Bantamweights That Pack A Punch

I judge laptops by the size of the bruise they leave on my shoulder. That's why I give high grades to the latest crop of lightweight, ultrathin notebooks. I was actually able to lug home four of these minimarvels at once without great discomfort.

Sony set the standard for thin computing last summer with its less-than-an-inch-thick Vaio 505. It has a footprint roughly the size of this magazine. I examined the latest Vaio 505TX, a 2.7-pounder that's 0.9 inches high, along with three others: Hewlett-Packard's OmniBook 900, IBM's ThinkPad 560Z, and the Toshiba Portege 3015CT. For comparison, I also checked out a notebook in a slightly heavier weight class, the 5.2-pound Gateway Solo 3100 FireAnt, selling for $3,199. You'll feel the extra poundage, but the FireAnt contains a digital videodisk (DVD) player that lets you watch movies on its lovely, 12.1-inch active-matrix display. You may not get two hours out of its lithium ion battery, so carry an 0.9-pound spare to watch a complete flick on an airplane.

VERY CHIC. I had quibbles with each of the machines reviewed here, but for my computing needs--mainly writing and connecting to the Net--they do just fine. For those who view stylish laptops as trophies akin to sporty automobiles, all the ultrathins, and especially the purple Sony, registered high on the chic meter.

To be sure, the most diminutive notebooks force you to make trade-offs. Their battery life is so-so, they lack built-in floppy or CD-ROM drives, and the smallest models from Sony and Toshiba have cramped keyboards. These two make you connect a separate, half-pound gizmo called a port replicator if you plan to hook up a printer or serial device. All the ultrathins gain weight if you want to hook them up to an external floppy or CD-ROM drive.

Until recently, the smallest machines didn't run the fastest processors either. But on Jan. 25, Intel introduced a new line of speedy chips earmarked for ultrathins. They will make things faster and conserve power. The most powerful of these new mobile chips, a Pentium II running at 366 MHz, is inside the HP OmniBook 900. The model includes a generous 6.4-gigabyte removable hard drive and splendid 12.1-inch screen. It's fatter than the Vaio and Portege but a tad lighter than the ThinkPad.

Like the IBM entry, the OmniBook doesn't need a port replicator for printing and other tasks. Its power adapter and cord add just under a pound to your traveling weight, and despite its size, the HP machine can accommodate external CD-ROMs and other devices that fit into larger notebooks in the OmniBook series. It was also the only machine I tested that comes with a TouchPad and the Trackpoint eraser-head pointing devices.

The ThinkPad 560Z boasts the same size hard drive and screen as the OmniBook 900 but has a slower, 300-MHz Pentium II processor. But I've always been a fan of ThinkPad screens and keyboards, and this one measures up nicely.

Not so the keyboards on the Vaio 505TX and the Portege 3015CT. They take getting used to, but given the bantam weight of the machines, I'd be willing to make the sacrifice. I preferred the way the keys were laid out on the Sony--on the Portege, I repeatedly hit "home" instead of "backspace." But I also preferred the eraser-head-type pointing device on the Portege to the TouchPad on the Vaio. Both machines have bright 10.4-inch screens, but the Vaio uses a faster processor and bigger hard drive than the Toshiba, though Toshiba is expected to close the gap soon with an upgraded version of the 3015CT.

The Sony features a digital interface port that will make it easy to capture and edit stills from a digital videocamera. Given Vaio's weight and size, I can probably stow it and a videocamera in my bag and still feel no pain.