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How To Choose And Configure A Custom Notebook System

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MattSlagle View Drop Down
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    Posted: 04 Jun 2008 at 1:35pm

How To Choose And Configure A Custom Notebook System

So you are shopping for either your first notebook system or your fifth.  Either way, deciding upon components can be one of the hardest decisions to make.  It is all about finding the right price/performance ratio and if your components will meet your needs.  This article will try to help explain the process to go through for configuring each of the basic types of notebook computers.  Before reviewing this article, please make sure to review all the other articles on each and every single part inside the computer system.  Those single hardware guides go into much more detail than this guide does.

The Basic System

The basic system is the bare minimum needed to get a fully operational system.  You will be truly surprised how little components are needed to get a working system.  The basic system will be base for all other types of the systems that you can choose to follow.  Each of the separate systems either add or change from the basic system in some way.


Barebone: The barebone is the basic notebook system.  It contains the case, motherboard, screen, and may have additional extras such as thumbprint scanners, bluetooth, and expansion ports.  This is the single most important decision as this selection determines what components can be added and what features are part of the notebook.
Processor: The processor is the main brain of the system.  The faster the CPU, usually the more data that can processed by the system.  Notebook processors are generally slower and more expensive than their desktop counterparts to have lower heat outputs.  Some bigger laptops accept desktop models for more performance.
Ram: The memory is where all the data is stored while in use.  Notebook ram is in a different DIMM size than desktop memory.
Hard Drive: Hard drive is where data that is not being used is stored.  Notebook hard drives use a 2.5" form factor while desktop models use a 3.5" form factor.  Many laptops can use only a single HDD, but some models may be able to use more.
Optical Drive: Optical drive is to load data into the system.  Many notebook barebones include an optical drive, but some models may also provide an option to upgrade to high-def drives or use the optical drive space for an extra battery or hard drive.
Network Card: Almost all notebook barebone systems do not come included with a built in wireless network card.  However, these are now essential in a notebook as almost everyplace has a WIFI connection.
Operating System: This software controls the hardware and how it interacts with other software in the system.  Different OS are used for different uses.

Gaming System

A gaming system can be thought of as the top of the line consumer notebook system.  It usually utilizes the fastest components so that games play at their full resolution and settings for maximum visual effect.  Extra pieces of hardware are usually bought to increase the standard hardware.  Almost every single gaming system uses an external video card to supplement or replace the motherboard video capabilities.


Barebone: A barebone system for a gaming notebook is usually one that has a large 15" or 17" high resolution screen.  The barebone system should also be able to accept a mobile video card for the best performance possible.
Processor: For the best performance, a mobile Extreme series processor will offer the best processor speeds.  These processors are also unlocked, which means that the multiplier can be changed to allow higher speeds.  However, you must make sure the system is stable and effectively cooled while doing so.
Ram: Most high-end notebooks can only accept 4 GB of DDR2 ram.  This should be the option taken as it is not that expensive until newer memory technologies come to notebooks.
Hard Drive: Most notebook hard drives are either 4200 RPM or 5400 RPM.  There can slow when loading game files.  There are a few manufacturers that make 7200 RPM drives which are currently the best option.  If speed is of the utmost concern while drive space is not, a solid state disk (SSD) provides the best loading times of game files.
Optical Drive: Most notebook drives are DVD-RW and this is a perfect option as almost no games for the PC have started to use high-def optical disks yet.
Network Card: While the standard 802.11abg card will provide acceptable performance with online gaming, wireless cards with the draft N technology provide close to three times the transfer rate of the older G technology.  You will also have to purchase an appropriate wireless N router which are expensive and most LAN parties will still use the wireless G technology due to costs.  However, it is a very small extra investment which could be worth it when wireless N finally becomes a standard, prices drop, and more places start using it.
Operating System: Most popular 3D games use windows.  Due to the memory limitation, almost no reason to use Vista otherwise than personal preference.  Both XP and Vista are ideal candidates for mobile gaming.

