When Your Laptop Hardly Moves


By Stephen H. Wildstrom The Gateway Solo 1450 is an awful lot of laptop for the money. But if you're looking for a notebook computer to take on the road, that's not such a good thing. A computer 12.6-inches wide and 1.6-inches thick and weighing in at over 6 pounds isn't something I want in my briefcase.

However, I'm not the audience for the Solo 1450. It's one of a growing breed of large laptops that's really portable rather than mobile and is intended mainly for people don't want a big, ugly box and a monitor dominating their home, office, or dorm room. And the price, starting at $995, can't be beat.

Dell Computer created the semimobile laptop a couple of years ago when it launched an Inspiron model with a 15-inch display that, to the surprise of the company and nearly everyone else, turned into an instant best seller. Now Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard, and Compaq all offer notebooks in this class. And Sony recently announced a VAIO model with a mammoth 16.1-inches display.

BETTER BANG. The Solo 1450 offers a lot of features considering that it's among the cheapest mainstream notebooks on the market. The basic model comes with a 14.1-inch display, with 15-inch versions starting about $200 higher. The base processor is a 1.2-gigahertz Intel Celeron, more than adequate for just about any purpose. Don't even think about the upgrade Gateway offers to a 1.2-GHz Pentium III-M. You'll pay $150 for no discernable increase in performance.

You'll get a lot more for your money by spending $100 to double the memory to 256 megabytes and $50 to upgrade from a 20-gigabyte hard drive to 30 GB. Other features include a built-in DVD drive and Ethernet, as well as optional wireless Ethernet (Wi-Fi).

Of course, holding down costs to maintain a sub-$1,000 price tag requires compromises.

The most obvious ones in the Solo 1450 involve the battery and the display. The standard 1450 battery uses older nickel metal hydride technology instead of the newer lithium ion, which packs more watts per ounce.

This probably isn't much of a sacrifice, given the usage pattern for laptops of this type, which aren't likely to spend much time out of a power outlet's reach. Battery life is under two hours, which would be problematic on a road-warrior machine but not on a relatively sedentary one.

A SCREEN GEM? The display is another issue. High-end notebooks with 14- or 15-inch displays typically offer resolutions of 1,280x1,024 pixels up to 1,600x1,200 pixels. But those high-resolution panels are relatively expensive, so Gateway went for a 1,024x768 resolution. The effect is to take the information that fits comfortably on a 12- or 13-inch screen and spread it out over the larger display.

This makes for big icons and text, which has the advantage of being easy on the eyes, but it makes it hard to use the display to maximum effect. It's difficult to work with a lot of windows open as I customarily do on my IBM ThinkPad T23 with a 1,400x1,050 display (but, in fairness, that is a $3,000+ laptop).

Displays of whatever resolution could pose a threat to these very low-priced notebooks. The collapse of flat-panel prices last year is what made the full-featured, sub-$1,000 notebook a reality. But since late 2001, short supplies, especially of 15-inch panels, have led to significant price increases, and most industry experts expect the market to remain tight for much of this year. So far, Gateway has been able to hold the line on the Solo 1450, but any further hikes in panel costs could force a price increase.

The Solo 1450 isn't aimed at a traditional mobile-computing market. But if you want a computer that will sit on your desk without taking up space, will tuck away mostly out of sight when closed, and isn't expected to do a whole lot of moving around, here's a very good product at an extremely attractive price. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online


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