No Frills Laptops

There are many serviceable portables that can be had for less than $2,000

Laptops today come with everything: CD-ROMs, fast Pentium chips, lots of memory, big hard drives, big screens, and big price tags. These high-end machines are a blessing if you do multimedia presentations or heavy-duty financial analysis on the road. But what if you just need a laptop to keep in touch with your E-mail, knock off a memo or two, or do a little light spreadsheet work while you're traveling?

There's no reason to spend $6,000, or even $3,000, for a light-duty laptop. For less than $2,000, you can get a serviceable machine; for $2,500, a somewhat luxurious one. And if your needs are truly minimal, you may be able to scrape by for as little as $1,000. A 14.4 kilobits-per- second PC Card modem will add about $150, a 28.8 kbps modem about $250.

SLOW PROCESSORS. In laptops, like everything else, you still get what you pay for, and portables in this price range aren't the latest and greatest. Pentiums are just starting to appear in computer makers' "value line" notebooks. Most use 486 processors and, at the very low end, slow ones. Screens will be passive matrix, which are not as bright as active matrix. The disk drive may be only 340 megabytes. The battery will be nickel metal hydride, not longer-lasting lithium ion. And, of course, there will be no CD-ROM drive or sound. You can get a machine from top-line vendors, including IBM, Compaq, Toshiba, and Texas Instruments, though it may be a unit that has just been, or soon will be, discontinued.

What's the minimum you should look for in a laptop? Unless you're sure you will never run Windows, I'd avoid the few stray monochrome machines out there, as well as anything with less than 8 megabytes of memory. I wouldn't consider a processor slower than a 50 megahertz 486DX nor a hard drive smaller than 340 megabytes. Unless you can get by with the barest minimum, avoid, for example, the Compaq Aero 4/33. Although its widely advertised price of $1,000 and its light weight make it attractive, it is simply too underpowered to meet most users' needs.

I would also go for a laptop with Windows 95 installed. If it isn't already loaded, make sure that Win95 will work with that machine. Whatever the debates over the merits of Win95 on desktops, its superior communications support, handling of PC Card accessories, and power-management capabilities make it the clear choice for laptops. But some notebooks made before last July may have problems running Win95.

FLAWED DESIGN. This still leaves you with an abundance of choices below $2,000. For example, you can find the Toshiba T2110CS for around $1,650, though you should expect to spend another $250 or so for an extra 4 megabytes of RAM. A basic IBM ThinkPad 365CS will set you back around $1,800. Although the ThinkPad design is flawed by an AC power adapter that doesn't like to stay connected to its computer socket, the 365 series is rare in offering a $2,500 model that includes a CD-ROM drive and sound.

Other possibilities in the under-$2,000 category, including any RAM upgrade needed to bring memory to 8 megabytes, are the TI Extensa 450, the Compaq Contura 410c, and the NEC Versa V/50C. Perhaps the greatest bargain out there is the orphaned AT&T Globalyst 130. Rumerson Technologies (800 929-0029), liquidator of AT&T's computer inventories, is selling the Globalyst for $1,450.

By the end of the year, these 486-based machines are likely to disappear from product lists and inventories, to be replaced at the low end by 75-megahertz Pentiums. But if you don't need a state-of-the-art portable, any of these computers will likely meet your needs for at least the next couple of years.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.