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A Guide to Laptops for Writers

By Graeme Houston

I just naturally assumed that every writer had a laptop. I blame the media; they portray us, cigarette in hand, poring over our first tentative line, such as, "The night was humid" (usually staring at it in horror). In the films, it will either be on an old fashioned typewriter or a laptop so sexy it is beyond the purchasing power of us mere mortals. The more writers I've come to know though, the more I've had to reassess my unfortunate, media-driven preconceptions. It turns out that many writers don't have a laptop, but they are considering buying one in the near future and would like some advice-- preferably in English.

All this advice assumes that the laptop in question is for writing, using the Internet for research, some Photoshop work, and web design-- all the things writers will likely need to do. Some older games (nothing like "Doom 3" or "Half-Life 2") would not be out of the question either.

Memory Matters

The first rule of buying a laptop (this applies to any computer) is to get as much RAM (memory) as possible, even if this means making do with a slower processor. You see, there are very few occasions when the processor actually has to work at full capacity and most of the time it will be ticking along somewhere between three to twenty-five percent of its maximum capability.

Everything the processor needs to work on in the foreseeable future is held in RAM. The RAM works at close to the speed of the processor, and therefore can keep the processor fed, which in turn gives the computer the feeling of speed and responsiveness.

If you don't have enough RAM, then the computer will use the hard drive as virtual memory. When this happens the computer will run in a sluggish manner, which is horrible for the user. It occurs because the processor has run out of food and the RAM is unable to feed it, because it is itself waiting for an arm inside the hard drive to physically move into position and then take out the extra data which would not fit in the RAM.

Battery Life

Obviously, the next most important aspect is battery life. Get the one that lasts the longest-- something that lasts long enough to allow you to watch one DVD whilst on the battery would be ideal (just don't use one of the uncut Lord of the Rings films as your benchmark for this or you'll never find a suitable battery). Starbucks are never far from hand, so wherever you are you can always nip in and give your laptop a quick recharge while you recharge yourself with a coffee. But, to keep your battery in a healthy state it is advisable to fully discharge it and then fully charge it as much as possible, otherwise it will lose some of its capacity over time.


The laptop should have built in Wi-Fi capability even if you think you will never in your life use Wi-Fi; just get it anyway because you will use it and it does not add any significant amount to the cost of the laptop.


Some screens have a poor viewing angle, which means that if you tilt your head a few inches in any direction, the colors start to go funny until you're seeing the image in negative. Get one with a good viewing angle so that the colors stay pretty solid no matter which angle you're viewing from. This will save you a lot of head bobbing and annoyance when you're looking at photos (or trying to decide which cover looks best for your latest book).

Also be on the lookout for damaged pixels. The law in most countries state that up to four damaged pixels are acceptable on an LCD screen-- however if they are in the middle of the screen they can be really annoying, check the display before you buy to be on the safe side. There are many types of bad pixels, but to keep things simple I will merely say that you should watch out for rogue pinpoints of white on a black background, and rogue black pinpoints on a white background. It may be worth reading about this further before you buy.

CD Burner

You're going to need a way to back up your data. CDs are the best way to do this, and most modern laptops will come with a CD burner as standard.

USB Ports

To have at least three USB ports is not unreasonable. It's nice to have a small USB mouse handy for use with your laptop. A USB pen drive will take up another slot from time to time, and in cases where you're using a USB pen drive and your mouse, that gives you one extra port for something else.

Miscellaneous Information

Once you get your laptop, don't drop it! I'm serious; my father had his for three days before smashing it irreparably. It would have survived, but he had a mouse plugged into the USB port. The laptop landed on the USB interface which was driven through the port, smashing the innards to pulp.

This brings me to my next point; most people think a laptop can be shifted about when it's turned on. Unfortunately this is not the case; since laptops are merely modified PCs, shoehorned into a thin case, they retain the hard drive common to all personal computers. Inside a hard drive are numerous disks piled on top of each other and these spin at 7,200 revolutions per minute-- that's 120 revolutions per second! The read/write head is sitting stationary, above that surface, supported by a cushion of air. Bumps cause the read/write head to crash into the disk, obliterating portions of the surface. Eventually the hard drive fails because too many portions have become corrupted. Bear this in mind and hopefully whole novels or days of work may be safe forever.


On the protection side, it is best to have firewall, anti-virus, and anti-spyware programs installed on your computer. Update each of them every day; otherwise you'll leave yourself open to newer threats. Back up your files constantly.

Have Fun

Well, that's everything covered. The rest is preference. What's most important of all is that you have fun. Laptops are liberating, you can go out and write anywhere-- from that little café at the beach to the local Starbucks (and do make the most of the little café at the beach; while it's not a Starbucks, but because that might not last long!). You can watch as stories unravel before your very eyes, and write them down in a snap.

Of course, there is still some romance in the use of a pen and paper. J. K. Rowling, for example, recently posted a message on her website, saying that she had run out of writing paper. Fans sent her paper by the truck load. Is she still writing in cafés, on paper, or is it merely that she would like to maintain this image, for the sake of the romance? Who's she trying to kid? Or perhaps she has been waiting for my guide...


Graeme Houston is a freelance writer who comes from Scotland and is now living in Kuala Lumpur, with his lovely Malaysian wife. Formerly an in-house writer for lifestyle and business magazines, he recently left to enjoy the perks (and hardship) of freelance writing. He has completed one science fiction novel, which he hopes to publish in the near future, and enjoys writing short fiction of almost every genre. To find out more please visit www.etheral.co.uk or e-mail graeme@etheral.co.uk.


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