Notebooks: Geared up to stay, or go

SAN FRANCISCO (11/20/2003) - With their big screens, keyboards, and hard drives, desktop replacements tend to be heavier than other types of notebooks but remain portable enough for at least occasional forays outside the office. They also have the room to pack the most powerful components into their big cases.

The US$2799 IBM Corp. ThinkPad T40 still stands as our pick for the best overall desktop replacement. A perennial power Best Buy on our regular Top 15 Notebook PCs chart, the ThinkPad handily earned our top choice here, too, because it has an impressive collection of components in a package you can carry through an airport without needing a wheeled cart.

Though it weighs only 5.4 pounds (without its power adapter), the T40 we tested holds just as much RAM and hard-drive capacity as a standard desktop machine does. Containing 512MB of system memory and an 80GB hard drive, the T40 also earned a very respectable PC WorldBench 4 score of 124.

For expansion, the T40's modular bay can accommodate anything from the included DVD-ROM/CD-RW combination drive to a second battery. Both long-range (802.11a/b) and short-range (Bluetooth) wireless options were built into our unit.

The $2389 Gateway Inc. 450X is somewhat heavier than the T40, but is still easy to carry at 8.1 pounds. It has more legacy connections and takes almost as many add-ins via its modular bay, among them an optional six-in-one memory card reader module. It's the first 1.7-GHz/600-MHz Pentium M-equipped notebook we've tested, and it scored 125 on our PC WorldBench 4 suite, ranking among the fastest notebooks we've seen to date. Its battery life is also excellent, at 5 hours.

The $2025 Hewlett-Packard Co. Compaq Business Notebook Nx7000 is the only model among the desktop replacements here that has a wide-screen display, and it also boasts the best built-in stereo sound. The unit's extrawide case gives the keyboard room for a separate cursor keypad, as well as a touchpad with a separate scroll zone. Its native resolution of 1680 by 1050 makes icons a bit tiny, but it would make a good presentation or graphics machine.

Small-business users who don't travel much could be happy with Dell's Inspiron 5150. At 8.5 pounds (10.5 pounds with the AC adapter), this heavy-duty performer also includes a DVD burner. However, Dell does not sell a docking station for this notebook.

One for the road

Spend most of your computing time on the go? Then it might be worth trading some features for an easier-to-tote ultraportable notebook. Though their screen size tops out at 12.1 inches, the models here have plenty of features. Some of the latest units weigh half as much as the typical desktop replacement while wielding almost as much power.

Dell Inc.'s $2316 Latitude X300 was an easy pick for our top choice in this category. It was by far the lightest at 3 pounds (without its media slice and power cord), and also the fastest. Thanks to a 1.2-GHz Pentium M processor and 640MB of RAM, it pulled down a PC WorldBench 4 score of 116, only 8 percent behind current top performers with 1.6-MHz and 1.7-MHz Pentium M CPUs. The X300's battery life was somewhat less impressive, at 2.1 hours.

The X300's keyboard is small, as is typical for this class of notebooks, but more comfortable than most. To use an optical drive with the X300, you can buy an external unit or spring for the 1.9-pound MediaBase, which has a modular bay and a full set of notebook connections, plus an SD (Secure Digital) media slot. (It also has a separate bay for another battery.)

The 4.5-pound Averatec 3150P and the 3.8-pound Sharp PC-MV14 are good, basic ultraportables. They're a little slower and heavier than the X300, but their built-in DVD-ROM/CD-RW drives mean you don't have to keep track of an external drive. Like the X300, the Averatec also has a comfortable, easy-to-use keyboard; the PC-MV14's keyboard is slightly larger than the X300's but isn't quite as nice, and feels shallower. However, the two portables have longer-lasting primary batteries than the Latitude X300, and at $1049 and $1999, respectively, the Averatec and the Sharp are more affordable.

Docking Stations Give Ultraportables More Flexibility

Dell's LATITUDE X300 snaps into a docking station for a host of extra connections, including serial, parallel, and PS/2 ports, plus two USB 2.0 ports. The MediaBase (shown under the laptop in the photo) has a bay that can house a second battery, an optical drive, or a floppy drive.

Small price, essential features

If a good price is more important to you than a laptop's size or computing power, a value notebook should suit your needs. You can find some attractive deals in portables that occupy the middle ground between the lightest and the most loaded.

Walking away with the Editor's Pick in the value category is the IBM ThinkPad R40, a junior version of the T40. For a little over half the T40's price, this 6.6-pound notebook (without the AC adapter) offers many of the same features, including dual pointing devices and a ThinkLight, which is a small LED embedded in the lid that can illuminate the keyboard in dark rooms or in a dimly lit aircraft cabin.

The DVD burner-equipped Acer TravelMate 290LMi is a good bet for those who need to work with or distribute large multimedia files while on the road. The 290LMi turned in impressive battery life in our tests, running almost 5 hours.

The Toshiba Corp. Satellite A15-S127, which carries a 2-GHz Celeron processor, is the second-slowest notebook on the chart (after the ultraportable Averatec model), but you can't beat the $949 price for a laptop that comes with a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combination drive. Though the A15-S127's integrated graphics processor uses main memory, the portable still played our DVD movie smoothly. The A15-S127 also has a 15-inch screen and big-sounding stereo speakers--nice perks for the budget-conscious buyer who's looking for a little pizzazz in their first notebook.

Today's Tablets Are Turning in New Directions

The first systems using Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, designed to let you write on the screen as you would on a paper notepad, were introduced a year ago. This year, their processing power has been beefed up, with Intel's Centrino currently predominant as the CPU and wireless component. But tablets have changed on the outside as well--and in some new and interesting ways.

Gateway now sells a $130 "hardtop keyboard"--a hard screen cover for its Tablet PC (manufactured by Motion Computing) that has a keyboard and an eraserhead pointer built into it. Gateway's latest Tablet PC model comes with a 1-GHz Pentium M processor, 256MB of RAM, a 40GB hard drive, and an external USB keyboard, for $2300.

Acer has taken a different approach than Gateway by putting the tablet version of the Windows OS in a classic-style notebook, the TravelMate 250PE. Though you can write and draw directly on the screen with the provided digitizer pen, the screen doesn't fold down flat against the keyboard, as it does on convertible-style tablet notebooks. Instead, the 250PE's screen has a fold-out support that holds the screen steady while you are writing on it. And with an estimated street price of $1599, this notebook actually costs less than most true tablet models do.

In addition, Acer has also released a convertible-style tablet, the $2299 TravelMate C300. It has a 14.1-inch screen, and uses Centrino mobile technology including a 1.5-GHz Pentium M processor, 512MB of RAM, a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combination drive, and a 40GB hard drive.

Fujitsu, too, now offers a convertible-style tablet to complement its slate-style models. The LifeBook T3000 Tablet PC also uses Intel's Centrino mobile technology, including a 1.4-GHz Pentium M processor. It has a 12.1-inch display, 256MB of RAM, and a 40GB or 60GB hard drive. With the T3000D model, buyers can opt for 802.11g Wi-Fi or omit the wireless networking option altogether. Both tablets can be configured and ordered via Fujitsu's Web site. Pricing starts at $1799.

On the software side, Corel has released version 2 of its $99 Grafigo drawing application for tablets. In addition, version 3 of FranklinCovey's $130 Tablet Planner is available through its Web site, and after November 24 the application can be purchased at retail.

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