Required Extra Hardware For This System Type

Video Card: Almost all onboard mobile video processors cannot handle the immense amount of 3D processor required to run a current game.  Video cards are used to take this task away from the onboard processing and transfer it to hardware that is designed for these types of calculations.  The larger number of processing units and the faster the video card processor and memory speeds,  the faster the video card can render a single 3D image.  The larger the memory on the video card the larger a 3D image the card can render correctly without losing rendering speeds.

Recommended Extra Hardware For This System Type

External Soundcard: Everyone knows that notebook speakers are not audiophile quality and same goes for the audio capabilities of the mobile chipset.  If sound is important for gameplay, an external soundcard that plugs into the now normal ExpressCard slot on the side of your notebook.  These soundcards offer better 3D stereo sound, and can even emulate 5.1 channels with the right speaker or headphone setup.  If gaming on the road, a good pair of wrap around ear headphones are also recommended.
Cooling: Cooling may become an issue with extended periods of gameplay.  There are coolers designed for notebooks which use fans to push more air into the the notebook's air cooling system.  There are relatively inexpensive and do not interfere with most gaming activities.

Home Office System

A home office notebook system is the most popular choice for regular computer users.  It has enough processing power to handle most of the normal computing needs of the average consumer.  Large hard drives are used because an average consumer now likes to listen to music and download lots of data.  Usually the basic system is enough, but a few optional hardware additions can add much more value to such a system.


Barebone: Depending upon the preferences of the consumer, a model with a 13.3", 14", 15" screen are all acceptable.  High-def displays are not as important because most office and home applications would not take advantage of the extra pixels.  A model with a built in webcam could be handy if wanting to use this technology for telecommunicating with work or friends.
Processor: A decent mid-range processor is the perfect choice for this type of notebook.  Any lower and the processor will not be able to handle the users application and any higher and heat and battery life become an issue.
Ram: Memory in a home office notebook should be at 2 GB or higher and clocked at DDR2-667 or higher.
Hard Drive: If speed is of a concern a HDD with a 7200 RPM is the best choice.  If value is of concern, a 5200 RPM speed drive will still provide acceptable performance.  Choose one with a large amount of space as users in this category like to download videos and music.
Optical Drive: Most notebook drives are DVD-RW and this is a perfect option as almost no software packages come on a high-def data disk yet.
Network Card: Most home and office WIFI networks are still using the G or older B wireless technologies.  Wireless N will still take a few more years before becoming standard in such places.  However the very small price increase for wireless N may be worth it if you plan on keeping this system for a few years or more.
Operating System: The OS of a home office is most likely going to be either Windows XP or Vista.  Most home office users are accustomed to this OS and any others may be confusing.

Recommended Extra Hardware For This System Type

Bluetooth: Most models of notebooks offer either a bluetooth add on module or bluetooth module built in.  More and more cameras, phones, and other peripherals are starting to take advantage of the bluetooth technology.  It is recommended if you plan on purchasing or currently use devices with bluetooth capabilities.
Media Editing System

The media editing system is designed for the consumer as stable and quiet powerful system for editing audio or video files.  It uses professional graphic and audio cards and accessories to achieve top of the line recordings and output.


Barebone: For a media editing system, a barebone with a 15" or 17" screen will allow the biggest screen size for editing videos and photos.  Also a barebone with a high-def video output will also allow connection to a HDTV for output of HD video.
Processor: A mid to high range processor is recommended to take advantage of the CPU dependant processing that many of the media editing employ.
Ram: A media editing system is mainly CPU and memory dependant.  Recommended memory is therefore 4 GB of DDR2-800 until DDR3 makes it way to notebooks.
Hard Drive: Simply put, the largest and fastest HDD on the market that is not SSD is recommended.  Video and audio editing files can become quite large, and speed and space is what they need.
Optical Drive: If you are editing HD video, then a Blu-Ray writable mobile drive is strongly recommended.  If not, the standard DVD-RW drive is acceptable.
Network Card: The standard 802.11abg module is perfectly acceptable for everyday use.  However the very small price increase for wireless N may be worth it if you plan on transferring large amounts of data in your WIFI network.  Wireless N can transfer at more than 3x the bandwidth of the standard wireless G.
Operating System: While there are editing programs for all OS, most peripherals and most editing programs have more support and drivers for Windows.  If using 4 GB of ram, use a 64-bit OS such as Vista.

