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Laptop buying guide part one: Confused memories of a computer shopper – L2 Cache, RAM and Hard Drive

What does all this mean??? Read on to find out...

Computer shopping has always been about specs and stats. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon and it’s important to understand the key vital statistics. Memory choices are critical to the performance and longevity of your purchase, so here in the first of this two part laptop buying guide is the memory geek-speak translation.

Memory tech words which tend to pop up on sales listings are RAM, L2 Cache and Hard Drive (also called Hard Disk). In order to understand them we are going to imagine ourselves in a library.

What is L2 Cache?

In our library there are bookshelves, desks and chairs. We walk in, find twelve books from the bookshelves and put them on the floor next to a desk. We sit at the desk but it’s only big enough for a few books with enough space left for us to work. So we pick the three books we need right now from the floor pile and put them on the desk.

The desk is our most convenient and fastest retrieval location for referencing our books. It’s also the smallest. This our Level 2 Cache, or L2 Cache.

The L2 Cache is a temporary storage space used by computers for ultra-fast access to frequently used data. When we take a book from the desk and start reading it with our brain and eyes, this like a computer retrieving data from its L2 Cache and reading it with its main processor chip. The L2 Cache is actually located within the main processor itself, so it is a physically small storage area of around 0.5-12MB.

How much L2 Cache do you need?  I would recommend 1MB upwards for Mac OSX, Windows 7 or Vista.  Netbooks running Windows XP are fine with 0.5MB.

Expert question: Why is it called Level 2 Cache? There is actually a tiny cache even closer to the main brain in the processing chip called Level 1. However this is so small that it is really only used for very temporary storage and rarely quoted in store listings.

What is RAM?

What if we need to read a book which is not on the library desk? We look in our pile on the floor. This is a bit slower than using a book already on the desk, but we can put more books on the floor than we can fit on the desk. Looking in the floor pile is like a computer using its Random Access Memory (RAM).

Accessing data in RAM is fast, but slower than the L2 Cache as it sits outside the main chip and connects via fast data lines like our floor pile of books. Since RAM is not constrained by the physical real estate limitations of the main chip, it can store far more data. RAM sticks with capacity of around 0.5 to 1 gigabyte are common these days. Computers typically accommodate two such ‘sticks’.

How much RAM do you need? For Windows 7, Vista and Mac OSX 2GB is typically fine, but it’s worth going to 3GB if you are planning to use a lot of multimedia applications like video or photo editing.  This will give the computer some breathing room.

What is the Hard Disk?

If the library book you need is not in the floor pile then you have to get up, walk over to the bookshelves, find the right book and bring it back. This takes way longer than picking it up from the floor pile, but the bookshelves can store far more than your floor pile. The bookshelves are like a Hard Drive. They can store vast amounts of information and Hard Drive data remains intact when the computer shuts down, unlike your desk and floor piles which you will clean up when you leave.

Hard Disk data is stored on a set of spinning platters which are read by a needle. The occasional ticking noise you hear in a computer is the Hard Disk being physically read.

How much Hard Disk space do you need? External Hard Disks can be easily bought and plugged into a USB port, so it is not critical if you under-purchase. However with laptops it becomes inconvenient if you run out of space, as although you can add an external drive you are unlikely to want to carry it along with your laptop. So for laptops my advice is to buy a machine with as much Hard Disk space as you can afford; look for a laptop with upwards of 160GB capacity. Video, photo and music files are typically large so if you plan to store lots of these then max-out on your Hard Drive at purchase all the way to 320GB or more.

It’s worth knowing that you cannot control what gets stored in RAM or in the L2 Cache. The computer decides what to put in there, such as open files the in process of being modified. When you turn the power off anything in the L2 Cache or RAM gets wiped, whereas data in the Hard Disk remains intact when the power is off. Similarly you clear the desk when you leave the library and return any books to the bookshelves. This is why it is important to save any open files before shutting down a computer.

