on dual-core technology. Dual-core CPUs contain two independent processors, boosting a PC’s multitasking ability. The chips hit the desktop PC market last year and will likely enter the mobile market in volume this year.

In January, Intel debuted its Centrino Duo Mobile platform, formerly code-named Napa. Numerous vendors are shipping or will soon ship laptops equipped with Intel’s mobile dual-core processors.

Advanced Micro Devices, meanwhile, will launch a mobile version of its Turion processor in the first half of this year. The company’s Athlon 64 X2 dual-core desktop CPU is already in some notebook PCs, but those models tend to be geared to computer game players rather than office users.

The arrival of dual-core products promises to further shrink the performance gap between mobile and desktop PCs. As a consequence, most users “won’t see a significant performance hit in any way when transitioning from desktops” to notebook PCs, said Robert Thompson, product marketing manager at Dell’s Lattitude notebook PC group.

Oscar Slusarczyk, Intel brand manager at reseller CDW, said dual-core laptops that run office applications sport performance gains of as much as 130 percent compared with the previous generation of laptops.

Dual-core technology — optimized for multitasking — also handles situations in which background activities such as virus scanning can slow other applications, the technology’s proponents contend.

Theresa O’Dell, an Agriculture Department teleworker, can attest to the drag of background applications. She works at the USDA’s information technology services organization in the Office of the Chief Information Officer.

The agency “requires Scan32.exe, [a virus scanner], to run repeatedly throughout the day, which causes performance slowdown even with the 1,024M of memory,” she said. “The rule is that you want to close all applications except those you’re specifically working with for the best performance.”

Machines with dual-core technology include Sony’s Vaio SZ Series, Toshiba’s Tecra M5 notebook PC, Panasonic’s Toughbook 51, and Lenovo’s T60 and X60. Dell and Hewlett-Packard are developing dual-core laptops and are expected to ship initial dual-core models this quarter.

Apple Computer provides another option. Dave Russell, senior director of portable PCs and wireless at Apple, said the company’s recently released MacBook Pro line can serve as a desktop PC replacement. MacBook Pro employs Intel’s Core Duo processor and is the first Mac laptop to use an Intel chip. The product, according to the company, runs as much as four times faster than its predecessor, the PowerBook G4.

But resellers point out that customers don’t have to turn to the latest and greatest chip to obtain an adequate desktop PC replacement. Sharon Ennis, senior director of business development at PC Mall Gov, cited Sony’s Vaio FS790 as an example. The product can be configured with Intel’s Pentium M Processor 780. She also said Hewlett-Packard’s nc6120 can be configured with an Intel Pentium M 770 processor. The 770 and 780 chips represent the high end of the Pentium M line.

2. Displays: Exploring wider options
Users may not be able to detect a performance difference between laptops and desktop PCs, but one thing they’re sure to notice is the display.

“When people look for a desktop replacement, one of the first concerns is the size of the LCD,” Thompson said.

Laptops with 17-inch displays provide a solid option for the desktop PC replacement, but even the 15.4-inch variety shouldn’t leave users pining for their old machines, vendor officials said. Thompson said a 17-inch CRT display, an office staple, has a viewable area of 15 inches.

Organizations can forfeit more display space to obtain a lighter unit. Laptops with 14-inch displays weight about 5.4 pounds compared with 7 pounds for their 15.4-inch counterparts, Thompson said. A laptop with a 12.1-inch display comes in a 3.7-pound package, he added.

The larger displays, considering the attendant weight gain, are suitable for users who rarely travel. The 14-inch products, on the other hand, represent a compromise between viewing area and mobility.

Another variation worth looking into is the wide-aspect display, which lets users display more content on the screen.

Wide-aspect displays “allow you to manage multiple applications a little bit better and give you additional columns or space to manage Excel spreadsheets or do PowerPoint presentations,” said Tom Ribble, product manager for Lenovo’s ThinkPad Z series.

The Z series features 14-inch and, most recently, 15.4-inch wide-aspect displays.

Thompson said wide-aspect technology displays 30 percent more content than a standard-aspect screen. Wide-aspect products have been more prevalent on the consumer side, but he said he expects more activity in the business arena.

Users can expect to pay $100 to $200 more for a laptop with a wide-aspect display compared with one that has a traditional display. However, Thompson said the rise of wide-aspect technology in external flat-panel displays and LCD TVs will let manufacturers reduce costs. In the near future, he said, wide-aspect and standard-aspect displays will cost the same to implement.

3. Port replicators: Managing your connections
Desktop-class laptops will generally have enough ports to support the peripherals users need.

That said, the purchase of a docking station or port replicator still might make sense. Users who take their laptops home or travel occasionally may find that a port replicator eases separation anxiety.

