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In Search of the Perfect Laptop
Laptops are beginning to compete with desktop PCs as a choice for a primary PC, but you can make a big mistake if you don't evaluate your laptop purchase carefully.
By Alan Freedman
Laptops are the hottest PCs today. They're not only a perfect choice for a second PC, but with their increasing horsepower and features, they are beginning to compete with desktops as a primary PC. After all, if you have to take it on the road, it's a royal pain transferring files from the desktop to the laptop while you're making a mad dash for the 6:13 to Westchester.
But, as has been true with laptops since day one, buyer beware. You can make a big mistake if you don't evaluate your laptop purchase carefully. Although this is beginning to change, for the most part, you're stuck with what you buy. You can't swap primary components such as display adapters and hard drives with the same ease as your desktops. Even with removable hard disks, you're still beholden to the vendor of your laptop, and you will pay at least double or triple per megabyte compared to a desktop disk.
Although we're always in a transition between the current high-speed CPU and next month's high-speed CPU, we're even more in a transition between non-multimedia equipped and multimedia-equipped portables. In time, sound and built-in CD-ROM drives will be the norm. In the meantime, more laptops are sound-card and speaker equipped than ever before. If your requirements are for sound-based CD-ROM products, such as encyclopedias and other "talking" databases, a built-in sound system is a must. Sure, you can plug in a PCMCIA sound card, and there are good ones, but there's already too much stuff dangling from these things. Now you want to add speakers?
I don't know about you, but I've been lugging seven and eight-pound machines around conferences for years. They're damn heavy, and combined with all the other junk in the case, a 10-pound load is truly enough to take your back out after six hours of on-the-shoulder, off-the-shoulder. My druthers would be two pounds. Some day, maybe, but not today.
Laptops offer an enticing alternative to desktops for users that work nights and weekends at home. It makes a worthwhile investment for everyone, and it's good for employee relations. Employees can spring for their home monitor and keyboard, while the agency foots the bill for the rest. Lest you say public property should not be taken home. Change the rules. It's win-win. If the employee leaves the job, the agency gets the laptop back or lets the employee purchase it. With laptop values depreciating faster than Superman can chase the bad guy, it's not a bad way to get some bucks for last year's model.
Following are some important features to help you make that all-important laptop purchase.
CLASSIFICATION AND WEIGHT
Portable PCs are loosely classified by size and weight. A laptop usually weighs from seven to 12 pounds and will not fit into a briefcase. A notebook computer will fit into a briefcase and weighs from four to six pounds. A subnotebook weighs two to three pounds, and a pocket computer is one pound or less. Vendors often call their nine-pound machines a notebook, but all's fair in marketing.
Few machines have a built-in handle, a rather odd omission that forces you to use the travelling case, which is usually stuffed with disks, cables, extra battery, transformer, and yesterday's lunch. Be aware: honest vendors include the battery weight, crooks don't. And, almost nobody mentions the weight of the transformer, which adds from one-half pound to over three. If you're going to Timbucktoo without your transformer, think again. Compaq has the best design. It builds it right in. One less thing to carry. Good move.
PROCESSOR POWER AND DISK SPACE
If you need the bleeding edge, you pay through the nose. Pentium laptops are starting to appear and demand quite a premium for state-of-the-art. If you need high speed Windows computing, a DX4 is a more economical choice, and 486/50s and 486/75s even more so. CPU power is all a matter of budgets and applications. Still running DOS? You can use anything!
As for hard disk capacity, laptops are starting to approach the gigabyte range, with many models offering 700 and 800MB drives. It doesn't take much brain burn to figure out what you need. Just remember that the more you fill up your disk, the more backup problems you've got. Windows 95 is going to make this a lot easier. It will let you transfer the documents and databases you're going to work with from your desktop machine into your laptop by first copying them into a folder called a Briefcase. Then you copy the Briefcase to your laptop via floppy, cable or network. You edit the files on your laptop, and when you get back to the office, you put the Briefcase back into your desktop PC and have Windows 95 perform a Briefcase update. It replaces all the original files with the ones you changed no matter which directories they're located in.
