Your First Laptop

From MissionTechWiki

The laptop computing experience is becoming increasingly similar to the desktop computing experience. However, newcomers to laptop computing may be unfamiliar with certain tips and tricks that optimize laptop computing. This article is designed to help new laptop users get the most out of their computers.



Laptop Safety Tips

Due to their mobile nature, laptops are more vulnerable to physical damage than their desktop counterparts. Unless one is careful, a laptop can easily be quickly rendered inoperable by a careless user. Here are some tips to maximize the lifespan of your laptop.

  • Be careful where you put your cords! One of the most common causes of broken laptops is someone inadvertently tripping over a power, ethernet, or USB cable attached to the laptop, suddenly yanking the laptop off desks or tables and onto the floor.
  • Carry your laptop in a safe case. By keeping the laptop in a secure case that surrounds it with padding, your laptop is protected from scratches as well as sudden bumps and shocks. A good laptop case increases the likelihood that your laptop will survive a drop or other impact. The safest way to carry a laptop is in a dedicated laptop bag, while also storing the laptop in a protective laptop "sleeve" inside the bag.
  • Do not leave your laptop running unnecessarily. Due to the compact construction of laptops, the components are delicate and more prone to failure. Leaving a laptop running continuously exposes it to constant heat and prolonged wear and tear. This can have detrimental effects on performance and reliability, and can cause premature failure of various components, especially the hard drive.
  • Do not let your laptop run inside the case. When hibernating or shutting down your laptop, always be sure that the laptop has actually powered off before you put it in a protective case or bag. Sometimes an error will occur or a confirmation dialogs box will need to be acknowledged before the laptop will shut itself off. Otherwise, the laptop will continue to run normally while inside the case, resulting in dangerously high temperatures that can lead to component failure or, in extreme cases, even battery explosion.
  • Do not block the vents needed for air circulation. Unblocked intakes and exhausts are vital for safe computer operation, and this is doubly true for laptops. If the computer is unable to pull in cool air, or exhaust hot air, components may overheat and fail. Additionally, this can cause the laptop to become painfully hot to touch.
  • Do not bang or shake the laptop during operation. This can cause various problems, including damage to the hard drive.
  • Leave your laptop's Active Protection enabled. Many modern laptops have software implementations of an Active Protection system that will reduce damage if your laptop suffers a sudden fall or blow. Some users will overzealously cut unfamiliar programs from startup in order to improve performance. Accidentally disabling protection software could result in an otherwise preventable loss of data.
  • Treat the laptop screen with care. Do not touch the LCD portion of the display, and do not move the laptop around by grasping the screen. Such actions can scratch or otherwise damage the LCD, which is one of the most expensive parts of the laptop, and among the most difficult to replace.

Prolonging Battery Life

Most modern laptops are equipped with processors that automatically adjust power usage when they have been unplugged. This extends battery life at the expense of raw processing speed. However, there are steps a user can take to reduce battery drain and reclaim precious minutes of battery life.

Screen Tips

The screen is one of the two biggest draws on battery power, along with the processor. Many people fail to realize that the simple act of dimming a laptop's screen can add 20 minutes or more to its battery life, and turning the screen off altogether can sometimes add up to an hour or more. There is typically a keyboard combination that can be used to dim or brighten the screen. This can be useful even when plugged in, in low-light environments where dimming the screen can ease eye strain.

  • On IBM/Lenovo laptops, press Fn+Home to increase brightness and Fn+End to decrease brightness
  • On Dell laptops, press Fn+Up arrow to increase brightness and Fn+Down arrow to decrease brightness
  • On Apple laptops, press F1 to increase brightness and F2 to decrease brightness.

In addition to decreasing brightness, setting the laptop screen to turn off rather than run a screen saver can also increase battery life. Using this method, if you take a 5-10 minute break to get coffee or talk on the phone, the screen will shut off after a minute or two and come back on when you resume using your computer. This saves precious minutes of battery life by not allowing a screen saver to wear down the battery. The recommended period for setting the screen to turn off is 2-3 minutes. Any shorter period may result in the screen shutting off while you are reading. The default setting is usually 5 or 10 minutes.

  • In Windows, right-click on the desktop, then select Properties, Screen Saver, and then Power under Monitor Power.
  • In Mac OS, click the blue Apple, select System Preferences, and open Energy Saver. Check the box that says Put the display to sleep when the computer has been inactive for: and use the slider to select how long you want the screen to stay active.

Turning Off Unnecessary Components and Customizing Power Settings

The screen is not the only component that can needlessly sap power. Optical drives, unused ports, and even wireless access can all be turned off when not in use. The methods for doing this vary from vendor to vendor, with each offering varying levels of customization.

  • On IBM/Lenovo laptops, this is typically accessible by clicking Start, selecting All Programs, selecting ThinkVantage, and then clicking ThinkPad Configuration.
  • In Mac OS, various power preferences can be adjusted by click the blue Apple menu, select System Preferences, and open Energy Saver.

Keeping the Computer Clean

Keeping a laptop clean can be tricky, especially if the laptop is your primary computer. The screen, in particular, can be difficult to maintain. In general, most surfaces of the laptop can be cleaned -- while the laptop is off -- by gently rubbing with a slightly damp cloth.

If there is debris stuck beneath the keyboard, canned air is often the best way to remove it. Open your laptop, and tilt it slightly to one side. Start by spraying from the elevated end of the keyboard, then work the airflow down towards the other end, allowing debris to fall away. Additionally, you can use the canned air to clear dust and debris from the air vents to promote better air circulation.