“Users are going to have to connect four, five or six cables every time they come back to the desk,” said Craig Marking, senior product marketing manager at Toshiba America Information Systems’ Digital Products Division. Products like Toshiba’s Advanced Port Replicator III provide effective cable management, he said.

Users may also prefer certain peripherals, such as the flat-panel display, keyboard and mouse that came with their soon-to-be-departed desktop PC.

Charles Kline Jr., a Federal Aviation Administration employee, uses a 17-inch flat-panel display and a standard keypad at the office, which provides ThinkPads equipped with docking stations. He removes the laptop from the dock once a week for his telecommuting day, he said.

John Gawa, senior manager of business development for Sony’s Vaio line, said most customers planning to deploy laptops as desktop PC replacements elect to purchase docking stations or replicators.

The port replicator option may cost $40 to $200, depending on the number and type of ports supported. Products in the high end of that range generally provide serial and parallel ports, keyboard/mouse ports, an Ethernet port, a Digital Video Interface port and multiple USB ports.

Laptop vendors offer replicators that are proprietary to their products. Third- party vendors provide replicators that attach to laptops via USB ports or PC Card slots.

Docking stations typically cost $250 or more. Such products cover the port replication function and offer additional features such as bays that can hold an optical or hard drive.

4. Hard drives: Bigger, faster options
A large hard drive provides another way to bridge the gap between laptop and desktop computers.

Today’s laptops generally top out at 100G to 120G with 160G capacities coming into view. Slusarczyk said 160G is the norm for a new desktop PC’s hard drive.

But organizations can likely satisfy employees’ storage needs without resorting to the laptop’s outer limits. Joe Guest, national sales manager for Panasonic’s Army market, said a 60G hard drive is a common requirement among his laptop customers. Panasonic provides 80G capacity in its Toughbook 51, which the company offers as a desktop PC replacement.

Other vendor executives agreed that 80G has become a standard capacity for laptop hard drives. Speed is another hard drive attribute that users should consider when fielding a desktop replacement. Faster read/write times are especially important for multimedia applications, industry executives said.

Ribble said the arrival of faster hard drives for laptops — 5,400 rpm and 7,200 rpm devices — has helped spur the migration from desktop to laptop PCs. He said the faster drives “have become more popular, especially on a desktop-replacement notebook.”

Increasing capacity comes with increasing cost, of course. A 60G hard drive may cost $100 to $250 depending on speed. A step up to an 80G drive may only involve spending $20 or $30 more. But moving from a 60G to 120G drive may cost an extra $140 to $150, and pursuing a 160G drive could involve an added $250 to $260 investment.

5. Memory: Finding room to grow
Performance laptops offer more memory in addition to high-end chips. Many laptops in use today top out at 512M of memory, while models currently available provide as much as 2G.

Thompson said the next generation of notebooks hitting the market in the first half of this year offer as much as 4G of memory along with such features as dual-core processors. For users, the additional memory combines with the dual-core processing punch to offer improved multitasking.

As for individual laptop models, both Toshiba’s Tecra A7 laptop and Panasonic’s Toughbook 51 support as much as 4G of memory.

6. Wireless: Keeping mobile options open
Wireless capabilities via built-in support for the 802.11 Wi-Fi standard may not be a top priority for laptops used mostly in the office, but industry executives contend that buyers should look for this attribute in a desktop PC replacement.

“I think 802.11 wireless is still a requirement for a desktop replacement notebook,” Ribble said. “At some point, the user is going to want to be mobile and having wireless is a nice feature.”

Buyers may also want to consider laptops with Bluetooth capabilities. Bluetooth lets users eliminate the wires associated with printers and other peripherals.

PC Mall Gov has listed Wi-Fi and Bluetooth among the desktop PC replacement features customers now seek.

Ribble, however, identified wireless wide-area network capability, typically achieved by tapping a cellular network’s data services, as less of a priority for desktop PC replacements. “We are seeing adoption mostly from our frequent travelers,” he said.

But Ribble added that some desktop PC replacement users might want WAN support if they occasionally need to take their laptops off-site. He said they might want WAN access in situations in which they can’t access a building’s Wi-Fi system.

Laptops can access cellular networks via a PC Card. But this method tends to be expensive, and the data throughput rate generally lags behind wireless local-area networks, Thompson said. But next-generation laptops provide integrated broadband WAN connectivity, he added.

Thompson said those laptops will use 3G technology, noting that WiMax remains a future development for laptops.

Ennis said Evolution-Data Optimized services permit mobile broadband connectivity through a wireless WAN antenna embedded inside the laptop. Verizon offers such a service for about $50 to $80 per month. She said HP and Lenovo have announced laptops with this feature.

7. Batteries: Extending laptop life
Intel claims its dual-core processor’s power efficiency provides laptops with improved battery life.

Ribble said Lenovo has found the same or better battery performance on its dual-core machines compared with older laptops. “That’s been a delight,” he said.

