What is the best choice for your next portable computer device, you next netbook, notebook, tablet, or xPad?
The Acer Aspire One HAPPY-N55DQgrgr is an example of the cheap and fun computers on the market for children, as a second computer, and as something you can slip into your purse or backpack without taking up space or adding weight. You can choose almost any operating system, a range of colours, and the computer is only AU$378 at your local Officeworks.
The top of the line Toshiba R700 is at the other end of the price range for portable computing and my choice for a notebook for continuous use out in the field. The retail price in Sydney is AU$3877.50 and one online shop lists it at $3,590.40 for genuine Australian stock including shipping to my postcode.
You work 2000 hours per year if you work for someone else. You work 3000 to 3500 hours per year when you run your own business. If a computer is something you use all the time for the average life of three years between upgrades then the difference in cost between various computers, using the Happy one as the low end of the range and the R700 as the top end, is less than $0.66 per hour for an employee and less than a $0.33 per hour for your own use.
The difference between a good keyboard and a Dell style keyboard could save you $5 of your time every hour you spend typing. A docking station might save you a $100 of your time per day in the office. The most expensive purchase in this comparison is cheap based on three years of ownership.
Some devices of interest
Visit www.panasonic.com.au/toughbook and read about the computers you can use on a building site or in a swamp. Their CF-52 is
business rugged, you can knock it off the table onto a concrete floor without damage and you can pour beer all over the keyboard without a problem, just rinse of the beer with a little water and detergent to get rid of the smell.
Their CF-31 is the next step up and is
fully rugged. You can drop the CF-31 in a swamp then wash it and use it. You can drop the CF-31 from a greater height without damage.
The Toshiba Portégé R700 PT310A-05N011 is the cheapest R700 and, at four times the price of the Happy One, has only one advantage, that magnesium frame. I prefer to use the disposable Happy One.
The next model up, the PT311A-00J00Q, is five times the Happy One price and gains a faster disk plus a faster processor and is the minimum for a desktop replacement when coupled with a docking station. This is the minimum R700 for business.
The PT311A-03U00Q, at AU$2600, is seven times the price of the Happy One and adds a solid state disk for reliability plus 3G wireless for a connection on the move. They do not mention which 3G networks you can use. If the 3G is compatible with both of the main 3G networks in Australia, I would buy it.
For an extra $1000 the top of the line model adds only processor speed, speed I do not need, plus extra SSD storage. You might need for video editing or CAD rendering or games. Geologists out in the field might use the speed for analysis. The extra storage space is more than I need for one project and not enough for all projects. I can add extra projects for less cost using USB storage devices and use one device per project.
Try typing on an iPad. Painful. You have to buy a keyboard for it and that makes the iPad as bulky as a netbook. One hand is wasted holding the iPad. Half the screen is wasted on the keyboard emulation. I see people at airports and other locations successfully reading email then struggling to reply. iPad life is easier in a cafe where you have a table for the iPad.
Other brands of tablets are not easier than iPads when they are as small as iPads but tablets are available in a huge range of sizes and give you far more flexibility if you are happy with the extra weight. Good notebooks and netbooks are not much different in weight to the equivalent pad or tablet when the pad or tablet is fitted out with accessories for the same types of tasks. Compare a netbook to the tablet or pad. Now add all the accessories for the tablet or pad. Suddenly the netbook looks compact.
Try typing on a Dell or similar quality notebook. You might as well be banging your fingers on a cardboard cutout of a keyboard. The latest Apple Macs have very light action keyboards but no tactile feedback. Hall effect keyboards are the best and are no longer manufactured. Xkey keyboards are the closest modern equivalent to the hall effect keyboard. Try the keyboard of the device before trying anything else.
The Happy One has a good keyboard for a netbook and is a touch too small for my fingers. I still type most of my documents on my desktop computer and do not need the best keyboard on the netbook. The R700 should be the right size because it is a 13" computer instead of a 10" computer. The R700 keyboard is of less relevance because I would use a docking station with the R700 when in the office and can connect an external keyboard for the bulk of my typing.