What laptop upgrade options exist?

For the L2 Cache, the only expansion route is to replace the main  processor, which is typically only feasible for a desktop computer.

Laptop RAM can normally be upgraded as long as the computer’s motherboard is able to handle the extra capacity. For example my older MacBook is unable to accommodate more than 2GB of RAM. If your laptop can accept an upgrade from your current RAM level then it is normally a case of removing the existing RAM sticks and fitting correct spec higher capacity ones.

Laptop Hard Disks can generally be upgraded, but it is a delicate process which involves cloning the data from the current drive onto the higher capacity drive in a precise way. The alternative we discussed earlier is to purchase an external Hard Drive, which are readily available these days at reasonable prices.

When laptops go bad: Holding back the tears

Finally, when a laptop gets sick (read “dropped”) or feverish (read “struck by a virus”), its Hard Disk can be vulnerable to permanent amnesia. So, be nice to yourself and buy an external Hard Drive to back up your photos, music and all those other precious memories.

So that’s the translation of memory geek-speak. Here’s hoping for clear thinking for your next purchase and an end to confused memories!

I originally wrote this article in 2007 and have updated it to reflect the 2009/2010 laptop market.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Click here to read part two: How to choose a laptop processor (2007).


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Nov 21, 2009 Posted by | Computing, Guides, Hardware, Mobile | , , , , | 2 Comments

YouTube and Flash HD video to become smoother for some

This one has been a long time coming, but praise be: Adobe Flash with graphics hardware acceleration is in Beta release. There is finally a light at the end of the tunnel for exhausted computers.

What this means is that if you have a supported video card then Flash will soon be able to use it to decode video streams coming from Flash based sites like Youtube and Hulu. These video streams, especially the HD content, often bring computers to their knees because the processor has to do all the decoding work at present.

It’s not all roses and romance though, because the new version of Flash will not love all video cards. Most importantly it does support acceleration on Intel’s 4 series chipset, such as the GMA4500MHD, which is found in many mainstream laptops. Other supported cards include ATI’s 4xxx series, some 3xxx series ones and most of Nvidia’s 8xxx, 9xxx, GT1xx and GT2xx ranges.

Notably the older Intel GMA950 and X3100 chipsets, commonly found in netbooks and previous generation laptops, are not supported so continue to expect some less than ideal viewing experiences on these platforms. If you can find a site which streams using Silverlight you might have better luck; for example my netbook happily runs Netflix which uses Silverlight.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Nov 17, 2009 Posted by | News | , , , | 5 Comments

Inside the new NYC Apple store at 67th & Broadway

P1010047Apple’s latest store opened today to rapturous cheering from fans, some of whom had camped overnight to among be first inside.  Here’s a video of what went down when the doors opened, plus a walking tour of the actual store and a gallery of photos from inside.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

facebook.com/theonbutton

Nov 14, 2009 Posted by | Apple, Hardware, News, Video Features | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Apple store opening this morning in New York City

It’s a busy morning at Broadway and 67th on the Upper West Side in New York City.

Apple is opening its latest store here in just a few minutes, here’s what the busy scene looks like…

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Update:  And the doors are open!

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Nov 14, 2009 Posted by | Apple, News | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pre-orders seem like a good idea but…

…only one of mine this year has arrived on time. Halo ODST: Yay bonus code, arrived a week late. Modern Warfare 2: Yay free $20 gift card, but late and getting later. Windows 7: Yay only $49 AND on-time, thanks NewEgg :)

The salt in the wound right now is that clearly Modern Warfare 2 has been a huge seller and widely declared to be awesome. In fact the Halo 3 online community has shrunk by about 150,000 this week and I’m stuck being one of those left behind. There can only be one reason for that. At least I know my copy has shipped, I just don’t know if it’s coming by airplane or horseback. Maybe it’ll arrive by stealth bomber like the Droid, although that would leave a nasty hole in the sidewalk.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Nov 12, 2009 Posted by | Analysis, Rants | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sennheiser MM450 Stereo Bluetooth Headset Hands-on