If this feature really takes off, you'll probably want a larger hard disk, because not only will your documents take up room, but you'll want all the applications on your laptop that you have on your desktop -- something to consider. You'd think Bill Gates owned the stock of every PC vendor for all the hardware Windows has caused to be purchased.
Portable PCs almost universally offer VGA resolution. Don't accept less. The resolutions comes in monochrome (gray scale) or color using primarily the LCD (liquid crystal display) technology. Color is simply more appealing, but if you have serious budget constraints, you can pick up monochrome laptops for bargains. In a couple of years, you won't find them anymore. Get active matrix monochrome -- it's sharp and clear.
The active matrix color screen is the sharpest and provides the best viewing angle. Traditional passive matrix is dull, but double-scan passive matrix is an improvement. However, if you plan on demonstrating an application with several people gathered around, passive matrix will not suffice. The viewing angle drops off markedly. You need active matrix, which can be as much as $2,000 worth of a $4,000 laptop.
Regarding demos of screen quality -- don't be suckered in by the ever-present graphics demos. It's text you want to look at. Images swirling on screen always look better than stills. If you glare at spreadsheets all day, observe similar screen images.
Most portables provide color VGA output to an external monitor. Some allow simultaneous display of both screens, which is very useful if you do presentations and connect the output to a data panel or data projector for large screen use.
Keyboards run from the ridiculous to the sublime. In order to reduce real estate, vendors may undersize all the keys or just some of them. They may combine two functions together, typically adding PageUp, PageDown, Home and End to the cursor keys, requiring you to press the "Fn" key to activate them. This is OK for seldom-used functions, but is a sad choice for these often-used keys. IBM and Toshiba have some of the best designs, but all laptop keyboards are a compromise compared to a really good desktop keyboard.
If you're a fast typist, it is absolutely imperative that you try out the keyboard you may be stuck with. For home or office, you can connect an external keyboard via an often-included external keyboard connector or via the serial or parallel port using adapters, but this is hardly the way to go for travelling.
There are more approaches to building in a pointing device than Carter has liver pills. They've stuck it on the left side of the keyboard, the right, bottom, top, middle, even on the side of the screen. They put the mouse buttons next to it or on the other end of the machine, requiring both hands. That's the silliest yet. Some have a "mouse key," a single key that moves in every direction.
IBM's TrackPoint is unique. It looks like the eraser head of a pencil sticking up between the G, H and B keys. You move it with your forefinger and press two buttons below the space bar, which are the mouse button equivalents. Other vendors have copied the TrackPoint and call it a track stick or Accupoint or some such. Most put it in between the keys, others place it elsewhere on the keyboard. The consensus is this: it takes getting used to. You may love it, and then again...
Toshiba, Digital and others use a side mounted trackball, which is fairly comfortable, but requires that it be carried externally and attached when required. Barring all these approaches, most laptops also include a separate mouse port so you can use a plain ole mouse. This is not a half bad idea, because you get used to the one attached to your desktop machine. Why not take it with you?
Compaq actually has one of the best pointing devices. It is a trackball that is mounted on the right, lower side of the screen with the buttons on the back of the lid. It looks weird, but is actually extremely easy to use even at first attempts.
Winbook Computer's Winbooks provide a novel approach. They offer swapable pointing device modules. You can pull out the trackball module and insert a touch pad module.
A laptop with both a mouse port and keyboard port provides the most flexibility. You may come to dislike the pointing device that is built in. Watch out.
POWER MANAGEMENT AND BATTERY LIFE
Memory-based programs, such as spreadsheets and many word processors, don't need the hard disk spinning while you ponder your text and data. Built-in setup programs in laptops let you determine when to power down the hard disk or screen. Also, why run the CPU at high speed if you're not processing anything?
Today's chips let the machine idle and run at variable clock speeds to conserve energy, but battery life varies among different machines, and no matter which one you get, active matrix screens suck up more juice.
