Laptops of Luxury

They're cheaper and more powerful than ever

Laptops of Luxury

The era of the Road Warrior may have been supplanted by that of the Road Worrier in the wake of September 11. But that doesn't mean laptop and notebook computer users are becoming shut-ins. PC buyers, from hot-shot executives to cost-conscious students, are continuing to snap up mobile machines even as the desktop business slows to a crawl. In fact, there has probably never been a better time to buy a computer that has plenty of power and is ready to travel. "All the major PC makers are cutting prices and sacrificing margins," says analyst Alan Promisel of market researcher IDC. "They want your business right now."

And they're proving it with bargains. These days a notebook computer with 128 megabytes of random access memory, a reasonably fast processor from Intel (INTC ) or Advanced Micro Devices (AMD ), and a 10-gigabyte hard drive can be had for as little as $1,000. Those willing to open their wallets much wider can get a notebook that performs nearly as well as any muscle-bound desktop machine. Hewlett-Packard's (HWP ) OmniBook 6100, for example, will set you back $3,700, but its 1.13 GHz Mobile Pentium processor, 256 MB of RAM, and 30-GB hard drive won't slow you down as you calculate which stocks you should sell to pay for it. At any price point, laptops today will run Microsoft's new Windows XP operating system, but you should get at least 256 MB of memory. Most will come with XP pre-loaded.

There's more good news: The price gap with desktops is narrowing. Sure, a portable costs more than a similarly configured desktop--hey, you pay a premium for mobility. But instead of a gap the size of the Grand Canyon, it's more like the width of the Mississippi. Two years ago, the average price of notebooks was $900 higher than that of desktop PCs, according to IDC. Now, the difference is $600.

Today, power user no longer means power hog. In the past year, both Intel and AMD have introduced processors that sip electricity and can extend the battery life of a computer by 10% to 20%. Machines with the weakest battery life today can run for better than two hours, while those sporting slots where users can load an extra battery can top five hours.

That extended battery life has helped Larry Argabright make more of his frequent train trips. Argabright, a transportation planner for Amtrak, pops his Hewlett-Packard OmniBook 500 in his briefcase when he hops a train from his office in Philadelphia to the railroad's headquarters in Washington. The battery "lasts all the way to Washington and back," more than three hours round-trip, Argabright says. "It's unbelievable." While the smallish keyboard took some time to master, Argabright says that's a small price to pay for the portability of the 3.5-lb. machine. Costing about $3,000, the HP isn't cheap, but for the money you'll get a relatively speedy 750 MHz Mobile Pentium chip, 256 MB of RAM, a 12.1-in. screen, and a roomy 30-GB hard drive. For Argabright, it's plenty powerful to handle the financial modeling and transportation planning he does on his trips.

You don't always have to pay a lot for an ultra-lightweight laptop. Tim Grissel Jr., president of Newell Machinery Co. in Hiawatha, Iowa, takes his 3-lb. Gateway Solo 3450 home with him most evenings to finish up work for Newell, which installs machinery in grain-processing plants. He likes the computer's diminutive size--it's less than an inch thick--better than an older Gateway he used that weighed in at nearly 10 lb. "I didn't really want to carry [the older machine] anywhere, so I found myself leaving it in one place," Grissel says. Starting at less than $2,000, the 3450 is among the least expensive flyweight machines, and features a 750-MHz Mobile Pentium chip, 192 MB of RAM, a 20-GB hard drive, and a 12.1-in. screen.

And now, ultra-portable no longer means ultra-flimsy. Don Hall found Compaq's (CPQ ) flyweight Evo N400c tough enough to subject it to the hammering hands of schoolkids. As the information technology director for the Kent School District, south of Seattle, Hall has bought 1,000 of the 3.5-lb. machines and expects to pony up for another 3,000. The district is buying the laptops for mobile computing labs that bring the machines to students in their classrooms. "The durability of the Compaq model is what appealed to us. And the light weight makes them easier for the kids to handle," Hall says. While Hall gets a price break for buying in quantity, the N400c costs about $2,600 with a 700-MHz Mobile Pentium processor, 256 MB of RAM, a 20-GB hard drive, and a docking station.

No matter how tough laptops get, not everyone wants to make the sacrifices necessary to cram a computer into a 3-lb. box. The tradeoffs in featherweights are in screen size--most top out at 12.1 in.--and optical drives. Manufacturers haven't figured out how to fit a CD-ROM or DVD drive into a machine that light. But they're getting closer. Most PC makers now build mobile workhorse computers weighing roughly 5 lb. that offer a bigger screen--up to about 14 in. and swappable optical and floppy drives. The star of this group is Compaq's 5.5-lb. Evo N600c. For about $2,400 you'll get a 1.06-GHz Mobile Pentium processor, a 30-GB hard drive, and a 14.1-in. screen. For added flexibility, users can pull out the CD-ROM and snap in a DVD or floppy drive when needed. Best of all, the N600's battery will keep chugging for almost four hours. If you're on a budget, Winbook offers a similarly configured machine, its 5.2-lb. X1, with a generous 320 MB of RAM for less than $2,200.

Some users crave the full desktop experience even when they're on the road--and weight is no object. Take MJ Kelli, a radio host at WFLZ in Tampa, Fla. He bought a Gateway Solo 9550 (GTW ) this fall to take with him to the studio where he tapes his morning talk show. He uses the 8-lb. machine to download sound effects and burn CDs to use on the air. And he spends several hours a day surfing the Web to research topics and guests for his show. At home, Kelli edits videos on the machine's ultra-roomy 15.7-in. screen. One key advantage of the 9550 is its connectivity, he says. The $2,600 computer has five different slots where printers, modems, and video cameras can be plugged in. "I can almost hook the garden hose up to this thing and water the plants," Kelli jokes.

For the would-be Oliver Stone without the movie studio budget, there are plenty of inexpensive notebooks on the market. Debra Mattos likes to edit videos on her computer, too--but does it for a lot less money. The third-grade teacher in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., used her 4.9-lb. Apple iBook (AAPL ) fitted with 256 MB of RAM and a 500-MHz G3 processor to make films and CD photo albums of her sister's wedding last summer. In class, she creates video and still presentations with the computer, which starts at $1,299. Her students use similar machines--all linked via a wireless connection--to chat online with researchers studying wildlife in the Amazon and to do assignments for class. "It's really a motivational tool," Mattos says.

Cheaper still is Sony's Vaio SR33 (SNE ). This $1,000 machine is as light as they come--just 3 lb. The computer has a relatively slow 600 MHz Celeron processor from Intel but makes transferring photos and video a snap with its MemoryStick slot and a firewire connector--which offers a high-speed link to video cameras. The main drawbacks are its small keyboard and its skimpy, 10.4-inch screen. If you're willing to shell out a little more money, at the high end of the budget segment is Compaq's Presario 700. For about $1,200, you'll get a 14.1-in. screen, a 900-MHz AMD Athlon 4 processor, and a 20-GB hard drive--but the machine weighs a hefty 6.5 lb.

With so many choices at reasonable prices, there's plenty of life left in the laptop. Granted, there's little a computer can do to assuage the new angst. But once you get the right model for your needs, at least you'll have one less thing to worry about.

By David Rocks in New York

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