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.
August 11, 2008; 10:06 AM ET
Categories: The business we have chosen
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