The screen requires a gentler approach. The directions for your model may vary, and checking the user's manual is advisable. In general, using a product designed for the task, such as Klear Screen is the best bet. Klear Screen is available at the Computer Connection. If you do not have access to Klear Screen or a similar product (sold at most computer and electronics stores), use a very soft but not fuzzy cloth, such as those used to clean eyeglasses or camera lenses. Clean the screen with the cloth by gently rubbing downward. If the screen flexes beneath your cloth, you are pressing too hard.

  • Do not attempt to clean your screen with rough materials like paper towels. These can permanently scratch or otherwise damage your screen, while still failing to clean it.
  • Do not use cleaning solvents such as glass cleaner or ammonia for cleaning. These can damage the minute pixels of the screen.

Useful Shortcuts

Common Laptop Shortcuts by Vendor
Increase brightnessF1Fn+Up ArrowFn+Home
Decrease brightnessF2Fn+Down ArrowFn+End
Toggle wireless Fn+F2Fn+F5
Volume upF5Fn+Page UpVolume up button
Volume downF4Fn+Page DownVolume down button
MuteF3Fn+EndMute button
Eject diskEjectFn+F10Fn+F9
ThinkLight  Fn+PgUp
Toggle mouse device  F8
Change display  Fn+F7

Handy Accessories and Upgrades

There are several accessories that can help you to get the most out of your laptop. None of the items below are necessary, but all of them beneficial.

The first and foremost accessory you should consider is an upgrade of your system's memory. If you didn't get the maximum amount of RAMat the time of purchase, then you have the opportunity to increase both the performance and battery life of your laptop. Additional memory, if your computer supports it, helps keep the information needed to run programs in RAM, without accessing the hard drive, which takes notably longer to read and write. The hard drive is one of the few components in your computer that has mechanical movement, requiring substantial energy to spin the platters that contain your information. In addition to increasing your battery life and the overall speed of your computer's operation, installing extra memory saves on wear and tear of your hard drive, making a hard drive crash less likely in the future.

Second, you should seriously consider getting an external hard drive for backing up your data. Laptop hard drives are more fragile than those in desktop machines, and experience greater wear from operating in an enclosed environment. By regularly backing up your data to a USB and/or Firewire hard drive, you reduce the chance that you will lose your data, or need to pay for an expensive recovery procedure. An external hard drive can also give you additional storage, if you run out of space on your laptop. Note that any external peripheral devices you use while running on battery power will reduce battery life. This is especially true for external hard drives. Larger capacity drives, however, are usually powered by their own AC power cable.

Third, many users who use their laptop as their primary computer benefit from the use of an external mouse, and even an external keyboard. These are usually connected via USB; if your laptop supports Bluetooth that can be a handy way to connect a keyboard and mouse without increasing the number of wires in your workspace. Use of an external mouse can dramatically increase productivity for navigation-intensive tasks, such as graphics editing or gaming, since the control devices built into laptops can feel bothersome and imprecise to infrequent or new users.

Additionally, a spare power adapter can be useful for those who use their laptop in multiple locations. Always having an adapter that travels with your laptop bag can significantly reduce the amount of time required to move the laptop from place to place. If you are a global traveler, you may also wish to consider a universal plug adapter, like this one from APC. This will ensure that wherever you are in the world, you can still plug your laptop into a power source.

Other useful accessories

  • Spare Ethernet cable: When wireless isn't an option, you'll need to connect to an available wall-jack for high-speed access. These are available in compact, retractable form factors so as not to clutter up your laptop bag.
  • Wi-Fi finder: These little devices typically cost about $30, and are usually half the size of a deck of cards. They can be used to determine if there is a wireless network nearby without having to turn on your laptop. Some newer Dell models have a Wi-Fi finder integrated into the laptop, enabling the laptop to search for wireless networks even when it is turned off.
  • Flash drive: These are small storage devices, often less than half the size of a deck of cards, that can be used for extra storage, backup, or easy transfer of files. Flash drives are similar to external hard drives in use, only much smaller in capacity, ranging from 128 megabytes to 8 gigabytes. ISC suggests a flash drive that has a capacity of between 512 megabytes and 1 gigabyte. You can quickly connect a flash drive to one computer, copy files onto it, and then connect the flash drive to another computer to transfer those files. Flash drives are also easy to carry around, so that you can always have your key documents available.
  • Docking station: Docking stations can be useful, especially for users with smaller laptops that may lack sufficient USB ports or even an optical drive. Besides providing additional connections, docking stations can be used for a "drop in" solution at a user's desk. If a user has a power cable, monitor, external keyboard and mouse already connected to the docking station, placing a laptop into the dock creates an instant workstation, with most of the benefits of a desktop computer.

Miscellaneous Tips

  • When traveling, it is best to keep the laptop with you at all times. Not only do laptops represent tempting targets for theft, keeping the laptop on your person can also ensure that it is not handled roughly. Packing a laptop away in checked baggage can spell doom for your computer, even if it is inside a protective case.
  • When going through airport security, you will need to put your laptop through the x-ray scanner, which will not harm it. It is necessary to remove your laptop from any bags or cases, placing it by itself in separate bin for scanning. While this TSA directive may not be clearly posted at the security checkpoint, failure to comply could result in closer scrutiny of the laptop and all your belongings in 'secondary screening'.


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