Weighing The Ultralights

In Japan, tiny laptops weighing less than four pounds are best-sellers. In the U.S. and most of the rest of the world, however, these ultralight computers remain niche products that appeal to a relatively small group of buyers who value lightness and compact size above all else. A look at new ultralights from Toshiba and Gateway shows that while notebooks in this class are getting better, most buyers are likely to find that they require too many compromises.

The Toshiba Portege 3480CT is typical of ultralights that often serve as primary business computers in Japan. It has impressive specifications: a 600-MHz Pentium III processor and a 12-GB hard disk, all in a barely inch-thick package weighing just 3.4 pounds.

Then there are the features that keep products of this sort relegated to niche markets in the U.S. The keyboard is 9.75 inches wide, compared with 11.25 inches on the mainstream IBM ThinkPad T20. The cramped keyboard makes typing hard.

A more subtle problem is Toshiba's decision to use 1,024x768 pixel resolution in an 11.3-inch display. The sharp images are great for displaying Japanese characters, but text in Western languages is tiny. Farsighted users will have to fuss a lot with font sizes before they are comfortable reading text.

Ultralight notebooks have no space for internal drives and very little room for ports. The Portege offers only one USB port, an external monitor connector, and a phone jack for the modem. An accessory port replicator must be added to get the full complement of connectors, including an Ethernet port. Or you can go for the $399 multimedia port replicator, which can hold a CD ($249) or DVD ($379) drive. The combination is fine for the desktop, but the two-piece setup is very awkward, particularly on an airplane.

CLUMSY. The most interesting feature of the Portege is its approach to getting longer battery life. An extra battery, allowing up to 8 hours of use, clamps to the bottom of the notebook, adding 2 pounds and about 3/4 of an inch of thickness. Unfortunately, I had trouble attaching and removing the battery.

The Gateway Solo 3300 is better suited for the U.S. market. It's not quite as tiny as the Toshiba, but the wider box provides room for a better keyboard. The 12.1-inch display shows 800x600 pixels, which provides much more readable text. In addition, the notebook offers a full complement of ports, including both a modem and Ethernet. An external CD-ROM drive costs $99, a DVD $199, and, as with the Portege, the combo is clumsy for mobile use. You won't want to use the Solo to play DVDs in airplanes because I only got 80 minutes of play off a charge.

The majority of business laptop buyers, at least outside Japan, have made their preferences clear: They are willing to accept an extra pound or two to get an internal CD-ROM, a bigger display, and a better keyboard. For the minority who consider size and weight to be paramount, either of these laptops is worth a look.

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