A Fleet Of High Powered Subs

Some computer-toting travelers want to have it all. Others just want to have it light. If you're willing to sacrifice the bells and whistles in the interest of maximum portability, a subnotebook may be for you.

But be forewarned: The compromises required to squeeze a computer into a package as small as 8 in. by 10 in. and weighing as little as 5 pounds are considerable. Subnotebooks don't have room for an internal floppy disk drive, let alone a CD-ROM. Displays are smaller than on full-size notebooks, maxing out at 10.4 in. Hard drives are smaller, and memory capacity less. And keyboards are cramped, often with keys smaller than standard size, and the functions of the 101 keys of a standard keyboard are usually squeezed onto just 82.

HONORARY A. One thing you no longer need give up when you downsize is pure computing power. The new Toshiba Corp. 610CT is the first subnotebook to feature a 90-megahertz Pentium processor. The unit, which weighs just 4.8 pounds without its battery charger and external floppy drive, includes a 9.5-in. active-matrix display, a 720-megabyte hard drive, and stereo sound. The unit arrived too late to be put through National Software Testing Laboratories' entire test suite, but its processor, video, and disk performance was so superior to its 486-based rivals that NSTL testers say it almost certainly would have recorded the top overall score. These features don't come cheap, however: The new Portege is expected to retail for around $4,650.

Other Pentium models will arrive soon, but for now your other choices use 486s. The top scorer in the NSTL test was Digital Equipment Corp.'s elegant HiNote Ultra, which weighs just 5.6 pounds with its charger and is an incredible 1.2 in. thin. It features a 9.5-in. active-matrix screen and a 528-megabyte hard drive, and its optional external floppy drive is housed in a $299 thin, wedge-shaped unit that fits under the HiNote--providing a better typing angle. The street price is around $4,500.

Two very different machines tied for the next place in the NSTL rankings. The Gateway 2000 Liberty's 10.4-in. passive-matrix screen is the biggest of any of the machines in this class, but the overall package measures a compact 8 in. by 10 in. by 1.6 in. The base Liberty can be had for as little as $2,999 with 8 megabytes of RAM and a 340-megabyte hard drive. The unit that was tested by NSTL, with a hefty 24 megabytes of RAM and a 729-megabyte drive, sells for a relatively modest $4,499.

All these subnotebooks use either a trackball or a keyboard-mounted mini-joystick to control the cursor. But Hewlett-Packard Co.'s thoroughly unconventional OmniBook 600CT offers a miniature mouselike device attached to a plastic wand that pops out of the right side of the case. It takes some getting used to but works quite well. And unlike any other machine, it depends on a hard drive mounted on a credit-card-size PC card. This makes it extremely easy to swap hard drives but limits storage capacity to 260 megabytes. Although the OmniBook scored relatively low on performance tests, the overall score was pulled up by a lithium-ion battery that kept the machine and its 9.5-in. active-matrix display going for nearly six hours. Street price should be around $3,700.

BUTTERFLY. By contrast, poor battery performance hurt the IBM ThinkPad 501C, the only unit equipped with an old-fashioned nickel-cadmium battery (a nickel-metal hydride battery is a $115 option). But the ThinkPad has a striking virtue: a butterfly keyboard that uses a clever arrangement of cams and levers to spread out into a full-size unit when the case is opened. It also manages to fit a 10.4-in. active-matrix display into a unit whose overall size is a bit smaller than the Gateway Liberty. It weighs just 5.1 pounds with charger and an included port-extender unit.

To be sure, none of these machines, except perhaps the Toshiba, can match even the midrange Pentium-powered standard laptops for performance or flexibility. And having to carry an external drive if you have to use a floppy disk can be a real pain. But after you've carried your laptop on a few dashes between airport gates, the small size and light weight can cover a multitude of sins.

Steve Wildstrom

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