A Light Laptop That's Fully Loaded

Toshiba's Portégé 4000 may be the first compact notebook that doesn't skimp on features

For about as long as there have been notebook computers, there have been ultracompact versions designed for buyers who could pay more for the ultimate in mobility and who were prepared to sacrifice considerable function. The era of compromise may be over. Toshiba's new Portégé 4000 is not the thinnest or lightest laptop around, but it squeezes just about everything you might want in a portable PC into an amazingly compact package.

The first sacrifice made in compact designs has traditionally been an internal CD or DVD drive. The solutions for those times when you must have at least a CD-ROM have been discouraging: external drives connected by awkward cables, or snap-on bases called "slices" that left the unit bigger and heavier than it would have been with built-in drives.

Not so with the 4.3-lb. Portégé 4000. It's smaller and about a half-pound lighter than "thin and light" workhorses such as the IBM ThinkPad T23 or the Dell Latitude C600. But like its bigger competitors, the Portégé 4000 offers an internal bay that can take a variety of components. A CD-ROM drive is standard, but options include a combo CD recorder/DVD drive, a second battery, or a second hard drive. In addition, the Portégé 4000 features a slot for SD memory, a postage-stamp-size card that can hold up to 64 MB. The card can be shared with a number of Palm and PocketPC models and some digital cameras.

The Portégé 4000 is also extremely rich in communications options. Like almost all current laptops, it comes with an internal modem and Ethernet connection, but it also offers two integrated wireless hardware options. There's "Wi-Fi" (also known as 802.11b) for connecting to wireless local networks, for which you pay $100 for an Agere version or $150 for Cisco Systems'. And there's Bluetooth, a new short-range wireless standard designed to replace cables when you connect to a personal digital assistant, printer, or other accessory. It costs $100. Bluetooth is mostly a curiosity at the moment, but it should turn up in more accessories as costs come down.

With two USB connectors, slots for two PC cards, an infrared port, and an external video connector, there's not much you could add. If you want an old-fashioned serial or parallel port, you'll need a $199 port replicator that also serves as a dock for desktop use. An external USB floppy drive is also an option.

Versatile as the new Portégé 4000 is, Toshiba has made some compromises--one of which is display size. Compared with bigger IBM (IBM ) and Dell Computer (DELL ) models, which boast 14.1-in. displays with resolutions up to 1400x1050 pixels, Toshiba's 12.1-in. display looks a little cramped. For an engineer working on technical drawings or a financial executive using large spreadsheets, it may not be adequate. But for typical laptop tasks--reading e-mail, editing memos, and Web browsing--the Toshiba screen does fine. The computer also fits well on an airplane tray table. The small display and a relatively slow (but more than adequate) 750-MHz processor help the Portégé 4000 get a decent three hours of battery life. With about an inch less width than a standard laptop, the Portégé's keyboard is a bit scrunched, but subtle layout changes make it far better than earlier Toshiba efforts.

If even this strikes you as too big and you are willing to sacrifice a lot for mobility, you might consider the Sharp PC-UM10. This 2.9-lb. laptop, just 0.8 in. thick, represents a style popular in Japan, and Sharp hopes it will give the company a beachhead in the U.S. market. The UM10's unique feature is a keyboard that pops up a bit as the lid is opened. The resulting three millimeters of vertical travel, the same as on standard laptops, makes for a much better typing feel. Unfortunately, the layout of the keyboard leaves much to be desired. A tiny right-shift key and arrow keys that are not offset from the main keyboard make typing difficult.

The PC-UM10 sells for $1,999, but the optional $279 external CD-ROM is mandatory unless you can load whatever software you need over a network. Unlike most laptops, you can't add memory to the Sharp--and the built-in 128 MB is just adequate. A 256-MB model costs an extra $100, which would be money well spent.

The Sharp is obviously a niche product, but the Portégé 4000 may help redefine the mainstream notebook for the mobile executive. This is a case where smaller truly is better.

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