Battle Of The Lightweight Laptops

In a bout between Jornada and Portege, E-mail makes all the difference

When I'm traveling, my laptop can't be too thin or too light. On the road, my computing needs are limited mainly to handling a crush of E-mail, some light word-processing, and odd chores, such as maintaining my schedule and tracking expenses. I'm willing to sacrifice power and features for the sake of portability. In the search for the notebook that will make the smallest bulge in my briefcase and the shallowest dent in my shoulder, I checked out two different minimalist approaches to mobile computing.

The $1,650 Toshiba Portege 3015CT is a full Windows computer, typical of a style of Japa-nese subnotebooks pioneered by the Sony Vaio 505GX. The Toshiba weighs just 2.9 lbs., is only 3/4-in. thick, and features a nearly full-size keyboard and a 10.4-in. active-matrix display.

The $1,000 Hewlett-Packard Jornada 820 runs on the latest version of Microsoft's Windows CE operating system. It weighs 2.5 lb., is thicker but smaller than the Toshiba, and features a good 8.5-in. passive-matrix color display. The mechanics of its keyboard make touch-typing easier than it is on the Toshiba. The Jornada uses a touchpad for navigation instead of the touch-sensitive screen typically used with Windows CE.

The real contrast between these two is in their different flavors of Windows. Because the Portege uses Windows 95, 98, or NT, it runs all your familiar desktop applications. The lack of a built-in CD-ROM makes loading software a bit of a nuisance; you have to either attach an external CD-ROM drive (around $300) or connect to a local-area network. But once on the road, I don't find the absence of a built-in floppy or CD-ROM much of an issue. If you don't need the fastest processor, the biggest display, or frequent access to a CD, the Portege makes a fine traveling companion.

Beyond the obvious advantage of price, the Jornada approach has some big pluses. One is 10 hours' worth of battery life--three times that of the Toshiba's. The other becomes apparent when you hit the power button and the Jornada comes instantly to life, with no boot time. And it's easy to swap or update files with your desktop PC using a cable connection.

BIG GAPS. But the Jornada's disadvantages become apparent almost as quickly, and they are serious. Microsoft designed Windows CE around an integrated package of applications that are lightweight versions of Microsoft Office programs. I find Pocket Word and Pocket Excel adequate for my limited needs on the road. (Pocket PowerPoint is really just a viewer that lets you show, but not edit, slides, severely limiting its usefulness.)

The E-mail program is the problem. Jornada features Microsoft's third attempt at a Windows CE E-mail program. But despite the rule of thumb that Microsoft gets things right on the third try, this time, it looks as if it will take at least a fourth. The new version lets you open regular Word, Excel, and PowerPoint attachments, and you can manage mail folders on corporate mail servers. But the program lacks many features that I regard as critical in an E-mail program, especially for mobile use. For example, the inability to view the list of headers and the messages themselves at the same time makes it difficult to scan new messages quickly. The program also lacks filters to discard junk mail automatically.

Furthermore, Windows CE relies on a version of dial-up networking that is even crankier and harder to configure than its Windows 95/98 equivalent. I had trouble getting the Jornada to connect to BUSINESS WEEK's remote-access server and, once connected, it wasn't always able to exchange messages with our Netscape Messaging Server. Windows CE is optimized to work with other Microsoft products, so the Jornada performs best in a corporate set-up that uses the Exchange E-mail server and Outlook 98 for desktop contact management and scheduling.

I find the idea of a lightweight, simple, and inexpensive E-mail machine appealing, and HP has executed the best Windows CE design I have seen. But a professional E-mail machine needs first-rate E-mail software, and Microsoft has spoiled a good idea by failing to deliver. The considerable advantages of low cost, long battery life, and instant boot-up just can't overcome the weakness of the E-mail software. An ultralight such as the Portege is a much better choice.

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