Product Focus: Notebooks

The notebook computer has become an increasingly affordable productivity tool of choice for people with nomadic tendencies.

by / October 31, 1997 0
In 1903, illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, best known for his "Gibson Girl and Gibson Man" found in many commercial illustrations during the Golden Age of the 1880s, depicted a turn-of-the-century virtual office -- Mr. Hogg is reading a newspaper and viewing his stock ticker while two weary telegraph couriers sleep on a bench. His office assistant is speaking on the phone and his secretary is typing a letter. In the background, wooden poles hold wires linking his high-tech phone and stock ticker to the world around him. The caption reads: "Mr. A. Merger Hogg is taking a few days of much-needed rest at his country home."


Ninety-four years later, information devices such as personal computers, cellular phones, wireless, and modems -- have imitated art, but with less of a need for telegraph couriers or wooden poles! Today, lightweight notebook computers that can fit inside a briefcase allow us to set up portable offices.

Most notebook computers weigh only 4 to 7 pounds (1.8 to 3.2 kgs) and give users all the capability and tools of a desktop computer -- word processing, spreadsheets and the Internet.

With so much riding on these small devices, it is important to consider features and alternatives.

The Need For Speed

The microprocessor is the central component of the computer system and determines how quickly a computer processes information. Most notebooks on the market use Intel's microprocessor. From 1989 to 1997, Intel introduced four microprocessors: Intel 486, Pentium, Pentium Pro and the Pentium with MMX technology -- Intel's latest and fastest offering.

Most laptops come equipped with the Pentium 100MHz or the Pentium 133MHz processor. So, if you are faced with choosing between processor speed and RAM (Random Access Memory), go for the memory. An Intel 486 system with 16MB of RAM is much more productive than a Pentium 100MHz with only 4MB or 8MB of RAM. In equivalent systems, chose one with a larger hard disk.

Power Supply

Laptops use AC power, but at those times when AC power outlets are not accessible, users can carry rechargeable batteries as a backup.

There are many types of batteries: lead acid, zinc air, nickel cadmium, nickel hydride and lithium ion -- with the last three being the most popular:

* Nickel cadmium (or NICAD) is the least desirable type. Its problem is known as "memory effect" -- in which the battery's maximum charge capacity is determined by the level of charge it contained when it was last charged, and will not charge pass that point again. To reduce the risk of memory effect, the battery should be fully discharged periodically to maintain the longest charge.

* Nickel hydride provides more charge with less weight than nickel cadmium batteries -- but less than zinc air -- and does not suffer from memory effect. The electrolyte consists of nickel and metal hydride plates, which quickly recharge.

* Lithium ion provides more than twice the charge of nickel hydride and also does not suffer from memory effect, but it's the most expensive, as well.

A newer power supply will soon hit the market that uses lithium polymer technology and may provide twice as much power as lithium ion.

Large programs or files -- such as large images -- consume more power. To remedy this situation, it's a good idea to keep some extra batteries around. Many notebooks have a battery meter on the display that provides battery-charge information.

There are various ways to save power, however. For example, when some computers are idle for an extended period of time, the "power manager" will automatically shut down the processor or put the computer in sleep mode, which reduces power consumption. This is a very useful function for Pentium notebooks, since they generate a lot of heat and do not have large internal fans, like desktops computers.

Crystal Clear

A laptop's screen was once its main shortcoming due to its excessive weight, gluttonous power consumption and poor display quality. Today, liquid crystal displays (LCD) provide large, color notebook screens with crystal-clear resolution.

LCDs use crystals -- similar to glass -- that flow like liquid and bend light. When the crystals are energized, they direct light through one of two polarizing filters in the screen, resulting in the desired color. When no energy is running through the crystals, both polarizing filters are used, causing a natural background color.

An LCD screen is covered with vertical and horizontal rows of pixels making up a matrix. A pixel can be one dot on a monochrome screen, three dots (red, green and blue) on a color screen, or a combinations of these dots.

The more pixels, the better the resolution. Many of today's screens are of the Video Graphics Array (VGA) variety, with a resolution of 640x480 (640 dots across each of 480 rows on the screen). One of the VGA vendors, VESA, has boosted resolution and colors with Super VGA (or SVGA), which provides a resolution up to 1280x1024 with 16 million colors. (For additional information call VESA at 408/435-0333.)

