Laptop Lowdown

There's a model for every need and taste--with plenty of action at both ends of the market

Advertising executive Stephen C. Wakeen loves his laptop. When he's in the Manhattan headquarters of Emmerling Post Inc., where he's executive vice-president, Wakeen uses his Compaq Armada 4140 in place of a desktop computer. When he leaves his office, he slides the Armada, a five-pound, 1 1/2-in.-thick machine about the size of a fat composition book, out of a base, which includes a CD-ROM drive, and into his briefcase. It's not the most powerful computer around, but it meets his needs. "A guy like me needs functionality, and I need to be able to depend on it," says Wakeen.

Laptop users, like Laptops themselves, come in many varieties. Some, like Wakeen, are happy to forgo the fastest processor or the biggest display to get a versatile machine. Other buyers--especially those who spend a lot of time dragging gear through airports--want the smallest and lightest laptop they can get away with. Still others need a machine with all the features of a desktop model, but one that doesn't take up so much space. And some just want the best they can get for the least money. Today's Laptops can satisfy any need, with solid offerings at prices ranging from less than $2,000 to nearly $7,000.

Wakeen was a pioneer user of "ultraportables." In 1994, he started using an Apple Macintosh DuoDock, a very small notebook that could connect to a "docking station" in the office that included more storage and network connections. He went with the Armada when the agency switched to Windows PCs earlier this year. Now, peripatetic executives everywhere are finding that ultraportables--PCs weighing five pounds or less--can do almost anything larger machines can do, including, in Wakeen's case, high-quality presentations for clients.

Until very recently, designers of ultraportables had to make big compromises to hit their targets for size and weight. You still can't get all the bells and whistles of an 8-lb. notebook into a 4- or 5-lb. unit: You can have an internal floppy drive or CD-ROM, not both. Processors tend to be slower and battery life shorter than in bigger packages.

Because manufacturers have chosen a variety of ways to cram features into tiny packages, ultraportables are the most diverse class of Laptops. With the Armada 4100 series (prices ranging from $1,800 to $3,100), Compaq Computer Corp. took a modular approach. The basic unit has a 12.1-in. display and room for either an internal battery or a floppy drive. A screw-on handle doubles as a holder for the batteries. And the inch-think "media base," a $400 option that attaches to the bottom of the laptop, provides the CD-ROM. Unlike a docking station, the base can be carried as part of the laptop.

Fujitsu Ltd. has come up with its own version of the modular laptop with the $4,500 LifeBook 675Tx. The unit weighs 5 lb. and measures just 1.5 inches thick without the CD-ROM base and features a fast 200-megahertz Pentium.

KEYBOARD CLOUT. Pushing the ultraportable concept to the extreme, Toshiba Corp. has sacrificed an internal floppy drive on its Portege 300CDT. Without its CD-ROM base, the basic machine weighs just 3.8 lb. Its 133-Mhz Pentium is no barn burner, but most users will find it adequate.

When IBM introduced the ThinkPad 560 last year, it created a new class of ultraportable--the so-called thin-wide. The result is a machine with a 12.1-in. display and the full-size keyboard you would expect in a full-size laptop, but squeezed into a package just 1.3 inches thick that's much easier to slip into a briefcase. What seemed revolutionary a year ago is now a bit dated: Rival machines from NEC Corp., Digital Equipment Corp., and others feature bigger displays and internal floppy or CD-ROM drives. But the 560, like all high-end ThinkPads, has a terrific keyboard and the easy-to-use IBM TrackPoint pointing device. The newest model, the 560X, has a superfast 233-Mhz processor.

The NEC Versa 5060X shows where the next generation of thin-wides is going. Although a bit thicker and about a pound heavier than the ThinkPad 560, the Versa features a 13.3-in. display and an internal CD-ROM that can be swapped for a floppy without rebooting the computer. Although my use of floppies has declined sharply, I found that this feature can add significantly to the convenience of a laptop.

Ultraportability comes in many sizes. At one extreme is Digital Equipment's $6,000 HiNote Ultra 2000, which sports a massive 14.1-in. display in a 1.4-in.-thick package. This machine would be great for handling big spreadsheets. But if you want to travel really light and your needs run more to E-mail and simple word processing, there are Mitsubishi's 2.4-lb. Amity CN and the even smaller Toshiba Libretto.

