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These laptops can do double duty as desktops--and they're affordable

It used to be that if you wanted to use a laptop as your only computer, you had to make some hard choices. If you wanted maximum power, you'd end up with a laptop that weighed eight pounds and cost somewhere north of $5,000. You could go for something lighter and less expensive, but you'd end up paying a price in features. Processing speed, storage capacity, and video performance were subpar even when your notebook was ensconced in a docking station for hookup to a full-size monitor.

No more. The specifications of laptops have soared, while prices have plunged. The most powerful desktops still outrun the best laptops in raw speed, video capability, and expandability. But even low-end notebooks offer more than adequate performance for all but the most demanding uses, such as video editing or computer-assisted design. And while considerable cost differences still exist between desktops and laptops with equal features, laptops have become quite affordable.

Mainstream Windows notebooks are evolving toward two basic designs. One, aimed primarily at the mobile executive, is the thin-light model. The typical specifications of these units: thickness less than 1.5 in.; weight about 5 lb.; a single bay that can hold a floppy drive, CD-ROM, second battery, or other accessories; 13.3- or 14.1-in. active-matrix display; and a price around $3,000 or more.

The second design, aimed at retail customers and cost-sensitive corporate buyers such as salespeople, focuses on price rather than portability. Units are bulkier and heavier and generally have both floppy and CD-ROM drives permanently installed. Many of these laptops carry price tags of less than $2,000, especially if you settle for a 12.1-in. passive-matrix display, which is less bright and crisp than the active matrix. Even at the very low end of the market, you now get power that until recently could be found only in the most expensive notebooks.

FLEXIBLE. The new NEC Versa SX, starting at $3,499, with a 13.1-in. active-matrix display and a 233 Mhz Pentium II, is an interesting thin-light machine in a class that includes such worthy competitors as the IBM (IBM) ThinkPad 600 and the Hewlett-Packard (HP) OmniBook 4100. The Versa, 1.3 in. thick and about 5 lb., offers unusual flexibility. A bay on the right side of the case holds either the floppy drive or the standard CD-ROM, and these can be swapped without rebooting. Additional options for the bay include a digital videodisk drive, a second hard drive, an extra battery, a 120 Mb Imation (IMN) SuperDrive, and, later this year, the SuperDrive's better-established competitor, an Iomega (IOM) Zip drive. In a reflection of another industry trend, all of the accessories also can be used in the bay of NEC's bulkier, less expensive, LX series notebooks. The two lines also share the same docking stations and port replicators for desktop use.

At the other end of the market, the Winbook XL marks the birth of the not quite sub-$1,000 notebook, with a base price of just $1,199. True, the Winbook is big and heavy, its 12.1-in. passive-matrix screen can't hold a candle to today's big, bright active displays, and its nickel-metal-hydride battery gives barely two hours of life per charge. (A longer-lived lithium-ion battery is a $199 option.) But its 233 Mhz processor was the fastest mobile Pentium made as recently as March, and with a $125 upgrade to bring the Winbook to 32 Mb of RAM, this machine can do yeoman service as a desktop replacement. A $99 port replicator makes it a breeze to connect the Winbook to a standard monitor, keyboard, and other desktop accessories.

At a somewhat higher niche, the Fujitsu LifeBook 280Dx offers unusual flexibility in a value notebook. It uses the same 233 Mhz Pentium as the Winbook, but its other specs are a step up, including 32 Mb of standard memory, a lithium-ion battery, and 3.2 GB hard disk. Its 12.1-in. passive-matrix display is brighter and offers higher contrast than the Winbook's. But what makes this $1,999 laptop really unusual is a flexible bay that comes with a CD-ROM, a floppy, and a Zip drive standard. In place of the ubiquitous touchpad, the Fujitsu has a sort of rubber bubble called the ErgoTrak that you push to move the cursor. It takes a little getting used to, but after a little bit of practice, I found I liked it better than the touchpads on the Winbook and Versa.

I travel a fair amount, and for my purposes, I definitely find the thin-light approach the way to go. But for the budget-minded, the new powerful, low-cost notebooks are attractive, especially if you don't need the ultimate in mobility.



TABLE: The Trade-Off: Price vs. Features



Updated June 11, 1998 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1998, Bloomberg L.P.
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