Sennheiser MM450 profileAt yesterday’s CES 2010 preview in New York, I got some hands-on time with Sennheiser’s premium MM450 headset.  This pair of ultra-light foldable cans support music streaming, remote control over playback and call management, as long as your device supports A2DP and AVRCP (so iPhone users beware).  My initial impressions were positive, with solidly resolved basslines and clear highs.  The MM450 also offers active noise cancelling although there is a lesser model, the MM400, which skips this feature and drops the price.  Speaking of the damage to your wallet, you’re looking at $299 for the MM400 and $499 for the MM450.  That puts the MM450 in a price bracket beyond the noise-cancelling Nokia BH-905 and the MM400 beyond the Sony DR-BT50 (reviewed here recently), but Sennheiser thinks they’re worth it.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Nov 11, 2009 Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

CES 2010 New York Preview

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Gary Shapiro, President and CEO or the Consumer Electronics Association

Gary Shapiro and his team presented some interesting info at yesterday’s CES 2010 preview in New York.  Here are some choice inclusions:

  • 2010 holiday spending will likely be down 3% compared to 2009.   By comparison 2008 holiday spending was down 15% on 2007.
  • Overall gift spending is likely to be up 4% but consumer electronics (CE) gift spending is likely to rise by 8%.  Average CE gift spending per person is likely to be $222 this year compared to $206 in 2008.
  • Holiday spend on computers is projected to rise by 17.3% projected for Q4 2009 compared to Q4 2008
  • 80% of consumers are hoping for a CE gift this year.
  • Netbooks have appeared for the first time in the top ten gifts desired by teenagers.
  • We are more likely to see retailers pushing value-oriented bundles of multiple devices and higher margin feature-rich offerings than a flood of basic cheap devices.
  • The explosion of affordable devices in the 7-13 inch spectrum is likely to continue.  These are likely to be comprised of mainly netbooks or e-book readers.  I also expect the new class of Intel’s Ultra Low Voltage CPU powered ultraportables to eat into netbook sales in this class of screen size and weight.
  • 14% of tech enthusiasts and 8% of other consumers own a netbook.
  • 6% of tech enthusiasts and 4% of other consumers have e-readers such as a Kindle or competing devices.

…and there was a funky stat from Gary that more than 1,200 hours of video footage is uploaded to YouTube every hour!

Frank Davis, Ford’s Executive Director of North American Product Development was also on hand to talk about the technology present in the current Taurus, which was announced as the official car of CES 2010.

Monster Cable announced that John Legend will perform at the CES 2010 Retail Awards ceremony.

Happy holiday shopping, keep the economy going y’all :)

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Nov 11, 2009 Posted by | CES, Hardware, News | , , , , | Leave a comment

Sony DR-BT50 Stereo Bluetooth Headphones Review

Right ear houses controlsThe availability of stereo Bluetooth headsets has been steadily increasing this year, helping to bring prices down. In particular at the top end last month’s arrival of Nokia’s noise-cancelling flagship set, the BH-905, has led to significant drops in other premium closed-back designs. Motorola’s high end S805 has been selling for a steal recently on some sites  but today I’m going to focus on the Sony DR-BT50, which for some represented the pinnacle of stereo Bluetooth headsets until Nokia recently crashed Sony’s party.  I’ll make comparisons to the S805 along the way.

First impressions of the Sony DR-BT50

Sony DR-BT50Sony debuted the DR-BT50 at a whopping $229 but the headset is now available for a around $129 or so at several e-tailers. The cans are based upon Sony’s celebrated Altus MDR-D777LP, so they carry a promise of good sound delivery. They also bring practicality, being foldable.

