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Finally, an IBM That's Worth Craving

September 16, 1993|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | LAWRENCE J. MAGID is a Silicon Valley-based computer writer

Now that the U.S. auto industry is listening to its customers and designing better cars, it is once again fashionable to buy American. The same can be said for buying IBM.

There was a time when the IBM brand name was synonymous with quality and innovation. Even after Compaq and others started building IBM compatibles, there were still plenty of reasons to by IBM PCs.

But that changed during the mid-'80s as other companies started beating IBM on price and on technical innovations as well. For a time, buyers of IBM PCs even had to give up some IBM compatibility, as silly as that sounds. Clones were more generally compatible than some products by IBM itself.

Those days are over. I'm not enamored with every new machine that comes out of IBM, but I am impressed at the general direction of its new IBM Personal Computer Co. IBM stock may not be worth what it used to be, but its name on a PC once again means something.

This is especially true in the notebook arena--the fastest-growing segment of the personal computer market. IBM's line of ThinkPad notebooks represents some of the best Yankee ingenuity in recent years, even if some of them are made by IBM Japan.

During the last few months, I've had a chance to work with some IBM ThinkPad models, including the affordable 350 monochrome machine and the pricey yet sexy 750C multimedia computer, which IBM introduced Sept. 8.

All IBM ThinkPads have IBM's unique TrackPoint II pointing device instead of a mouse or a trackball. The TrackPoint, which looks like a small pencil eraser, sticks up between the G, H and B keys. You manipulate it with your finger. I find it easy to use.

The 350 isn't a particularly exciting machine, but it gets the job done. Its 25-megahertz 486 CPU is certainly peppy enough, and its 125 or 250 MB hard drive offers excellent performance. I am not impressed by the bundled software (IBM DOS 5.0 and Prodigy) considering that everyone else is bundling Microsoft Windows and Microsoft DOS 6.0. The machine works fine with DOS 6.0 and Windows, but you have to supply your own. The monochrome version starts at $1,999; a passive matrix color version, weighing 5.7 pounds, costs $2,499.

If the 350 is a workhorse, the 750C, IBM's newest notebook, is an expensive show horse. Before I whet your appetite with the details, be aware that the entry point for the color system is $4,699 and that the full-blown multimedia system will set you back $8,599.

But what a machine. When you first turn it on, you get a multimedia presentation, complete with sound and video. That's old hat on desktop machines, but the 750C weighs only 5.9 pounds and runs on rechargeable batteries. Note to techies: It runs an Intel 486SL at 33 MHz.

The 10.4-inch active-matrix color screen is excellent, but the best part of the 750C is what you see when you lift up the keyboard. There, you'll find a removable 170 or 340 MB hard disk and a floppy drive that can be removed to save weight. Or you can replace the floppy with an optional wireless modem or a TV tuner, just in case you want to watch the late show while you're between planes at O'Hare.

The $899 docking station, which weighs about 6 pounds, has a bay for an SCSI CD-ROM as well as built-in stereo speakers and a slot for an industry standard expansion card. A handle turns the system into an 11.7-pound transportable multimedia center.

The 750C is a bit pricey for me, but it is nice to see IBM finally come out with a machine that I can at least crave. Eventually, technology and competition will force down the price of such powerful portable systems, but for now most users are money ahead by getting both a high-speed multimedia desktop system and a more modest notebook PC.

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