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                                                                                                                  HOW LAPTOP COMPUTERS WORK

Maybe you have been thinking about buying a computer, and it has occurred to you that you might want to buy a laptop version. After all, today's laptops have just as much computing power as desktops, without taking up as much space. You can take a laptop on the road with you to do your computing or make presentations. Perhaps you prefer comfortably working on your couch in front of the TV instead of sitting at a desk. Maybe a laptop is for you. In this edition of How Stuff Works, we will examine how these portable computers do the same work as larger computers, but in much smaller packages.



A Brief History

Alan Kay of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center originated the idea of a portable computer in the 1970s. Kay envisioned a notebook-sized, portable computer called the Dynabook that everyone could own, and that could handle all of the user's informational needs. Kay also envisioned the Dynabook with wireless network capabilities. Arguably, the first laptop computer was designed in 1979 by William Moggridge of Grid Systems Corp. It had 340 kilobytes of bubble memory, a die-cast magnesium case and a folding electroluminescent graphics display screen (click here for a picture). In 1983, Gavilan Computer produced a laptop computer with the following features (click here for picture):
64 kilobytes (expandable to 128 kilobytes) of random access memory (RAM)
Gavilan operating system (also ran MS-DOS)
8088 microprocessor
touchpad mouse
portable printer
weighed 9 lb (4 kg) alone or 14 lb (6.4 kg) with printer
The Gavilan computer had a floppy drive that was not compatible with other computers, and it primarily used its own operating system. The company failed.

World's First Laptop

In 1984, Apple Computer introduced its Apple IIc model . The Apple IIc was a notebook-sized computer, but not a true laptop. It had a 65C02 microprocessor,128 kilobytes of memory, an internal 5.25-inch floppy drive, two serial ports, a mouse port, modem card, external power supply, and a folding handle. The computer itself weighed about 10 to 12 lb (about 5 kg), but the monitor was heavier. The Apple IIc had a 9-inch monochrome monitor or an optional LCD panel. The combination computer/ LCD panel made it a genuinely portable computer, although you would have to set it up once you reached your destination. The Apple IIc was aimed at the home and educational markets, and was highly successful for about five years.

Later, in 1986, IBM introduced its IBM PC Convertible.  Unlike the Apple IIc, the PC Convertible was a true laptop computer. Like the Gavilan computer, the PC Convertible used an 8088 microprocessor, but it had 256 kilobytes of memory, two 3.5-inch (8.9-cm) floppy drives, an LCD, parallel and serial printer ports and a space for an internal modem. It came with its own applications software (basic word processing, appointment calendar, telephone/address book, calculator), weighed 12 lbs (5.4 kg) and sold for $3,500. The PC Convertible was a success, and ushered in the laptop era. A bit later, Toshiba was successful with an IBM laptop clone.

Since these early models, many manufacturers have introduced and improved laptop computers over the years. Today's laptops are much more sophisticated, lighter and closer to Kay's original vision. To learn more about "How They Work" click here.

Like all computers, laptops have a central brain called a microprocessor, which performs all of the operations of the computer.

The microprocessor:

has a set of internal instructions stored in memory, and can access memory for its own use while working.
can receive instructions or data from you through a keyboard in combination with another device (mouse, touchpad, trackball, trackstick).
can receive and store data through several data storage devices (hard drive, floppy drive, Zip drive, CD/DVD drive).
can display data to you on computer monitors (cathode ray monitors, LCD displays).
can send data to printers, modems, networks and wireless networks through various input/output ports.
is powered by AC power and/or batteries.



For the most part, laptops have the same major parts as desktops:
operating system
solid-state memory
disk drives
input/output ports
sound cards and speakers
Like standard desktops, laptops are powered by microprocessors. The microprocessor is the brain of the laptop and coordinates all of the computer's functions according to programmed instructions (that is, the operating system software). The DX-4 processor shown in the photo below is no longer used, but it is typical of modern laptop microprocessors in that it is customized for laptop use. A typical laptop processor has features that reduce power consumption and heat. For example, laptop processors often run at a lower voltage and often have multiple sleep or slow-down modes that significantly increase battery life. Typical laptop microprocessors include Motorola's PowerPC family (used in Apple Macintosh computers), Intel's Pentium and Celeron families (used in PCs) and AMD's K5 and K6 families (used in PCs).


Operating Systems
The operating system is the set of pre-programmed instructions that tell the microprocessor what to do. Operating systems on laptops include Windows 98/2000/NT (Microsoft) and Mac OS, depending upon the type of computer (PC vs. Mac), and Linux (Linux is not an option for most consumers, but some third-party developers are writing applications for this operating system on laptops).

Laptops have memory , both RAM and ROM, just like desktops. The laptop's ROM chip contains the BIOS just as it does in a desktop computer. (See How Bios Works for details.) RAM stores the application software and data files while the computer is on. RAM differs on a laptop in that it uses a different form factor -- that is, the size and shape of the modules that carry the RAM. Manufacturers have to build laptops to be portable (smaller) and to withstand more jostling (durable) than a desktop would ever get, so the memory modules have to be different. While some laptops use a standard Small Outline Dual Inline Memory Module (SODIMM), others use the manufacturer's proprietary memory modules. Most laptops should have at least 64 MB of RAM to have sufficient memory to run operating systems and applications software. Also, some laptops allow you to upgrade the memory of your computer and come equipped with convenient access panels to plug in additional memory chips.

Access panel to the memory chips on the laptop's underside.  

Disk Drives
Like desktops, laptops have various disk drive storage devices. All laptops have an internal hard disk drive, usually 6 to 20 gigabytes (GB). The hard disk drive stores operating systems, application programs and data files. Although the hard disk drive works the same in a laptop as it does in a desktop, laptops generally have less disk space than desktops and you will have fewer choices for hard disk drives in laptops. The smaller hard disk space is one of the chief limitations of laptops.


