Laptops with Speed to Spare

A new line of Pentiums gives notebooks more zip -- and fierce competition spells lots of choice ahead for consumers

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

Ever since the invention of the laptop, advocates of portable computing have lamented the fact that the fastest notebooks are significantly slower than the speediest desktop computers. This is as true today as ever, with even the newest 1-gigahertz mobile Pentium IIIs lagging well behind the fast desktop Pentium 4s and AMD Athlons.

But there's a big difference today. Except for the most demanding applications, such as three-dimensional modeling, this gap really doesn't matter anymore. In fact, the very fastest laptops literally have speed to burn. Going with a 1-GHz processor will cause a notebook to run hotter, give shorter battery life, and cost more than a modestly slower 850-MHz processor. The trade-off should improve this fall when Intel releases a line of mobile Pentiums based on a new 0.13 micron manufacturing technology -- a 28% reduction in component size over the current generation. As a rule, smaller components mean less heat and longer battery life.

I tried out two new, extremely fast notebooks that make the point, a 1-GHz OmniBook 6000 from Hewlett-Packard (www.hp.com/notebooks/) and an 850 MHz WinBook X1 (www.winbook.com). Though they're very different machines with very different designs, their speed is comparable in normal use.

SIGNIFICANT ACCOMPLISHMENT.

  In general, notebook makers have avoided putting the 1-GHz Pentium III into thin, light notebooks because it's so hard to handle the heat in a small box. While no competition for the Sony R505 in the lightweight category, the X1 is impressively small, at 11.6 by 9.4 inches and just 1-inch thick, and weighs in at 5.2 pounds. The top-of-the-line model comes with a 13.1-inch display, 320 MB of RAM, a 20-GB hard drive, and a built-in DVD-ROM -- a significant accomplishment in a unit this thin. The 1-GHz version costs $2,999.

By stepping down to 800 MHz and giving up 172 MB of RAM and nothing else, the price drops to $2,199. The RAM is a $300 option, so the faster processor alone costs $500, a fair amount of money for a small speed boost. (Prices are for Windows Me versions. Here, as almost always, Windows 2000 is a well-spent $100 extra.)

In a world increasingly dominated by a few giants, does it make sense to buy a lesser-known brand such as WinBook? It certainly can. WinBook is a subsidiary of MEI-MicroCenter, which has been around for years, sells online, and operates a chain of retail stores in the U.S. It's a dirty little secret of the laptop business that some of the leading brands' models are made by the same, mostly Taiwanese manufacturers that produce notebooks for companies like WinBook.

I found little to complain about in the X1. My only real objection was an undesirable flex in the center of the keyboard. But that's a common defect in early-production units like the one I tested.

MAX PERFORMER.

  Though Hewlett-Packard is one of the industry's leading brands and the company has a long history of turning out quality products, it's a chronic also-ran among laptop makers. The OmniBook series is aimed primarily at the corporate buyer, and the OmniBook 6000 that I tried specifically at users willing to sacrifice some lightness in order to achieve maximum performance.

The machine features a 1-GHz Pentium III, 128 MB of RAM, a 30-GB hard drive, and a gorgeous, 15-inch, 1,400 by 1,050 pixel display. The package weighs more than 6 pounds and sells for a hefty $4,299 with Windows 2000, but it's ideal for, say, an engineer who needs to work on complex CAD drawings. Even then, though the processor might be worth some thought. An identical system with a 900-MHz processor fetches $700 less.

Similarly, Toshiba's consumer-oriented Satellite 2800 series demonstrates you don't have to pay a lot to get a highly competent notebook. The top-of-the-line 2805-S401 offers a 700-MHz Pentium III, 128 MB of RAM, a 20-GB hard drive, and a 15-inch, 1,024 by 768 pixel display, all for $2,199. It's nowhere near as sleek as the other laptops I looked at, at 1.6 inches thick and 7.8 pounds, but mobility for notebooks of this class typically means moving from room to room, not flying from city to city. And the bulky case provides room for both a DVD and a built-in floppy drive. Unfortunately, the only operating system offered with this line is Windows Me.

RARE FEATURES.

  The 2800 series doesn't quite make it down to the magic $1,000 price point, but it comes impressively close. The 2800-S201 has a 600-MHz Celeron, 64 MB of RAM, a 6-GB hard drive, a DVD, and a 13.3-inch display, all for $1,199. The model even includes both modem and Ethernet ports, rare in a model this inexpensive.

There's more good news ahead for notebook buyers. The current soft market has set off fierce competition among manufacturers that will drive prices lower. And a lot of new display capacity has come on line, mostly in Taiwan and Korea, ending a couple of years of tight supplies and causing prices to drop sharply. The result is a tough market for manufacturers and component makers, but a feast for consumers.

Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht