The Skinny on Ultrathin Laptops

Toshiba's chic Portégé 2000 is slender all right, but it's outperformed by Dell's less comely C400

Can a notebook computer be too light? Alas, that seems to be the case. Laptop designers have seemingly defied the laws of physics by cramming features and power into wafer-thin boxes. But they haven't had much luck with the laws of chemistry, which dictate that the capacity of a battery is proportional to its size and weight. So making a laptop very light may be easier than making it useful.

The new Toshiba Portégé 2000 is a case in point. It's a handsome laptop, just three-quarters of an inch thick, and weighing 3 1/4 lb. with its AC adapter. Unlike most ultrathin models, it has a well-laid-out keyboard with the vertical key travel and good feel required for accurate typing. The 12.1-in. display is crisp and bright. Wireless Ethernet is built in, though Toshiba engineers seem to have done a poor job with the antennas. The reception is the worst I have seen; it often failed to detect a wireless network even in locations where I have used other laptops without problems. And at $2,199 (a promotional price that includes a free CD-ROM drive, normally a $149 option), it's $400 or more below competition from Compaq (CPQ ), Dell (DELL ), or IBM (IBM ).

What's wrong with this picture? The Portégé only has room for a tiny battery that is less than half an inch thick and weighs just 5.5 oz. Its capacity is a puny 17.3 watt-hours, less than half that of many lightweight laptops, and I found that it gave out after a bit more than 90 minutes. To make the laptop useful when you are more than five feet or so from a power outlet, Toshiba includes an external battery that clamps to the bottom of the Portégé and should bring your total battery life to 4 1/2 or 5 hours. But the auxiliary battery weighs more than 11 oz. and adds a half-inch-thick bump to the rear three inches of the laptop. The auxiliary battery was not available for testing, but I have found external batteries in general to be troublesome and frequently unreliable. I wish the designers had gone for a slightly larger box to begin with, one with room for an adequate primary battery.

The Dell Latitude C400 seems like the Portégé's polar opposite. Although it is only about a quarter of an inch thicker, it seems positively chubby in comparison. And while it has the same sort of magnesium-alloy case as the Portégé, the Dell's battleship-gray paint job somehow makes it look like cheap plastic.

Ugliness, however, is only skin deep, and the C400 is an appealing workhorse. Its most important distinction, compared with the Toshiba: a hefty 37 watt-hour battery that weighs 10.4 oz. It gave more than three hours of life on the model I tested, which had a relatively power-hungry 1.2-gigahertz Pentium III-M processor. For better battery life and a $300 savings, I would choose the 866-megahertz version, which has plenty of power for all typical notebook tasks. Avoid the temptation to save $49 and a couple of ounces by choosing the "standard" battery; it will cut your running time by a third.

Like the Toshiba, the C400 has a 12.1-in. display and a well-designed keyboard, though it's still not quite up to the standard of a similar competitor, the IBM ThinkPad X23. Unlike the Portégé, which offers only a touch pad for cursor control, or the ThinkPad, which has only a pointing stick in the keyboard, the Dell comes with both. This is a bit less than optimal for those who prefer the touch pad, since the placement of mouse buttons between the pad and the spacebar means that the touch pad is farther from the keyboard than is ideal. But with corporations increasingly specifying both types of pointing devices on their laptop bid sheets, such dual models are the wave of the future.

The Dell's wireless Ethernet worked as well as any I've tried, but had one quirk. When no network was available, the C400 tended to freeze for a minute or so at odd intervals, then go back to normal. I found that I could avoid this by temporarily disabling the wireless connection in Windows XP when I was out of network range, but that is a nuisance. Dell engineers are attempting to diagnose and fix the problem.

If you want maximum portability and are willing to make do with very limited battery life, the Toshiba makes sense. But if your usage is more typical and you need to squeeze every second you can get out of the battery, the Dell is a more practical choice.


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