Laptops are so ubiquitous these days that finding one that meets your needs is like trying to find a needle in a stack of needles. It's not even a matter of being computer literate, or knowing the difference between RAM and VRAM, it's merely the apparent impossibility of finding the best product in a market so saturated that we find ourselves drowning in silicone quicksand.
The Maxdata NB Eco 4011 IW (hereafter referred to as "the laptop") cost me around £250 a couple of years ago, and after a quick browse on the net I see that the price hasn't changed much in the interim. Even by today's standards £250 is a pretty good price for what you get in this system. Here are all the icky technical details:
~ [ CPU ] ~
The central processing unit is an Intel Celereon M 430 clocked at 1.73GHz. This is the brain of the computer, and the faster the CPU the better your system will be at multitasking and the like. 1.73GHz is perfectly apt for browsing and playing casual games, like those produced by GameHouse, PopCap, or indeed Facebook. Forget about playing Crysis or GTA IV, it ain't happening. Word processing, email, Skype, YouTube and whatever other basic tasks you'll need your laptop to do will all run smoothly and consistently with this CPU, as long as you don't try to do them all at the same time!
~ [ GPU ] ~
The graphics processing unit is an on-board chip, which basically means it's nothing special. As mentioned above you can easily play dinky little games just fine, but if you plan to do any intensive graphics editing or watching high-definition videos you can forget about it! The chip is a VIA Chrome9 HC with 64MB of on-board VRAM, which is usually the bare minimum required by most casual games. The chip supports DirectX 9.0, so with the exception of high-end gaming and video editing you'll have no problems running the latest releases.
~ [ Display ] ~
The 15.4" TFT screen can support resolutions of 640x480, 1024x768, 800x600 and 1280x1024, assuming your graphics chip drivers are up to date. It supports a maximum refresh rate of 60 Hertz. As is the case with all TFT monitors you need to be sitting more or less centred in relation to the screen, because moving too far to the left or right will cause the image to distort and lose its colour.
You can connect a separate monitor to the laptop via its vacant VGA connector, or if you have the requite VGA to HDMI cable & adapter you can even connect it to your high-definition television!
~ [ RAM ] ~
The system comes with 1GB of DDR2 RAM clocked at 533MHz, but this can be upgraded. There are two available RAM slots you can use, and the system supports a maximum of 4GB of RAM (regardless of the operating system you're using). The slots will accept RAM sticks dating back as far as DDR-26 and as late as DDR2-667.
~ [ Networking ] ~
You have three networking options with this laptop; the first is a standard fax modem port, the second is a wired Ethernet port and the third is a wireless (WiFi) Ethernet capability, which is probably the one you'll be most interested in assuming you have a wireless router/hub for it to connect to.
The Ethernet adapter supports the IEEE 802.11b/g WiFi standard and gives you a 54Mbps line. Obviously your download speeds will be dependent on the speed of your phone lines and broadband package, but in my experience with this laptop I can quite easily get maximum download rates using the WiFi connection. Transferring files between systems in my LAN (local area network) is as fast as transferring them from one hard drive to another in the same system. In other words, it's an extremely capable piece of networking machinery.
~ [ Audio ] ~
The laptop comes with the Realtek ALC260 HD Audio integrated soundcard, which supports high-definition audio. The card has a line-in (for microphones) and a line-out (for headphones or speakers), both situated on the left-hand side of the laptop. There is a built-in speaker which performs quite well, considering how little I expected from it.
~ [ Storage ] ~
A generous 120GB of hard drive space is included with the product, which you can upgrade later if you so wish. Along with this hefty hard drive comes a pretty versatile CD/DVD writer. The writer supports dual layered and rewritable discs, and it supports both the plus and minus varieties of these blank media. The maximum writing speed of the dual layer discs is 4x, whilst the standard sized discs can be burnt twice as fast at 8x. The maximum write speed for CDs is 24x, which isn't earth-shatteringly fast by any means but writing to a CD doesn't take that long anyway. And let's face it, CDs are going the way of the floppy disc!