Nickel hydride batteries are better than nickel cadmium (often called NiCad, although NICAD is a trademark of SAFT America Inc. of Valdosta, Ga.). Nickel hydride doesn't have the memory effect of nickel cadmium. If you don't periodically fully drain your nickel cadmium battery, it remembers how full it was when you last charged it and begins to poop out at that same level. Newer lithium ion batteries extend power even more. For example, Toshiba's Portege yields nearly four hours from its battery, and with an active matrix screen no less. Battery weight is always a tradeoff. The more poundage, the more charge. Remember... you can always carry an extra battery.
This feature lets you close the lid and resume where you left off. It idles everything and waits for you to open up and continue without having to reload over again, a real boon to Windows users with many active applications. Depending on the charge you had, you can come back up to five days later and start where you left off.
DOCKING STATIONS & EXPANDABILITY
Some portables have an expansion slot, most have none. An option to turn your portable into a full-sized desktop is a docking station, which contains expansion slots for your network, CD-ROM and scanner boards, keyboard and video connectors and serial and parallel ports. All your devices are cabled to the docking station which the portable plugs into. Check prices. Docking stations run from $300 to $2000.
If your portable has no docking station, you can expand it through the parallel port. There are a variety of adapters that use the parallel port to connect to a network or add a disk drive. A SCSI to Parallel adapter lets you connect "scuzzy" devices to any machine via the parallel port, allowing you to hook up a scanner, CD-ROM or other device. You sacrifice throughput, since SCSI can transfer multiple megabytes of data compared to the parallel port's 200KB, but that may not matter as long as you can drive what you need. Better yet, find a laptop with a SCSI port. Increasingly they're showing up. Then again, you can always add a SCSI adapter via a PCMCIA slot.
PCMCIA PC CARD SLOTS
PCMCIA expandability on laptops is now the standard. The only problem with it is that the six syllables it takes to pronounce P - C - M - C - I - A makes it hard to talk about it in a hurry. PCMCIA stands for PC Memory Card International Association. PCMCIA endorses the "PC Card" standard, not the PCMCIA standard. Oh well.
Up until recently, PCMCIA standards have not been without problem. PCMCIA's Card and Socket services, the control software designed to provide interoperability among different PC Cards, have been interpreted and implemented differently. The latest standard, simply known as the PC Card Standard, is an attempt to resolve various issues. Don't be surprised, however, if every PC Card doesn't work in older PC Card slots. What's new? The old adage that is forever true in this biz is "try it out."
All PC Cards are 85.6 mm long by 54 mm wide (3.37" x 2.126") and use a 68-pin connector. The original Type I card is 3.3 mm thick and is now used for memory in palmtops and other lightweight applications.
The Type II card, which is 5.0 mm thick, is commonly used for memory, modems and LAN adapters in laptops. The Type III card is 10.5 mm thick and is used to hold a hard disk, wireless transceiver or other peripheral that needs more space. One Type III slot can hold one Type III or two Type II cards.
Toshiba introduced a 16 mm Type IV card, but this has not been officially adopted by the PCMCIA. Smaller cards will work in a Type IV slot.
In any event, the PC Card, or PCMCIA Card, however you say it, is a fast way to connect a fax/modem, network adapter, combined modem-network adapter, SCSI adapter, sound card and even a hard disk. In the second half of this year, Syquest is bringing out a Type II PCMCIA removable 80MB hard disk. The disk is a 1.8" "removable removable," meaning that you insert the drive into the PC Card slot and then you insert the removable hard disk into the drive.
Like everything else with laptops, you will pay a premium for a PC Card network adapter, sound card, etc., over one you would use in a desktop machine. This will no doubt improve in the next year or so, but right now, demand is high for these credit-card-sized adapters. So shop around.
A laptop with built-in sound, microphone and speakers is the best bet for multimedia. However, there are so many non-multimedia-equipped machines currently, you can get a better deal especially if you have a volume purchase requirement. And, when you do need multimedia components, you can expand via PCMCIA cards or parallel port sound cards, remembering, though, that these devices will take up extra room in the travelling case.
For example, PCMCIA sound cards, such as Media Vision's PCMCIA Sound Card (aptly named) provides a 16-bit sound system with line-in, line-out, microphone, joystick and MIDI ports. They usually sport a manual volume control on a module and connect via a Type II card. Check for Sound Blaster compatibility for those addicted to Doom.
