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11/96 Features: Portables with Personality

Somewhere out there, there's a notebook with your name on it. Here's how to meet your match.

By David Gabel, Chief Technical Editor, Jonathan Blackwood, Texas Bureau Editor, and Jim Forbes, Silicon Valley Bureau Editor

CHOICE IS GOOD. It usually means you don't have to settle for second best. Portable computers are a case in point. You can get the one that's just right for you, but first you'll have to sort through the options and make some decisions. The current portable market doesn't make it easy. There's a dizzying array of configurations, styles, sizes, weights and other options, along with an enormous price range that can swing higher than $5,000 and dip down to penny-pinching prices.

The good news is you can get more for your money than ever before, with many notebooks offering features that rival their desktop counterparts. If there is a "bad news" side to the notebook equation, it's portables' relative lack of upgradability. Many give you some upgrade options when it comes to the hard disk or PC Card peripherals, but your options run out for processing power. You won't find any ZIF sockets for upgrading CPUs, for instance.

So the simple rule of thumb when notebook shopping is: Assess your current needs, and keep an eye open to future requirements. Try not to be dazzled by options you'll hardly use and that you'll probably tire of carrying around.

To help get you on the right track, we've taken a functional approach to making buying decisions. We've identified four portable PC user personalities and matched them with the equipment that best fits their needs.

Mail and Memo Maven

If you need to stay in touch no matter where you are, want to jot a short memo from here and there, and have few needs beyond that, you might fit into this category, where portability is the priority. You don't need the greatest screen display, the fastest processor or the most memory. You can probably live without long battery life, because you plug in when you get back to your hotel room in the evening. What you need is a lightweight unit that's easy to carry, fits in a briefcase, has sufficient memory to run Windows quickly enough to avoid frustration, and packs an easy-to-read-but not presentation-quality-display and a fast modem.

A lightweight notebook lacks some bells and whistles, but if all you see yourself doing is word processing, e-mail, Net surfing and personal accounting, a machine like this could set you back less than $2,000.

Lightweights may have keyboards that are slightly smaller than standard configurations and displays under 11 inches (measured diagonally). Although they probably will have neither an internal floppy drive nor a CD-ROM drive, an external floppy drive is usually included and a CD-ROM drive can be connected via cable. Most of these notebooks will cram the now-requisite 16MB of RAM into their small forms, and some newer models may even have a secondary cache or an internal floppy drive. Given the choice, you should opt for a notebook with modular bays, which let you swap a floppy and a CD-ROM drive (4X models are common now in notebooks), add a second battery or replace the hard drive. You'll probably use a CD-ROM only for installing software, so an external drive should suffice.

If you're part of the mail-and-memos mob, you may also want to check out a class of notebooks that's making a comeback of sorts. Called "subcompacts" when they debuted several years ago, they all but disappeared in a market that stressed packing in as many features as possible. These "ultra-lights" appeal to those willing to pay more for less-less weight, that is. Machines such as the Toshiba Port...g... and the Fujitsu Montego generally offer state-of-the-art processors and up to 32MB of RAM, but more importantly, at less than 5.5 pounds, they're more portable than mainstream notebooks. If you're intrigued by one of these machines, be prepared for some serious sticker-shock. Although you could cruise safely in the $2,000 range, these units are soaring into the $5,000-or more-stratosphere. Nevertheless, they're gaining popularity among notebook users who travel extensively and for whom weight is critical.

Hallway Hot-Footer

If you're streaking down a hallway rather than a runway to your next meeting, you may not mind hauling a notebook that's on the hefty side. For those relatively short trips from your office to conference rooms and co-workers' offices, a little extra weight is easy enough to put up with in exchange for a portable that doubles as a desktop system. You want to be able to scoop up your PC, dash down the hall and have last quarter's sales figures at your fingertips when your boss turns to you at the next meeting-but then you want to go back to your office, plug in and get back to work.

You need your data to travel well, but you also need a notebook that's just as "at home" on your desktop. Your portable has to connect easily with your network, a desktop monitor, keyboard and mouse. It should also have some "big PC" traits, like plenty of disk space, ample memory and a fast enough processor to let you access your data before the meeting moves on to the next item on the agenda.

