The Laptop Labyrinth

They're getting fancier--but heavier. So figure out just how much zip you need

I'm writing this column on a TransPort Xpe laptop from Micron Electronics while flying to California. With a 166-megahertz MMX Pentium processor, 32 megabytes of memory, and a 2-gigabyte hard drive, this laptop offers all the performance, and nearly all the features, I would ever want in a desktop computer. But there's a problem. When the fellow sitting in front of me leans back, the 12.1-inch active matrix screen has nowhere to go, and typing becomes nearly impossible.

That's the paradox of computing on the go. Laptop machines have, at least for the moment, closed the performance gap that has kept them about a generation behind desktops. But these not-so-portables are bigger, heavier, harder on batteries, and a good deal less mobile. Fortunately, Toshiba, IBM, Compaq, and others have a varied lineup that enables you to select the one that best fits your needs.

The standard display on high-end laptops today measures 12.1 inches diagonally. Models with 13.3-in. displays are hitting the market, with 14.1-in. briefcase-busters due by midyear. While big screens are easier to read, don't expect to use these on planes. And with the screens and lots of memory draining power, don't expect more than about two hours from a battery.

At the same time, the desirability of using your laptop in the office is diminishing, especially in networked corporations. Many companies are shifting to the Windows NT operating system and the Pentium Pro processor for more secure and reliable desktop performance. Unlike Windows 95, NT is not designed for mobile use and lacks critical elements, such as battery-saving features. And Intel has not announced a mobile version of the hot-running, power-hungry Pentium Pro. In coming months, even state-of-the-art notebooks will lag behind desktops in the power race.

DOCK IT. So what's the road warrior to do? If you need one that can do it all, you will have to sacrifice some portability and go with a high-end portable and a spare battery or two. To avoid having to plug in a keyboard, mouse, network cable, and monitor for office duty, you will probably want some sort of setup to slide your laptop into, such as a docking port connected to a monitor, network, and standard keyboard. Micron, for example, features a $299 dock that includes bigger speakers and a local area network connection. The travel weight of a laptop like this will surpass 8 pounds. And laptops remain much more expensive than desktops: A Toshiba Tecra 740 CDT with a 13.1-in. display costs more than $6,500.

Maybe both your needs and your budget are a bit more modest. The good news is that some relatively small sacrifices will get you a competent notebook at a much lower price. For example, an 11.3-in. passive-matrix display is adequate for most users, even if you use your laptop for presentations. So is a 133-Mhz Pentium, although I would recommend at least a 1.4-gigabyte hard drive and 16--preferably 32--megabytes of RAM. That setup should give two to three hours off a battery. From my experience, if you can keep the weight under 7 lb., your shoulders and back will thank you.

Just about every notebook manufacturer has a model that meets those specifications, and prices generally run about $3,500. Macintosh users, who have been bereft of serviceable laptops for many months, now have a choice between the new PowerBook 1400, which starts at $2,500, and the 3400, starting at about $4,500.

If you spend most of your time in the office and don't need the ultimate laptop, you might consider a different approach. For less than $2,500, you can get a loaded 200 Mhz MMX Pentium desktop. For the road, choose what many makers call a "value-line" notebook, an apt phrase, in some cases. For example, the NEC Versa 2600 offers a 133-Mhz Pentium, 12.1-in. passive-matrix display, built-in floppy and CD-ROM drives, and a 33.6 kilobit per second modem for $2,400. At these prices, you may be able to persuade your boss, or yourself, that two computers can be a better buy than one high-end laptop.

Finally, if you want to stay connected on the road but your mobile computing needs are light, you soon may be able to eschew a laptop altogether. The new Windows CE handhelds, such as the NEC MobilePro and the Compaq PC Companion, can handle limited word processing and spreadsheet duties. They suffer from small (about 5 in. diagonal), dim screens and very limited E-mail capabilities, but improved versions are on the way. And the popular Palm Pilot from U.S. Robotics will soon gain the ability to fetch E-mail over phone lines.

The mobile situation is confusing, but in large part that's because consumers have a far broader range of options than they have had. Making the right choice means making a dispassionate assessment of your needs and budget and going for the model that will best fit both. Your choice may not be the latest and greatest, but it may place much less of a burden on both your shoulder and your wallet.

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