Ibm's No Hassle Travel Buddy

The ThinkPad 570 laptop is thin and flightworthy, and just may hit it big

When you travel with a laptop, how often do you really need a floppy drive or CD-ROM while on a plane or in an airport lounge? If you're like me, hardly ever. That's why I've always thought it was a great idea to put the essential components of a computer into one thin, light box and keep the CD-ROM and other accessories in a separate unit.

This is hardly an original idea. Going back to the defunct Digital Equipment HiNote Ultra of 1995, many manufacturers have tried combining a bare-bones laptop with a separate "slice" for accessories. But none of these products found much commercial success. So IBM thought long and hard before choosing a slice design for the ThinkPad 570, successor to the groundbreaking thin, light ThinkPad 560.

ADD-ONS. Because of my past enthusiasm for designs that didn't become popular, my judgment may be suspect. But I believe the ThinkPad 570 could be a hit with mobile executives. Ignoring for the moment the add-on unit that IBM calls the UltraBase, the 570 compares very favorably to its three-year-old predecessor. At 4 lb. and 1.1-in. thick, it's actually a tiny bit lighter and thinner. The case is 0.7 in. deeper, but that allowed designers to replace the 12.1-in., 800x600 pixel display with a 13.3-in., 1040x768 screen.

The basic laptop has a full complement of standard ports and an excellent keyboard and display but no floppy or CD-ROM drive. To get those, you have to mate the 570 with the UltraBase, a unit that adds about an inch to the laptop's thickness and, depending on what options are installed, about three pounds to its weight.

The UltraBase, a $119 option, contains two bays. One can hold drives for a CD-ROM ($135), a DVD-ROM ($335), an LS-120 SuperDisk ($225), or a Zip disk ($269). The other can take either the standard floppy drive or a second battery (a pricey $209), which doubles battery power to between five and seven hours. IBM also offers a couple of approaches for linking the laptop to standard monitors or keyboards for desktop use. Corporate-systems managers will appreciate the fact that most accessories for the widely used ThinkPad 600 model will fit in the 570's bay. Batteries are an exception.

The design of the 570 overcomes the most serious drawbacks of past slice attempts. First, it is really easy to join and separate the two pieces--no screws, no tricky alignment problems, and no rebooting. To mate them, you set the laptop against a lip at the front of the base, lower it into place, and press firmly. I found I could easily do it with my eyes closed, which was not remotely true of any previous slice that I tried. To separate them, you press a button on the front of the base. When a light goes out, indicating that Windows is ready for undocking, you flick two levers and the laptop lifts off. I docked and undocked the 570 while it was running with no problems.

Second, when joined, the laptop and base have the feel of a hefty (6.9-lb.), but manageable, laptop. Some clever design touches make the 570 with the base look thinner than its 2 inches and, at that, it is in fact a bit thinner and a lot lighter than either the top-of-the-line ThinkPad 770 or the rival slice design Compaq Armada 3500.

TRADE-OFFS. If you need a CD-ROM and floppy on the road, I think the 570 makes more sense than thin-and-light laptops such as the Toshiba Portege 7100 or Hewlett-Packard's OmniBook 900, which rely on external accessories with awkward cables. The real choice is between the slice and a more conventional thin notebook with an internal bay, such as the ThinkPad 600 or a Dell Latitude CPi, which are around 1 1/2 in. thick and weigh about 6 lb.

The 570 has improved the terms of the trade-off between convenience in use and convenience in travel. So while I have been a big fan of the conventional thin laptop, I'm going to give the 570 a place in my road-warrior kit. The two big advantages I see: The thin unit will fit more easily into my carry-on briefcase while the base travels in luggage, allowing it to be wheeled rather than carried through airports. And the thin base means it should be more usable on airplanes than most 13.3-in. laptops. For example, the 570 display works just fine on the tray table of a Boeing 747-400 coach cabin seat even when the seat in front is fully reclined. The ThinkPad 600 is just a little too tall, as I learned when I nearly lost one on a recent United flight.

It remains to be seen whether IBM's slice can succeed where so many others have failed. But it is the best design of its type that I've seen, and if it can't make it, I'm prepared to abandon hope for the category.

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