What laptop reviews won’t tell you

If the doctor is to be believed, our first child will arrive on time in about two weeks. That means we are officially late setting up the nursery, which involves throwing out almost everything in the second bedroom and replacing the desktop PC that’s housed there now with a laptop.

Browsing the aisles of Future Shop yesterday with my eight-and-a-half-months-pregnant wife, I realized to my chagrin that I was somewhat at sea making this simple purchase. It’s not that there isn’t adequate selection, and even in our price range. But like any good IT manager I keep thinking about the user, and her particular use case scenarios.

Although she’ll be at home with the baby for a year, I know my wife won’t be housebound for long. She’s even considering a course in Web design at a school that provides on site day care. That means a light, compact 13-inch would probably do, but what she really wants is a desktop replacement. A 17-inch then. But is it feasible to ask her to lug something of that bulk with a baby and everything else that will come along with one? The whole point of this laptop is to eliminate the need for dedicated “office” space, which means wireless is important, but that raises some security issues, depending on the hot spots she chooses to connect to when she’s out on the town. And maybe, given the nature of newborns, we should think about some kind of spill-resistant keyboard.

Then, of course, there are the software decisions. Microsoft’s sneek previews of Windows 7 suggest Vista is not long for this world, but is anything in it worth adopting even as a transition move? With only two weeks left before Micrsoft pulls the plug on Windows XP (and we submit the names from our Save XP campaign) should I pressure the Future Shop staff to give me the OS while I still can? We’re mostly simple users of word processing and Web surfing, but both of us have an interest and need for content management, which could require more grandiose graphics rendering than we have traditionally enjoyed.

At this point, I’d rather be in charge of purchasing something a little easier. Like a family car.

Not long ago, this would have all been the IT manager’s problem. When more companies supplied laptops to their employees, the trick was coming up with something that balanced a custom configuration with a standard instance. Then, the laptop became the de-facto household PC, whether companies liked it or not. Although some companies still foot the bill for a laptop, there are employees who opt out in favour of greater autonomy (as a friend put it to me recently, “They got me a new PC in my office, but my laptop is mine.”).

Now that consumers are in charge of the procurement, IT managers are saddled with either providing network connectivity and application compatibility, or simply forbidding the devices outright. It would be so much better if, before they put down their own cash for a laptop, more users did a check-in with their IT department to get a second opinion. I’m sure this happens, but probably not unless it’s someone who has a quasi-sociable relationship with the IT manager or CIO. As odd as it sounds, the future role of technology professionals may be more about helping to make decisions about equipment the company doesn’t directly purchase. As important as it is that IT provides insight and counsel to the business, the senior executives aren’t the only ones who need the advice.

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