Are extra laptop features worth it?

Some laptop features are decidedly optional, while others are becoming de rigueur. Which are worth the money?

In the automotive world, the real money is made in the options packages. Fancy hubcaps, satellite radio, two-tone paint? Thank you very much, dealers will say, as they pocket sometimes more money than they made selling you the car.

Though buying a new laptop online doesn't involve engaging in negotiations with a dealer, you still have a number of options to choose from. And with business laptops costing as much as $2,000, adding a few extras can push the price quite a bit higher. Some features are decidedly optional, while others are becoming de rigueur. Which are worth the money? Let's take a gander.

Solid-State Drives

With no moving parts, flash-memory solid-state drives (SSDs) operate silently and eliminate any risk to the drive from vibration or a sudden drop. SSDs are stunningly expensive at the moment. The largest capacity is just 64GB, and choosing one for your laptop can add from $900 to $1600 to the cost, depending on whether you select it as an option (such as on the base model of Apple's MacBook Air) or if it's available only with certain pricier models (such as with Lenovo and Sony laptops).

Our tests of SSDs showed mixed results. SSDs have exceedingly high read speeds, making system boots, application launches, and document loads much faster than with a conventional laptop hard drive. Write speeds aren't any better, however, and the overall performance is just a few percentage points faster than that of regular drives. Battery savings appear to be minimal, as well.

The value of an SSD may change dramatically in 2008, however, as 256GB and larger drives hit the market. The first 256GB drive will wholesale for nearly $6,000, but like all storage costs over time, SSD prices should plummet as volume and capacity increase. In 2009, a 64GB drive might run just $200 to $300 over a 5,400-rpm standard hard drive, and may boost performance and drop power use further.

Our verdict: Wait, unless you're in an industry in which vibration, read time, or the slightest noise matter.

Special Screen Coatings

Dell's TrueLife screen, with its promise of a bright, vibrant display, might seem a good option at the time of purchase, but at about $160 for an upgrade to a 17-inch LCD on a business laptop, its benefit is unclear.

Dell claims that TrueLife produces a 10 percent boost in contrast, as well as more vivid colors. Other manufacturers' options, such as Gateway's UltraBright, HP's BrightView, and Toshiba's TruBrite, are similar. (The names seem reminiscent of toothpaste advertising, but we digress.) See "Vibrant Notebook Screens" for an overview of what such displays have to offer.

Travelers who frequently work in awkward lighting conditions, where glare, dimness, or reflections abound, would appreciate this $100 to $200 upgrade. The enhanced screen is useful if you intend to watch DVDs or other video on the laptop, too. The screen technology used varies from company to company; consult PC World's laptop reviews for more insight about a particular offering.

Our verdict: If you spend a lot of time squinting at your current laptop display, it's worth it; otherwise, save your pennies.

Integrated Mobile Broadband

The network is everywhere! Or so AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and Verizon Wireless would like you to believe. Their third-generation (3G) networks are in most major cities, and in more than 1,000 airports. But their cell modems for accessing the data networks are available only in a relatively small number of laptops.

The advantage of a built-in mobile broadband adapter is that it's one fewer thing you have to carry around. And ostensibly the manufacturer has built a better antenna by using the laptop's case to carry a signal. These cards can cost any amount from nothing to $300, depending on a carrier's subsidy and your term of commitment.

Technology changes rapidly in the cellular world, though, and an integrated, usually mini-PCI-format adapter is hard to upgrade for faster speeds. Such adapters are rarely user serviceable, and even laptop makers might not offer a swap-out program.

Currently, the Sprint and Verizon EvDO networks run at Rev. A, but some laptops still offer modems meeting the previous Rev. 0 standard. Sprint is rolling out WiMax starting this year, and that will mean a different PC Card. And AT&T's HSPA technology has already seen one boost (in the upstream direction); the downstream side could double in the next year to match top European speeds. (The one exception to the speed-enhancement trend is Qualcomm's forthcoming Gobi technology, which can switch between EvDO and HSPA; Dell will offer a Gobi option this fall.)

