Three Thoroughbred Laptops

Dell, HP, and Lenovo have similar specs, but Lenovo has an edge in software

TECH & YOU PODCAST

If you're a mobile executive, chances are I know a lot about your laptop. It probably weighs a bit under 5 lb., has a 14-in. display, runs 3 to 4 hours on a charge, and is your only business computer, staying docked on your desk when you're in the office. And if you work for a large corporation, odds are good that it's either a ThinkPad or comes from Dell (DELL ) or Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ).

I took the latest versions of these "thin and light" executive workhorses for a run, trying out a Dell Latitude D620 ($1,970, fully loaded), an HP Compaq nc6400 ($1,999), and a Lenovo ThinkPad T60 ($1,999). They are all good and similar, but there's one difference: The Dell and HP notebooks have 14-in. widescreen displays, while Lenovo is sticking with 14- or 15-in. screens in the traditional, boxy design.

I figure that if any of us buys a laptop today, we will upgrade the operating system to the new Windows Vista when it ships in early 2007 or soon thereafter. So I made sure each laptop was configured to meet Vista's considerable performance demands: fast Intel Core Duo processors, high-end graphics systems, and a gigabyte of memory. All models also came with fingerprint readers and modems to connect to the Internet using high-speed wireless phone networks (Technology & You, Apr. 3).

ALL THREE LAPTOPS ARE CAPABLE performers, and given the similarities in specifications and price, choosing among them is not easy. I confess to a longtime fondness for ThinkPads, based more than anything else on the solid feel and intelligent design of their keyboards. But I also have come to prefer the widescreen design. Although the Dell and HP displays are about 11% smaller in area than the ThinkPad, I find the wider design better for opening two documents side by side, and these machines' sleeker profile make them easier to use on an airplane tray. (Lenovo offers the ThinkPad Z60, a 14-in. widescreen model otherwise similar to the T60, but markets it mainly to small and medium-size businesses.)

A few numbers will show how similar these models are: The Dell and HP are about 13 in. wide and 9 1/2 in. deep. The ThinkPad is a bit narrower and deeper. All three are about 1 1/4 in. thick. The HP and ThinkPad weigh about 4 1/2 lbs., the Dell about a half-pound more. Each offers a range of battery options but should get 3 to 4 hours with its standard battery. All offer both a touch pad and a pointing stick. And all have multimedia features, but they are targeted more at training videos than games or movies.

The near-identical specs are no accident. Dell, HP, and Lenovo pretty much own the U.S. corporate laptop market, and enterprise buyers all want more or less the same thing. Constantly bidding against one another for the same contracts pushes the laptop makers toward barely distinguishable designs.

Manufacturers use software to differentiate their products, and I think Lenovo has a clear advantage. It beats the competition with some excellent tools for managing and securing the computer, including the Access Connections program that allows easy switching among wired networks and Wi-Fi and cell-based wireless networks. (It's easy because you store multiple user profiles for Wi-Fi and for cellular networks.) And Lenovo's Rescue and Recovery application automatically backs up user data and system files at a hidden location on the hard drive.

These notebooks dominate the corporate market for good reasons. The designs present a happy trade-off between features and mobility, powerful enough to be your only work computer, small and light enough not to be a burden on the road. While there are lots of laptops to choose from -- Toshiba, Sony, Gateway, and more -- these three are the mobile executive models to beat.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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