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-- by Jim Forbes
A new class of notebooks could end up defining the phrase "desktop replacement." Based on Intel's new 233MHz P55C mobile Pentium chip, these portable computers have ample processing power for the most complex tasks. Some have feature sets that blur the lines between desktops and notebooks, boasting 14.1-inch active matrix displays and even DVD drives.
But these barn burners won't be cheap; expect to pay between $5,000 and $7,000. Once you get over sticker shock, you could find yourself chucking that desktop system in favor of a notebook of this class.
The first two 233MHz notebooks to arrive in the WinLab were engineering prototypes from NEC and Toshiba. Both machines are fast, and, since we tested prototypes, the performance of the final versions should be even better. Both processors averaged more than 440MIPS in our Wintune 97 benchmark tests. That's 40 percent more processor power than some portables based on the 166MHz P55C Pentium. But processor performance is just the tip of the iceberg. This new class of machine also offers great video and some of the best audio we've heard coming out of a notebook.
In coming months, expect most top-name notebook makers to launch 200MHz and 233MHz products that should be available at about the same time as the two notebooks reviewed below.
NEC Versa 6230
There's little not to like about the NEC Versa 6230. In fact, this may be NEC's best-ever notebook. It has a tremendous feature set, MIPS to burn and a basic configuration that cries out to be a base station.
The configuration includes Intel's new 233MHz Pentium MMX processor adapted for mobile computers, 32MB of EDO RAM (upgradable to 128MB) and 512KB of level 2 cache. Storage options include 3GB, 4GB or 5GB hard drives; a 3.5-inch floppy drive and a 24X variable-spin CD-ROM drive are standard. The 3.5-inch and CD-ROM drives can be swapped in and out of an internal socket. An LS-120 drive (3.5-inch technology compatible with ordinary floppies; it can also store 120MB of data on a special disk) is an option. The 6230 also supports hot docking-an important feature for corporate notebooks.
The video subsystem, which supports Zoomed Video, comprises a NeoMagic PCI video controller with 2MB of memory and a 13.3-inch active-matrix screen. The screen is very bright, and the colors are extremely crisp. The video subsystem is powerful enough to use 1024x768 pixels at 16 bits per pixel as a native resolution. We were extremely pleased with the Versa's display, which provides approximately the same viewing area as a 15-inch desktop monitor. The video system also includes jacks that allow you to use a television monitor for display.
The FM synthesizer-based audio system supports 3D stereo, and is also compatible with the 16-bit Sound Blaster Pro standard. The internal speakers are good enough to be used in close presentation settings. An integrated microphone is mounted in the system's case.
This portable comes with a Type II PC Card 56K cellular-ready modem and answering machine software, although the modem was not installed on our test unit. It also has a full complement of external ports, including one USB connector. The PC Card bay will accept two Type II cards. To insert a Type III device, however, you need to remove the included PC Card modem.
The 6230 uses the standard Versa keyboard; it provides keys with 3 millimeters of travel and incorporates an integrated VersaPad pointing device in the middle of the palm rest. As with other NEC Versa notebooks, we found it easy to use the keyboard for extended periods.
The supplied lithium ion battery pack provided 1.2 hours of operation, which, given the screen size, is acceptable. An optional second battery is also available for use where a wall outlet is not present.
The NEC Versa 6230 measures 2.3 by 11.7 by 9.9 inches, which is slightly larger than most notebooks, and has a travel weight of about 8.1 pounds including its power supply and both drives. The unit we tested was running Windows 95, but Windows NT should also be available on the shipping product.
For a prototype, the Versa has very good benchmark results. It took an average of 66 and 146 seconds, respectively, to execute our Word and Excel macros, and 17 minutes to run our Photoshop/DeBabelizer Pro/MMX script. The processor score was 442MIPS, and its hard drive averaged 33MB per second of cached-disk throughput. Its NeoMagic video controller churned out 30Mpixels per second of video throughput.
The performance and features of the Versa 6230 outstrip WinList products like the 166MHz Versa 6060. However, with prices exceeding $5,000, this and other 233MHz notebooks may be a bit much to swallow.
Toshiba Tecra 750CDT
Tecra is the top of Toshiba's notebook line. In the past, Toshiba has used Tecra to premiere several important technologies, including new video subsystems. We think the Tecra 750CDT will probably set new standards, including, unfortunately, a very high introductory price.
The standard configuration includes a 233MHz Pentium P55C processor, 32MB of EDO memory (expandable to 160MB), a 14X CD-ROM drive, 4MB of video RAM, 512KB of level 2 cache, a 13.3-inch active-matrix color screen and a 5GB hard drive. An internal 56K modem and two USB connectors are also standard. The Tecra has two vertically stacked Type II PC Card slots that will accept a Type III card. Like the NEC Versa, it supports Zoomed Video and hot docking, and also provides jacks that allow you to use a television monitor for display.
The video subsystem on the Tecra 750CDT is based on S3's ViRGE chip and comes with 2MB of memory. The display is very bright, and the colors displayed in 16-bit XGA Mode are brilliant. The sound system uses a Yamaha sound chip, and its output is good enough for professional settings.
The Tecra ships with additional standard features that could make it a shoo-in for some corporate applications. These include a digital color camera that uses a new dedicated port and software that automatically digitizes whiteboard sessions or other forms of data for inclusion in e-mail.
This unit is available with a number of operating systems, including Windows NT 4.0, Windows 95 and Windows for Workgroups 3.11. It also ships with Intel's LANDesk network-management software and DMI 2.0 asset-management software.
The Tecra has a new keyboard with an Accupoint pointing device in the middle, and Windows function and menu keys in the upper right-hand corner. It has a slightly less tactile feel than other keyboards, but it's not uncomfortable.
Access to controls and commonly used connections on the Tecra 750CDT is very good. The modem is on the right-hand front portion of the system case; an external connector for the floppy disk drive and two USB connectors is on the left-hand side. The supplied 14X CD-ROM is located
in a bay that can also house a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive or a second battery. The Tecra measures 2.1 by 11.9 by 9.5 inches and has a travel weight of nearly 8.8 pounds.
It takes a lot of power to drive the Tecra 750CDT. Average run-down time for this prototype's lithium ion batteries was about 1.2 hours, which was better than expected, given this computer's features.
The Tecra's processor averaged 442MIPS running our benchmarks. Cached-disk throughput for its hard disk subsystem was 24MBps. Its S3 ViRGE-based video system delivered 24Mpixels per second of video throughput. The Tecra's applications scores were: Word, 90 seconds; Excel, 283 seconds; and multimedia, 16.46 minutes.
Pack It Up
Pound for pound, the NEC Versa 6230 and the Toshiba Tecra 750CDT are among the most expensive, as well as most powerful, notebook computers we've ever tested.
However, when it comes down to a choice between the two, the Tecra's superlative feature set transcends its raw benchmark scores and earns it a place on our WinList of recommended products, replacing the Hitachi Mx 166T.
Windows Magazine, October 1997, page 121.