Optional Extra Hardware For This System Type

While all the above will be enough to accomplish media editing tasks, the below is strongly recommended for full performance.

Sound Card: Most mid-range motherboards feature decent audio encoding chipsets.  However for the best audio capturing possible, an external USB audio device is necessary.  Most ExpressCard audio devices are not designed for prosumer grade recording.  These devices allow the connection of MIDI instruments, high-end digital recording equipment, and the usage of other audio equipment that standard notebooks just do not support.
Graphics Card: While audio editing does not need a video card, a discrete video card will allow better Vista performance with its 3D effects built in.  A professional video card (NVidia Quaddro or ATI FireGL cards) is recommended as these cards are designed to be used with hardware supported OpenGL effects, which many video editing software suites use.  While not good for gaming, these cards are better suited for this application than standard gaming video cards.  Many of them also offer multiple monitor support which is needed or preferred with some media editing programs.
Video Capture Card: While most notebooks have firewire ports which can transmit DV quality video from camcorder to computer, none of these can transmit high-def video from a high-def camcorder.  An external HD video adapter is required to record HD video to the notebook.

Ultra Mobile System

While a small ultra mobile system is just like a normal notebook, its case and components have been selected to achieve the smallest size and extended battery operation for the portability.  There may be a small price premium for this portability but there already is a price premium for choosing a notebook over a desktop.


Barebone: Choosing a barebone for an ultra mobile system means choosing a system based on mostly size alone.  A good size is a 12" or 13" size screen, otherwise weight and size may be too big to be portable.  Also, a barebone with a built in webcam is great for communicating while on the road.
Processor: While choosing a low to mid range processor will affect performance, the lower power requirements will lead to longer battery life.  Also choose one with power saving features such as Intel's SpeedStep or AMD's PowerNow technologies which automatically lower the performance of the processor while idle to conserve battery.
Ram: Since the processor is not as powerful as other systems, 2 GB of DDR2 memory is recommended.  While choosing 1 DIMM of 2 GB memory module means no dual-channel operation, the single DIMM will use less power than two DIMMS.
Hard Drive: The difference between power ratings of different speeds of HDDS is close to negligible, and the extra speed will greatly help the lower rated processor and memory.  However, a HDD is more prone to breaking or corrupting in a fall than a SSD, which has no moving parts.  Also the SSD uses much less power than a mobile HDD.  Both qualities make a SSD a better option for an ultra mobile notebook.
Optical Drive: Most notebook drives are DVD-RW and this is a perfect option as almost no software packages come on a high-def data disk yet.
Network Card: Since transporting this system to different locations, most of these locations will usually use wireless B or G.  However like before, the cost of upgrading to wireless N is close to negligible and may be worth it.
Operating System: With the lowered specs of the system, Linux will be able to take better advantage of the hardware than Windows will.  However, Linux is for more advanced users and required or favorite software may not run on that OS.

Recommended Extra Hardware For This System Type

Bluetooth: Most models of notebooks offer either a bluetooth add on module or bluetooth module built in.  Almost all phones now include bluetooth and you can use that phone as a mobile modem to wirelessly connect to the internet when WIFI is not available.  Also, bluetooth headsets are also available which allow you to chat or listen wireless through internet phone calling or music.
Extra Battery: An extra battery will provide that important extra few hours of battery life when an outlet just is not around.  Recommended if traveling much where access to outlets are limited such as airplanes or buses.
Travel Power Adaptor: If traveling much by car, a travel adapter will power and charge your notebook from the car's accessory outlet.
Carrying Bag: Most briefcases and other travel bags are not designed to protect your notebook.  A specialized notebook travel bag will have a specialized compartment which will protect your notebook from falls, scratches, and general travel trauma.

Other Systems


If you feel like another system type should be added, please leave a comment in this thread.

Edited by MattSlagle - 05 Jun 2008 at 11:30am
Matt Slagle
AVADirect Research and Developement
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