Touchpad or mouse?
Most touchpads are too small. They are artificially too small due to incredibly bad design. The Happy One touchpad is also too sensitive. The first thing I would add to the Happy One for regular use at a desk is a mouse. The smallest notebook with a decent size touchpad is a 16" notebook and it is a one off anomaly because every other large notebook in the same brand has a pathetically small touchpad.
For image editing and drawing, a really good alternative to touchscreens, touchpads, and the mouse is a graphics tablet or pad. Look at the range of tablets at J&R. You get a choice of size and pens to fit the type of drawing you need. When you move away from simply selecting menu entries, there are a lot of ways to accurately control the computer cursor without the limitations of touch screens or mice.
Almost flat layout
There are times when you want a netbook or notebook to lay flat so you can use an external screen or projector over the top. The importance of no connections at the back is highlighted by the number of occasions I, and my colleagues, lost a notebook when someone pressed the screen down. The pressure pushes down on a plug, the plug bends a socket, and the socket breaks or the socket breaks the part of the computer motherboard. Both the Happy One and R700 have no cable connections at the back to stop the screen from bending back. This is the first thing to check on every device with a screen that folds back.
There were two identical Happy Ones with different size batteries. The R700 has a
6 cell battery as standard and a
9 cell battery as an option. The number of cells is usually a good indicator of weight but not of how long the batteries will power the computer. many batteries claim 8 hours and deliver only 6 and neither is long enough to last a typical 10 hour day on the road. I suggest people on the move buy spare power supplies for frequently visited places so they can top up the battery during the day. People in cars should buy a car power adaptor. People working from home and an office should leave one power supply at home and buy a second fr the office.
The hard disk in the typical notebook is 5400 rpm while some sneak in slower disks. Check the speed. If your computer is an investment and a tax deduction, buy one with SSD, Solid State Disk. You get maximum speed with minimum power usage and they do not break when you drop your computer. As a comparison, the reliability of an SSD could be wasted on a Happy One because the plastic case of the Happy One will shatter when dropped while the magnesium case of the R700 will survive. SSD makes more sense when the rest of the computer is solid.
Both machines have disks of 250 GB or greater in size. 250 GB is currently enough to hold two of my largest Web projects or my family photograph collection. A larger disk would help but no notebook has a disk large enough to hold everything I could place on the disk. I am happy with the size and will put other projects on separate USB connected SSDs. Your requirement might be different. Your minimum project might already use 500 GB and might be rapidly expanding. You might want to look at some of the larger notebooks with twin 640 GB disks.
The Happy One display is 1024 * 600 and the R700 is not much bigger. Neither will display Blu-ray disk content at full resolution. For video editing on the road, I suggest one of the notebooks with a 16" or 17" screen and a powerful processor. You could use the powerful R700 with an external monitor if you have the mains power to run an external monitor.
The low power Happy One has a hot spot and the fan noise is a distraction when the Happy One heats up. It is never a problem when using the Happy One on a table. It is often a problem when using the Happy One on my lap and my clothes start to block up the small air vents. The same problem occurs with most netbooks, notebooks, and tablets if they have sufficient processing power to perform useful work. The pad type devices generally have weaker processors not capable of producing heat.
You can only find out about the heat by using the device for 20 minutes on your lap. Does your thigh hurt? Do your jeans catch fire? Sit in a small chair similar to those squashed up airline seats. If a company is serious about selling you the right notebook, they will let you sit in their showroom for 20 minutes using one of their demonstration models. The fraudulent shops are the ones that remove the battery to pretend the computer is lighter and use a very short lead to stop you placing the computer on your lap.
You want a wired network connection because wireless is slow and unreliable. The low cost Happy One has a modern GHz wired connection. Rubbish from some suppliers has only the ancient 100 MHz junk from last century. Some computers do not have any wired connection and need an adaptor. Make sure you include the cost, weight, and inconvenience of an adaptor when comparing products. The R700 has an optional docking station I recommend for your office use instead of connecting several cables.
