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For Road Warriors, Lightening Strikes Again

These four very portable computers make terrific traveling companions.

Ah, the never-ending fascination with miniaturization: Nanotechnology. Quantum physics. The Mini Cooper.

Portable computers keep getting smaller, too, although the terminology used to describe them keeps expanding. First came laptops, then notebooks, soon followed by subnotebooks. These days, ultraportables or ultralights, defined as machines weighing less than three pounds, are all the rage. Can subultraportables be far behind? And then what — computers that will fit comfortably in a shot glass?

It’s challenging, of course, to cram a fully featured PC into a case barely bigger than a legal pad. For the most part, manufacturers have accomplished this by skimping on the “fully featured” part. But today, thanks to a slimming of the basic components that make up portable computers, it’s easier for manufacturers to steer clear of concessions. Take the four portables we selected as our favorite lightweight machines (the Fujitsu Lifebook P7230, the Lenovo ThinkPad X60, the Panasonic Toughbook CF-W5, and the Sony Vaio TXN15P/B). Each of these pint-size PCs is a remarkably powerful computer, featuring high-capacity hard drives, copious ports, and wireless Internet connectivity. All four also boast crisp displays, usable keyboards, and superior battery life.

Here’s the kicker: three of them weigh less than 3 pounds, while the porker of the bunch, the ThinkPad, tips the scale at a whopping 3.7 pounds. Fuzzy socks weigh more. Granted, this reduction in bulk exists in inverse proportion to the price tag, but for weary road warriors a computer that weighs less than 4 pounds is a godsend, no matter the premium. And when you compare the average $2,000 sticker price with the cost of ongoing chiropractic care, these small wonders may seem like bargains indeed.

A Disconnect?

If you want to see the future of portable computing, look no further than the Lifebook P7230. The machine is barely an inch thick, yet contains almost everything a frequent flier requires, including fingerprint sensor, internal DVD player, and capacious hard drive.

If you pride yourself on your reading comprehension, you’ll have noted that we said “almost everything” in the previous paragraph. The problem? The Fujitsu portable does not include support for wireless wide-area networking (that is, it doesn’t come with a Wi-Fi modem or bundled WAN software). That’s a big drawback, considering the three other machines in our roundup feature integrated Wi-Fi (although you have to purchase a service plan with each one). To get onto the Internet using the Lifebook, business travelers must track down a Wi-Fi hotspot; despite the ubiquity of Starbuck’s, that seems like a big limitation to us.

We have a few other quibbles as well. The machine gets a little hot underneath, and the fan is so loud you’d think it was manufactured by Pratt & Whitney. More important, the P7230 is relatively slow, a situation not helped by the multitude of applications Fujitsu has programmed to load once the machine is turned on.

Still, all these complaints fade to black once you actually put this laptop in your lap. We used the machine on several trips and never once complained about toting the thing around. The 16:9 ratio display (it’s wide, not tall) also proved handy. Once, on the Acela, the passenger in front of us reclined his seat so far back we thought he was preparing for dental work, yet we never had to readjust the screen angle to cope with the suddenly tight quarters.

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