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Shop Carefully for a Notebook PC

April 29, 1993|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | LAWRENCE J. MAGID is a Silicon Valley-based computer analyst and writer

I feel like Goldilocks when I review notebook PCs. This one's too big. That one's too slow. This one's too expensive. That one has a lousy screen and the other a mushy keyboard. Unlike Goldilocks, who finally found a comfortable place to sleep, I've yet to find a notebook PC that's "just right."

Notebook computers, by their nature, involve compromises. You want a machine that's fast and powerful, with a good screen and keyboard, plenty of memory and a large-capacity hard disk. You want the ability to upgrade the new machine and, of course, you want it to be light, small and inexpensive. Dream on!

There are some excellent notebook PCs, but you have to decide what compromises you're willing to make. What you buy is pretty much what you're stuck with, because you can't swap out parts as easily as on a desktop system.

Pay special attention to the keyboard and screen. That's where manufacturers are most likely to make compromises that affect usability. A notebook PC keyboard will never be as roomy as a desktop model's, but some are better than others. Consider the feel, size and layout. Make sure it's not too stiff or mushy. Be sure you're happy with the size and placement of the backspace, enter and arrow keys.

Notebooks are sold by weight--the lighter the better--but don't go by the sales literature. Add the weight of the power supply and, if necessary, an external floppy drive or a modem. Pack the machine and all its components into a case and carry it around the store. Do this with several models and you'll begin to see how they differ.

If you plan to use the machine mainly in airplanes, hotels or at home and at the office, weight should be a secondary factor. If you're going to carry it around during the day, then go for the lightest one that meets your needs.

Full-sized notebooks, which weigh between 5 1/2 pounds and 8 pounds, are more likely to have good screens and keyboards and built-in floppy drives. You can expect compromises if you buy a sub-notebook, which may weigh as little as 3 1/2 pounds.

If battery life is important, look for a machine with a 386SL or 486SL CPU. The SL is a special energy-saving chip that is optimized to extend battery life.

Almost all notebook PCs have a VGA plug for an external color monitor as well as serial and parallel ports for connecting a modem, printer, mouse and other devices. I prefer those that also have a round PS/2 mouse port that can also be used to plug in an external keyboard.

A growing number of notebook PCs have one or more PCMCIA slots (never mind what it stands for) for plugging in a credit-card-sized accessory such as a modem, extra hard disk or local-area network adapter. Some companies offer an optional expansion chassis, which allows you to convert the machine into a desktop system.

The AST PowerExec, for example, connects to an optional $499 PowerStation that adds two standard expansion slots and room for two more disk or tape drives. The Macintosh Duo, which does not have a built-in floppy drive, is designed to work with a docking station that adds a drive, a monitor and access to other peripherals.

Even without its expansion chassis, the color version of AST's PowerExec EL is impressive. Priced at $2,795 and up, it is an excellent choice for those needing color on a budget. It has a 25-megahertz 386SL CPU, a PCMCIA slot and a choice of a 60-, 80- or 120-megabyte removable hard disk.

The screen isn't as bright as the active matrix screens on more expensive color notebooks, but it's quite readable. The AST weighs 6 pounds and comes with a snap-on trackball centered just below the space bar. The keyboard is well designed, but I found it too stiff. It slowed me down and tired me out more quickly. Some people do prefer a stiff keyboard.

If you need to print from the road, check out Canon's new 7.7-pound NoteJet 486. It has two PCMCIA slots, an internal floppy drive and a built-in BubbleJet printer that prints excellent (laser quality) text and graphics on plain paper. It doesn't have a built-in trackball, but does come with an external pointing device. A model with 4 megabytes of RAM and an 85-MB hard disk costs $2,499.

A built-in trackball is a nice option, but be sure it's in a convenient location. The Compaq LTE Lite/25E is a pretty nice machine, but the trackball is awkwardly located in the upper right corner of the screen. It's very inconvenient for lefties like me and not all that great for right-handers.

Recently I've been using Zeos' new Contenda sub-notebook PC. At 3 1/2 pounds, it's light enough to carry around all day. This makes it a good choice for field reporters or people who want to carry a PC around at trade shows or about town. Its 386SL CPU and 80-megabyte hard disk makes it suitable for Windows, but its 10%-smaller-than-normal keyboard detracts from an otherwise excellent machine.

The backspace and enter keys are too small, and some keys are in odd places. Prices start at $1,499, but plan to spend at least $1,699 for a unit with four megabytes of memory and an external floppy drive.

The Dell 320SLi, also 3 1/2 pounds, has a better keyboard but the screen isn't illuminated. It's great at the beach but terrible on airplanes or indoors. Like the Contenda, it has an optional external floppy drive.

Prices start at $1,399 for a unit with 2 megabytes of RAM and a 60-MB hard drive. If weight and price aren't important, take a look at IBM's 7.7-pound ThinkPad 700C ($4,350).

It has a great active matrix color screen, an excellent keyboard and a unique pointing device called the TrackPoint, which sticks up like a thin eraser between the G, H and B keys. It is surprisingly responsive and easy to use. A 6 1/2-pound monochrome version is $2,750.

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