For even greater laptop bargains, look for laptops without any PCMCIA slots if you truly know you can get by without them. Shucks, they ought to give you the machines if they don't have PCMCIA slots. When you need sound you can upgrade via a parallel port sound card, such as DSP Solution's Portable Sound Plus. This unit, which measures about 6 x 3 x 1" adds very respectable sound to a speechless PC. In addition, if you have only one PCMCIA slot, you may have to sacrifice it for a SCSI card to run your CD-ROM drive or a fax/modem or a network adapter. You'll still need sound, and a Portable Sound Plus unit can fit the bill. Also, look for combined sound and CD-ROM PCMCIA cards in the near future.
COMPLETE MULTIMEDIA UNITS
The latest multimedia screamer is, of course, the built-in CD-ROM machine. This is state-of-the-multimedia-laptop-art, and it is expected that all laptops will come so equipped in the future. If you work with one or more CD-ROMs on the road, you will want one. On Panasonic's V41, you pull up the keyboard to get to the CD-ROM. MPC's CD-Book laptop works in a similar manner and appears thus far to be the cheapest unit on the market at $3200 with an active matrix screen. That's a real bargain, and the company is so busy, you're unlikely to get through to them on even the second or third try. We'd sure like to see more of this kind of pricing, preferably from a vendor that answers its phone. Don't hold your breath though, the biggies know they can get the bucks. Laptops are in demand.
IBM takes another approach. Its ThinkPad 755CD lets you substitute the floppy drive for the CD-ROM to provide front access to the drive and keep the machine as light as possible. Great idea, notwithstanding it's two and a half times the price tag of the CD-Book. TI has an interesting approach with its TravelMate 4000M series: a CD-ROM docking station that is the full width/depth footprint of the machine. It adds about an inch and a half of height to the unit, but all in all turns a plain laptop into a multimedia machine without the awkward bulk of a separate CD-ROM drive and speakers.
If you need your PC on the road, check out the terms of the service contract. A 24-hour onsite response time doesn't mean you are up and running in 24 hours. It means that's when the technician is supposed to arrive, and, of course, supposedly have the correct part. Also check out the availability of service on the road. Make sure you don't have to be in only one primary location to get service, or find out how much extra they charge for such service.
Don't be fooled by who's number #1 in the market. I bought a Toshiba laptop a year ago because I've always had the highest regard for Toshiba quality. In the past year, I've had four service problems with it. On one occasion, the mouse port simply fell out, rendering the machine useless on an out-of-town trip expressly designed to demonstrate software. When I returned, I phoned in the service request and told them the mouse port was bad. They overnighted me a VGA port. When I told them they had the wrong part, they overnighted me a serial port. Finally, they sent me the mouse port. Four days later, the machine was fixed.
Check service carefully. Laptops don't sit immobile on a desk, they get banged around. They break more than desktops, no matter who makes 'em.
If you do presentations, whether on the road or in the office, there are a few laptops that provide a removable LCD panel that can be used on top of an overhead projector. I wish more companies would include this feature, because it's a helluva good idea. Acquiline Inc.'s Aquiline Cruiser is one such laptop.
POWERBOOKS VERSUS PCS
Face it -- it's a PC versus Mac desktop world, so it's also a PC versus Mac laptop world. If you're a Mac user, you don't buy a PC for the road, and vice versa, so this is kind of a moot point. Nevertheless, newer Mac Powerbooks are upgradable to PowerPCs, which do run DOS and Windows software. The PowerPC is no sleeper. It's coming on nice and steady, and it does provide a saner alternative to the PC.
TRY IT - YOU MIGHT DESPISE IT
More than ever, "try it out." You can waste more money on a portable today than you can on a desktop PC. A 486/66 motherboard and CPU costs as little as $239 these days, upgrading a lethargic desktop PC into a reasonably responsive machine for minimal cost. But if you buy too low, too slow or too few features in a laptop, you may be sorry a lot sooner than you think.
Alan Freedman is author of The Computer Glossary: The Complete Illustrated Desk Reference (Amacom, New York City) and The Electronic Computer Glossary (Computer Language Co. Inc., Point Pleasant PA, 215/297-5999)