Like many road warriors, Julian Nott is never without his laptop. But his Fujitsu LifeBook P7000 travels more than most: It's as much at home hanging beneath a hot air balloon as on a hotel room desk. "I travel extensively, and I take my laptop everywhere," says Nott, a London aeronautical engineer with 78 ballooning records to his credit. Among the unconventional service Nott gets out of the 3-lb., $1,800 LifeBook: navigating his balloon using an attached global positioning system receiver.
Not many notebooks will ever see 50,000 feet up in a balloon, but there is a laptop for just about any purpose you can imagine. For years, laptops for the masses were mostly knockoffs of computers intended for the larger corporate market. But consumer purchases have surged, and manufacturers have rushed in with distinctive products ranging from ultralights to monsters with 17-in. displays, all aimed at individual buyers.
Entertainment-friendly displays and thinner, lighter packages dominate this year's laptops. In a break with corporate design, today's consumer notebooks sport screens optimized for video rather than text. Many have widescreen displays designed to fit the format of DVD movies. Polished screens show off games and movies with a vividness and depth lost on displays with anti-glare coatings. (The trade-off: Text is harder to read under some lighting conditions.)
A second trend is that consumer notebooks, even the heftiest units designed as alternatives to desktop computers, are getting thinner and lighter. And just like their business-oriented cousins, virtually all consumer laptops now offer built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking.
If you're shopping for a laptop, the first thing to do is to set your budget and decide how you plan to use the computer. Make sure that you're comfortable with the keyboard and the touchpad or other pointing device. If you watch movies on airplanes, make sure the laptop has a widescreen display and enough battery life. If it's always hanging from your shoulder, weight is important. These are the features you're going to become intimate with -- not the brand name, hard disk size, processor speed, or other specifications.
Nott's LifeBook is a good example of an ultralight. It features a 10.6-in. display whose widescreen design allows use of a nearly full-size keyboard in a very compact package. Unlike corporate ultralights such as the IBM (IBM ) ThinkPad X41, the LifeBook P7000 includes a built-in drive that plays DVDs and reads or writes CDs. The use of an ultralow-voltage version of Intel's Pentium 4 processor helps to deliver more than 10 hours of battery life.
If you'd rather have a bigger and more conventional display, check out Panasonic's ToughBook Y2, with its huge -- for this class -- 14.1-in. display. It's a bit heavier than the LifeBook at 3.4 lb., more expensive at $2,500, and it can run only about four hours on a battery charge.
The workhorses of the laptop world are the thin-and-lights, weighing between 4 and 6 lb. and using Intel's (INTC ) Pentium M or Celeron M, or Advanced Micro Devices' (AMD ) Athlon XP-M processors. A typical pick: the 5-lb. WinBook X Series. Gwynyth Mislin's WinBook is her constant companion. "I bought a big Coach (COH ) purse so I can travel with it more easily," says the Columbus (Ohio) writer.
Most of these consumer notebooks come with a 12.1-in. widescreen display, instead of the TV-shaped 14-in. screen found on corporate products. The Dell (DELL ) Inspiron 700m is characteristic of the breed: 4.2 lb., 60-gigabyte hard drive, built-in DVD, and priced at $1,300 and up. The striking Alienware Sentia is designed for speed, and it's one of the snappiest-looking notebooks around. It's more expensive, with prices starting at $1,572, but a bit lighter at 3.8 lb.
The most varied and fastest-growing class of notebooks are those designed as alternatives to desktops. There are models offering maximum performance in a portable, if not particularly mobile, format; products focused on home entertainment; and a third category designed to cram in maximum value at the lowest possible prices, often well under $1,000.
The $3,000 Dell Inspiron XPS (Extreme Edition) is at the far end of the performance scale. Aimed at dedicated gamers, it is built around Intel's fastest desktop processor, a 3.4-gigahertz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition. But at 9 lb., it's not very mobile.
Apple offers some of the best software around and its 17-inch PowerBook G4 is an outstanding desktop replacement. Its 6.9-lb. weight and four-plus hours of battery life make it more mobile than many in its class.
More mainstream are big laptops with lots of entertainment options. Toshiba has launched a new brand, Qosimo, for laptops that include TV tuners and run Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition. The $2,600 E15-AV101 weighs over 8 lb., but it's not going to move much once it's connected to cable or satellite TV. The Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) Pavilion DV1000, starting at $899 with an Intel Celeron processor, is a much cheaper alternative: There's no TV, but you can play DVD movies on the 14-in. widescreen display without ever booting up Windows, and the battery life is better than most.
The fastest-growing category of consumer laptops is big, inexpensive boxes designed for folks who don't want a traditional room-dominating tower computer but whose view of mobility is often limited to moving the computer from living room to den. The HP Compaq Presario R3000T, at $950 with a 15.4-in. wide-screen display, is typical. At $800, the Gateway (GTW ) M520CS offers an even cheaper alternative with a 15-in. standard-shaped display and a slower processor.
If you're looking for a powerful but low-cost laptop, it may be worth waiting until early next year. Intel is slashing the price of its mobile Pentium M and Celeron M chips and laptop makers plan to drop the desktop processors. The results will be lighter notebooks with better battery life.
The huge variety in notebook computers is a new bonanza for consumers but it can make shopping intimidating. If you consider all the possibilities, you're likely to find something that suits you. Unless you're like Nott, that is, who'd rather have something lighter than air.
By Stephen H. Wildstrom with Jennifer Drew