By Stephen H. Wildstrom For several years now, the trend in notebook computers has been thinner, lighter, and cheaper. For most laptop users, the considerable performance gap that's typical between notebooks and desktops is more than outweighed by greater mobility. But for some folks -- engineers, architects, designers, financial analysts, and the like --workstation-class performance is essential. And even if they can't get quite the same oomph from a laptop, they're willing to buy as much power as they can, even if it means lugging a notebook that's huge and heavy by today's standards.
The IBM ThinkPad A31p, however, is aimed right at the performance needs of that power-hungry market. Though this new laptop is still somewhat bulkier than its lesser brethren, it really is a mobile engineering workstation, designed to match the performance of a $2,000 IBM 2-GHz IntelliStation M Pro minitower, which doesn't include a monitor.
The A31p, which starts at around $2,500 but will top $3,500 in its high-end configuration, is built around Intel's newest Pentium 4-M processor, running at up to 1.7 gigahertz. But that's not the big news: Nearly every laptop maker came out with Pentium 4 models as soon as Intel announced the mobile P4 chip on Mar. 4.
POTENT COMBO. The new ThinkPad's most important distinction is its display and graphics adapter. Top-of-the-line A31p models feature a stunning 15-inch, 1,600x1,200 pixel screen. It provides better than 30% more pixels compared to a 1,400x1,050 display, the highest resolution generally available. The more pixels you have, the more information you can get on-screen, and this sort of superhigh resolution is vital for the display of extremely detailed graphics, such as architectural drawings or computer-assisted design (CAD) work.
This is a major accomplishment because the one area where laptops generally lag far behind desktops is in graphics adapters, where the requirements of power consumption and heat dissipation generally cause designers to go with relatively low-powered choices. But high-end configurations of the A31p use an ATI FireGL adapter with 64 megabytes of RAM. This graphics card is not only very fast but is optimized for the OpenGL standard used by CAD programs. The combination of the screen and the adapter creates the A31p's ability to display extremely complex images very quickly.
Other specifications and options are what you would expect in a laptop of this class: hard drives up to 60 gigabytes, a maximum of 1 gigabyte of memory, every kind of port possible for connecting peripherals, and two varieties of built-in wireless connectivity: 802.11b wireless Ethernet and Bluetooth short-range wireless. The keyboard is also outstanding, even when judged by the already high standard set by other ThinkPads.
UNIQUE ADD-ONS. Countering a trend in mainstream notebooks to include only a built-in hard drive and a single bay for a CD-ROM or other device, the ThinkPad series is sticking with two bays. They can handle CD-writeable drives or read-only DVD drives, second hard drives, floppies, or extra batteries in just about any combination.
However, the bay on the right side can take two unique accessories. One is a tray that allows you to sync and recharge any Palm m100 or m500 series handheld (or the corresponding IBM-branded WorkPad models). The other is a numeric keypad that pretty much gives you the equivalent of a desktop keyboard.
Of course, a price must be paid for all of this power, beyond the cost of the A31p. A fully equipped unit weighs in at over 8 pounds with its power adapter. And the 1.8-inch-thick, 13x10-inch box will strain many briefcases. But this isn't intended as a laptop for mass consumption. If you need the ultimate in portable power, nothing else is quite like the A31p. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online