Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Geeky Way to Pick a Notebook

As promised, I said I would share some of my geekiness tricks with you. Well, that's not exactly what I said, but anyway, here we go.


I'm shopping for a new laptop/notebook/netbook. I decided there are a few criteria that need to be met by this new mobile computing station.

  1. It needs to be light
  2. It needs to be small enough to carry around in my "manbag". (no link on the manbag because Wilsons Leather doesn't carry it any more)
  3. It needs to be powerful enough to do normal daily tasks quickly (as opposed to my current tablet, which I NEVER should have put Vista on).
  4. It needs to be able to use the DoD Common Access Card (CAC) because I'm working from home more often than not lately. Plus I plan to use it when I go on business trips.
  5. It should be good enough to play a few games in the off chance that I get to do that (a little WoW on the road never hurt anyone, right?)
  6. It needs to be inexpensive.

So, with those things in mind I began searching.


I began by looking at Eee PCs and other netbooks. A little quick research showed me that they are either underpowered XP boxes, or are running some form of Linux. While this of itself is not a problem, it makes #4 a bit of a problem. I got a copy of the CAC software for Linux from the Air Force Private Key Infrastructure (PKI) System Program Office (SPO) in San Antonio Texas. Unfortunately, the software is for Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 3 or 4. This shouldn't have been a problem, but I lose interest in a problem when I bang my head against it for over 16 hours and don't come up with a solution. Not that I'm completely giving up on this, because I would love to have one of those sweet little netbooks with the 40GB Solid State Drives (SSD). But it's just too much work for the little reward.


Ok, so drooling aside, the Eee PCs are basically out of the running because of the CAC issue, or being underpowered as an XP box. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a Vista zealot, but now that I've moved forward, I don't want to take a step back to XP land if I can avoid it.


So, what's next? Well, I noticed that Best Buy is doing 18 months same as cash, which is how we've bought most of our major purchases from Best Buy (or Circuit City, actually). So, that limited me to what Best Buy has in stock, either on-line or in the store. I recently decided not to go with Circuit City due to the Chapter 11 business they announced Monday; if they go out of business, it may be hard to get something serviced under the extended warrantee. Just a minor detail, really.


So, I put my geek hat on (as if it ever comes off) and went to work on an analysis tool. I got a lot of experience with using Microsoft Excel as an analysis tool while I was in the Air Force. It's very useful for what-if and quick-turn analyses. I decided I would list all the notebook / laptop systems listed on the Best Buy web site in my spreadsheet; then I associated all the detailed information about those systems, like how much RAM, what processor (CPU), what graphics processor (GPU), size of screen, size of disk, type of disk, optical disk type, weight, etc. Then came the tricky part; how do you convert that raw data into an objective number? Well, I played with a few formulae, then settled on one for each of the components I was looking at. After about 7 hours of work, I had all the information in the spreadsheet and a number associated with each notebook, identifying its relative score. But how do I put my personal bias on that number? How do I tell the sheet what's important to me?


I came up with a weighting scheme to influence the outcome based on my desires. Don't get me wrong, I didn't reverse engineer the outcome. I simply made sure the scoring system for each attribute was a value between 0 and 1, then multiplied that value by a relative weighting based on my desires. I even used data from another web site that lists benchmarks for CPUs and GPUs to generate the values for those attributes, so it completely removed my bias until I put my weights on the scores.


So, what laptop came up on top? The HP DV3510nr was the winner. It has a 13.3 inch screen, weighs less than 5 pounds, has a decent battery life, a good GPU, and has 4GB of RAM, expandable to 8GB with the 64 bit version of Vista. I expect to make my purchase soon, so I'll give you a first look review, and maybe an set of unboxing pix, too.


jef said...

VERY cool. I used a very similar process and ended up with an HP as well, though mine is a little bigger and has a 10 key and a few other things to make life as a statistician easier. I'm glad to know we use the same generally geeky approach.

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