Internal expansion is also an issue. A notebook can't match a desktop PC's capacity to adapt to changing workloads, but some key features do offer room to grow. Your notebook's memory should be expandable. Start with 16MB of RAM, but look for a machine with memory that can grow to 40MB. Because you'll be swapping data with colleagues and other business associates, a built-in floppy disk drive is a must. An 11.3- to 12.1-inch passive-matrix display should be good enough for short stints in meeting environments. An STN (super twist nematic) display will trim a few bucks off your portable's price, and because it doesn't offer much of a peripheral view, your office chums will have a hard time reading over your shoulder.

Docking stations, or even port replicators, are de rigueur for a hallway hauler's notebook. With most docking stations, plugging in-and reconnecting to the LAN, monitor and so forth-is just a matter of sliding the notebook into an adapter. Docking stations usually have a slot or two that can accommodate PCI or ISA expansion cards, and may also have the network interface built in, along with other options such as a modem, sound, a CD-ROM drive or a second hard disk. Port replicators are at the low end of notebook connectivity; they usually just provide a convenient, single-point connection to desktop peripherals, but don't have slots or bays.

You probably connect to the outside world via your company's network, but when you're on the road, a fast modem is essential. Avoid internal modems'-they're rarely upgradable and usually cost more than PCMCIA card modems. You can order a 28.8Kbps PCMCIA modem with your notebook or shop around. Either way, it shouldn't set you back more than $250. PCMCIA modems use a Type II slot, and virtually every notebook available has two of these slots. Many notebooks now come equipped with high-speed infrared (IR) ports that let you point your PC at a similarly equipped printer and print without a physical connection. You can also use an IR port to swap files with another IR-ready notebook-so not only can you tell your boss what last quarter's numbers were, you can shoot the file across the conference table to her notebook.

A notebook's pointing device is the key to comfort. Some vendors offer a choice-trackball, pointing stick or touchpad. If possible, try out the notebook you're considering before you decide.

Expect to pay $2,000 to $3,000 for one of these machines. Because notebook innovations over the past year have generally pushed prices down, you can get quite a lot of notebook in this price range. You might not have to haul it around the globe, but you still don't want a unit that's too big. You shouldn't have to settle for anything larger than 2 by 11 by 8.5 inches or heavier than 7 pounds.

Battery life isn't a primary concern, but if you pay closer to three than two grand for your notebook, you'll probably get a lithium ion battery, which is lighter than its nickel metal hydride counterpart and provides much longer life. Nickel metal hydride batteries are rare in newer models, but if the portable that's the apple of your eye comes with such a battery, don't despair. It should suffice and will probably even save you a few dollars.

Although processing power is a key concern, in this class, that shouldn't be a problem. At the low end of the price range, expect a 100MHz Pentium and up to a 133MHz processor for the higher-priced models.

Presentation Pro

You're waiting for a delayed flight with your notebook on your knee as you make a few last-minute changes to the presentation you're giving in Pittsburgh-or is it Pensacola? Portland? If this sounds familiar, you fit into our next notebook user category: the Presentation Pro. Your portable system has to be up to the task of preparing and giving presentations on the fly.

The list of must-haves for this category will push your notebook up to the $3,000-plus price plateau. Your hardware inventory starts with a large, bright screen. Sure, you'll probably hook up to an external monitor when it's time to give your pitch, but you've got to be ready for the "Monitor? You need a monitor?" situations, too. Multimedia's the current rave, so your peripatetic PC must also have good sound quality, fast video and a CD-ROM drive. And, because you can't always count on a handy AC outlet, a long-life battery can get you through your presentation without stringing extension cords around your audience's ankles.

Your machine's high-quality active-matrix screen should be able to display 800x600 pixels, with higher resolutions available for an external monitor. Big is beautiful these days, with 12.1-inch active-matrix screens moving into the mainstream (four of our 15 recommended notebooks have 12.1-inch screens), and 13-inch models on the way. Expect to pay more for these super-screen machines and to have a little more trouble cramming one into your briefcase.

Presentation pros insist on terrific graphics. Great strides have been made in graphics accelerator chips for notebooks. New chips, such as NeoMagic's 128-bit accelerator, add enough vim and vigor to the video to put notebooks on nearly equal footing with their desktop counterparts. The NeoMagic chip is gaining in popularity and is currently available in some notebooks from Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and others. If you can do some hands-on evaluation of candidate machines, you can get a pretty good idea of video speed by watching how fast windows open and close. Faster video equals less frustration'-for you and your audience.

