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Notebook design: ten things we love

We all like to gripe about the technology we use day in, day out, but sometimes designers get it just right. Here are ten of our favourite things about notebooks.
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By Sandra Vogel, Contributor on
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1 of 10 Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

High-resolution screens
Screen resolution is one of the most important usability factors for a notebook, but manufacturers sometimes skimp on this to keep the cost down. We like screens that are over 800 pixels tall, although clearly trade-offs must be made with netbooks and ultraportables. We also prefer 'wide-screen' resolutions (wider than the 'standard' 4:3 aspect ratio) that allow you to open two document windows side by side. If high resolution is a top priority, look for 15.4in. displays or bigger with resolutions of 1,440 by 900 (WXGA+), 1,680 by 1,050 (WSXGA+, pictured above) or even 1,920 by 1,200 (WUXGA).

 

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2 of 10 Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Ambient light sensors
The screen consumes the most power of any notebook component, so the bigger and brighter the screen, the quicker the battery runs down. Although you can use power management software to set a lower screen brightness level when running on battery power, we like an idea seen most recently in Dell's Latitude E6500 (pictured), which borrows a trick from the mobile phone world: an ambient light sensor automatically sets the screen brightness to an appropriate level for your surroundings.

Another idea from the Latitude E6500 we like, which is also found in some Apple MacBooks, is keyboard backlighting. On the Latitude E6500 this can be turned on and off manually or set to automatically adjust as ambient lighting conditions change. A backlit keyboard makes it much easier to work in duller conditions.

 

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3 of 10 Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Flexible power management
For mobile professionals, battery life is vital, and what we particularly value is flexibility over power management. We like notebooks that ship with a second battery, for example — either as a replacement for the main battery when it runs out, or as an adjunct to the main battery sitting in a modular bay. We also like our batteries to have a built-in LED gauge so we can check the charge level without needing to power up the notebook. And the more ways of conserving or extending battery life there are, the better. Many manufacturers provide power management software with their notebooks that goes beyond the basic Windows offering, allowing you to selectively disable system components in order to conserve battery power.

 

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4 of 10 Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Small AC adapters
The bane of a mobile professional's life is the amount of ancillary kit that needs to be carried in order to stay productive when on the road. One item that can't be left at home is the notebook's AC adapter, and in the past these could be seriously unwieldy 'bricks'. Thankfully, manufacturing efficiencies mean that power supplies can now be made small enough to properly complement the notebooks they're designed to recharge. The 36W (12V, 3A) adapter for an ASUS Eee pictured above, for example, measures just 85mm by 34mm by 26mm and weighs around 150g.

We're less enamoured about the plethora of ideograms and standards marks that clutter up the label, but that's another story. At some point, AC adapters may become too small to accomodate them — but let's hope that doesn't hold up the miniaturisation process.

 

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5 of 10 Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Integrated mobile broadband
To be fully productive on the move these days you need an internet connection. We therefore approve of integrated mobile broadband in notebooks (currently up to 7.2Mbps download speeds with HSDPA). Network operators have spotted the value here too, with 'free' notebooks now being offered on contract (although we advise that you read the contract terms carefully).

 

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6 of 10 Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Buttonless multi-touch touchpad
These may never become widespread on run-of-the-mill notebooks, but we salute Apple's cleverness with the glass touchpads on its recent MacBook and MacBook Pro systems. Once you get used to the whole touchpad being the mouse button, and the range of one-, two-, three- and four-finger gestures on offer, this is the most natural way of navigating a GUI on a notebook that we've come across.

 


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7 of 10 Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Hardware Wi-Fi switching
Wi-Fi is great, but sometimes — usually to conserve battery life — you need to make sure it's switched off. You can, of course, place an icon in Windows' system tray for easy access, but it's even more convenient to have a hardware switch that turns wireless communications on and off. Separate switches for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are even better, but this arrangement is rare.

 

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8 of 10 Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Webcams
Until recently integrated webcams were rare on business notebooks, but they are becoming more common — their rise has roughly coincided with that of integrated mobile broadband connectivity. We much prefer webcams you can rotate rather than fixed-position units: the former are more expensive to engineer, but they're also more flexible as you don't need to tilt the whole screen in order to compose your image.

 

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9 of 10 Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Good webcam software
A webcam is only as good as its accompanying software. We like webcam software that offers features like face-tracking, and automatic brightness/contrast adjustment — and, of course, the ability to record video and stills. These features help make the webcam hardware flexible for different circumstances.

 

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10 of 10 Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Proper lid clasp
Not all notebooks are made for carrying, but any computer that's designed for portablility — even for a small amount of time — really should have a mechanical clasp to keep the screen and system unit sections of the clamshell firmly together. Without a proper clasp, it's all too easy for paperclips, pens and other objects that lurk in even the tidiest of travel bags to find their way inside the notebook where they could scratch the screen or damage the keyboard.

 

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