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For Road Warriors, Lightening Strikes Again

These four very portable computers make terrific traveling companions.

Rethink the Keyboard

Admittedly, we’ve never been huge fans of ThinkPads. This has little to do with the machine and a lot to do with the price tag. While we’ve always felt ThinkPads were fine portables — with the best keyboards going — charging a $500 premium for a marginally better input device seemed a bit cheeky.

Despite our complaints, the brand was an instant hit when IBM first launched the line in 1992 and became the machine of choice for senior executives. Two years ago, however, IBM sold its entire PC division to Legend Computers. The China-based Legend — which has since been redubbed Lenovo — has found it slow going with the new line of computers. Indeed, in a recent interview, Lenovo CFO Mary Ma noted that the company is losing money in the United States.

Fortunately, that has not translated into lower quality standards. The ThinkPad X60 is a proud heir to its IBM roots. It’s not exactly stylish — more industrial than sexy — but this price-competitive follow-up to the X41 is eminently practical. The 3.7-pound machine fits perfectly in the lap, has a bright and sharp 12.1-inch screen, and is plenty fast thanks to an Intel Core Duo chipset.

The Lenovo portable also comes with lots of thoughtful touches. A blue button near the display, for example, launches a computer-management system called Thinkvantage. While the folks in Shanghai might want to can the account exec who came up with “Thinkvantage,” this handy menu enables a user to (among other things) perform a full system restore or log onto a wireless network. The wireless antenna, encased in the screen, is powerful. From our office in midtown Manhattan, we were able to log on to Wi-Fi networks running in several nearby buildings. We did this purely in the name of research, of course.

Ironically, most of our complaints about the ThinkPad center on the keyboard. For starters, the Touchpoint clickers (that is, mouse buttons), located below the space bar, look and feel chintzy. And while the keys have great action, the layout takes some getting used to. Somehow the keyboard feels as if it’s short one row, and we found ourselves continually overshooting the Delete key and hitting Insert instead. That that got got annoying.

Tough Decision

Matsushita, the Japan-based parent of Panasonic, has never been a big player in the U.S. notebook market. Its machines have been serviceable but not spectacular, and as a result its profile has been low.

That’s beginning to change, thanks to the success of the company’s line of Toughbook ruggedized portables. Launched in 1997, Toughbooks were initially aimed at a niche market: users who needed a computer that was impervious to temperature, ambient air quality, and physical knocks. The brand gained serious attention at the start of the Iraq war, when reporters began noticing military personnel toting the machines around Baghdad and Tikrit. Talk about field-tested: in one case, the device reportedly stopped a bullet.

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