Long battery life is also important. If your notebook takes a snooze in midpresentation, your audience is likely to follow. While you need a high-performance processor to handle graphics, sound and other multimedia elements, you want that processor to be as power miserly as possible. Luckily, the current state of the art in low-power notebook processors is the brawny 133MHz Pentium, with power-sipping 150MHz processors on the way. (See the October issue for a review of the Micron Millennia TransPort P150 and Nimantics Orion 6X 150 notebooks).

After shelling out $3,000-or more-you shouldn't have to add much to your mobile presentation machine. You're sure to get a built-in floppy disk drive or even modular drive bays where you swap floppy disk, CD-ROM and hard disk drives. Your notebook should also have a secondary cache and at least 16MB of RAM, but you may want to up the RAM to 32MB or more for those memory-hogging multimedia presentations.

Power Trippers

Back at your home base, you have a system that defines high-end: the fastest processor available, tons of memory, high-velocity video'-the kind of system that dims the neighbors' lights when you start it up. For your portable machine, you want all the comforts your desktop PC affords to satisfy your business needs and'-admit it'-an unrepentant thirst for power.

Power trippers aren't likely to even consider a portable with anything less than a 133MHz Pentium. After all, if you're trying to compile a couple of hundred thousand lines of code in a hotel room at 3 a.m., you don't want a machine that will wilt under the load.

You'll want your mobile monster to have a battery that doesn't knock off working before you do, lots of memory, a high-tech display, a CD-ROM drive, a gig or more of hard disk and a modem. That's a whole lot of computing power to stuff inside a little box, so you know it's going to be big and weigh about as much as a set of Charles Atlas barbells. And you know it's going to cost $5,000 or more.

Power trippers shouldn't feel lonely. The number of models available from the most prominent notebook manufacturers indicates there are plenty of you out there. The IBM ThinkPad 765, the NEC Versa 6000, the Compaq Armada 4130T and Toshiba Tecra 720CDT are just a sampling of the high-end, category-defining machines.

On the surface, a power tripper's notebook will look similar to a portable used by someone with less-demanding requirements. But if you look inside, you'll find the differences that separate the solid mobile PCs from the powerhouse portables. The best-performing notebooks complement their potent processors with level 2 cache, a relatively inexpensive way to pump up processor performance and improve overall throughput.

They will also likely include a new generation of PCI-based video controllers and twice as much video memory-2MB-as more modestly configured notebooks. Many new video controllers also support resolutions up to 1024x768 pixels, so you can display more information on the screen and take better advantage of high-resolution external monitors. But you may not need an external monitor because these notebooks are equipped with active-matrix displays measuring 12.1 inches or larger.

Take a hot 133MHz chip-or even a 150MHz-add some level 2 cache and a PCI-based video controller, and you've got a very fast portable with a speedy, bright display. Perfect for CAD, ferocious number crunching or dazzling multimedia presentations.

The Whiz-Bang Stuff

Over the past few years, notebooks have enjoyed renewed popularity largely because they have grown more portable while adding capabilities previously found only in desktop models. You still pay a premium for the small form factor, but portability has become more affordable, with the high-end settling in at $5,000.

In the coming months, several important innovations will appear. Intel's P55C multimedia Pentium processor will add power and better graphics performance, and intelligent lithium ion batteries will offer longer battery life and better power management. Also, 8X drives will be standard on CD-ROM-equipped models.

Two developing technologies will help notebooks shuttle data to and from peripherals at much higher speeds. Firewire is an advanced interface pioneered by Apple Computer and Texas Instruments that's based on the IEEE 1394 specification. Firewire-equipped notebooks can connect to various peripherals, including camcorders and digital video disc players, to move information at 100-, 200- or 400Mb per second.

The emerging CardBus standard promises to replace the PCMCIA slots virtually every notebook has. CardBus defines a faster interface to allow higher throughput rates with card-sized peripherals.


Whatever type of notebook user you are, there's a solid selection of models to suit your need. (Check out the Recommended List in this issue for some of our favorites.) And there's enough good stuff just around the corner that promises better performance and more mobility when your current portable partner starts to show its age.

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