There are three types of LCD screens used on notebook computers:

* The best and most expensive is the active matrix LCD screen, also called the TFT (Thin Film Transistor) LCD. Using a transistor for each pixel, it produces a high-quality display and eliminates submarining (the disappearance of the cursor on slower systems) associated with passive matrix screens.

* The passive matrix LCD screens provide a sharp image for monochrome screens, but are much poorer in quality with color. Passive matrix screens come in either Twisted Nematic (TN), with 90 degree twist, or Supertwisted Nematic (STN), with a 180-270 degree twist.

* The dual-scan STN attempts to improve the quality of the passive matrix display -- and it succeeds -- but it is still not as sharp as the active matrix display.

Most simple applications -- word processing or spreadsheets -- look fine with a simple pallet of colors, but multimedia applications -- video and images -- require a much richer color selection.

LCD manufacturers continuously strive to increase the size of notebook computer displays. Recently, Digital announced a 14.1-inch LCD. (For additional information contact Karen Gordon, Digital Equipment Corp. at 508/264-6536. E-mail: )

PC Cards = Expansion

Compared to desktop computers, notebooks are quite limited in their ability to expand and upgrade. They don't have internal expansion slots, which makes the addition of features -- such as a CD-ROM drive -- very expensive.

However, if your machine has a PC-card slot, you can use a PC card to expand or upgrade your system to include such features as CD-ROM drives, high-speed modems, additional storage, network connectivity and multimedia.

Many notebook manufacturers collaborated on a set of standards for PC cards and called this union the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA). The standards mandate three types of PC cards and PC-card slots: Type I, Type II and Type III. All three have the same length (85.6mm/3.37 inches), the same width (54mm/2.13 inches) and use the same hardware (a 68-pin connector) for interfacing with a notebook computer's matching PC-card slot.



Calluna Technology's
Type III PC Card
The only difference between these cards is the thickness. Type I cards are 3.3 mm (0.13 inches) thick, Type II cards are 5mm (0.20 inches) thick and Type III cards are 10.5mm (0.41 inches) thick. The different size indicates the PC card's capability: Type I cards are used to house items for flash memory; Type II cards are used for communication devices, such as modems; and, Type III cards more data-storage capacity.
sive weight, gluttonous power consumption and poor display quality. Today, liquid crystal displays (LCD) provide large, color notebook screens with crystal-clear resolution.

LCDs use crystals -- similar to glass -- that flow like liquid and bend light. When the crystals are energized, they direct light through one of two polarizing filters in the screen, resulting in the desired color. When no energy is running through the crystals, both polarizing filters are used, causing a natural background color.

An LCD screen is covered with vertical and horizontal rows of pixels making up a matrix. A pixel can be one dot on a monochrome screen, three dots (red, green and blue) on a color screen, or a combinations of these dots.

The more pixels, the better the resolution. Many of today's screens are of the Video Graphics Array (VGA) variety, with a resolution of 640x480 (640 dots across each of 480 rows on the screen). One of the VGA vendors, VESA, has boosted resolution and colors with Super VGA (or SVGA), which provides a resolution up to 1280x1024 with 16 million colors. (For additional information call VESA at 408/435-0333.)

There are three types of LCD screens used on notebook computers:

* The best and most expensive is the active matrix LCD screen, also called the TFT (Thin Film Transistor) LCD. Using a transistor for each pixel, it produces a high-quality display and eliminates submarining (the disappearance of the cursor on slower systems) associated with passive matrix screens.

* The passive matrix LCD screens provide a sharp image for monochrome screens, but are much poorer in quality with color. Passive matrix screens come in either Twisted Nematic (TN), with 90 degree twist, or Supertwisted Nematic (STN), with a 180-270 degree twist.

* The dual-scan STN attempts to improve the quality of the passive matrix display -- and it succeeds -- but it is still not as sharp as the active matrix display.

Most simple applications -- word processing or spreadsheets -- look fine with a simple pallet of colors, but multimedia applications -- video and images -- require a much richer color selection.

LCD manufacturers continuously strive to increase the size of notebook computer displays. Recently, Digital announced a 14.1-inch LCD. (For additional information contact Karen Gordon, Digital Equipment Corp. at 508/264-6536. E-mail: )

PC Cards = Expansion

Compared to desktop computers, notebooks are quite limited in their ability to expand and upgrade. They don't have internal expansion slots, which makes the addition of features -- such as a CD-ROM drive -- very expensive.

