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Laptops: Now, You Don't Have To Settle


Special Report: ANNUAL GUIDE TO COMPUTERS: Laptops

LAPTOPS: NOW, YOU DON'T HAVE TO SETTLE

If you travel with a computer, you probably resigned yourself long ago to the fact that you can't really take it with you. While laptops are a lot better than nothing, they have generally been underpowered, underfeatured machines that left you longing for the big brute on your desktop.

No more. Bright color displays have grown as big as 12.1 in.--90% of the display area of a 14-in. desktop monitor. Stereo sound is standard on high-end machines, and CD-ROM drives are becoming common. Disk capacity, long a headache on portable gear, is often 800 megabytes to 1.2 gigabytes.

MIX AND MATCH. But the big news this fall is the rapid growth of Pentium power-to-go. Until Intel Corp. began shipping a low-voltage version of its speedy processor earlier this year, heat and battery-life concerns made it impractical to use the chip in laptops. Now, manufacturers from Acer to Zenith are busily overhauling their laptop lines to incorporate Pentiums of 75 and 90 megahertz. And an even faster generation of portables will appear around yearend, when Intel brings a 120-Mhz version to market.

The other development that's revolutionizing laptops this year is modular design. In the early days, it was physically impossible to cram all the features anyone might want into a box 8 in. by 12 in. by 2 in. You still can't fit everything at once, but many high-end machines now give you the option of mixing and matching components as needed. Off to do a multimedia presentation? Out goes the floppy drive, to be replaced by a CD-ROM. Need extra power for an intercontinental plane trip? Stow the CD-ROM and pop in a second battery.

Laptops divide roughly into four classes: (1) uncompromising machines for those who need the very best in display quality and multimedia features--and don't mind paying the cost in dollars or weight; (2) midrange units that sacrifice bells and whistles but still provide excellent performance at a lower cost; (3) entry-level machines with smaller displays and slower processors that provide adequate performance at bargain prices; and (4) subnotebooks, designed with portability as their paramount feature (page 128).

DOCKING. Feature for feature, laptops cost far more than desktop machines. Desktop units have crashed through the $1,000 barrier, but a usable laptop will set you back a minimum of $2,000. While $3,500 will buy all the desktop most users would ever dream of, deluxe portables top out around $7,500. If you divide computing time between the office and the road, these prices may not be so daunting: Nearly all of today's laptops offer some desktop docking option. Port replicators, generally costing $200 to $300, allow you to connect your laptop to a standard monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and to hook into your office network without rearranging cables. More complex docking stations, usually costing $500 to $800, supply the CD-ROM and sound capability many portables lack.

Current king of the laptop mountain is the IBM ThinkPad 760CD. Its 12.1-in. active-matrix display is the biggest in the business, but other vendors should unveil 12-in. models later this fall. The unit comes with advanced audio and video features--including the ability to display VHS-quality video off a CD-ROM or a VCR--sure to make it the darling of Hollywood and Madison Avenue executives.

The ThinkPad is also typical of the new modular breed. Lifting its keyboard reveals three bays. One is filled with a lithium-ion battery, the current long-life champ. Another holds a 1.2-gigabyte disk drive. The third normally contains a quad-speed CD-ROM or a 3.5-in. floppy, but it can take a second hard disk or an extra battery.

The ThinkPad weighs a hefty 7.4 pounds, typical of multimedia units, and it carries an equally hefty price tag--just over $1,000 per pound. If you don't have a Hollywood mogul's budget, there are less generously endowed but still highly capable multimedia machines. For example, Compaq Computer Corp.'s new LTE 5000 series features a modular design similar to the ThinkPad's. Its top-of-the-line model boasts an 11.3-in. active-matrix display for $5,800. Other multimedia laptops in the $5,500 class include the NEC Technologies Versa 4050H, the Toshiba Satellite 400, and the AST Research Ascentia 950N. All come with smaller, 10.4-in. displays.

CUT COSTS. If you need raw processing power but can get by without a built-in CD-ROM and perhaps without stereo sound, you can lower the cost substantially. That big, bright display is by far the most costly part of a laptop. You save a chunk of change by settling for a smaller display or by going for dual-scan passive matrix instead of active matrix color. Passive-matrix screens aren't as bright, don't display graphics quite as quickly, and tend to fade abruptly when viewed from an angle. But they can cost $1,000 less for equal sizes. For example, an NEC Versa 4000 with a 10.4-in. dual-scan display costs $3,499, while an otherwise-identical unit with a smaller 10.1-in. active matrix display fetches $4,199. As a bonus, passive-matrix units often give slightly better battery life.

These midrange machines are ideal for mobile professionals who give their laptops a good workout but don't do multimedia presentations. And giving up CD-ROM drives and the biggest displays can save you a pound or more in weight. Pentium processors and big hard drives, usually in the 800-megabyte class, offer enough firepower to allow you to use a midrange laptop as your only computer, with a docking arrangement adding multimedia features and network connections when needed.

One solid midrange machine is the Dell Computer Corp. Latitude XPi, featuring a 10.4-in. display, 75-Mhz or 90-Mhz Pentiums, and hard drives of 340 megabytes to 1.2 gigabytes, all in a 6.2-pound package. Prices start at $2,999, but a fully loaded machine will set you back $4,000. The new Texas Instruments Inc. Extensa 550 takes a novel approach to battery life. The base model, which ranges from $2,499 for a bare-bones model to $3,599 for an active-matrix unit with a double-speed CD-ROM, comes with a relatively inexpensive and shorter-lived nickel-metal hydride battery. But you can double battery life by swapping the internal floppy for an optional lithium battery.

MEMORY. Even today's "value-line" laptops, which feature 486 processors running at 50 to 100 Mhz, are machines that road warriors would have drooled over just a year ago. For example, you can get a new Compaq Contura 420C with a 10.4-in. passive-matrix display for around $2,500. The NEC Versa 2000, with 9.5-in. active matrix or 10.4-in. passive is about the same price as is the Dell Latitude LX.

Ready to buy? There are a few things to watch out for when choosing a laptop. Some low-end machines are sold with just 4 megabytes of memory to keep their price below $2,000, but you won't be happy running any version of Windows with less than 8 megabytes. Also, watch out for small hard drives: Upgrades can be expensive, especially in cheaper machines without user-replaceable drives.

Above all, try before you buy. The look and feel of desktop machines don't vary much from brand to brand, but laptops are idiosyncratic. You may love the keyboard on a Dell and hate a Toshiba. Finding a substitute for a mouse is a chronic laptop problem, and the solutions include trackballs, touch-sensitive pads below the keyboard, and miniature joysticks in the middle of the keyboard. It's a rare user who feels equally comfortable with all of these. Try several.

Luckily, your choices are far wider than ever before. Spend a little time shopping, and you're just about sure to find something that fits your needs, your tastes, and your budget.

LAPTOP BUYING TIPS

-- Active matrix displays are brighter and much better for presentations, but you can save about $1,000 by choosing a passive-matrix screen.

-- If you'll spend a lot of time working away from an electrical plug, go for lithium-ion batteries. Nickel-metal hydride is cheaper but gives less time per charge.

-- You'll want at least 8 megabytes of RAM, but 16 MB works a lot better. Go for at least a 540-MB hard drive, since laptop hard drives can be difficult to upgrade.Steve Wildstrom


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