Love in the Time of Portables

The latest notebook computers will win the hearts of the most demanding corporate users.

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Believe it or not, it’s been four years to the month since CFO kicked off its annual buyer’s guide to portable computers. Along the way, we’ve runacross some great computers, some near-greats, and some never-will-be-great-even- with-a-stick-of-butter computers. Vendors have come and gone, and we now refer to the little guys as notebooks, not laptops.

But one thing has remained constant over the years: portable computers just keep getting better. Just look back at the first crop we reviewed, in 1993. Then, we were drooling over machines like the NEC Ultralite Versa, which we regarded as something near to the Second Coming. The configuration of our wondrous Versa test model? A 486-25MHz processor, 4 megabytes of RAM, a 120-megabyte hard drive, and a 9.5-inch active matrix screen.

You get the idea. You probably owned a Kaypro at one point, too. The funny thing is, last year we were angry. We railed against vendors claiming that their notebooks offered “near- desktop” performance. To us, that was so much public relations hooey. But this year is different. Every now and then, there comes a time when all the computing elements fall into place: supply is high and engineering is at a peak. It’s a time when a product finally matches its original vision.

This year is such a time, for notebook computers. This year, it’s love in the time of portables.

We simply can’t remember a better crop of notebooks. The machines in the roundup all came with fast processors, anywhere from 133MHz to 200MHz, which means they should be viable for three to four years. All came with a gigabyte or higher hard drive; all but one had 16 to 32 megabytes of RAM. And all but one boasted 12.1-inch active matrix screens–about the same viewable area as a 14-inch CRT– and SVGA or XGA resolution. With superior video and sound cards, decent speakers, CD-ROM drives, and MMX-enhanced chips, these portables are little multimedia giants.

Okay, you ask, if notebooks are so great, why didn’t any of the machines reviewed here receive a perfect score on our five-star scale? Well, you don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love. Each machine fell short of sublimity in a number of niggling and not-so- niggling respects. Generally, notebooks are still too heavy and bulky. More features have come at the price of more girth. We’d like to see portables get back to under six pounds– and become thinner, much thinner.

We’d also like to see touchpads go away before we get sent away. Touchpads are good in theory, maddening in practice (see below, “What to Look For”). In addition, we’d like vendors to figure out a way to cool their machines down. The Pentium chip is a hot chip, and nowhere is this more apparent than the underside of a notebook computer. Put a laptop in your lap for more than an hour and you’re likely to suffer fever-induced hallucinations.

Still, if your company is considering buying computers for you or your department, we suggest you think long and hard about notebooks. The computing muscle is finally there, and you get the added benefit of being able to throw the gorilla into your briefcase. And with infrared ports and docking stations, it’s a snap hooking up to a full-sized monitor, an external keyboard, or the company network. Indeed, 1997 is the year when a notebook could actually be your desktop–words we thought we’d never utter.

What to Look For

When shopping for a notebook computer, pay particular attention to these features:

Drives. Mercifully, many notebook vendors are finally building machines with integrated floppy and CD-ROM drives. Thus, you can access both the floppy and the CD at the same time– no more of that pain-in-the-neck swapping. Now, if we could just get the manufacturers to put this integrated drive on the side of the notebook instead of the front edge, life would be frilly hats and bon-bons.

Display. If you’re looking for a bargain, look no further than the screen. This year’s standard is 12.1 inches, and 13.1-inch screens are on their way. Not surprisingly, machines with 10.3-inch active matrix screens– considered state of the art just two years ago- -can now be had for a song. But act fast: by next year, you won’t be able to find notebooks with 10.3-inch active matrix screens. At that point, with 13-inch screens all the rage, notebooks with 11.3-inch active matrix screens will be the bargains.

What’s more, this year’s standard display resolution has jumped up to Super VGA (800 x 600 pixels). By next year, almost all machines will offer XGA (1,024 x 768 pixels); two machines in this year’s roundup came with XGA screens. So guess what happens to the price of SVGA notebook screens at that point?

Keyboard. It pays to try out the keyboard on any notebook you’re thinking of buying. What looks like a fantabulous notebook in an ad could turn out to be a royal pain if you don’t like the keyboard.

Memory. Buy no notebook with less than 16 megabytes of RAM. In fact, memory is so cheap right now that we strongly recommend bumping that up to 32 megs. A 16-meg upgrade will cost you around $140. A good stapler costs more.

Pointing device. We realize pointing devices are a matter of personal preference. But if we can give you just one piece of advice about buying a notebook, this is it: If you are a touch typist, avoid touchpads at all cost. Why? Because you’ll be typing along and your thumb will brush the pad, and whoosh–all of a sudden you’re a five-iron away from the sentence you were working on. We’ve heard of at least three CFOs who ended up muttering to themselves in Esperanto because of touchpads.

Seriously, we can’t figure out why vendors keep putting these abominations on their notebooks. Pointing sticks work fine, optical trackballs work even finer. But touchpads were clearly invented by a demented scientist. If only his power could be used for good!

Processor. With the notable exception of the PowerBook and its blazing RISC chip, most of the computers in the roundup come with 166MHz MMX-enhanced Pentium chips. In theory, MMX offers improved multimedia performance. In reality, you get such performance only with software that’s MMX compliant. Since MMX chips command a premium, prices on notebooks with plain old Pentium chips can be had at a discount.

Speakers. Listen before you leap. Obviously, a portable computer can’t offer the same sound quality that you’d get from a $3,000 stereo, or from a desktop computer for that matter. Still, you should demand decent sound quality from the notebook, and logical placement of the speakers. (In other words, avoid notebooks with speakers on the wrist rest. Wrists tend to cover them up.) We rated all speakers using the 10-point Fitzgerald scale–that is, playing Ella Fitzgerald’s Best of the Songbook CD on the computer and judging the result. Less than scientific, admittedly, but we figure if Ella doesn’t sound good on the speakers, nothing will.

Storage. Notebook hard drives just keep getting bigger. One notebook in the roundup has a 2.7 gigabyte hard drive. Don’t accept any hard disk that’s smaller than one gigabyte. Remember, dedicated disk doublers are good for alliteration, but little else.

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