However, if your machine has a PC-card slot, you can use a PC card to expand or upgrade your system to include such features as CD-ROM drives, high-speed modems, additional storage, network connectivity and multimedia.

Many notebook manufacturers collaborated on a set of standards for PC cards and called this union the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA). The standards mandate three types of PC cards and PC-card slots: Type I, Type II and Type III. All three have the same length (85.6mm/3.37 inches), the same width (54mm/2.13 inches) and use the same hardware (a 68-pin connector) for interfacing with a notebook computer's matching PC-card slot.



Calluna Technology's
Type III PC Card
The only difference between these cards is the thickness. Type I cards are 3.3 mm (0.13 inches) thick, Type II cards are 5mm (0.20 inches) thick and Type III cards are 10.5mm (0.41 inches) thick. The different size indicates the PC card's capability: Type I cards are used to house items for flash memory; Type II cards are used for communication devices, such as modems; and, Type III cards more data-storage capacity.


Today, almost all notebooks include PC-card slots, and some can accommodate all three types. Here are some of the different kinds of PC cards:

Communication PC cards give users telecommunication capabilities with the following options:

* Standard and Cellular modems -- Like regular modems for your desktop, these cards accept a regular phone line. If you are on the road, many of these connect through a cellular phone.

* Wireless modems -- A wireless PC- card modem and a proprietary radio network service can provide connection within coverage areas.

* Local-area Network (LAN) PC cards -- LAN PC cards give users the ability to connect to an office network.

Storage PC cards hold anywhere from 2MB to 400MB, operate without moving parts and are resistant to vibration and temperature. These cards have a memory chip that stores data without power, but they must be erased in fixed blocks rather than single bytes.

Small Computer System Interface (SCSI) Controllers PC card let you connect to CD-ROM drives, scanners, printers and ZIP drives.



Husky's FC-PX5
Rugged field computer


Sound PC Cards record and play back sound. Some CD-ROM-drive packages come with a complete sound card built into their connector.

Pointing Devices

Notebooks employ three types of pointing devices that move the pointer around the screen:

* A touchpad, located below the spacebar, allows the user to move the cursor by sliding his or her finger on the pad. It is not recommended for those who use graphical applications.

* A trackball, also located below the spacebar, allows the user to move the cursor by rotating the ball with the fingers or palm. It is recommended for use with graphical applications.

* A small pointing stick in the middle of the keyboard (between B, G and H key).

Try all three and see which one best suits your needs.

The "X" Factor

Speed is the key for CD-ROM drives. "Data transfer rate" is the standard by which CD-ROM drives are measured for their speed. The higher the rate of transfer, the better the performance.

Drive speed is usually shown by a number -- in intervals of two -- followed by an "X" ( 2X, 4X, 6X, 8X, etc.). Each X is equal to 150,000 bytes per second. A 24X would soon hit the consumer market.

Infrared Capability

Today, infrared technology is built into almost every notebook computer, allowing a wireless transmission. It requires a clear line of sight between the notebook and computer peripheral. Apple's eMate series, specifically designed for the educational market, allows instructors and students to share and transfer data using this technology.

Palmtop Computers

Another kind of portable computer -- called a palmtop -- is emerging in the market, and they might make laptops look like desktop computers very soon. These small computers cost from $200 to $800 and can be used for organizing, word processing, Internet access, faxing and e-mail.

These tiny computers lack the power, data storage and a simple way to exchange files with standard computers. However, Microsoft recently released its Windows CE operating system, which makes exchanging data with notebook computers and desktops much easier.

Palmtop computers don't require the amount of energy needed by notebooks. Usually a couple of standard AA or AAA batteries will keep them running smoothly.

Several manufacturers, including Phillips and Casio, have already released their small computers.

Ninety five years from now, today's notebook computers will be as primitive as Mr. Hogg's stock ticker or telegraph. Remember, not so long ago, only top executives could afford notebooks, but now they're showing up in homes and in backpacks.

There are plenty of good notebook computers around today. The features you want in your notebook will depend a lot on how you plan to use it. If possible, try the unit first, and be sure to ask about the return policy and warranty.


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