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Trading power for portability

Considerations can help narrow your shopping list of laptops.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 1999


For people on the go, powerful computing can come in small packages.

Top notebook computers

Power Notebooks

Midrange Notebooks

Budget Notebooks:

But buyers shopping for a portable computer face a bewildering variety of features, weights and price tags.

Some of today's laptops are powerful enough to be used as a desktop system as well. In many cases, however, consumers have to accept some trade-offs for mobility, such as smaller screens and shrunken keyboards.

Just as with a desktop, the first concern with a laptop should be making sure you get enough computing horsepower. "What you really care about is the power of the system so it meets your needs," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, a high-tech consulting company in Campbell, Calif. Bajarin also writes for Mobile Computing magazine.

But the more functions you want, the more the machine will weigh. On the high end, Bajarin said, IBM's ThinkPad 600 is a favorite of road warriors looking for a full-powered system. It weighs about 5 pounds, and prices range from about $2,700 to $4,000, depending on the configuration.

But for basic uses, such as word processing, e-mail and Internet access, people don't need all the power and heft, Bajarin said. The Sony VAIO line of notebooks weighs less than 3 pounds, starts at about $1,800 and packs considerable punch, Bajarin said.

There are trade-offs for the lightest computers, including limited hookups for devices such as printers and DVD players, but Bajarin said most users feel the less weight, the better.

"We're starting to see the road warrior tending to move away from higher-end to lighter systems," Bajarin said.

Bajarin urges mobile buyers to look first at durability because a portable machine will take its share of bumps.

"You especially want to go with a name brand that you can trust, that has a good warranty policy," Bajarin said, naming companies such as IBM, Dell and Sony. "The top names in laptops put these things through such incredible testing that you won't go wrong" choosing a machine from one of them.

Laptops have closed what once was a considerable speed gap with desktops, with chip speeds lagging only three or four months behind. For example, laptops are in the 300- to 350-megahertz range, while desktops are at 700MHz.

Faster, though, isn't as critical for a laptop user doing basic functions. A 300MHz Pentium III machine could be more than someone needs, Bajarin said, especially considering that the more power a system has, the shorter the battery life.

Here are some issues to consider before you buy a laptop:

Screen: They can vary a lot, depending on the type of computer. The IBM ThinkPad has a 13.3-inch screen; the lighter Sony VAIO comes with a screen up to 15 inches. But the 1.1-pound Hewlett-Packard Jornada 690 only has a 6.5-inch screen. (The new Jornada 690, called a PC companion, is expected to ship this month, with a suggested price of $999.)

Bajarin says the screen can make up about half the cost of a machine. If the screen says it's active matrix, that means you can read it from different angles, not just from the front.

Keyboards: Size can make a difference, particularly if you plan to make the laptop your main computer and do a lot of typing. The ThinkPad's keyboard is 95 percent the size of a standard one; the Jornada's is about 76 percent the size of a standard keyboard.

Then you have machines such as the Hitachi 600ET (about $1,200), a handheld tablet device. It uses a touch screen and does not come with a keyboard, but it does have a Universal Serial Bus port where a keyboard can be connected.

Software: Some mobile computers, such as the ThinkPad and VAIO, handle full versions of the Windows operating system. Smaller portables such as the Jornada use a scaled-back version called Windows CE. Transferring work between a Windows CE computer and a Windows computer can be tricky, if not impossible. Buyers should check to see if the programs they will use most are compatible with such transfers.

Peripherals: What users give up in weight sometimes is the ability to hook up external devices such as CD-ROMs. Buyers will want to check to see if ports are available to connect external disk drives, for example, if the computer doesn't come with one, or if infrared transfer of data is possible between machines.

Size also means giving up other features you're used to at home or the office.

"When you go to a laptop, you're going to realize that having a serious speaker on them is impossible because of their size," Bajarin said. "As far as graphics are concerned, you can have a much more powerful chip on a desktop because you don't have the heat requirement you have on a laptop."

Battery: No breakthroughs have been reported in longer-lasting batteries. Most batteries still last only 2 to 3 hours. And in mobile computers, the more powerful the processor, the shorter the battery life. Bajarin says buying an extra battery is a good idea for people who spend a lot of time on long flights, as he does. That can set you back $100 or more.

Availability: An unexpected problem for laptop buyers this year may be a shortage of machines. Demand for liquid crystal displays is outstripping manufacturers' ability to produce them. Depending on the model, consumers may have to wait weeks for their orders to be filled.

"Laptop computers have been in short supply since spring, and will continue to be in short supply until the middle of next year," said Ross Young, president of Display Search, a flat-panel display market research company in Austin, Texas.

And for those waiting to see what develops next for mobile computing, Dulaney said Intel is developing a chip for laptops that will run at two speeds: slower when it's using the battery, faster when it is plugged into an electrical outlet.

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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