~ [ Input Devices ] ~
A standard laptop touchpad with two mouse buttons and a scroll sensitive edge is planted centrally into the body of the laptop, directly below the keyboard. Typing on the keyboard is comfortable and fluid, although the lack of a NUMPAD and the relocation of several common buttons takes some getting used to, but this is an issue with every laptop on the market.
If you're like me in that you despise touchpads you can simply plug in a USB mouse and use that instead; no special drivers or installations are required. There are four 2.x-compliant USB ports at your disposal - one on the left-hand side and the other three on the back. Take your pick!
The keyboard has three separate keys on the top-left corner, offering one-button access to your internet browser and emailing. Along with these keys are standard function keys and the Fn key. Holding this key down and pressing another key will expand upon its basic function, if a secondary function is available. The keys are marked clearly in a nice fat print, with blue icons denoting the secondary functions.
~ [ Software ] ~
A fully licensed copy of Windows Vista Home Basic Edition comes pre-installed on the system, and although there's enough power to run it and its fancy GUI I'd recommend disabling the visuals and using the plain old pre-XP look if you have the know-how (if you don't, just Google "disable vista theme"). With 1GB of RAM and a 1.73GHz processor you don't really have a lot of room for wasted resources here, and stripping away the visual bells and whistles will leave you with a fairly significant amount left over for more important tasks, not to mention the fact that you battery life will be extended if you get rid of these resource-hogging novelties.
~ [ Battery Life & Power Management ] ~
The battery's lifespan can be given a boost if you allow the included software to manage it for you. The software will alter the power consumption of the system dynamically by only freeing up resources when they're needed, and these options can be customised at any time. You will notice when the power is being held back, because the display will darken, the processor will be slower in its operations and the overall speed of the system will noticeably lessen. With power management options switched on you should get a good three or four hours of life out of the battery, and without it you can obviously expect it to die out an hour or so earlier, assuming you're stressing the system under full load.
As is the case with all computers (certainly those running Windows) there are system-wide power management options which will further increase the lifespan of your battery. For instance, allowing the system to enter Sleep Mode after a certain period of inactivity is good practice; if you wander off and forget to shut down the laptop you won't end up having to charge it for an hour or so before you can use it again.
As you might expect the laptop comes with a mains adapter so you can use it without worrying about the battery life, and this also recharges the battery for you .
~ [ Accessories ] ~
The laptop I bought came with a carry case, but I'm not sure if this is the standard or if I was just lucky and ordered it at an opportune time. The case is a fairly run-of-the-mill affair with zip compartments for storing cables and a Velcro brace which holds the top of the laptop in place before you zip the bag closed. It's well-padded and seems adequate for travelling.
~ [ Conclusion ] ~
I generally spend most of my time on my desktop PC so the laptop is rarely used much these days, that is until my folks ventured out of the 1970s and into the age of the internet! They play games, browse the web, email, chat on MSN Messenger and make phone calls on Skype all using the Maxdata 4011. They rarely if ever have any issues and almost all of the issues they do have are software related; in other words, the system itself performs fine for their purposes and more importantly it performs consistently.
If you're an on-the-go writer or just want to browse the web without being anchored to your desktop PC the Maxdata will scratch your itch. It's a humble little system, but it does the job. At £250 this is a very good choice for casual users, and it will serve as a fantastic backup system to compliment your primary desktop PC.
Maxdata is a company which is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Dell or HP, but in my opinion they've proven themselves to be top contenders in the market with their Eco 4011 IW. I've never had to contact their customer support for the simple reason that I've never had any problems with the system, so I can't attest to its efficiency or customer friendliness. I've had experience with Dell, Acer and Toshiba laptops and while these are undoubted high quality manufacturers I'm not convinced that they have anything significant over Maxdata, except perhaps an overblown sense of self-assuredness and an undeserved reverence in the public mind.