It's fast becoming the new status symbol for executives: color notebook computers with brightly saturated displays that rival what you get on powerful desktop PCs. Indeed, these compact portables are so impressive, they make your three-year-old monochrome laptop seem antiquated. A growing number of people are choosing color notebooks over bulkier desktop models as their primary home computer.
To some extent, notebook computers are retracing the same technological path from black and white to color taken by televisions and then desktop computers. With color, you can convey information that may not otherwise be obvious. You might, for example, show charts and graphs tinged in different hues to distinguish last year's sales and profits against this year's numbers or to compare buying patterns of men vs. those of women. Apple Computer's $3,000-to-$3,500, 4.8-pound PowerBook Duo 270c can display more than 32,000 colors. Color becomes a must for anyone using a laptop to show slides or make multimedia displays that exploit video.
NICE VIEW. Not all color screens are created equal. On computers with active-matrix color screens, the most expensive ($3,000 and up) have separate transistors powering each of the dots, or pixels, that make up the full image. The result is a bright, clear, color display that stays that way at a wide viewing angle. On cheaper passive-matrix screens, which go into laptops that sell for less than $2,000, one transistor controls an entire row or column of pixels, producing a less vibrant image that fades if not viewed head-on.
Newly improved dual-scan passive-matrix machines are much brighter than their predecessors and become a smart choice for folks who can't wait for active-matrix color to become more affordable. Active-matrix notebooks won't reach the $2,000 level--where many buyers jump in--for about two years, says Atsutoshi Nishida, president of Toshiba America Information Systems. Dual-scan models range from Gateway 2000's $1,995 ColorBook 486SX-25, which carries an 80-megabyte hard drive, to Texas Instruments' $3,500 TravelMate TM4000E WinDX2/50, which employsa much faster chip and a more generous 200MB hard drive. Models in the mid-$2,000 area include Compaq Computer's Contura 4 25c and the Bravo NB 4 25S from AST
Color portables have other costs, too. In general, they drain a battery roughly 40% faster than monochrome models do. Active-matrix versions, because of those power-guzzling transistors, sap battery strength even more quickly. Plus, color notebooks are usually bigger and heavier than monochromes. Shoppers for both color and monochrome portables also need to factor in the feel of the keyboard and whether there are PCMCIA slots, which let you plug in credit-card-size modems, memory cards, and other add-ons.
Currently, the color machine everyone seems to be lusting after is the IBM ThinkPad. The new active-matrix 750C has a large, 10.4-inch display and costs $4,699 with a 170MB hard drive; $5,249 for 340MB. The dual-scan passive-matrix 750Cs has a 9.5-inch display and costs $3,899 and $4,449 for the same-size drives, respectively. Both machines weigh around 6.5 pounds and run powerful 486SL/33 chips.
TACTILE STRENGTH. All ThinkPads include TrackPoint II, a pointing device in the keyboard that resembles a pencil eraserhead and handles the chores of a mouse. The device is squeezed around the G, H, and B keys. The harder you press the TrackPoint, the faster the cursor on the screen moves.
ThinkPads also boast strong battery life. IBM says the ThinkPad's three power-saving modes--standby, suspend, and hibernation--can offer up to eight hours on a single charge, though manufacturer's battery claims must be taken with a grain of salt. Two to three hours is typical on most color machines. Another strong feature: The ThinkPad's keyboard pops up to give you access to removable hard and floppy drives. You can also snap in an optional wireless cellular-communications device to transfer data, send and receive faxes or electronic mail, and make regular calls.
The ThinkPads and the new T4700C color notebooks from Toshiba ($4,599 to $5,699 for passive and active versions, 200MB or 340MB hard drives) boast superb sound and video capabilities, which make them top-flight multimedia machines. By plugging them into docking stations, you can easily add CD-ROM drives, an extra hard drive, and other expansion devices.
Just as color is becoming a big deal, portable PCs continue to shrink. So it comes as no surprise that Toshiba recently unveiled the $4,000, 4.4-pound Port g T3400CT, the first subnotebook computer with color. Now there's a status symbol.