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Compaq's Armada Is A Chameleon Of A Laptop

Technology & You


It can be ultraportable or a brawny multimedia desktop

The big buzz in laptops this summer has been "modular design." In practice, this has meant a laptop that saves space and weight by letting you alter its configuration. You can replace the floppy drive with a CD-ROM drive, for example, or add an extra battery for a long plane flight. But Compaq Computer Corp. is bidding both to redefine the modular concept and to restore its own reputation for innovation. Its new Armada 4100 series can change from ultraportable to multimedia desktop to meet your needs of the moment.

DOUBLE-DUTY BATTERY. The basic Armada is a 5.1-pound ultrathin notebook with a full-size keyboard and an 11.3-in. passive-matrix or brighter 11.8-in. active-matrix display. Its design resembles that of an IBM ThinkPad 560 (BW--June 3). It's a bit thicker and heavier, with a slightly smaller screen--but it's faster than the IBM. Estimated retail prices start at $2,699 for a passive-matrix, 100-Mhz Pentium unit with 8 megabytes of random-access memory and an 810 MB hard drive. The top-of-the-line 4130T, which I tested, costs $4,599 with a 133-Mhz Pentium, 16 MB of RAM, and a 1.08-gigabyte hard drive. All models feature 256 kilobytes of "secondary cache," an expensive chunk of superfast RAM often skimped on or eliminated in laptops such as the ThinkPad 560. Caching is vital to the peak performance of a fast processor, especially in such demanding applications as full-motion video.

This isn't the only area where the Armada outshines the competition. The laptops come with a handle that screws on in seconds and can also be folded under to hold the notebook computer at a comfortable angle for typing. The fat handle weighs nearly a pound because it's actually a second lithium-ion battery. With the handle attached, you can replace the main battery in the laptop with an internal floppy drive. Or you can have both batteries in place and enjoy twice the battery life. Compaq claims 2.5 to 3.3 hours of use for each battery, an estimate that my informal tests suggest is reasonable.

When the battery is doubling as a handle, the Armada 4100 becomes a medium-weight notebook with a lot of battery life but no CD-ROM drive. That's where a mobile CD unit comes in. This $399, 2.1-lb. device is about the same size as the laptop and a little under an inch thick. It attaches in seconds without tools and provides a quad-speed CD-ROM, bigger speakers, and a bay that can hold a third battery (a $199 option) or the floppy disk drive. When fully loaded, the Armada 4100 weighs in at a hefty 8.2 lb.--but its weight, thickness, and price are competitive with Toshiba's multimedia Tecra 500CDT.

The Armada isn't out of options yet. This is the sort of laptop that could be your only computer. It's fully equipped, so that you don't need a multimedia docking station. But you can slide the Armada into a "port replicator" that remains permanently connected to a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and other accessories for desktop computers. The replicator comes in two varieties--with Ethernet capability for networking ($299), and without Ethernet capability ($189). (Software glitches kept the built-in networking from working on the preproduction unit that I tested; Compaq promises that the problem will be fixed before units reach the market at the end of July.)

If the port replicator is used without the multimedia base and the handle has been removed, a plastic wedge holds the notebook at an angle for greater comfort. The arrangement was easy to connect and use, but it seemed a bit flimsy. Also, the port replicator could be improved by adding a SCSI connector to allow attachment to external storage devices, such as the increasingly popular Zip and Jaz drives made by Iomega Corp.

QUICK CHANGE. The protean Armada has one last trick up its sleeve. The built-in mouse substitute is a touch-sensitive Alps GlidePad. I find this very handy for word processing and spreadsheets, but not precise enough for graphics work or for games. If you need more accuracy, a Logitech optical trackball is an option that costs $49. Interchangeable pointing devices aren't a new idea. But unlike WinBook laptops, which require delicate surgery to switch pointers, the change on the Compaq takes less than a minute, and the modules seem robust enough that you can change at will without worrying about breaking anything.

Buying a laptop has always meant compromises: features vs. weight vs. battery life vs. cost. Armada's design makes it possible to buy what you need and have what you want when you want it. This summer has produced a bumper crop of innovative laptops, and the Armada 4100 is the most imaginative departure. It works because Compaq put a lot of thought into making it simple to change configurations on demand. I suspect the design will soon inspire imitators.Return to top

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