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How I Test Laptops

It's one of those times of the year when I poke and prod a few test machines to see what the computer industry can accomplish. This week, I'm trying out laptops from four of the biggest manufacturers of portable computers in the U.S. consumer market -- Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba -- while I research Thursday's "how to buy a laptop" column. (Here's last year's version of that piece.)

While I do that, I thought I'd explain how I do this testing, so you can get a better idea of what leads me to judge one computer as better or worse than another -- and, if you feel inclined, can then repeat this research on your own.

A lot of computer reviews focus on benchmark tests of performance, but I generally avoid them. Most home users are not putting their laptops to any particularly demanding use; speed is not their primary criteria.

Instead, my laptop reviews usually highlight only two numeric measurements -- weight and battery life. First, I put both the laptop and its power brick on a scale. Then, I run two battery-life tests, each run under almost the default power-management settings -- the only change I make is to prevent the screen from dimming automatically, as would be the case with a laptop under continual use.

* DVD playback: I pop in a DVD, plug in some headphones (so as not to annoy co-workers) and let it play through until the machine conks out. This should represent the worst-case scenario, with the screen, the processor and the optical drive all running constantly.

* Music playback and Web browsing: I copy a set of MP3 files to the computer and play them back in random order on the machine's default music program--while pointing its default Web browser to a couple of pages that reload automatically (typically, washingtonpost.com's home page and MLB.com's scoreboard). Here, the hard drive, screen, processor and WiFi get a workout.

I will also time how long the computer takes to start up and wake from sleep, and I'll note how much memory and hard-drive space it has free out of the box, after I've installed all available updates. Oh, and price. That's generally it for the numbers.

In the subjective realm, I will note how hot the laptop gets and how much noise and vibration its cooling fans generate, then critique the feel of its keyboard and touchpad. I will also inventory the different ways you can connect other devices to the machine -- USB, FireWire, Bluetooth, ExpressCard and so on. And I'll evaluate the machine's software bundle: How much of it is the usual annoying trialware or programs that nobody uses anymore? Does it include things that people actually need, like simple, automatic data-backup tools?

Then there's a metric that usually applies only to Windows PCs, what you could call the tackiness index. This is a rough measure of how much the manufacturer has cluttered up the outside and inside of the machine with marketing messages: stickers on the case, shortcuts on the desktop and pointless icons in the system tray.

The last, and most painful part of this testing routine is calling tech support for help. This is usually an excruciating ordeal -- not least since I only ask questions for which I already know the answer -- but somebody's gotta do it.

What else should I try out on a new computer? Post your suggestions in the comments.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  August 11, 2008; 10:06 AM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen  
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Comments

Thank you for this, I think you have the main areas, but I don't think you should discount speed. You are correct though that the average user is not really paying attention to the benchmarks used in websites like CNET, which I have seen use speed benchmarks.

I do like the simplicity of your approach though, and it is that simplicity that appeals to me. I do hope you can find a way to include the actual speed of a computer, like maybe evaluating the time taken to open a particular file, or maybe also the time taken to actually boot up. I am sure people would be very interested in that aspect.

Posted by: Phacetious Plebbe | August 11, 2008 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Not something that is necessarily easy to do on a budget, but something along the lines of a "drop test" to see if the laptop can stand falling off of a desk or other reasonably low height object is something I like to see. My Macbook Pro still has difficulty with keeping the power cord connected after the metal case bent when it fell off my lap in an airport.

Posted by: David S | August 11, 2008 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Overall, I think you've got a pretty good list. I agree that "speed" benchmarks are probably of very little value to most consumers. Interpreting them isn't easy even for IT pros, unless the characteristics of both the benchmark and the target application(s) are known in some detail.

There is one subjective measure that I would find helpful: how easy to see/read is the display screen, especially under difficult conditions, like outdoors when the sun is shining.

Posted by: Rich Gibbs | August 11, 2008 3:19 PM | Report abuse

I'd love to see something about how well they connect to wireless networks. I've been in situations where I can see a network fine, but my friends or family can't.

