Sizing Up The New Subnotebooks

When you're on a business trip lugging a garment bag, a briefcase, and other travel paraphernalia, a seven-pound notebook computer with a two-pound battery charger doesn't feel so light. What's more, when you're stuffed into your airline seat and find that the computer barely lies stable on the tiny seat tray, you may decide to forgo your solitaire game--or the report that's due tomorrow--and pull out the latest best-seller instead.

Once again, technology comes to the rescue. The newest, hottest gadgets in the computer world these days are subnotebooks--computers about the size of a John Grisham novel that weigh less than four pounds. These are not just expanded electronic organizers. They're full-fledged computers, with fast microprocessors, the ability to run Microsoft's Windows, easy-to-use keyboards, pointing devices, and bright, decent-size screens. And their lightweight batteries last for four hours or more--long enough to let you work on an entire flight from New York to Denver.

Thanks to big advances in component and power-management technology, computer makers can now squeeze the power of a desktop personal computer into a package measuring about 10 inches by 8 inches. Subnotebooks started showing up last year, but in the past few months, manufacturers have stumbled over each other to bring out versions. Among the offerings are IBM's ThinkPad 500, Hewlett-Packard's OmniBook 300, Zenith's Z-Lite 320-L, Epson's ActionNote 4000, Zeos' Contenda, Compudyne's 4SL/25XZ, and Gateway 2000's HandBook. None are cheap--prices range from $1,600 to $2,500. Even so, computer stores report that subnotebooks are often sold out within days of arrival.

But don't expect nirvana. To get the weight down, something had to give, and every manufacturer has given up different features, be it quality, keyboard size, speed, floppy-disk drive, or battery life. None of the subnotebooks have color screens--color eats up too much battery power. And to save space, no subnotebook comes with a built-in floppy-disk drive. If you like to carry around files on floppy disks, you will also have to take an external drive that plugs in with a cable.

PACESETTERS. So before you buy, think about how you use a portable computer, and then spend time testing models. That way, you can figure out which features you really care about and which you're willing to sacrifice. Two good models to use for comparison are the subnotebook pacesetters of the moment, IBM's ThinkPad 500 and Hewlett-Packard's OmniBook 300. Each takes a completely different approach to superportability, and if you play around with the two side by side, you can quickly figure out the pros and cons of the category.

The ThinkPad 500 is the baby cousin of IBM's critically acclaimed ThinkPad 700. The smaller ThinkPad has the same sleek black case, top-quality backlit screen, and integrated pointing device. But it weighs only 3.8 pounds, compared with the 700's 7.6 pounds. The 500 uses a 486SLC microprocessor, one of the fastest available for portable computers, and can store 85 to 170 megabytes of data on a hard disk. It also has one of the slimmest external floppy drives around. One clever design feature: To eliminate the need for a bulky charger, IBM built an AC plug into the battery so you can plug the unit directly into a wall outlet to charge it.

HANDS-ON. On the downside, the screen is only 7.4 inches diagonal, so the solitaire cards look small. (You can enlarge the type size, but that will give you fewer words per screen.) The keyboard is also scrunched down to about 90% of the size of a desktop PC's. Independent studies have found that a keyboard can be squeezed that small without losing the ability to touch-type, but an unscientific study of BUSINESS WEEK reporters found that the ThinkPad 500's keyboard caused a significant number of typos. A lot depends on the size of your hand and how you type, so try one out for 10 minutes or so before deciding.

Another controversial feature on the ThinkPad is the TrackPoint, a little red knob in the middle of the keyboard that looks like a pencil eraser and acts like a mouse, moving the cursor when you wiggle it. You don't have to take your hands off the keyboard to use it, a plus when you're crowded into the middle seat on an airplane. Once again, in an unscientific survey, some love it, some hate it. The TrackPoint has won kudos from computer review magazines, but it takes getting used to.

The OmniBook 300 has a different set of pluses and minuses. At 2.9 pounds, you can't beat it for weight--every other subnotebook is almost a pound heavier. And you can't beat it for convenience: It can run on four AA batteries for about 31 2 hours. It also has a light, rechargeable battery that's smaller than a cigarette pack.

Other nice features include a full-size keyboard--no cramped fingers here--and a nifty mouse that pops out of the right side of the machine. (It might not be popular with lefties.) If you hate trackballs, you'll love this mouse. Hewlett-Packard also thought to build Windows, Word, and Excel software and other common applications directly into the main memory. You can access the software with one keystroke, and when you turn the system on, it starts right where you left off. The hard disk can store only 20 to 40 megabytes of data, but you don't need as much storage with so much software built in.

EYESTRAIN. There's one big downside to the OmniBook 300: no backlit screen. The reflective screen is high quality, and at 9 inches diagonal, it's bigger than most other subnotebook displays. But there's no question that the lack of backlighting might cause eyestrain after a while. The second big problem is the chip. The OmniBook 300 uses a 386SXL microprocessor, considerably slower than the 486 in the ThinkPad and most desktop PCs. Solitaire players will notice the cards flip slowly with this chip. The OmniBook 300 also has no external floppy-disk drive, though its built-in version of LapLink, a popular file-transfer program, makes it easy to move files to and from your PC.

The other subnotebooks offer variations on these two themes. Backlit screens are invariably smaller than reflective displays, since 486 chips mean more weight than the 386 versions. The main differences after that are the pointing device and the keyboard. The Zenith Z-Lite has a trackball pointing device on a ledge at the bottom of the keyboard--easy to use and nice to rest your hands on. The backlit screen is 8.5 inches, almost as big as the OmniBook's, but the keyboard is smaller, and it uses a 386 chip.

Epson's ActionNote 4000 is one of the cheaper backlit-screen subnotebooks, list-priced at $1,949, and offers still another option for a pointing device. Its trackball is in the upper right-hand corner, above the keyboard, which is, like the ThinkPad's, not quite full-size. You have to move your hand off the keys to use the trackball, but it's simple to master. And the

ActionNote has the same fast 486SLC chip as the ThinkPad 500.

The ideal subnotebook, of course, would have the OmniBook's weight and keyboard, the ThinkPad 500's microprocessor and screen, and a choice of pointing devices. And it wouldn't cost $2,000. If you don't want to compromise, you should wait six months to a year, when the next generation of subnotebooks makes its way to market and prices of older models start dropping. In the meantime, you could always play airplane solitaire the old-fashioned way, with a deck of cards.


$1,949-$2,169 Its chip is fast and its trackball easy to use. The keyboard is less than full-size

IBM THINKPAD 500 $1,999-$2,499

Top-quality backlit screen and 486 chip. TrackPoint takes getting used to


$1,599-$1,799 A convenient trackball and a large backlit-screen. Uses a slower chip


$1,950-$2,499 Only 2.9 pounds, it runs on four AA batteries. A pop-out mouse. No backlit screen

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