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Review: Notebook winners from Apple, IBM, Sony

By JULES ALLEN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 12, 2001


Titanium G4 PowerBook

MAKER: Apple Computer

PRICE (as tested): $2,999

I really wanted to like this machine. But while the hot buttons are great, the reality isn't quite there.

The PowerBook's extra-wide screen, featured in Apple's ads, is a whopping 15.2 inches wide and 1,152 by 769 pixels, compared with most computers at 1,024 by 769 pixels. That extra width really makes a difference, especially if your notebook doubles as a DVD player. And I'm sure it'll make spreadsheets easier to work with, too.

It comes with a G4 processor, fast enough to handle intensive tasks with ease.

It falls down on a few points, though, which would make me think twice before buying one.

You would think a titanium case would make the machine feel robust and durable. It's not so, and I feared tossing it in my backpack lest it be crushed by my daily commute.

The underside gets almost unbearably hot and, because of the titanium case, the heat spreads out evenly on your lap.

The noisy internal fan helps with convection but irritatingly kicks in halfway through a DVD movie or during a long music CD.

Battery life is up to five hours, according to Apple literature, but I got only about 3.5 hours before searching for somewhere to plug it in. I wasn't very impressed with the built-in speakers.

iBook

photo
[Photo: Apple Computer]
The new iBook has a 1,024- by 768-pixel screen, which offers plenty of room for viewing Web pages.
MAKER: Apple Computer

PRICE (as tested): $1,799

I was excited to see what Apple had in store for the latest iBook since I was pleased with my original bright orange version. Two things jump right out: the difference in the size and color.

Gone is the unique clam-shell design with a carrying handle and the wild color schemes. Instead, today's iBook looks like a big, white Chic-let. And it's physically smaller than its predecessor so it will fit in briefcases and bags with ease. I miss the color but I certainly don't miss the extra size and weight.

A welcome revision is a 1,024- by 768-pixel screen. I consider this the optimum resolution for a laptop computer. Previous iBooks could function only at 800 by 600 pixels, which makes a lot of Web sites a little cramped for comfort. I wouldn't want this 12.1-inch screen to be my primary display. But it's easy to hook up an external monitor -- something the original iBook couldn't do.

Apple has overhauled the keyboard layout, to boot. There are two command keys (the Windows equivalent is the Windows key) on either side of the space bar and a nifty keyboard controlled CD-ROM eject function.

The 500-megahertz G3 CPU in the test unit, like its zippier G4 PowerBook cousin, has plenty of pep for all but the most demanding user.

The machine felt robust enough to throw all 4.9 pounds of it in a backpack without fear of damage. The connection ports, such as FireWire, USB and Ethernet, are not covered, which makes them an easy entry point for dust, dirt, lint and paper clips. Battery life claimed five hours, and I got about four on a good day.

All in all it's a well-rounded machine and great value.

ThinkPad A22m

photo
[Photo: IBM]
The ThinkPad A22m features a keyboard light in the top of the screen for typing when there is little light.
MAKER: IBM

PRICE (as tested): $2,199

My first paid programming gig was writing software for the original IBM PC. Even back then, the quality of IBM's hardware was apparent.

It hasn't lost its knack for making solid equipment, reflected in the construction of the ThinkPad A22m. The case is well-constructed and the keyboard, while missing that comfortable "clack" of the original IBM PC keyboard, has a firm desktop feel.

It weighs in at 6.5 pounds, which is something your back may feel if you carry it around enough. It has a bright, crisp 15-inch screen, as well as a port for connecting an external monitor, keyboard and so forth. The display resolution is 1024 by 800 pixels.

IBM ships this machine with Windows, but geeky types should note that I was able to install SuSE Linux without a hitch. That makes me think other Linux varieties would install without problems. IBM, a staunch supporter of the little operating system that could, offers Caldera Linux on some high-end ThinkPads.

It's the little things that make the ThinkPad stand out from your average PC notebook computer, such as the keyboard light built into the top of the screen. If you're in a situation where the ambient light doesn't illuminate the keyboard, turning on this little light makes all the difference for non-touch typists. Interestingly, the keyboard is missing a dedicated Windows key, freeing up space for real-size Alt and Control keys on either side of the space bar.

Other than this ThinkPad's weight, the only real downside I could find is that the dedicated ThinkPad and volume keys had a habit of getting stuck unless you press them in just the right way.

Without plugging into an power outlet I got about 2.5 hours with the standard battery.

Of all the machines I tested, I thought this one provided the best value for semimobile computing.

Vaio GR170k

photo
[Photo: Sony Electronics]
The Vaio GR170k has a slot for a Memory Stick storage device for moving images, MP3s and other files.
MAKER: Sony

PRICE (as tested): $2,999

I was shocked to learn it is possible to get too much of a good thing.

This Sony model ships with a humongous 1,400- by 1,050-pixel size on a 14.1-inch screen. Perhaps this might have worked on a 15-inch screen. But this combination means incredibly crisp but uncomfortably tiny type and images. With my old eyes, I found myself leaning over to squint at the screen most of the time. I pushed this computer under several younger noses. After the "wow" factor wore off, I heard the same complaint from them.

Sony has what it calls a Jog Dial on most of its computer and electronic devices. It's a great idea for making simple selections and would be great for scrolling up and down Web pages. It's like the Microsoft Wheel Mouse.

Hardware aside, the Jog Dial software has to be one of the most ill-designed interfaces ever. It's an awkward combination of style over substance. I removed the driver software after fighting with it for a few hours.

All of the other Sony-specific software didn't suffer from this problem, so perhaps Sony needs to rethink how the Jog Dial software works. It has the potential to be very useful.

I really liked the built-in CD writer. With Sony's multimedia focus, this made moviemaking easy. Much like the Apple machines, this computer has a fast FireWire port. Moving sound and pictures out of my Sony video camera was easy, much like the Mac and iMovie.

The processor is an impressive 1 gigahertz and needs to be to satisfy moviemaking demands. Sound was loud and robust.

The GR170k has a slot for Sony's proprietary Memory Stick technology. A Memory Stick is a small, self-contained storage device that allows you to move images, MP3 music and other files around with ease. You can, for instance, take pictures with a camera and transfer them to your PC without hooking the machines up with wires, or move music between your laptop and your Palm compatible organizer turned MP3 player. But it works only with Sony technology, of course.

If you've got a lot of Sony gear and want them to talk to your computer, this is probably the ultimate choice.

Vaio PCG-SR33

MAKER: Sony

PRICE (as tested): $999

I tried to keep away from sub-notebook machines, but this one's price point of a hair less than $1,000 was too seductive.

Like its big brother, the GR170k, it's got the Memory Stick and Jog Dial technology built in. Surprisingly, it's got a FireWire port as well. In addition to whizzing video around, FireWire allows you to connect peripherals such as CD-ROM burners, tape backups or even a network connection.

Where sub-notebooks rule over their larger counterparts is size and weight. This machine is an inch thick and a sliver under 3 pounds. It's light because devices such as the CD-ROM are external and plug into the machine.

Rather than using a USB connection, this CD-ROM unit plugs into the computer's single PC Card slot. That's bad news if you have an Ethernet card in there to connect to a network. You'll have to disconnect from the network and unload the card any time you want to play a CD-ROM.

The screen was a little under par. It lacked the crisp depth of the Sony and IBM units and, while bright in the middle, it seemed to fade toward the edge.

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