The Subnotebook Solution: Width

IBM's ThinkPad doesn't sacrifice screen or keyboard size for portability

Ever since the first laptop computers appeared in the mid-1980s weighing a hefty 12 pounds or so, buyers have been longing for something lighter. But not, it turns out, so much smaller that features had to be sacrificed. Subnotebook computers weighing less than five pounds have been around for a few years. But they've been stuck in a niche. The mass market decided that while light and compact were nice, internal floppy drives, big screens, and full-size keyboards were nicer.

Now, IBM is jumping back into a market where it and rival laptop makers had technical success but so-so sales. "We did a lot of research to find out why," says Per Larsen, IBM PC Co. vice-president for mobile computing. "There are two things the audience won't trade off: screen size and the keyboard."

PRICE TO PAY. The result of that market research, along with some breakthroughs in miniaturization of disk drives and other components, is the new ThinkPad 560. It abandons the old subnotebook goal of a smaller overall package, becoming the first model to adopt a new "thin, wide"--and light--design. The 560 is more than half an inch wider than a standard notebook, allowing lots of room for the keyboard. But it is only 1.2 inches thick, at least half an inch less than a typical competitor. It weighs in at just a hair over four pounds, and an external power adapter that's a bit bigger than a deck of cards adds only about five ounces.

The benefits of the new "form factor," as designers call it, are apparent as soon as you open the case. The display, either a 12.1-inch active matrix or an 11.3-inch passive matrix, are as big as any on the market. The high-quality keyboard is larger than those on most "full size" laptops.

Of course, a package this thin and light required trade-offs somewhere. There's no internal floppy drive--an external unit is included--and no CD-ROM drive. While standard notebooks now offer hard drives of up to 2 gigabytes, the ultrathin drive used in the 560 maxes out at just over 1 GB. The sound is serviceable, but no more. And the exotic components make upgrades expensive: A 1-GB hard drive costs $1,009, twice the price of a conventional laptop drive of that capacity, and memory costs $389 for an 8-MB upgrade.

SPEED LIMITS. The capacity of batteries is proportional to size, too: The 560 can eke about three hours of use out of a charge of its lithium ion battery, compared with four hours or more for bigger, heavier laptops. My test unit, while speedy enough for all the uses the notebook is likely to be put to, felt a bit sluggish for a 120-megahertz Pentium.

Nor is the ThinkPad 560 the best choice for people who want a laptop as their only computer. IBM offers a $179 port replicator to simplify attaching a keyboard and monitor, but no multimedia docking station is available.

Still, for road warriors who regard portability as the greatest virtue in a laptop, the new ThinkPad is an excellent choice. Although wider and deeper than traditional subnotebooks, its extreme thinness makes it easy to slip into a briefcase or bag. It has all the power most travelers' tasks require, and the big screen and outstanding keyboard make it a delight to use. With additional thin, wide models on the way from Compaq Computer Corp. and others, it looks as if the ultraportable is going to get another chance to make the big time.

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