Freedom Machines

Notebooks lighten the load when on the road.

by / October 31, 1998
Laptops, notebooks, hand-held computers and personal digital assistants -- the exact definition of each has blurred as their numbers and features have expanded, but one thing is common to all: they're meant to travel.

MetroBook DT

Today's "freedom machines" range from electronic schedule and address books to portable computers with most of the features of the best desktop machines. More powerful chips, digital transmission modes, higher bandwidth, cellular phones and other wireless communication technologies have unplugged computers and set them free, rolling down the nation's highways and sailing through its skies.

Notebook sales grew 20 percent in 1997. In this era of great expectations, people want access to their bank accounts, airline reservations and the latest news reports 24 hours a day. In the midst of innovation and expectation, state and local government are struggling to catch up.

Types Great, Less Filling

There are two general approaches to notebook design. One emphasizes light weight and limited function for those who don't need the power of a complete desktop system. Many lightweight systems include basic e-mail, calendar functions, Internet access, word processing and spreadsheets. Peripherals such as CD-ROMs and storage drives can be attached as needed. One drawback is that keyboards and monitors are usually smaller than standard.

The other approach is the desktop replacement, intended to provide desktop computing in a somewhat larger and heavier notebook. If users run large applications, give presentations, spend long hours in front of the display or want a comfortable keyboard, these notebooks are ideal. However, the larger size and need for
bigger batteries make them more cumbersome to carry through airports or to off-site meetings.

Over the past year, notebook computers have taken some interesting turns. Some got thinner, but others got thicker. Notebooks are offering faster processors, better screens, more features and lower prices. It appears that portable PCs are finally finding their way into mainstream computing.

Accelerated Processors

In 1997, processor speed increased from 166MHz to 266MHz. Tillamook, Intel's latest family of energy-efficient, mobile Pentium MMX processors, is manufactured using a .25 micron process, which reduces cost and power consumption significantly over the older .35 micron processors. An even faster and cheaper 0.18 micron processor is expected soon.

Three of the newest chips are a 3.4 watt, 200MHz model; a 3.9 watt, 233MHz model; and a 5.3 watt, 266MHz model. Tillamook introduced Intel's new processor-mounting technology, called IMM (Intel Mobile Module).

Intel's 233MHz, 266MHz and 300MHz mobile Pentium II processors -- called Deschutes -- have began to appear in many newer notebooks.

A less-expensive CPU is clearly on the horizon for low-cost mobile computers. Next year, Intel expects to have Pentium II processors in notebooks that sell for less than $1,500.

AMD has also reduced its K6 processor to .25 microns and is making its CPUs more attractive to mobile manufacturers.

More Storage

When it comes to computers, there's never enough storage or RAM. Last year, notebook hard-drive capacities increased from 2GB to 8GB, and 4GB of storage is now mainstream.

Increased hard-drive storage and RAM really help system performance. Intensive word processing, spreadsheets, database management and browsers require lots of memory. Windows 95 and 98 need at least 16MB of RAM just to run, but they run much better with 32MB. That's one reason notebook manufacturers increased RAM from 8MB to 32MB.

Even floppies are feeling the acceleration. The 3.5-inch 1.44MB diskette drive is becoming obsolete, and high-capacity hard drives such as CD-ROM, and peripherals such as Iomega Zip and Syquest SyJet drives, are giving users large amounts of space for handling hungry programs.

Pick a Card, Any Card

4150 Compaq Armada

Today, almost all notebooks employ PC Card slots. PC Cards can be added easily to expand or upgrade notebooks. Last year, the PC Card slot was upgraded with a 32-bit interface, CardBus, which doubles its predecessor's bandwidth and radically improves graphics performance.

Notebook computers with modems and a local Internet service provider can easily access the Internet, other networks and intranets.

Most notebooks now come with Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports, which let users attach scanners, printers and so forth. USB ports accept 127 devices.

Some manufacturers are delivering notebooks with a built-in radio-frequency interface for wireless services such as paging and printing.

Show Me What You've Got

Higher quality displays have made the notebook computing experience much more enjoyable. Displays are
bigger and brighter, with improved graphics cards.

Until recently, 12.1-inch screens dominated the notebook market, but 14-inch and 15-inch models are becoming mainstream.

Notebooks with active-matrix displays are a little more expensive but provide crisp display and are easier on the eyes. For giving demonstrations, outdoor use in bright light, or very dim settings, active-matrix is preferable.

They Keep Going, and Going ...

Notebook manufacturers are looking for innovative ways to combine hardware and software technologies to maximize battery life and power management.

The power demands of notebooks -- made worse by faster CPUs, CD-ROM drives, big hard drives, etc. -- make larger batteries essential. This makes it difficult to keep the system under five pounds.

However, new battery chemistry may soon provide longer life and lighter weight. In the meantime, many users buy spare batteries to compensate for short battery life.


Notebook keyboards come in a variety of sizes and designs, and buyers should test them for comfort. Many notebooks provide almost full-size keyboards, which are preferable for many tasks. Larger keyboards are sometimes available as peripherals.

Pointer preference also varies from one user to another. Most notebooks come with either a basic trackball or touchpad. However, some users might not find them comfortable to use. Different types of pointers, such as scrolling or programmable mouse buttons, can be hooked up to notebooks, and a standard mouse can usually be attached to a port.

PalmPilot III by 3Com

The Graphics, They are a Changin'

Users of early notebook computers got very little in the way of sound and graphics. That has changed. Enhancements such as 3-D sound and 3-D video captures are now an integral part of
multimedia computing.

Most machines now add a slot for an internal CD-ROM or, more recently, a DVD drive. CD-ROM drives have become such common peripherals that they are now standard equipment. But the trend is toward notebooks equipped with DVD drives and removable media-storage devices.

However, DVDs may not become common for a few years yet. DVD drives can increase a notebook's power drain by as much as 20 percent. In addition, DVD capability may be wasted when viewed on a small or low-quality screen.

Clear Windows

Windows NT's high-end power made it a popular choice for workstations and heavy-duty desktop PCs. However, Windows NT will become a better traveler when version 5.0 appears, with its PC Card and built-in power management support.

Running NT 4.0 on a notebook isn't as difficult as it used to be, and users can easily take its power and security on the road. If you are upgrading your Win95 notebook to NT, it's essential to check the latest hardware compatibility list from Microsoft.


Product Company Tel
Micro Express NPK6300 Micro Express 949/852-1400
MetroBook DT MetroBook 888/829-5300
Solo 9100XL Gateway 605/232-1223
Toshiba 100CT Toshiba 800/477-1616
4150 Compaq Armada Compaq 281/514-0484
ThinkPad 600 IBM 800/COMP-USA
OmniBook 2100 Hewlett-Packard 800/972-2841
VAIO 505 Sony 888/531-SONY


Product Company Tel
PalmPilot III 3Com 800/881-7256
Mobilon HC-4600 Sharp 800/BE-SHARP
HP 660LX Hewlett-Packard 800/972-2841
MobilePro 750C H/PC NEC 888/446-8632
Cassiopeia A-10/11 Casio 916/455-2741