Multimedia has become standard fare on desktop personal computers. Besides livening up your work routine, the addition of sound and video can spiff up presentations and aid in training programs. But when it comes to taking your show on the road, "portable multimedia" has so far been something of an oxymoron.
The main problem has been that the relatively hefty CD-ROM drives add too much bulk. As a result, the first full-blown multimedia portables, weighing in at around 20 pounds, are more accurately described as "luggables." Alternatively, some people have resorted to cobbling together systems by plugging in external CD-ROM drives and speakers to their notebook computers. Others drag around a docking station, a device that allows you to connect extra components.
SPARE ROOM. But road warriors can take heart: A new crop of portables with built-in CD-ROM players promises to deliver multimedia on the go without breaking your back. (Of course, at a minimum of $4,000, the machines might break your bank account.) In September, Panasonic unveiled its V41 notebook, which squeezes a full-size, double-speed CD-ROM, 16-bit stereo sound, and a 10.4-inch screen into a machine just 2.3 inches high. At 8.4 pounds with a floppy drive--9.1 pounds with an extra battery installed--the V41 is a few pounds heavier than standard notebooks.
In addition to engineering finesse, Panasonic borrows a trick from IBM's ThinkPads: The V41 tucks the CD-ROM player away under the keyboard, leaving room for a spare CD-ROM disk. The initial V41 models run on Intel's 486 processors, and they can be equipped with varying amounts of hard-disk capacity and internal memory. A model based on Intel's speedy Pentium chip is due out late this year.
Another good bet is the Hurricane from Aquiline. The Troy (N.Y.) company was one of the first to offer a notebook with built-in sound and CD-ROM capability. Its high-end model, based on Intel's fastest 486 and equipped with 200 megabytes of internal memory, will cost you more than $7,000. But Aquiline has models starting at $4,190. All of the Hurricane computers include a chip that makes them compatible with the Sound Blaster audio standard, as well as a mike and headphone jacks.
ALL-IN-ONES. That's just the beginning. IBM is readying a new line of all-in-one ThinkPads that do away with the need for a docking station. Big Blue won't reveal much about the new machines, due in October, but execs say the company is working on units with built-in CD-ROMs, advanced telephone capabilities, and energy efficiency. And keep an eye out for new multimedia portables from Toshiba, Apple, and Dolch, which makes a high-end luggable, starting later this year.
At the same time, advances in technology promise even smaller models to come. Toshiba, a major supplier of CD-ROM drives, is designing a superthin player that's less than an inch high. That will give notebook makers more flexibility in adding multimedia capability.
Any portable multimedia computer worth its salt should have the following: an Intel 486 or better microprocessor, at least 8 megabytes of memory and a hard drive with at least 200 megabytes. An active color matrix screen display, which produces high-resolution images, is essential if you plan to use video in your presentations.
LIMITED JUICE. These days, most multimedia notebooks have a sound chip and speakers built-in, although some require external speakers for stereo sound. Battery power is another factor to consider: Although claims vary, typically you can expect to get only about two hours of heavy use per charge, so make sure that your portable comes with power-management software. Other items on your checklist: PCMCIA slots for adding external speakers or monitors and a comfortable, not cramped, keyboard. (Southpaws might want to opt for a keyboard with a pointer or trackball placed in the center, rather than a mouse mounted on the right-hand side.)
If you're still having a hard time justifying the hefty price tag, think of it this way: As computer makers pack the full power of a desktop into notebook-size models, a multimedia portable might soon be the only machine you will need.
IBM THINKPAD 755C -- Lightweight notebook, but the multi-media's in the companion docking station. Next
month: New ThinkPads with fully integrated multi-
media. Price: $6,000-$9,000 for a multimedia system.
-- PANASONIC V41 Hides a full-size CD-ROM under a
flip-up keyboard. At 9.1 pounds and battery-powered,
it's one of the first true portables. Price: $4,299 to $7,799.
AQUILINE HURRICANE At 10 pounds with a built-in
CD-ROM, a lightweight choice. Price: $4,190 to $7,390.
DOLCH PAC 586-60 20-pound Pentium-powered
desktop-in-a-box. Price: $7,000 to $9,000.
TEXAS INSTRUMENTS TRAVELMATE 4000M SERIES Comes with
built-in sound but requires an $849 portable docking station
for CD-ROM and stereo quality. Price: $2,999 to $5,299.
TOSHIBA T6600C/CD -- Packs a virtual desktop into an
18-pound "luggable." Price: $8,299.