You want a wireless network connection because it is convenient. You want 802.11n for home, office, and Wifi cafes. The low cost Happy One has 802.11n. Everything more expensive than the Happy One should have 802.11n but some brands still cheat by using cheaper wireless chips from some trash sale.
3G is an option for wireless away from your office. In Australia there are two major 3G networks, NextG and regular 3G. You want 3G compatible with both. NextG has far better coverage, especially outside of suburban areas. There are some areas close to Sydney where none of the networks work. If you are working on new projects at the edge of suburbia, buy the Telstra add-on USB NextG adaptor with a socket for an external antenna then buy a high gain antenna for the roof of your car.
The first problem with power adaptors is often finding a power socket where the power adaptor can plug in. The Happy One has a brilliant narrow adaptor that fits between regular items on a standard power board and has a plug you can rotate to four positions to allow for the various orientations of a socket. Check the flexibility of the power adaptor.
Buy one for the home, one for the office, and one for the car. Some docking stations include a power adaptor while others reuse the power adaptor supplied with the computer. Ask before you buy.
Your camera uses an SD memory card unless you are stuck with Fuji, an old Olympus, Sony, or an incredibly expensive professional camera. Modern cameras use SDHC. Future cameras will use SDXC. The Happy One is stuck with an old SD socket. I cannot copy my photographs direct from my Canon camera SDHC cards. The R700 has no card slot. I would add a USB SDXC slot to each R700 docking station and pack a spare SDXC adaptor in my backpack when travelling.
The Happy One has a built in microphone to work with the built in camera. There are sockets for external earphones and an external microphone. The R700 lists a camera but not a microphone. For the R700 I would use a USB headset and plug one into every docking station. Built in cameras are useful but built in microphones often pick up excess noise. A headset with a noise cancelling microphone is the best choice.
There are multiple USB 2.0 sockets on the Happy One and the R700. The R700 also has an eSATA connection for super fast access to an external disk. The R700 is the better choice when you use a large external disk for a large project. The R700 docking station also has 2 * USB 3.0 ports for fast access to two external disks. I could replace my desktop workstation using the R700 with the docking station and two external USB 3.0 disks.
Both example computers have video cameras for video conferences. The cameras are rarely a problem. Sound is usually the incomprehensible bit. See the previous comments on sound.
There is a VGA socket on one side for connection to a projector or external screen. Both example computers are fast enough work with a larger format external screen. DVI is the step up from VGA and is rapidly disappearing. HDMI is the step up from DVI and has almost completely replaced DVI. The R700 has HDMI and the speed to run Blu-ray quality video into HDMI.
Displayport is the step up from HDMI but no one is supporting Displayport. Thunderbolt will replace Displayport during 2012, is faster than USB 3.0 and the other competing data transfer technologies, but none of your disks or other external devices will be fast enough to use more than the USB 3.0 connections on your docking station.
The Happy One is supplied with Windows 7 Starter edition and Android pre-installed. Both are junk. The R700 is supplied with Windows 7 Professional 64 bit, a serious professional operating system and the absolute minimum level of Windows you should use if you need to use Windows. I do not know if you can also run Linux.
Everything has a one year guarantee except a small number of professional computers with three year warranties. The Happy One is so cheap I could replace it every year and it would never be expensive. Toshiba consider the R700 so reliable that they include a three year warranty and offer free courier pickup. You definitely want the extended warranty when buying an expensive computer. They also offer onsite service for little extra cost.
Look for a warranty of at least a year for each AU$1000 you spend.
The low cost Happy One is a great example of a full feature computer at a price where you can afford to break it. The R700 is a serious professional computer you could use to replace a desktop computer by using the docking station and some peripherals plugged into the docking station. The R700 is also a great example of a computer than can take some rough treatment. If I had to depend on one portable computer, I would choose the Toshiba.