Our verdict: With the potential for enjoying faster service and avoiding outdated hardware, buying a stand-alone card--perhaps the USB type, for shuttling among computers--doesn't cost any more than choosing an integrated modem, and provides more flexibility.

Draft-N Wireless

Wi-Fi continues to evolve, but its latest incarnation, draft-n, is likely the fastest flavor we'll have until 2012. Laptop makers were early adopters of this version of the IEEE 802.11n standard, which may change slightly and require firmware and driver upgrades as it moves toward full approval in 2009.

Most business laptops still include 802.11g -- the 2003-era standard that was itself a big speed boost--as standard equipment or as a downgrade option to reduce cost during configuration of a purchase. Upgrading to draft-n adds from $15 to $40 to the cost of most companies' laptops. (The one notable exception is Apple, which standardized on draft-n for its laptops in October 2006.) The biggest advantage of a draft-n adapter is that transferring large files between similarly equipped computers or to and from a high-speed corporate (or even gigabit SOHO) network takes one-third to one-fifth the time as the task does over 802.11g.

Our verdict: Rather than buy a laptop with a five-year-old standard built in, ride on the cutting edge and select draft-n. The modest cost gets you a substantial speed boost, and futureproofs your laptop for a few years.

Fingerprint Scanner

Once a feature for people working in high-security jobs, fingerprint scanners are now commonplace, included in most premium business laptops and available otherwise as an inexpensive add-on. Lenovo, for instance, charges a bit over $20 to swap its touchpad with a fingerprint reader; Dell asks for $30 to add the device to laptops in its Latitude line.

Depending on the laptop, a fingerprint reader might be tied in with boot-time firmware to prevent a computer from starting up without a valid fingerprint. It may also safeguard Windows log-ins or replace passwords for online services and encrypted virtual disk mounting.

Our verdict: Just about any business or individual would benefit from having one of these readers, especially considering the negligible expense. But make sure that the reader and the laptop configuration combine for the particular protection features you need.

Hardware Drive Encryption

The biggest mainstream security story of the last few years concerns the theft of laptops containing credit card numbers, credit history, Social Security numbers, and other data belonging to consumers, veterans, and company employees. If only the victims had employed encryption, right?

Some hard drives now have hardware-backed encryption built in, which helps make locking down data easier. Seagate's Momentus 5400 FDE.2 is currently the best-known entry in this category, and Dell is the only laptop maker to offer it as a standard upgrade option. An 80GB or 120GB drive with hardware encryption costs about $100 extra.

The data stored on such drives is entirely encrypted in real time, with no delays and with no interaction between the drive and the operating system. This design improves performance and provides fewer points of entry for unauthorized access.

Some analysts expect drive makers other than Seagate and Hitachi to get into the business, and hardware drive encryption will likely become a dominant business-laptop feature -- not even much of an option -- by 2009.

Our verdict: For any industry in which security is paramount or even legally obligated (the medical, legal, and governmental fields, for starters), the additional cost of hardware encryption is minuscule when weighed against the technology's ease of use and its role in avoidance of liability.

Free-Fall Sensor

You'll never drop your laptop. Of course you won't. Someone will, however, jostle you, or the laptop will be balanced precariously on the arm of your seat in an airport waiting area, and -- crash! When you inspect it, the laptop is fine; the drive, however, is trashed.

A free-fall sensor can detect when a drive experiences sudden motion that indicates a near-term poor outcome. Turtlelike, the drive instantly retracts its read/write heads to keep them from damaging the internal platters. The drive then pops the heads out when the coast is clear.

Apple has included motion sensors in all of its laptops for the last three years. Other manufacturers, such as Lenovo and Toshiba, may charge a small premium, about $40 to $50, to upgrade a drive to have the feature.

Our verdict: Let's not be coy. Get it.

Glenn Fleishman writes the blog Glenn Fleishman on Hardware on PCWorld.com, and edits his own site, Wi-Fi Networking News PC World is an InfoWorld affiliate.

This story, "Are extra laptop features worth it?" was originally published by PCWorld.

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