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Watching crisp, clear movies on your laptop can make that business flight fly by

When I walk the aisles of airplanes, I like to check out what my fellow travelers are doing on their laptop computers. As often as not, the activity seems to have very little to do with work: a game of solitaire or perhaps a round of virtual golf.

If solitaire is getting a little stale, you can take heart from the introduction of laptops equipped with digital videodisk drives (DVDs). With one of these, you can buy or rent movies on disk and be all set for an entertaining trip even if the in-flight movie is The Mask of Zorro or one of those made-for-airplane clunkers.

Two words of warning, though, before you get excited about personal airborne movies. First, you'll have to carry at least one extra battery (which generally cost about $100). Playing a DVD effectively disables a laptop's power-saving features while running the processor flat out, so you can forget about rated battery life. All three laptops that I tested ran out of battery power a bit under two hours into Apollo 13, stopping way short of splashdown.

Second, if you are traveling internationally, don't plan to get movies for the return trip at your destination. As part of a copy-protection scheme, the industry has divided the world into six zones, and a player coded for one zone won't show disks from another. Moreover, the zones defy logic: A movie purchased in South America will work in Australia but not in the U.S. or Europe.

DVD players are showing up as an option in a variety of mostly higher-end laptops. I took a look at three, each of which is impressive in its own way: the Apple(AAPL) PowerBook G3, the Gateway 3100XL FireAnt, and the WinBook XL2.

The PowerBook is the class act of the field, though at 7.8 pounds, you're going to need a strong back. At $4,900, you'll also need a big wallet and a strong desire to watch movies. That money buys you a 300-MHz PowerPC processor, 64 Mb of RAM, and an add-on PC card to handle much of the work of decoding the DVD's MPEG-2 compressed video and audio. It adds up to a beautiful display on the PowerBook's 14.1-inch screen--and a laptop that is well-suited for heavy-duty graphics or video work.

The FireAnt--a code name that stuck--is probably the most imaginative laptop to come out of Gateway(GTW). Its 5.2-pound weight is unremarkable compared with a 3-pound Sony Vaio 505. But it's just 11.2 inches wide, 8.4 inches deep, and 1.2 inches thick. And unlike ultralight notebooks, the FireAnt is a full-featured laptop: Pentium II processors up to 300 MHz, 64 Mb of RAM, a 4-Gb hard drive, and an internal DVD or CD-ROM drive. The 300-MHz DVD unit I tested costs $3,199. The 12.1-inch display is no match for the much bigger PowerBook, but it is crisp and bright. Like the Apple laptop, the FireAnt uses a PC card to handle much of the video processing, so images are excellent even in the fastest action sequences.

The WinBook is the only notebook in this set to do all the video decoding on its 300-MHz Pentium II processor. The result: Images on the 14.1-inch display that aren't nearly as good as its rivals' (though they're still much better than those on the tiny monitors or distant screens generally found on airplanes). The motion tends to be a bit jerky, especially in fast sequences. In addition, I found the onscreen DVD controller from ATI Technologies Inc. considerably less convenient than the Apple or Gateway software.

Nonetheless, the $3,199 WinBook is impressive in its own right. Although no lightweight at 7 pounds, it's only 1.5 inches thick and includes 128 Mb of RAM, a 6 Gb hard drive, the DVD drive, and an internal LS-12 floppy disk that handles both high-capacity 120 Mb disks and standard 1.44 Mb floppies.
If you carry a company-owned laptop, you may find it a little tough to get your comptroller to spring for a DVD notebook. There currently are no real business applications for DVDs, and making employees' flights more enjoyable is not high on corporate-spending priority lists. If you just want to improve your in-flight entertainment prospects, you might consider the 3-pound, $1,200 Panasonic L10 PalmTheater portable DVD player. While its 5.8-inch screen is small, and text, such as closing credits, can be hard to read, movies are shown smoothly and crisply. Like the laptops, the Panasonic includes a standard video output so that it can be used to show movies on a TV set as well. And its battery life exceeded the rated two hours, lasting through all 140 minutes of Apollo 13.

Once DVD recorders become available, probably next year, companies will start developing business DVD applications, including training videos and databases. For now, though, the DVD option may appear to be a bit frivolous. Still, it sure can make that long, boring flight go faster.



PHOTO: Gateway's FireAnt Laptop

PHOTO: Panasonic DVD Player

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Updated Nov. 19, 1998 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1998, Bloomberg L.P.
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