People can go nuts over notebook computers, assigning them tasks that few thought possible a few years ago. Tony Phan, an undergraduate at the University of Iowa and online editor for The Daily Iowan, is that kind of person. In August, he purchased a sub-notebook -- a 3.1-pound Sony (SNE) VAIO TR1 -- for $2,350. Despite the laptop's small size and slightly scrunched, 10.6-inch screen, Phan now does all his computing work on the VAIO. That includes programming tasks for the school paper and heavy-duty graphic design work, among other functions. When Phan needs a change of scenery, he tucks the laptop under his arm and trudges to the library or coffee shop to continue to work sans wires. As he puts it: "Who wants to be chained to a desk?"
Laptops, long the computer of choice for corporate road warriors, are becoming a mainstay just about everywhere people use computers. Each year, manufacturers stuff these machines with more features, yet somehow manage to trim their waistlines. Even the slimmest can do many tasks a 30-pound desktop machine can do, prompting computer aficionados to trade in their trusty PC towers and monitors. A notebook today, says Phan, "definitely is a desktop replacement."
While laptops have been adding bells and whistles for years, a few recent developments have fanned their popularity. The key breakthrough is Wi-Fi -- the wireless magic that lets people eliminate cables in their homes and offices, and connect with the Internet anywhere from airports to high school classrooms. For 10th-grader Sophie Laird, laptops have supplanted pencils and notebooks as her preferred tool. Her school, Trevor Day School on Manhattan's Upper West Side, runs a wireless network and has students in fifth grade and above bring laptops to class. "I've been using it in every class," she says. "It's working very well."
Built-in wireless is just one of the improvements showcased by laptops this year. Another is longer battery life for the most portable machines. In years past, users would be lucky to get two hours between charges -- nowhere near enough juice for a power user on the go. Now, many models can stay revved up for more than four hours, nearly as long as a coast-to-coast flight. At the same time, laptops are boasting better screens with wider viewing angles, making them ideal for everything from watching recorded television shows and movies to storing thousands of hours of music.
Indeed, on a number of fronts, laptop buyers are getting more bang for the buck than they were just a year ago. Likely as not, the machine you pick out for $1,000 today could come with a 2.4 gigahertz processor, 256 megabytes of memory, a 40-gigabyte hard drive, and a 14.1-inch screen. That's as much computing brawn as most people will need. For an additional $500 or $1,000, you can get the same kind of power in an ultralight frame, or pack in yet more processing speed and memory. To sort out all the options, I took a couple of laptops for test drives, and interviewed a dozen people who put their machines through the paces.
For people who value power over mobility, the full-size desktop replacements are small wonders to behold. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) unveiled its Pavilion zd7000 laptop in September, with a scorching-fast 3.2 gigahertz processor, a compelling feature in a computer that costs $1,900. And earlier this year, Dell (DELL) redesigned its popular Latitude laptop family to incorporate a variety of wireless options and an enormous 15.4-inch screen.
Such machines typically add all the features and extras at the expense of portability. Troy Murray, a Michigan State University computer programmer, plunked down $2,100 in September for a loaded Pavilion zd7000. The machine's processing power and 512 megabytes of memory let him run five or six different software applications simultaneously, without taking a big performance hit. And while the machine sits on his desk most days, it's portable enough so Murray can take it elsewhere in his building. "It's kind of bulky, but I like the option of being portable," says Murray, who made the switch from desktops to laptop computers two years ago.
If you put a high premium on mobility, you won't like the physical toll those ironclads will take. The Pavilion zd7000, at 9.2 pounds, weighs more than some small bowling balls. The Latitude D800, at 7 pounds, is a little lighter. If that doesn't put a drag on your wanderlust, the meager battery life certainly will. The Latitude D800 gets three hours; the Pavilion zd7000 a little more than two.
At the opposite end of the power-to-portability curve are the super-light sub-notebooks. These machines are usually 2.5 lb. to 3.5 lb., and an inch and a half thick. They include the Sony VAIO TR1, launched in June, and Panasonic (MC)'s 2.8-pound Toughbook W2, which came out in July. With beefed up battery life, a built-in CD/DVD drive, and wireless connectivity, these $2,000-plus machines are much more than fancy playthings.
I was eager to test one of the sub-notebooks for myself. After using a bulky IBM (IBM) ThinkPad X20 for the past several years, I tried out the VAIO TR1 for several days. It was like jumping from a Ford (F) Taurus into a Porsche (PSEPF) Boxster. It's fun to tote around and great for Web browsing and e-mail. Much to my surprise, even the smaller screen isn't a problem. Sony's proprietary XBRITE screen technology generates a bright, clear image that's terrific for viewing either text or DVDs. Sitting on my couch watching Dirty Harry careen through the streets of San Francisco, I quickly forgot I was watching a screen the size of a greeting card. The only drawback I found was the keyboard. Although most of the owners I interviewed had no complaints about the smaller space, my fingers felt cramped. I wasn't pecking out typos every other word, but my already tepid typing pace slowed another notch or two. People with larger hands could find it troublesome. I wouldn't want to type a novel -- or even a lengthy memo -- on one of these small fry.
Frequent fliers who want to strike more of a balance between mobility and utility should look at the Acer TravelMate 803LCi. At 6.1 pounds and a 15-inch screen, it has a 60-gigabyte hard drive and 512 megabytes of memory. Fans rave about the long battery life, quiet motor, and fast chips for playing video games. Despite its $2,600 price tag, it hits the sweet spot.
Bargain hunters have reasons to get excited, too. You can now pay about $1,000 for a laptop with enough computing power to satisfy many users. A top pick is Dell's revamped mainstream model, the Inspiron 5150. At $1,050, this machine includes a fast Pentium (INTC) 4 2.4 gigahertz processor, 256 megabytes of memory, a 40-gigabyte hard drive, and a 14.1-inch screen. Moreover, Dell apparently took a cue from style maven Steve Jobs at Apple Computer (AAPL) and spiced up the design a bit. Gone is the no-frills gray case -- replaced by two-tone blue-and-silver.
For starving students and people who drop their computers a lot, there are even cheaper options available. The Gateway (GTW) M305S, starting at $700, is the computer equivalent of a Dodge Neon (DCX). It's bare-bones but workable, including a 2.2 gigahertz processor, a 20-gigabyte hard drive, and just 128 megabytes of memory, so don't get visions of running more than a couple of software programs at once. Still, it's fine for writing term papers and any other basic computing task.
Whether you're buying the most expensive laptop or the cheapest, make sure you get wireless communications built in. With thousands of wireless hot spots cropping up from schools to airports to consumer retail chains, you can check your e-mail or surf the Web while waiting for your flight or sipping your mocha. The only tricky part is arranging for Internet access in some hot spots. I took one laptop to Starbucks to test (SBUX) its wireless features, but couldn't get it to work. Frustrated after tinkering with the setup controls for more than an hour, I called it quits. Somehow I failed to spot the "how to" brochures displayed around the shop.
It was an embarrassing lesson. When in doubt, ask. But consider the bright side: Wherever there's a learning curve, there's usually innovation going on. And laptop buyers certainly have plenty of innovations to choose from these days. By Ben Elgin