In addition to hard drives, most laptops have some type of removable disk storage system such as floppy disks, Zip disks, compact discs (CD) and DVDs. There are three options for disk drives in laptops:

Some laptops have more than one bay built into the case for disk drives (such as floppy drive and CD-ROM drive).
Some laptops have one bay that you can swap or interchange various drives. You just pull one drive out and put another in:
"cold-swappable" drive - You must turn the computer off, change drives, then reboot the computer.
"hot-swappable" drive - You can change the drives without turning the computer off. This feature saves you the time involved in restarting the computer.
Some laptops have no internal drives. All drives are external and connected to the computer by cables. This feature allows the laptop to be very small and thin.
Input/Output Ports
Computers need to talk to other devices (such as printers, modems and networks). Computers send and receive information through various input/output ports, which can include serial ports, parallel ports and Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports.  

In addition to ports, some laptops have expansion slots for PCMCIA standard adapter cards (Type I and Type II) or "PC " cards. These cards can be used to upgrade your laptop by adding memory, a modem, a network connection or a peripheral device (for example, a CD-ROM drive). 

Sound Cards and Speakers
Like desktops, most laptops are equipped with sound cards and speakers so they can play music from CDs. However, the quality of the speakers built into most laptops does not match that of speakers for desktops, because space is a major limitation in a laptop case. The Toshiba laptop that we dissected has a sound card and jacks so you could hook up a microphone or headphones; it also has a small speaker for sound.

Like any other computer, future laptops will have faster microprocessors with more memory. The storage devices may change from removable disks (floppy, Zip, CD, DVD) to solid state memory, which could make them even lighter and thinner. While some models of laptops already have the ability to send and receive data using infrared and wireless Internet technologies, this feature may become more common. In the future, laptops may eventually be replaced by wearable computers.

A laptop is a full-blown, genuine computer that can do anything a desktop computer can do. For example, you can do programming, word processing, spreadsheets, databases, accounting and multimedia presentations. In fact, many people in the How Stuff Works office use laptops as their only computer. The portability of laptops allows you to do many things that you cannot do with a desktop. For example, you can write your sales proposal, article or business presentation while travelling on a plane, or commuting on the bus or train or subway. We will discuss some examples of laptop uses in the following fields:

law enforcement
amateur astronomy
Students and educators have found that laptops answer a lot of their needs. In fact, some colleges and universities that require incoming freshmen to have computers recommend laptops. Teachers have found a variety of uses for laptops, too. Lecture

In college, where lectures to large classes are commonplace, many professors can use their laptops, along with other audiovisual equipment, to project slides or lecture notes. And as technology creeps further into public elementary, middle and high schools, there is a growing trend toward teachers using laptops in the classroom for lectures.

Students can use laptop computers to take notes during lectures; this is more common in college than in lower schools. However, many special education students do use laptops for notetaking, or to run specialized software, such as hearing interpreters. As another example, if a student is injured and cannot use his/her writing arm, the school system may issue a laptop for notetaking or for downloading notes supplied by the teacher.

In both colleges and lower schools, science students can use laptops for gathering data from laboratory experiments. Laptops can also be taken into the field to gather data. For example, laptops can be hooked up to probes, such as pH electrodes or temperature probes, and taken to a salt marsh, stream or lake. Students can then measure pH and temperature and use the data to study the environment. In addition to laptops, scientific calculators and PDAs can also be equipped for taking these types of measurements.

Laptops are becoming quite commonly used for business and for pleasure.

Because most laptops either have standard or optional internal CD-ROM or DVD drives, you can play music CDs or movie DVDs on your laptop. Imagine sitting on a long flight or train commute during which you can type your presentation for work, and listen to your own music CD. Or perhaps you're on a plane and you don't like the in-flight movie; if your laptop has a DVD drive, you can just pop in your own movie and enjoy!

Law Enforcement
Many police cars are now equipped with laptop computers. Police officers can use laptops to type incident reports immediately at the scene, rather than take notes and type the reports later. This time saving feature allows them more time to patrol. Furthermore, police can also use laptops with wireless connections to central police headquarters to check such things as criminal records, vehicle registrations and outstanding warrants, which saves time and can assist in making arrests.

Amateur Astronomy
Because laptop computers are so portable, amateur astronomers can take them easily to observing sites. Computers can be used to drive telescopes to various celestial objects. Furthermore, if the telescope is equipped with a CCD camera, the laptop computer can be used to acquire, process and display the image from the CCD.

When sailing and boating, it is essential to know precisely where you are on the water. On small boats, space is a premium; they cannot have chartrooms or large chart tables. So, you can use a laptop computer, equipped with appropriate software and a global positioning system (GPS) device, for precise navigation.

Some may say that the business field has benefited the most from the laptop computer. Salespeople can use the laptop to make presentations to customers, access company data over the Internet and process orders while on the road. At trade shows and conventions, it is easy to setup a laptop for a multimedia presentation of your company's products and services. These are just a few examples of how you can use laptop computers; there are many more. See the Links section for links on some of the subjects we've talked about.


Index to manufacturers

Linux Info for laptops

Acer  Advent  Alcam  AMS  Apple  ARM  Artist  AST  Asus  Best  Broadax  CTX Canon  Chembook Clevo Compal Compaq Dell Fujitsu Gateway Gericom HP IBM Main Medion Other Sony Toshiba Palmtops links LWW

Linux Resource Page

Research and Information ----History & Facts

Index  Fact  Fact1  Fact2  Fact3  Fact4

Research and Information------How Laptops Work

Index  Fact  Fact1  Fact2  Fact3


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