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Before You Leap For A Laptop...

Personal Business: COMPUTERS


If you're one of the 1.5 million Americans who plan to buy a laptop computer this year, brace yourself. In the past 12 months or so, the computer industry has produced a mind-boggling array of portable computers in all sizes, power levels, and prices. The good news is that there's a laptop out there for you. The bad news is that it's not going to be easy to figure out which one it is.

Things will only get more confusing as the year goes on. In the past few weeks, several U. S. computer makers, including IBM and American Telephone & Telegraph, have added laptops to their product lines, challenging the Japanese companies that dominate the market. The latest comes from Hewlett-Packard, which announced on Apr. 23 a "palmtop" that packs PC power into an 11-ounce package. None of this has slowed market leader Toshiba: It has just introduced one of the first laptops with a color screen, the T3200SXC at $8,999.

Buying a laptop isn't so different from buying a car. Before you write a check for thousands of dollars, you have to decide whether you need a station wagon or a sports coupe. And it's actually easier to purchase a laptop than a stationary personal computer. Laptops come with much of their software built in. That not only limits the choices you must make but also means laptops are easier to set up.

SPACE-SAVERS. The first question to consider is size. The machines are divided into subcategories, ranging from the true laptop, which averages about 10 pounds these days, to the 6-pound notebook to the tiny palmtop, which can weigh in at under 1 pound.

Even the largest and heaviest laptops can be adequate if you don't do a lot of traveling. For instance, in New York and Tokyo, where space is at a premium, lots of people who rarely set foot on an airplane are choosing laptops. It makes sense for these buyers because, when they're finished working, they can stash the computer in a closet or under the bed. That's why college students like them, too. So, if you're looking at laptops as an at-home alternative to desktop PCs, the extra pound or so that IBM's 7.7-pound L40 SX model carries over lighter notebooks isn't going to matter.

It's a different story if you're planning to haul your system all over the world. Laptops weighing 7.5 pounds or more can get heavy fast. And if you're not interested in piling a laptop case on your luggage cart, you need a machine that will nestle inside your briefcase, along with your calculator and memo pad. That's where a notebook computer comes in. Weighing less than 7 pounds and measuring about 8 1/2 inches by 11 inches, these machines represent the fastest-growing segment of the market. Dell Computer's 6.4-pound 320N is a hot seller at $3,399, as is Tandy's 1500 HD at $1,999.

Power is also important. Most laptops now come with hard-disk drives that store between 20 million and 60 million characters of information, which is plenty for all but the most heavy-duty computer users. And most include floppy-disk drives, too, which make it possible to download your files onto removable disks and store them away.

HEAVY BATTERIES. But laptop buyers have a power consideration that desktop shoppers don't have: battery life. If you spend a lot of time on long flights, you'll need a machine that can keep going for hours. Compaq Computer's LTE notebook, for instance, comes with batteries that will run for 3 1/2 hours. A year ago, most laptop batteries died after two.

You also don't want to have to fuss too much with changing batteries: Look for laptops that have the battery compartment easily accessible. AT&T's new $5,399 Safari notebook lets you quickly snap in new batteries, and it has an easy-to-see indicator light that signals when they are low. When you're evaluating machines, don't forget to ask how much a laptop weighs with batteries installed. Computer makers sometimes neglect to provide that information, and those batteries can add up to one pound to the total weight.

The most fundamental consideration is what kind of jobs you'll be doing with your laptop. Some buyers simply want to write memos or reports. Others may work on financial modeling with a spreadsheet. Maybe you're going to use the thing to design your dream house.

FINGER ROOM. The application that's most important to you will go a long way toward narrowing your choices for a laptop. If you need a computer just for word processing, spend some time evaluating keyboards. IBM's L40 SX is a winner. Indeed, the system's extra weight and size come from its full-size keyboard. Most notebooks have had to squeeze keys tightly together to achieve their small size. That makes it difficult to do extensive typing.

But the IBM machine's $5,995 price tag makes it an expensive choice. Others can deliver similar machines--with an older, slower processor--for less money. Long-time laptop maker Compaq, for instance, dropped prices this month. Now, its LTE line of notebooks, which also come with well-designed keyboards, start at $1,999.

If you're most interested in using a spreadsheet, the keyboard is not nearly as important as the processor. Nothing is more annoying than waiting for a computer to finish a task. Look for machines that come with high-speed chips, such as Intel's 80386 or 80386SX. Coming soon are models that use Intel's superspeedy 80486 processor.

If graphics are your bag, either for presentations or design, scrutinize screens. Sharp Electronics' laptop screens get the prize for clarity. The company's technology is used by a number of laptop makers, including Texas Instruments and AST Research.

Don't forget communications. If you want to send and retrieve files between your laptop and a stationary PC, you'll need a modem. Most computer makers offer optional modems--which cost between $199 and $650 installed. IBM's laptop has one that lets you send faxes.

MIGHTY MITES. If laptops and notebooks sound like more machine than you really want, take a look at palmtops. These are upgraded versions of machines such as Sharp's Wizard and Atari's Portfolio, which have been used mostly as personal organizers. Lately, though, the machines have gone upmarket: HP's new 95LX--at just 11 ounces and $699--comes with the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, a simple word processing program for writing short memos, and communications software so you can talk to PCs. NCR and Apple Computer are expected to unveil their own powerful palmtops within a year or so. And Atari's $299 Portfolio now has optional software that lets you manage personal finances and analyze stocks.

If all that still sounds too complicated, wait awhile. The next flavor in laptop computing is the tablet computer. It turns traditional computing on its head by replacing the keyboard with an electronic stylus to record information. But tablets, such as Grid Systems' GridPad, aren't yet available to consumers--they're just starting to be used by big companies to automate blue-collar jobs such as inventory-taking.

Price, of course, could be the final determinant. Toshiba's color laptop, at the top of the scale, is nearly $9,000. Among the newest notebooks and laptops, IBM is one of the most expensive, with its $5,995 machine. But many new notebooks sell in the $3,000 range, including machines from Dell and AST. Older laptop models are even less expensive: If you're willing to forgo some power or storage, head over to Radio Shack for the Tandy models. They start at just $799.

There's just one problem with buying a laptop now: It's almost impossible to get ahold of a top-seller. Huge demand and shortages of chips and disk drives have made it difficult for makers such as Compaq and IBM to produce enough machines. If you're in a hurry, you'll have to settle for what the computer store has in stock. Of course, if you're a Macintosh fan, you'll have no problem at all: Unless you count the 16-pound "luggable" version of the Macintosh, Apple doesn't yet sell a laptop.EDITED BY AMY DUNKIN Deidre Depke

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