But in general, higher-performing laptops put batteries to the test. “As we get higher performance, we’re always fighting battery life,” Thompson said.

The six-cell batteries that come standard on many laptops offer as many as four or five hours of battery life in the best-case scenario. That may be sufficient for infrequent travelers. A nine-cell battery, which extends life into the seven-hour range, may be suitable for users that roam. Such batteries represent a $75 to $100 upgrade compared with their six-cell counterparts. The higher-capacity batteries add weight to the laptop, however.

Another option for extended battery life: Sacrifice a DVD/CD combo drive for a second battery. Thompson said this configuration could provide more than 10 hours of laptop use.

OS developments will impact laptops

The launch of Microsoft’s Vista operating system looms as one high-profile technology development that laptop PC shoppers should consider.

Microsoft has not announced the release date of Vista, although industry watchers suggest that the product will debut late this year. Microsoft said Vista offers improved security and easier file searching. The operating system’s user interface marks a huge shift graphically from Windows XP.

Organizations planning a Vista migration should plan for ample processing power and memory. On the processor side, Intel cites its Core Duo technology as a recommended mobile platform for Vista. Microsoft recommends at least 512M of memory for PCs poised to run Vista.

Consultants and vendors also cited larger hard drives and discrete graphics cards as Vista-ready features. “Vista requires more room on the hard drive,” said Oscar Slusarczyk, Intel brand manager at CDW, comparing the new operating system to Windows XP.

And the presence of a graphics card from vendors such as ATI Technologies and Nvidia may provide a certain comfort level for buyers, given Vista’s 3D-look.

“The higher-end stuff is going to run it better than your [standard] integrated graphics,” said Craig Marking, senior product marketing manager at Toshiba America Information Systems’ Digital Products Division.

Vista has led to some hesitation around graphics integrated on a laptop’s motherboard, said Tom Ribble, product manager of Lenovo’s ThinkPad Z series. Customers anxious to put Vista on a laptop most likely have a discrete graphics solution in mind, he said.

In the nice-to-have department, buyers could opt for a laptop with a widescreen display. Vista “is designed…for a wide-aspect display,” said Robert Thompson, product marketing manager of Dell’s Latitude notebook PC line.

‘Stateless’ Linux bound for enterprise
Organizations using Linux have operating system developments to track, too. For one, the Fedora Project’s Stateless Linux initiative may show up in Red Hat’s Enterprise Linux later this year. Red Hat sponsors the Fedora Project.

Stateless Linux aims to ease administration chores such as system updates. In the case of laptops, Stateless Linux lets administrators manage one central repository of software that is synchronized to individual systems when they join a network, said Brian Stevens, Red Hat’s chief technology officer.

The approach provides a scalable alternative to managing unique software distributions and images for each laptop, he said.

Red Hat’s goal is to serve up the first commercial version of Stateless Linux with an upcoming version of Enterprise Linux by the end of 2006.

Thwarting laptop theft

Vendors offer various levels of security to make laptop PCs less vulnerable to theft and unauthorized use.

As for physical security, cable locks let users secure laptops in their workspaces — provided their machines have a security slot. Laptop cable locks cost $30 to $40. But should laptops go missing, some manufacturers offer theft recovery solutions.

Vendors such as Dell and Lenovo, for example, have embedded Absolute Software’s threat protection software at the BIOS level in commercial laptop models. The Computrace service, which can be activated for a $49 annual subscription, reports a stolen laptop’s IP address when it links to the Internet. Absolute Software then works with local law enforcement to recover the computer.

Computrace also provides a data delete option that remotely erases critical data from the hard drive, said Robert Thompson, product marketing manager of Dell’s Latitude notebook group.

Other security measures focus on authentication. Some vendors have turned to biometric devices, namely fingerprint readers. Lenovo, for example, reported in December that it has shipped 1 million ThinkPads with integrated fingerprint readers. Users may also tap USB fingerscan devices if their laptops lack integrated biometrics.

But Andy Johnson, a director at Telos’ managed services division, said he sees more government interest in smart card readers. Smart cards, such as the Defense Department’s Common Access Card, provide authentication for network access.

Johnson said card readers may be integrated in the laptop or provided as an additional feature in the form of a PCMCIA card. He said the latter option affords greater flexibility because a card that fails can be easily swapped out.

“A lot of the procurements we are seeing…require smart card readers of some form,” he said.

Johnson said government customers aren’t fond of unproven, leading-edge technologies when it comes to security approaches. Don de Castro, a contractor at the National Institutes of Health, said he could attest to that.

“The biometric secure access notebooks and tablets I have used have all been imperfect, riddled with inconsistencies and far from easy to use and set up,” he said. “For simply securing your machine against a nontechnical theft, you are better off enabling a BIOS [system-level] password.”

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