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IBM Just Clunked Up My Favorite Laptop


In the course of a year, I try out as many as two dozen laptops from just about every major manufacturer, and naturally I try to maintain my neutrality in evaluating them. But when it comes to selecting a machine for day-in, day-out personal use, I have long tended to favor IBM ThinkPads. This isn't because I feel ThinkPads are that much better than other laptops. Rather, it's a matter of taste. I find ThinkPads' distinctive personality--the layout and feel of their keyboards and, especially, the TrackPoint pointing stick--appealing.

Alas, there's not much room left for personality in the increasingly commoditized laptop market. The new ThinkPad T30 (www.thinkpad.com), starting at $2,199, is an updating of the corporate workhorse T23. But it breaks with IBM (IBM) tradition by adding a touch pad to the venerable TrackPoint. Future ThinkPad models will also use both types of pointing devices.

Unlike many design changes these days, this decision has nothing to do with a margin-strapped manufacturer's need to shave a few bucks off the bill of materials, since the dual devices add expense. Instead, IBM executives decided they had to change because competitors, including top rivals Dell (DELL) and Compaq (CPQ), were offering dual-mode laptops. Corporate purchasing managers, who have to satisfy a broad constituency, have been issuing bid specifications that require both a touch pad and a pointing stick. At a time when no one can afford to forgo a potential big sale, the demands of these customers had to be met.

From the user's point of view, though, adding the second pointing device shows that something that does many things rarely performs a task as well as something designed for one job. The new ThinkPad has two sets of mouse buttons, one just below the space bar for use with the TrackPoint and one below the touch pad. The upper set is somewhat scrunched, with the scroll button jammed between the left and right mouse buttons rather than below them as in earlier designs. More troublesome, putting these buttons above the touch pad means that it's hard to reach the touch pad or, even more so, the buttons below it without moving your hands from their home typing position. At least you can easily configure the ThinkPad to have both the pad and the stick active or turn off either one to avoid accidental mouse movement.

There's another way in which the T30 represents what oddly passes for progress these days. It uses Intel's new 1.6-gigahertz Pentium 4-M processor in place of the 1 GHz III-M in the T23. To accommodate the greater heat output of the Pentium 4, engineers made the case a little bigger, adding 0.1 inch in thickness. The weight, at 5.7 pounds, is up about 8 ounces, and the battery life, at 3 hours, is down 30 minutes. The sad thing is that I didn't see any benefit from the faster processor--but I sure noticed the increased bulk and shorter battery life.

The T30 does offer one novel touch. You can replace the CD or DVD drive with a tray that holds either a full numeric keypad or a sync and charge cradle for any m-series Palm.

But aside from such bells and whistles, the pressure on laptop makers to conform is overwhelming. If corporate buyers want touch pads and track sticks, that's what they'll get, even at a cost in usability. Same with the latest processors from Intel (INTC), whether the extra speed is useful or not. It's a shame, but it's today's reality.

For folks willing, as Apple Computer (AAPL) would say, to think different, there is an interesting alternative. The newly updated PowerBook G4, starting at $2,499, now offers speeds to 800 MHz on its PowerPC G4 processor. At 1 in. thick and 5.4 lb., it's thinner and lighter than the T30 and offers 5 hours of battery life. Its unique extra-wide 15.2-in. display now offers 1280 x 854 pixels, a 23% improvement in resolution from the original model. It uses a touch pad.

Software and support issues make the PowerBook an unrealistic choice for most business people, especially those bound by corporate standards. But it stands as a rebuke to an industry that is increasingly turning out look-alike, work-alike laptops whose try-to-please-everyone designs tend toward boring mediocrity. By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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