Can A Laptop Be Too Fast?

Pentium II models are speedy, but the cost in battery time will be too high for many

How fast do you want your laptop to be? Until recently, the universal answer was "as fast as possible." Laptops were slower than their desktop counterparts--indeed, they seemed sluggish even while performing such relatively undemanding tasks as running Microsoft Word.

The latest Intel processors for notebooks, the 233-Mhz and 266-Mhz Pentium II chips announced on Apr. 2, make me think speed isn't everything. These latest chips follow by just seven months a power-thrifty set of chips called, simply, Pentiums. And the earlier 266-Mhz notebooks that I have used seemed to have plenty of speed for all but the most demanding needs. For most people, they were fast enough to serve as desktop replacements.

FEEL THE HEAT. These new Pentium IIs will force laptop buyers to pay particular attention to which chip is in the laptop they buy. A number of design changes, including faster access to memory, make Pentium IIs speedier than their predecessors at equal clock speeds. But they have a bigger appetite for electricity and run hotter than the previous generation of Pentiums. Intel says a 266 Mhz Pentium II outperforms a Pentium of equal rating by 30% to 35%, but laptop makers report a 10% to 20% decline in battery life. If you use your laptop for demanding applications, such as computer-assisted design, or if you work mainly on AC power, this trade-off may be attractive. But if you spend a lot of time running a word processor on batteries, the loss of 20 or 30 minutes of working time per charge could prove painful.

Manufacturers also are responding differently to the newest chip than they have to past processor introductions. Traditionally, new chips have gone first into top-of-the-line models and gradually worked their way down the food chain. But Intel has made it clear that it intends to push as quickly as possible to an all Pentium II product line. This has forced manufacturers to redesign all of their notebooks to accommodate the new chip, which requires additional cooling and a redesign of a laptop's innards.

Partly as a result, the new chip is making its debut in both premium and midrange models. It's no surprise that you can get an IBM ThinkPad 770 or a Toshiba Tecra 780CDM with a 266-Mhz Pentium II for around $5,000. But you also can get a Dell Latitude CPi or a Hitachi VisionBook Pro 7330 with a 233-Mhz version for $2,999.

The redesign also has produced some intriguing new models, most of which will be available in both Pentium and Pentium II flavors, at least for the rest of the year. One of the most interesting is the IBM ThinkPad 600 series, with prices starting at $2,799 for the 233-Mhz Pentium version.

The 600 is a follow-on to IBM's thin and light ThinkPad 560, which will remain in the product lineup. At 1.4 inches thick, the 600 is 0.2 inches thicker than a 560, but that creates just enough room for a bay that can hold a floppy drive or CD-ROM drive--and, eventually, a Zip drive or DVD drive, or a second battery. With the bay empty, the 600 weighs in at just under five pounds. It also features what may be the best keyboard I have ever seen in a laptop.

Equally appealing, in a very different way, is the Micron GoBook. The basic GoBook, which starts at $2,599 for a 233-Mhz Pentium II, is a 1.3-inch thick, 4.4-pound laptop with a bay that can hold a floppy, CD, or Zip drive. That makes for one highly portable notebook. Its distinguishing characteristic is a 0.4-inch-thick, 1.5-pound "slice" that clamps to the bottom of the computer. Instead of adding multimedia features, this slice is a giant lithium-ion battery designed to provide the GoBook with a staggering 11 hours of battery life, enough for a transpacific flight.

PATIENCE. If you are shopping for a new notebook computer and find a model that offers the features you want in both Pentium and Pentium II versions, which should you choose? Unless you have unusually demanding needs, I would favor the original Pentium. It will give you more battery life and will run cooler, a serious issue when you actually work with a laptop on your lap. And it will probably be $300 or so cheaper.

The mobile Pentium II chip will really come into its own on laptops running Windows NT, which is optimized for the more powerful processor. But unless you are supplied with such a laptop preconfigured by your company, you would do best to avoid the complexity of NT on a notebook computer until Microsoft ships the mobile-ready version 5.0, probably early next year.

It has becoming increasingly true in the computer business that the latest and most powerful product is not necessarily the best choice for many buyers. Pentium II laptops are an outstanding example.

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