Your choice of an ultraportable, of course, must be shaped by your needs. But of all the machines I have traveled with, the Toshiba Portege, despite a slow processor, is my favorite for lots of function in a tiny package.

Traveling light is easier on your back, but some on-the-go execs, especially those using video, have to be able to do demanding presentations under sometimes difficult conditions. These machines--we'll call them presentation masters--have the fastest processors, high-end video circuitry, and top-quality audio. They carry serious weight--up to 8 lb.--and cost serious bucks. But if they can help you land the big contract, they're worth the investment.

One of the hallmarks of a presentation master notebook is flexibility. Do you need to show your PowerPoint slides on a big-screen TV? No problem. These notebooks offer standard television output, and they'll attach easily to any video projector or monitor. Big, bright displays make it easy to do a presentation for a small group right on the laptop. And these machines have the horsepower and monster hard drives that are required for serious multimedia work, including video editing.

CREAM OF THE CREAM. No surprise, presentation machines are the models that get first crack at the newest notebook technologies. All current models feature the fastest chip Intel makes for mobile computers, the 233-Mhz MMX Pentium. They all sport two drive bays that can be loaded with any combination of batteries, extra hard drives, floppies, or CD-ROMs. They also are ready for high-capacity DVD video drives when mobile units become available later this fall.

If you want to do the very best presentations right on your notebook, the IBM ThinkPad 770 is the machine of choice. Its stunning 14.1-in. active-matrix display approaches a 17-in. monitor in its ability to display information. The 1,024 by 768 pixel resolution can put far more information on a screen than the 800 by 600 pixel displays found on many models that are less expensive. The ThinkPad also includes hardware support for the playback of high-quality MPEG-2 video.

The Toshiba Tecra 750CDT comes with a smaller, 13.1-in. display but a host of advanced video features. Its most unusual feature is a miniature video camera that clips to the case and attaches through a special PC card. With Intel Video Phone software and a built-in K56flex modem, the Tecra is ready to host a videoconference anywhere you have access to a phone line. Don't expect TV quality, but the videoconferencing setup is good enough to enhance a business meeting significantly.

The ThinkPad 770 and Tecra 750 are both very impressive machines, but the IBM wins my vote for its huge display and excellent ergonomics.

If you're not a person who needs to make great presentations all over the globe, you may still need a top-end notebook. Scientists, engineers, and financial analysts need all the number-crunching power they can get--wherever they go.

Take medical researcher Dr. Robert L. Trelstad. When he sits down at a desktop in the office, it's a high-speed PC or a Silicon Graphics workstation. Of course, he wants a fast laptop, too. His choice: an Apple PowerBook 3400c. "My entire life is in that PowerBook," says Trelstad, chairman of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J. That includes 10 years of E-mail and seven medical textbooks. "My office is with me wherever I go. It's tremendously empowering."

BEEFY NOTEBOOKS. The newest PowerBook, the G3, with a 250-Mhz PowerPC processor, is probably the speediest laptop on the market. Close behind are Laptops that use a 233-Mhz version of Intel's MMX Pentium. That's significantly slower than the 300-Mhz Pentium II that tops the desktop speed chart, but plenty fast for most purposes. To get the most out of it, you'll also want at least 32 Mb of memory, and more is better, especially if you want to run Windows NT for greater stability or more security. And to keep everything moving along briskly, you'll need a big, fast hard drive.

Most laptop makers are jumping into the performance market, and the machines tend to be similar. Basic features are a 233-Mhz processor, 32 Mb of RAM, a 13.3-in. display, and a hard drive of 4 Gb or so. The designs boast either two bays that can take any combination of floppy drives, CD-ROMs, and batteries, or a removable battery and a single bay usually filled by either a floppy or CD-ROM drive. The new Hewlett-Packard OmniBook 3000, at $4,799, is a good example of the one-bay design.

