Lightweights No Longer

Pentium M has given small laptops decent battery life and a big performance boost

Over the past couple of years, corporate buyers have pretty much settled on a standard laptop design for their mobile executives. Whether a Dell (DELL ), IBM (IBM ) Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ), or something else, it's a "thin-light" notebook, weighing around 5 lb., with a 14-in. display and a built-in CD or DVD drive. Most of these are fine products, but I suspect that many road warriors are about to decide that it's time to lighten up.

Notebooks smaller than the thin-light standard, whether from the Big Three computer makers or from a host of other manufacturers, have never captured more than 10% of the U.S. market. A major reason is that using one involved big trade-offs, namely lower performance, shorter battery life, or both.

Now, however, the Big Three are redesigning large and small notebooks around Intel (INTC )'s new Pentium M mobile processor (branded Centrino when combined with Intel's Wi-Fi wireless Ethernet adapter). The processor replaces the older Pentium 4-M and III-M chips. And it makes a tremendous difference. Larger notebooks based on the Pentium M generally offer much longer battery life than their predecessors. Smaller notebooks generally used low-voltage Pentium III-M processors to achieve satisfactory battery life and avoid overheating. The Pentium M lets them maintain their battery life, while greatly boosting performance.

Pentium M notebooks still involve some tradeoffs: You have to settle for a 12.1-in. display, and you give up a built-in optical drive, although read-only or recording CD and DVD drives are available either as accessories or as part of a docking station. But you gain a computer that's a lot easier to carry.

Dell, HP, and IBM are offering new and similar designs in this class. The Dell Latitude D400, starting at $1,808, weighs 3.7 lb. and is 11.4 in. wide, 9.4 in. deep, and 1 in. thick, making it a hair bigger than the C400 model it replaces. The D400 features a 1.3-GHz Pentium M processor, 20-GB hard drive, and an external CD-ROM drive. One important improvement from the earlier model is better support for the keyboard, which eliminates an annoying flex while typing.

The HP Compaq nc4000 (scheduled to come out toward the end of June) and the IBM ThinkPad X31 offer dimensions and specifications similar to those of the Dell. The ThinkPad is a Pentium M update of the outstanding X30, while the nc4000 is the lead-off product of the first line of HP laptops designed after the Compaq corporate merger. The ThinkPad X31 lists for $1,933 when configured to match the Dell, while HP prices start at $2,099.

The differences among them are mostly little things. The Dell has a SmartCard reader for enhanced security on some government and corporate networks. IBM provides excellent utility software, especially its Access Connections program for managing multiple wired and wireless network setups. HP offers standard Bluetooth short-range wireless in addition to the Wi-Fi wireless common to all three. The Dell and HP models come with a pointing stick and a touch pad, while the IBM has just the TrackPoint stick.

The big distinction is in battery life. Dell's new D-family Latitudes sacrifice battery size to minimize weight. The standard battery in the D400 gives just 2 1/2 hours of life. I strongly recommend spending $49 for a six-cell battery that is the same size but weighs about three ounces more. If you have an extra battery ($99), you can swap with the laptop in suspend mode without powering down.

HP and IBM both use an auxiliary battery that attaches to the bottom of the laptop. The HP design is actually a housing that holds a second standard battery. You can get 3 1/2 hours with one battery, or seven hours with two. The ThinkPad runs about five hours on its standard battery and an astonishing 10-plus hours when you add a 1-lb., $189 auxiliary.

All three are very good notebooks. When I travel these days, I almost always choose to carry one of the lightweights. I sometimes miss the big screen, but the weight and space savings more than compensate. I suspect a lot of my fellow travelers will agree.

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