The Latest Laptops Work Hard and Play Hard--on Your Knee

And because they're so capable, they raise a question: Dare I ditch my desktop?

For years, tech gurus have envisioned a day when a gaggle of digital gadgets will run our lives. Our PCs, cell phones, handhelds, TVs--even our kitchen appliances--will all seamlessly link up to handle the details of daily existence. But while the world waits for third-generation phones, tablet PCs, and Web-enabled refrigerators to deliver on their potential, there's a machine that already does much of what the future promises: the tried-and-true laptop.

Today's laptops have enough brains and brawn to be your only PC. Processors running faster than 1 gigahertz are standard fare on even stripped-down models costing $1,200 or less. So are eye-pleasing screens, lightning-fast CD burners, spacious hard drives, and enough memory to make an elephant proud. Packed with power, portables now deftly handle even the flashy games and demanding multimedia work once reserved for deskbound giants.

The best reason to ditch your desktop, though, is wireless. Setting up a wireless network at home now costs less than $150--which means you can get rid of all of those cables and surf from anywhere in the house. And public wireless access points--using a technology called Wi-Fi--are sprouting up in airports, hotels, coffee shops, and parks to give laptop luggers untethered access to the Internet at speeds cell phones won't touch anytime soon.

These days, you can get a decent laptop for less than $1,000. But if you're banishing your only desktop to the attic, you'll likely want to pay a bit more to get the right balance of screen size, battery power, and processor performance. If you want Wi-Fi, you might choose a model with a built-in antenna--an option costing about $50 to $100. The lightest machines, ultraportables, aren't much bulkier than a glossy fashion magazine. If you want everything but the kitchen sink, try a desktop replacement. You can lug it around the house or to the backyard--although probably not much farther than that. Die-hard business travelers, meanwhile, usually prefer midprice "road warriors," which offer excellent performance and a mix of features in a manageable size.

Even the lightest machines can handle the most demanding tasks. Our top ultraportable pick, Dell Computer's (DELL ) $1,978 Latitude C400, weighs in at 3.6 pounds. It comes with a 1.2 GHz Pentium III-M chip--the "M" stands for mobile--256 MB of RAM, and a 30 GB hard drive. Compaq Computer's Evo N410c tips the scales at just 3.5 lb. and offers a nifty $199 expansion module allowing you to use up to four batteries at a time. Even lighter are the waifish Toshiba Portégé 2000 and Sony VAIO SRX99--both weighing less than 3 lb.

The problem with many flyweights is that their batteries won't last much longer than a subway ride, let alone a transatlantic flight. Not so the IBM ThinkPad X30: the $2,500 machine can go four hours without being plugged in. Add a 1-lb. second battery, and it'll last eight. Either way, it's light enough for law student Aaron J. Schechter to tote to class every day at Boston College Law School. And since BC is one of a growing number of campuses with a Wi-Fi network, Schechter can spend a sunny day digging up precedents out on the lawn, not holed up in the library.

You don't have to be a mobile maven to crave a laptop as your main PC. Among consumers, the best-selling portables are, in fact, desktop replacement models such as the top-ranked Dell Inspiron 8200. These incredible hulks can do nearly everything traditional PCs do, but they take up a fraction of the space. Chris R. Davis, a risk analyst for online bill service CheckFree Corp. (CKFR ), chucked his desktop for a $2,658 Gateway 600xl. At 8.7 lb., the 600xl isn't very portable, but its 2-GHz processor is plenty powerful for burning CDs and watching DVDs on its sprawling 15.7-inch screen.

If money is no object, take a look at the Apple PowerBook G4. At 5.4 lb., the machine, costing roughly $3,000, is light enough to be Lee L. Schissler's mobile office and powerful enough to be his production studio. Before pitching a client on a $50 million project recently, the Houston marketing consultant edited video clips and wove them into a professional presentation stored on his 40-GB hard drive. Laptops are now so capable, "you can carry your life on them," Schissler says.

Yet for all their tantalizing features, fully loaded laptops are impractical for hard-core business travelers. Midprice, midsize machines are still the most popular for the corporate set. The gold standard: IBM's ThinkPad T30, our top pick in the category. Its staid black case isn't flashy, but it gets kudos for durability. And the little touches Big Blue throws in have made it a favorite with mobile managers: There's a tiny night-light above the keyboard, for instance, and dual antennae for better Wi-Fi reception.

Practical doesn't have to mean boring. Toshiba's Portégé 4010, which starts at just $1,599 for a 933-MHz Pentium III-M chip and 256 MB of RAM, features a distinctive silver case and a host of goodies like a FireWire port for downloading digital video and a slot for plugging in cards that fit into MP3 players and digital cameras. The best part: It weighs a mere 4.2 lb.

As wireless networks proliferate, the popularity of do-everything laptops should soar. Just ask Miami Internet entrepreneur Marc Fest. With his ultralight IBM X30 and Wi-Fi, he often works from a beachfront café. Sure beats an Internet refrigerator.

By Andrew Park

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