Direct sellers Dell Computer Corp. and Micron Corp. have tweaked their notebooks lately for better performance. The Micron Transport XKE offers advanced video features, including the ability to connect to a TV, that could easily put it into the presentation class. Dell's Inspiron 3000 offers a lot of power at a very attractive price. This 233-Mhz notebook features a 13.3-in. display and 32 Mb of RAM for less than $4,000. The 2.1-Gb hard drive is somewhat on the small size, but you can order a 4-Gb disk for an additional $350.

BIG SAVINGS. If you need a good workhorse but don't want to pay for a top-of-the-line machine, you can find lots of Laptops in the $2,500-to-$3,500 range by stepping down to a 200-Mhz or slower processor. All current-production notebooks use processors running at 133 Mhz or more and all are of the newer and faster MMX design. Going for a 12.1-in. rather than a 13.3-in. display can also produce big savings. For example, getting a Dell Inspiron with a 12.1-in. display and a 200-Mhz processor takes the price down to $3,199, a $700 savings.

That's still too much for a lot of buyers. Russell Anderson, a doctoral candidate in history at Cambridge University, pined for a performance laptop--one that had the fastest processor, 64 Mb of memory, a 3-Gb hard drive and weighed less than 4 lb. Only, his budget topped out at $2,500. So he compromised. Now, he's writing his dissertation on a $2,400 Acer Extensa 610CDT that uses a 150-Mhz Pentium, comes with a 1.4-Gb disk drive, and weighs 6.4 lb.

The Extensa may not be a dream machine, but that's a very solid computer--and an indication of how drastically prices have tumbled. Only a year ago, a notebook with the Extensa's specs cost $5,000 or more, and anything selling for $2,500 or less was in all probability about to be discontinued.

For those on a tighter budget, there are lots of Laptops in the $1,500-to-$2,500 range this season. IBM, for example, has added its first sub-$2,000 model, the ThinkPad 310ED, that features a 133-Mhz MMX Pentium, 16 Mb of RAM, a 12.1-in. display, and a built-in CD-ROM.

The trick when shopping in this price class is to focus on key features, such as size and quality of screen rather than brand names. That may sound like the opposite of everything you've heard about shopping for a PC. However, there's a good reason: Nearly every manufacturer offers a "value" line, and there's more similarity than difference between the basic designs. (Most of these units are built under contract in Asia, and some companies do little more than slap their brand on an off-the-shelf unit.)

The typical value laptop offers both a CD-ROM and floppy built in. While less flexible than the more expensive notebooks, this arrangement can actually be more convenient. Processors are MMX Pentiums ranging from 133 to 166 Mhz. Hard drives are generally 1.5 to 2 Gb. To keep posted prices as low as possible, most come with 16 Mb of memory standard. I strongly advise an upgrade to 32 Mb, at a cost of $200 to $300, especially if you will be running a big suite of work software, such as Microsoft Office. And except for IBM and Toshiba Laptops, which use pointing sticks, nearly all use touchpad devices.

The biggest differences among these notebooks are the displays. Most come with 12.1-in. displays with 800-by-600 pixels, though a few are 11.3-in. models. At the $1,500 end of the price range, the screens use dual-scan, or passive-matrix, technology while the more expensive machines incorporate active-matrix, or thin-film transistor (TFT), displays.

Although passive-matrix displays have improved, TFT remains clearly superior. The most significant difference is that passive-matrix displays don't handle rapid motion very well, meaning your cursor can suddenly disappear for a moment. Other specs being equal, a TFT display will add $300 to $500 to the price of a laptop. This is a trade-off buyers have to decide on, based on individual preferences and type of use. Passive-matrix, for example, is fine for spreadsheets, but awful for games.

Here are a few things to look out for when shopping for value notebooks. Make sure the unit comes with at least 256 kilobytes of secondary (or L2) cache memory. Skimping on this ultrafast memory is a way for the manufacturer to save a few bucks, but at a significant cost in performance.

NO SECOND CHANCE. And make sure you are getting 2 Mb of video RAM; some models use just 1 Mb, which limits your ability to display all colors. Remember, you can't upgrade laptop cache or video RAM, so get it when you buy.

No matter what your computing budget and needs, there's bound to be a laptop that's right for you. Despite the growing similarity of models, especially in the value lines, there's still a lot more variety among Laptops than in desktop computers. So careful shopping is in order. But take your time, and you likely will be rewarded.

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