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