My Hewlett-Packard Co. OmniBook 600c subnotebook isn't anyone's idea of a desktop computer. It pays for its 3.8-pound weight with a cramped keyboard and a smallish display. But when I slide it into its "extended port replicator," it instantly connects to the full-size keyboard, standard mouse, floppy and CD-ROM drives, network adapter, and 15-inch monitor that I have hooked up to the $349 docking station. And my preliminary version of Windows 95 automatically senses that the computer has been docked and can find data on a network file server and send stored jobs to a printer.
DOUBLE DUTY. The appeal of using one machine on the road and in the office is obvious. But two problems stood in the way. Underpowered laptops couldn't do many desktop chores. And configuring a computer to work in both "docked" and "undocked" modes is beyond most people.
These obstacles are disappearing fast. Hardware makers are bringing out docking stations that take full advantage of Windows 95's plug-and-play capabilities, which should give Windows laptops the ease of configuration that users of the Apple Computer Inc. PowerBook Duo Dock have long enjoyed. And laptops themselves are becoming computing powerhouses.
The Texas Instruments Inc. TravelMate 5000 is a good example of the new breed. At nearly 7 pounds and with a $5,500 price tag, it puts a dent in your shoulder and your wallet. But it offers a 75-megahertz Pentium processor, hard disks up to 810 megabytes, a 10.4-inch display, and the same speedy circuitry used by desktops to handle video displays and disk drives. For desktop use, TI will offer a $350 docking unit similar to the OmniBook's.
Plenty of laptops are going Pentium now that Intel Corp. is making a version of the chip that runs cooler and gives acceptable battery life. The upcoming OmniBook 5000, which is likely to be in the TravelMate 5000's price range, will boast a 90-Mhz Pentium and a 1-gigabyte hard disk. But if these top-end machines are too rich for your budget, Compaq Computer Corp. has just announced its new Contura 400 line powered by fast 486 chips. Prices start around $2,500, and a network-ready docking module is $299.
FINE FEATURES. The increasing capability of laptops is changing the design of docking stations, too. Earlier units were elaborate devices designed to give multimedia capability to stripped-down portables. But today's laptops usually come with built-in stereo sound. Many new laptops come with a bay that can house an extra battery or a CD-ROM drive. The final touch is an inexpensive dock to give access to networks, printers, and other devices.
With Pentium desktops available for less than $2,000, laptops look pricey. But the notebook-plus-dock is still far cheaper than separate laptop and desktop machines. In fact, "a lot of corporations are telling their people that they can buy only one machine," says Robert Brown, mobile products marketing manager for AST Research Inc. AST will ship its Pentium-powered Ascentia 950N this summer at a base price of $3,500.
This is a rare case in which employers' passion to cut costs may serve the interests of workers. There are a lot of advantages to having a single machine. All your files will always be where you need them. The headache of trying to keep your calendar, contact list, and other vital data synchronized on laptop and desktop machines will disappear. And you won't have to install all your software twice. For people who divide their computing time between home, office, and the road, the new generation of laptops could be real labor savers.