September 20, 2005



Posted: 04.01.05

Laptops that Travel

What is it we all want in a notebook? How about all the power of our desktop computer in a 1-inch-thin, super-sleek case that makes us the envy of our co-workers. It should have all the connectivity we need and, oh yeah, unlimited battery power. A mobile pipe dream? Road warriors have long been left to choose between lugging an all-in-one laptop that squeezes maximum functionality into a marginally mobile 9- to 12-pound package and a scaled-down lightweight machine that saves their backs. The good news is this conundrum is disappearing, thanks to thin-and-light and ultraportable laptops that now provide amazing features in small packages.
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By V. Wade Contreras

Below we take a look at the latest crop of lightweight performers with built-in optical drives, generous screens and serious gigahertz for processing. They might just convince you to put your mobile arsenal on a diet—and perhaps save you a trip to the chiropractor.

Dell D610: Power to Go

When you hit the road, you want to bring along processing power so you can do most of the things your desktop does at the office. The new Dell D610 might fit the bill, being one of the first thin-and-light notebooks designed to take advantage of Intel’s new Centrino version, dubbed Sonoma. Centrino is based on a trio of Intel components—processor, chipset and wireless technology—and Sonoma promises to up the performance of all three.

The Sonoma 915 chipset incorporates PCI Express technology, which is designed to boost processing speed and has been available in desktops since 2004. Sonoma’s Pentium M processor also gets a boost with a frontside bus that has jumped from 400 MHz to 533 MHz. Finally, wireless capabilities are expanded as the Sonoma Pro Wireless 2915ABG card supports 802.11 of the a, b and g varieties.

Beyond the Centrino update, the D610 sports a nice feature set, weighing 5.4 pounds and including a 14.1-inch XGA monitor, an up-to-2GHz processor, four USB 2.0 ports, four hours of battery time, Windows XP and a three-year warranty. It remains to be seen if Sonoma’s technology will do all that Intel claims, and finding out will cost you—in this case upward of $2,100. Expect to see a multitude of Sonoma-equipped notebooks introduced soon. Some models available now include the Fujitsu LifeBook N3510, the HP Compaq nc8230 and the IBM ThinkPad T43.

HP nc6000: All Business

The HP Compaq Business Notebook nc6000 is designed strictly for the business user, and its features include creature comforts such as a touchpad, pointing stick and wireless optical mouse. Typing is easy with a full-width keyboard and hot keys for turning Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g) on and off, opening presentations and locking the keyboard. It’s also easy on the eyes with a 14.1-inch SXGA screen.

The nc6000 addresses security, always a corporate concern, with its Security Manager encryption chip and software to protect the laptop’s contents, as well as PC SmartCard capability. Connection options include SD, USB, PC Card and infrared, and its five-hour-plus battery life is top of its class. The only weaknesses on this strictly biz notebook are a lack of Firewire and a slightly chubby 6-pound heft. But with prices starting at $1,360, it may give you more bang-for-the-buck than any other laptop in our roundup.

IBM ThinkPad X40: Small on Compromise

Some road warriors have only one thing in mind when it comes to a notebook: size. If you’re looking to seriously shrink your mobile toolkit, IBM’s X40 is about the best ultraportable you can find. The rub with ultraportables is always a loss of features, but the X40 offers some surprising capabilities in a mini package.

So how small is it? It measures a svelte 1.1 by 10.6 by 8.3 inches, and it boasts a featherlight 2.7 pounds. Somehow IBM manages to squeeze a 12.1-inch XGA screen and full-size 18mm vertical stroke keyboard into the form factor. The X40 smartly integrates either a 1.1GHz or 1.4GHz Pentium M processor. It’ll give you enough computing power to check e-mail and run presentations and office productivity applications, but it won’t drain your battery in seconds flat. You won’t be editing video or playing Doom, but that’s not what this little companion is built for.

Of course connectivity is always a concern with tiny laptops, and the X40 provides the necessities: Ethernet port, modem, SD slot, IR port, USB port and PC Card slot. There’s also a proprietary powered USB port to connect an optical drive without the need for an additional power source, and Intel PRO/Wireless 2200BG provides 802.11b/g wireless connectivity. There’s no integrated optical drive; you’ll need to add the optional expansion base. FireWire is also missing.