Physically the DR-BT50 is extremely light, feeling like about half the weight of the Motorola S805. The earpads on the DR-BT50 are also thinner and the buttons are smaller; more on this later. Like the S805, the Sony headphones sport a full set of music playback controls along with a mic and call management.

Pairing was straightforward with my BlackBerry Bold 9000 and subsequent reconnections have gone perfectly, mirroring my experience with the Motorola S805 and S9-HD headsets. The days of fiddly Bluetooth connections are hopefully now well behind us!

Putting on the Sony DR-BT50

The DR-BT50 feels great to wear and the slim earpads enclose the ears comfortably. The pads are so soft that it’s easier to wear sunglasses with the Sonys compared to the Motorola S805, which is important if you live in a sunny part of the world. Having said that, this not so much a failing of the S805 but rather a comment on how soft the DR-BT50’s earpads really are.

Playback and volume controls are smallI mentioned earlier that the controls on the DR-BT50 are small and when I first saw them I wondered how I would find them when the cans were on my head. The power and call pickup buttons are fine but the playback and volume controls are, frankly, tiny. Worse still the playback control is a flick-touch rocker switch controlling play/pause/stop and track navigation. The S805 seems like a Tonka truck in comparison, with its large finger-friendly controls.

Listening to the Sony DR-BT50

In use the buttons on the DR-BT50 were actually easier to locate than I had feared, although the playback rocker is too easy to nudge causing a track skip when you’re trying to depress it to pause. The call pickup button is a decent size, as is the power button, so these present no issues.

In order to use the stereo music and playback functions you will need a device supporting the A2DP and AVRCP Bluetooth profiles. Check your specs on your device manufacturer’s website. A2DP provides music playback support and AVRCP provides remote control of playback functions.

Once the music is playing the BT50s simply shine compared to most other stereo Bluetooth headphones, trumping the Motorola S805 for both bass and mid-range.  However occasionally the top end detail seems to suffer at the expense of the solid bottom end frequencies. It’s not that reproduction is too overtly bass heavy, but rather that current consumer trends favor bass and consequently the DR-BT50 will find plenty of fans in this regard.

When a call comes in pressing the call accept button pauses music playback and answers the call. I could hear callers very clearly and they could hear me well both indoors and outside, although in both environments they did say I sometimes sounded distant.

FoldedThe DR-BT50 felt both light and snug even for lengthy listening sessions and that included time wearing sunglasses. When I was finished listening I found that the folded BT50s fit perfectly into my jacket pocket.

Some room for improvement

On the downside the DR-BT50 is picky about placement and likes to have a decent line of sight to the originating device. They are less tolerant to obstacles than the Motorola S805 and this results in occasional cut-outs unless your phone is in a shirt or jacket pocket fairly high up on your body. This issue is not unique to the DR-BT50, the Motorola S9-HD suffers from a similar weakness.

The DR-BT50 must have a decent size music buffer however because it takes a while for the cut-out to occur. As a result I found I could walk around normally with almost no cut-outs with my BlackBerry Bold in my top pocket. Part of this issue could also be attributed to the Bold, which I’ve found to have a below-average strength Bluetooth transmitter compared to some other phones I’ve used.

The other niggle is that Sony fitted the DR-BT50 with a proprietary charging port rather than a mini-USB connection.  This means having to remember to take the charger when you travel, rather than simply a USB cable to charge from a laptop.  Accessories these days should really be rechargeable via USB.

Is the Sony DR-BT50 a music legend?

Overall I can give the Sony DR-BT50 a solid recommendation at its current street price. Most listeners are likely to be very happy with their sound quality and they felt both practical and comfortable for extended use on my ears, although as ever your mileage may vary depending on your head and ear shape so try before you buy if you can!

Note: I also published an edited version of this review of the Sony DR-BT50 on BerryReporter.

Link to Sony DR-BT50 pproduct page.

Neil Berman

www.theonbutton.com

Nov 7, 2009 Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , | 3 Comments

   

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