Our flexible friends: a laptop for every lifestyle

Whether you play games on the hoof or simply check e-mail in bed, notebooks are now big news. Stewart Mitchell helps you find the perfect partner.

The need to be “on stream” away from the office has persuaded professionals to take up their desk and walk, while in suburbia, laptops save space and offer the flexibility of surfing throughout the home, or even the garden.

“Over the past year, prices have fallen by about 20%, so people are buying laptops as additional PCs,” says Ranjit Atwal, senior analyst at Gartner. “At home, the internet is more ingrained in daily life, not confined to a study, so a laptop is logical. And people work from home and on the road more, too.”

For Katie Lee, founder of the female-friendly gadget site Shiny Shiny, laptops mean “I can do all my work in bed, wearing jimjams and eating Hobnobs”, while more mobility helps restaurant manager Simon McInerney “finish menus and rotas on the way into work, and make more of my time”.

At leisure, the laptop is a multimedia scrapbook. You can visit relatives and show them holiday snaps, take it to a friend’s house and play them your MP3 collection, or pack it for a weekend retreat and tune into the Sunday Premiership match on the built-in TV tuner.

The good news for laptop manufacturers, says market researcher Mintel, is that the high-income AB groups most likely to buy one are growing. “Work practices are changing, and higher earners have more to spend on luxuries,” says David Bird, a consumer analyst at Mintel. “As we move from a manufacturing-based society to services, with increased flexibility, people need to be out of the office, and will pay for versatility.”

Like a company car, a swish laptop is not just a work tool, but a corporate status symbol. Everybody now wants to swagger into the departure lounge without their spine contorted by the sheer heft of their laptop case.

Another phenomenon sending sales soaring is wireless networking. Most new notebooks include WiFi, which enables you to swiftly pluck an internet connection out of the air when near a “hot spot”, be it in an airport or the office. Laptop owners, in the boardroom or on campus, can now pull up files and web pages when they’re within range of these wireless networks.

In the design-conscious home, smart wireless entertainment notebooks can drive the desktop into dusty corners. “Dainty Italian desks look awful with monitors trailing wires,” says Helen Kirwan-Taylor, author of Home UK. “The wireless revolution is laptop-driven.”

For all their flexibility, laptops have drawbacks, and there remains a performance gap between a £1,000 desktop and an equivalent notebook. Dell vice-president Tim Mattox is on record as saying that the premium is more than £200. For many, though, that’s a price worth paying.

The allure of mobility, of course, isn’t everything. Because it is virtually impossible to upgrade a notebook, you are stuck with what you buy until it is obsolete (often in three or four years), or breaks down (maybe sooner). Either way, fixing problems on a laptop is more complicated and expensive than on a desktop.

Improvements in technology, such as Intel’s Centrino standard, with wireless capabilities built into the motherboard, and low-power chips, have advanced performance and, crucially, battery life, while enabling manufacturers to produce ever smaller laptops. The stylish Samsung Q30, for example, will easily handle spreadsheets and presentations, and keep running for more than five hours — a key consideration for anyone who wants to work through transatlantic flights. Despite Intel’s assertions, there are alternatives to Centrino, including third-party plug-in wireless WiFi cards or similar chips, such as AMD’s Turion 64.

A more worrying stumbling block for laptops comes from miniaturisation. Keyboards can be as cramped and less responsive than a tin of sardines, while the mouse is replaced by the annoying touchpad, making it all too easy to inadvertently delete an hour’s work. A separate plug-in mouse is a must. Even better is a wireless one. Fiddly controls and a screen that you cannot adjust to a comfortable viewing height can also have long-term health implications. Never work with a laptop on your lap. This is why manufacturers increasingly call them notebooks.