Also I'd be curious about advice trading up or down from the baseline models. In the past you could look at clock speed and that was it. Now, it's lost in a maze of cores, caches and motherboards.

And *thanks* for taking on Tech Support. Man, "you couldn't pay me to do that!"

Posted by: justsomeguy | August 11, 2008 3:27 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the comment about timing the boot up cycle. I recently got a Dell XPS and was quite disappointed by the time it took it to boot up. It has almost convinced me to switch to Linux, but not until Apple makes Itunes Linux compatible.

Posted by: Mark | August 11, 2008 4:54 PM | Report abuse

I'll second that very good suggestion re: Wifi connectabilitynesshood. And would add: try it from at least 2 locations. We find that the lenovos may grab a wifi signal just fine... but then won't release it to grab a new one once location has changed.

You going to test any linux-based machines, Sir Robertito?

Posted by: Bush -- not related | August 11, 2008 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Since I'm interested in connecting a laptop to my stereo for mp3 playback, I'd like to see some sort of list of laptop components to look for that can play excellent audio through the headphone jack (into earphones, speakers, a receiver or whatever). Also, since my current laptop chokes on Youtube video, I'd like to know what to look for in the video section of a laptop to get smooth video without the CPU cycles being totally consumed.

Posted by: BB | August 11, 2008 6:33 PM | Report abuse

Hi Rob

I'd be interested in what I call "the ergo test".

Can the screen of the laptop or notebook bend back (or be bent back) far enough so that a notebook stand or laptop holder can be used, along with an external keyboard and mouse.

I'm presuming that all those laptops being purchased (130M in 2008) are NOT on the move 24/7, and a majority are being used as desktop replacement machines for most of the time.

That is, can the notebook being tested contribute to an ergonomic solution when used for "desktop-based notebook computing".

As an aside, no current MacBooks or MacPros can provide this range of adjustment, nor can the new Voodoo notebooks from HP.

Regards,

Michael Zerman
Adelaide AUSTRALIA

Posted by: Michael Zerman | August 11, 2008 10:45 PM | Report abuse

Agree with the Linux request. My Vista HP is in warranty repair and I'm using my son's Dell (designed for Windows 2000), and UBUNTU screams along much better than the new bloat pkg. Reason enough to wipe Vista when my machine comes back.

Posted by: Haus in MA | August 12, 2008 11:16 AM | Report abuse

I'd like a fat-finger test or evaluation, as you (Rob) did with the little ASUS and HPs. Also a readbility/usability test or evaluation as you did with the above two machines. I may be able to read the screen, but that doesn't really matter if I have to scroll across it to see the entire screen!

My need for a laptop isn't related to work, but rather, "I want to jot something down, look something up, or maybe check the email" from the couch, porch or deck, as opposed to doing something that requires the full-blown desktop -- where someone else in the family probably is!

Posted by: Eric | August 12, 2008 11:58 AM | Report abuse

There are two further tests I would recommend:
1. How long it would take their tech support to repair and return a laptop say with a broken screen.
2. How fast the machine takes to boot from total power down with a resource hungery Internet Security Application installed(no names mentioned). I don't mean to get to the stage where the desktop is displayed, I mean when the total boot process is finished and the Hard drive light stops constantly flashing.

Posted by: Lawrence Clayton | August 12, 2008 4:57 PM | Report abuse

I would add the following - and I don't know the correct words for it - but - Electromagnetic field strength (EMFs).

Electromagnetic Fields are not good for humans. Europe and Asia are way ahead of the USA on this. Strong EMFs may be a cause of various diseases like cancer. And are generally bad for productivity and creativity.

The state of New Mexico is way ahead of the rest of the USA on this too. In New Mexico - all public computers have EMF Shielding around them.

I had a G4 in 2000 that would give me physical pain in my bones if I was within 2 feet of it for more than 15 minutes.

Posted by: Ryan | August 12, 2008 7:42 PM | Report abuse

Battery life expectancy and battery replacement cost. These were real surprises on my lightweight Dell (D620) as the former was shorter than hoped for and the latter more.

Maybe my request is too late though.

Posted by: jose | August 14, 2008 5:57 PM | Report abuse

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