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Nice Notebook Choice . . . Even With the Dongle

July 20, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Having a notebook PC can be a liberating experience if you travel or work in remote locations or if you just like to get away and do some work from coffee shops or other hide-outs. The trouble with portable PCs is that they're more expensive than similarly equipped desktop machines. That's still true, but Toshiba America today is announcing a $1,399 notebook PC that combines portability with affordability.

The Toshiba Satellite 2505CDS is no stripped-down unit. It comes with 32 megabytes of RAM, a 2.1-gigabyte hard disk, a 20-speed internal CD-ROM drive, an internal floppy drive, a 12.1-inch dual scan (passive-matrix) color display, a 56k flex modem, stereo sound with two internal speakers and a removable lithium-ion battery that runs for about two hours between charges. It also has built-in serial and parallel ports, two PC card slots, an infrared serial port and a universal serial bus port. USB will make it easy to connect scanners, digital cameras, printers and other USB devices that are just starting to come on the market.

The machine's 233-megahertz Pentium processor with MMX is not the fastest CPU, but it's enough to get good performance with Microsoft Office and most other consumer and business applications. The difference in speed between this machine's 233-MHz CPU and one with a 266-MHz CPU isn't worth worrying about. If you want a really fast notebook, you'll have to spend $2,000 or more for a system with a Mobile Pentium II processor.

The 2.1-gigabyte hard drive has about half the capacity of drives being offered on many higher-priced units, but again, it's big enough for many users. If you plan to load the machine with tons of software or a large number of graphic files, then this machine isn't for you. Toshiba offers an otherwise identical machine for $1,699 that comes with a 4-gig drive.

At 6.7 pounds, it's also not the lightest notebook on the market, but it's at the lower end of the weight scale for a machine with a built-in floppy and CD-ROM drive. The power supply adds just under half a pound to the carrying weight.

My only complaint is that the bundled Xircom PC Card modem requires a special external cable (called a "dongle") to plug into a phone jack. That's one more thing to lose, break or leave behind. I prefer modems from 3Com and other vendors that have built-in phone jacks.

I'm something of a notebook PC connoisseur and, other than its weight and modem dongle, this machine is certainly adequate for my needs. The only reason I wouldn't consider it for my own use is because I tend to carry a machine around with me throughout the day when I'm traveling or going to meetings near home, so I prefer the lightest machine I can get my hands on.

The Satellite 2505CDS has a full-size keyboard, which is a big plus for touch typists. It also has the AccuPoint pointing device, which is similar to the TrackPoint device used in IBM ThinkPads. The pointing device looks like a pencil eraser, sticks up between the G, H and B keys and lets you move the mouse cursor with your finger. I really like this type of pointing device, but it's a personal preference.

Of course, Toshiba did make some compromises to lower the price, but depending on how you use the machine they may not be significant.

The biggest compromise over high-end notebook PCs is that this one comes with a dual scan passive-matrix screen rather than an active-matrix display. Passive-matrix color displays aren't as bright as active-matrix and, if you move the cursor quickly across the screen, you'll see a trail that results from the fact that the screen doesn't refresh itself as quickly as active-matrix screens. But an active-matrix screen typically adds from $400 to $500 to the price of any notebook.

If I'm using a machine for relatively short periods while traveling, then I don't mind a dual scan display. But anyone who plans to use the system on a daily basis at home or the office should consider plugging in an external monitor. If you plan to stare at the internal for hours at a time or make presentations directly from the notebook's screen (as opposed to plugging it into an external display system), you should get a machine with an active-matrix display.

As far as I can tell, Toshiba is offering the best notebook value of any major vendor. But this is a very competitive industry in which companies frequently adjust prices to remain competitive. Compaq, IBM, Dell and several other notebook PC makers also offer systems in the $1,500-to-$1,600 range, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them lower prices in response to Toshiba's new offering.


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