If you do most of your genealogy work from home, a desktop computer may suit your needs just fine. But if you spend much time researching in libraries and archives, a notebook computer (or "laptop") makes a nice replacement for a bulky three-ring binder filled with charts and blank paper. You'll be able to quickly access information on any individual in your genealogy files and type notes much faster than you could write them down with a pen and paper. And you can easily share the notes you've written on your computer with your e-mail correspondents.
Many laptop computers will run off a battery for two hours or more, although most libraries provide electrical outlets to plug in your notebook. Call ahead to check on the library's policies and take along a lock so you can secure the laptop to a desk or table while you retrieve books. A laptop also makes it easy to access the Internet and send and receive e-mail while you travel—provided you have access to a phone jack and your Internet access provider has a local phone number for your location or a toll-free access number.
While laptop computers are convenient for the researcher on the road, they do have a few tradeoffs. First, a laptop will cost about twice as much as a desktop computer with the same features. Second, a laptop's keyboard is smaller and harder to type on. Finally, while desktop computers usually have lots of room inside the case for adding new components, laptops can't readily be opened up and have limited upgrade potential. So you'll probably get fewer years of productive use out of a laptop before you'll want to buy a new computer.
Laptop computers range from ultra-lightweight models weighing only 2 pounds to desktop replacements tipping the scales at 7 pounds or more. The smallest models will easily fit in your briefcase and have a longer battery life, but they have smaller screens and may lack an internal CD-ROM drive. Larger notebooks are less convenient if you travel a lot, but bigger screens, keyboards and hard drives make them more suitable substitutes for your desktop.
A handheld computer (also called a personal digital assistant or PDA) is another option for the traveler, but you'll still want either a desktop or notebook computer. Then you can use genealogy software on your main computer to enter your data and copy it to the handheld computer for reference on the road.
Buying New: Get a desktop computer if you won't be doing much research away from home. Go for a larger laptop with a big screen if you want one computer that will work well both at home and on the road.
Upgrading: If you already have a desktop computer, you might consider getting an inexpensive, lightweight laptop for research trips and family reunions.