However, IBM does add some neat extras to the X40, such as the option to upgrade to an eight-cell battery for seven hours of computing ($200, add 0.5 pounds). A bottom slice dock adds a modular bay for an optical drive and one parallel, one serial and three USB ports ($200, add 1.3 pounds). There’s a cool nightlight above the screen for low-light computing, and IBM’s Active Protection System parks the hard drive in case of a drop, protecting your data.

The X40’s hard drive options max out at 40 GB, and there’s no touchpad—pointing stick only. But we think the compromises on the X40 are minimal considering its advantages for lovers of low weight. IBM’s legendary
durability and a three-year warranty are reassuring but don’t come cheap at $1,749 for the 1.4GHz/40GB version.

Fujitsu/Panasonic: Other Ultraportable Options

While the X40 is great, it has some interesting competitors in the ultraportable class. The Panasonic Toughbook Y2 defies the rules for ultraportables by incorporating a built-in DVD/CD-RW drive and a 14.1-inch screen in a 3.4-pound package. The drive pops up in front of the keyboard for some big wow factor, and the magnesium alloy case and shock-mounted hard drive make it deserving of the Toughbook name—as does the three-year warranty. However, the price is a jaw-dropping $2,500.

Another ultraportable rule-breaker is the 3.3-pound Fujitsu LifeBook P7010D, which, like the Y2, includes an optical drive (in a modular bay) but has a smaller 10.6-inch wide-aspect screen. Where the P7010D shines is in connectivity, with slots for Secure Digital/Memory Stick, CompactFlash, Type II PC Card, FireWire, S-Video, two USB 2.0 ports and an a/b/g Wi-Fi transceiver. A built-in fingerprint sensor provides security. It retails around $2,100 with all the options.

Apple PowerBook: The Road Less Traveled

We put this last because we know this is the point where many of you will turn the page. For the majority of us, it’s a PC world for the foreseeable future when it comes to work. But for those (usually executives) with the clout to get away with using something that departs from the company norm, Apple is an enticing option.

Often used in graphics and education applications, Macs generally cater to creative types and multi-media buffs. Standard configurations come with a myriad of tools under the iLife software suite, such as iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, GarageBand 2 and iTunes for working with photos, video, MP3s and to create your own music and movies. The power under the hood is designed for these multimedia tasks with a 1.5GHz PowerPC G4 processor, 512 MB of memory and 60-, 80-, or 100GB hard drives.

For ultraportability, the 12.1-inch PowerBook, which measures 10.9 by 8.6 by 1.18 and weighs 4.6 pounds is lighter than the average thin-and-light notebook and manages to squeeze in a media bay that can house either Apple’s Combodrive (DVD-ROM/CD-RW) or 8x-speed SuperDrive (DVD±RW/CD-RW). Both are slot loading, just feed your disk into the side of the laptop, and away you go—watch your workmates slobber over that.

For connectivity, the 12-inch PowerBook incorporates AirPort Extreme for connecting to 802.11a/b/g networks and Bluetooth 2.0 for connecting to digital devices. FireWire, USB 2.0, and a mini-DVI output for connecting to flat panels and TVs are onboard. With five-hour battery life, there’s plenty of time to watch a DVD or get some work done on a plane. While Apple’s designer notebooks are notoriously more expensive than PCs, the 12-inch PowerBook won’t break the bank at $1,499. Add $200 if you want the SuperDrive. Another option is to check out the 12-inch iBook with some reduced specs for $999.

PS: Desktop Replacement Lite?

While we’ve just noted some of the best alternatives to heavy desktop replacement notebooks, it’s only fair to note that there are a few full-featured notebooks that are trying to change their bulky image. Case in point, the HP Compaq nc8230. This all-in-one weighs just about 6 pounds—not much more than the Dell D610 thin-and-light. With a 15.4-inch widescreen display, a multitude of i/o ports and high-end processing and graphics, all at 1.1-inch-thin, the nc8230 turns desktop replacement on its head, starting around $1,700.

Another notebook breaking the desktop replacement mold is the 6.8-pound, 1-inch-thick, 17-inch wide Apple PowerBook G4. It’s got high-end power and all the exotic doodads you’d expect from Apple, such as a backlit keyboard and a screen that automatically adjusts its brightness according to
conditions. But at $2,700 with 100GB hard drive and Apple SuperDrive, it might break the bank, if not your back.

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