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Notebook PCs Catching Up With Desktops in Power, Price

April 08, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A lot of people who think about getting a portable computer for their business have second thoughts once they compare notebook PC features, performance and price with what they can get with a desktop machine. Historically, notebook PCs have been slower, less powerful and much more expensive than desktop PCs.

That's less true now as the price-and-performance gap narrows.

Intel and several PC vendors announced recently that they are offering mobile PCs with Pentium II processors running at speeds of up to 266 MHz, with many models designed and priced to appeal to the small-business and home-office market.

Depending on what benchmark test you use, a Pentium II processor runs anywhere from 20% to 35% faster than a standard Pentium chip that's rated at the same number of megahertz.

Raw microprocessor power, like a car's horsepower, is only one of many factors that determines the overall speed of a machine, however. When you consider human factors, such as how fast you type, and other issues, such as print speed and Internet access speed, the overall impact of a faster central processing unit, or CPU, may be fairly insignificant.

Nevertheless, users do crave speed, and vendors always gear up their lines with the latest and greatest. As long as speed is an important benchmark, it's nice to know that you can now get plenty of it on a portable machine.

What's more, the high-end versions of these systems are now coming with up to 8 gigabytes of storage and some pretty fancy features, including the ability to record full-motion video.

Bottom line: Today's notebook PCs are, for all practical purposes, about as fast and as powerful as top-of-the-line desktop machines.

I can think of several advantages and a few drawbacks to a notebook PC compared with a desktop. On the downside, notebook machines are more expensive, the screens aren't as big and they're not as easy to expand or upgrade. But there are advantages. They take up less desk space, they're easier to set up and, of course, they're portable.

What's more, a lot of people--myself included--prefer the active-matrix color LCD screens used on mid- and high-end notebook PCs to the standard video tubes typically used on desktop machines. A good notebook screen is arguably easier on the eyes and gives off fewer electromagnetic emissions, which some people say have a negative effect on health, although there is controversy over that issue.

Notebook PCs are still considerably more expensive than desktop models with roughly equivalent features and specifications. But if you don't need all the bells and whistles (and most small-business people don't), they are now within reach. Dell, for example, just released the $2,699 Inspiron 3200 with a 233-MHz Pentium II, 32 megabytes of RAM, a 3.2-gigabyte hard disk and a 24X CD-ROM drive. A similarly equipped Dell desktop would cost you $1,756. Admittedly, there's a 54% price difference between the two systems, but that's less than it used to be. The Inspiron also is attractively priced compared with the competition.

Toshiba has released several new notebook PCs with the new Pentium II processor, starting at $3,549 for the Satellite Pro 490 CDT with a 233-MHz CPU, 32 megabytes of RAM and a 4-gigabyte hard drive. Those who want to fly first-class can spend $5,899 for the Tecra 780DVD with a 266-MHz CPU, an 8-gigabyte hard drive, 64 megabytes of memory and a built-in DVD drive that you can use to watch full-length movies.

Other companies with new Pentium II machines include Acer America, Compaq, Fujitsu, Gateway 2000, Hitachi, Hewlett-Packard, IBM Mag Portables Technologies, NEC, Quantex, Siemons Nixdorf, Samsung Electronics and Transmonde Technologies. You can find links to the Web pages of all these companies at http://www.larrysworld.com/portables.htm

If you're looking for an excuse to justify the extra expense, think of a notebook PC as three machines in one. You can use it at work, you can take it home and you can use it on the road or at remote work sites. Having one computer for all three functions is cheaper and saves you the trouble of moving data between machines.

As expensive as they are, most of the new Pentium II notebook PCs are priced pretty close to what the manufacturers are charging for machines with a standard Pentium processor. One downside, however, is that the Pentium II uses slightly more power, which shortens battery life. A machine that runs for three hours and 20 minutes with a standard Pentium CPU will run about three hours and seven minutes with a Pentium II, according to a source at Toshiba. Battery life, like gasoline mileage, depends on the type of usage.

One good thing about any improvement in technology is that it usually leads to lower prices on older models. I haven't noticed prices decreasing yet, but I bet they will soon.

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