The engineers at Intel Corp., it seems, have gotten a whole lot better at making molehills out of mountains. And as usual when such miracles occur in the world of notebook computers, the beneficiaries are the folks who use the amazing little machines.
Over the past few months, practically every major notebook manufacturer has started shipping products with the mobile Pentium II processor and its much-ballyhooed 440BX PCI chip set. Given the sheer number of transistors on a Pentium II chip (7.5 million), and the heat the chip generates (it's hot), squeezing Pentium IIs into portable chassis qualifies as a breakthrough in-deed. And this one took the semiconductor giant a mere 11 months to achieve.
It's a good thing the breakthrough occurred, too, because the appearance of the Pentium II in desktops last year seemed a step toward second-class citizenship for notebook users. Granted, Pentium processors with multimedia- enhancing MMX technology resided in the innards of most notebooks, and they were decent, serviceable machines, by and large. But the truth was, those MMX-enabled portables sorely lacked the processing punch of the newfangled Pentium II desktops. So now, the gap between the best of the notebooks and the best of the desktops is again narrowed to a sliver.
You certainly can't blame Intel's managers for looking to port the new chip to the portable world quickly. Notebook computers-- and their hefty profit margins--are big business these days. According to International Data Corp., a Framingham, Massachusetts-based market research firm, 8.3 million portables will be sold in the United States next year--a whopping 21 percent jump from this year's sales. Increasingly, the sales come from Corporate America, where notebooks are fast becoming the computer of choice for senior managers. What's more, the sophisticated, high- end operating system Windows NT is inexorably supplanting Windows 95 and 98 as the standard business network. And as most heads of IT will tell you, trying to run NT on a plain old Pentium notebook is like trying to drain Frisco Bay with a spoon.
Fortunately, a better utensil is here. If you're thinking of purchasing notebooks for your staff--and are seriously considering running NT on this notebook someday--skip MMX-enabled portables and go straight to Pentium II models. We particularly liked offerings from Dell Computer Corp., IBM Corp., and Hewlett- Packard Co. But any in this roundup will fit the bill, with big active- matrix screens, sizable hard drives, and clock speeds of 233MHz or higher. Of course, fitting the bill doesn't come cheap. With the exception of the Gateway Solo 2500SE, all these Pentium IIs cost more than $3,200. Several cost more than $4,000. This, it goes without saying, violates CFO's cardinal rule: Never spend more on a notebook than you would on a mobile home. But wait until prices on these powerful notebooks start to drop around $3,000 --and they will.
The performance is hard to beat. According to PC Computing magazine, a notebook with a 266MHz Mobile Pentium II processor will outperform a similarly equipped 266MHz Pentium MMX notebook by about 20 percent. The number shoots up dramatically if you're running Windows NT on your portable. Although CFO does not benchmark computers, our subjective tests-- that is, using the damn things--convinced us that Pentium II notebooks get data from point A to point B faster than a greyhound on steroids.
Getting yourself to point B, however, won't be so easy with one of these Pentium II portables in your briefcase. In a reversal of the weight- loss trend of recent years, most Pentium II notebooks now on the market have the incredible lightness of, well, manhole covers. (The weights we quote in the guide are "travel weights," typically including battery and drives.) Other than the IBM ThinkPad (and some MMX-powered "ultralights," such as the models from Toshiba American Information Systems and Micron Electronics Inc.), the luggables we surveyed weigh more than six pounds, and some top out at eight. That's a lot to schlepp around the international departures hall at LAX.
While we fervently recommend the Pentium II machines if you're going to be running Windows NT, in fact, lighter non-Pentium II notebooks will do just fine if you're sticking with Windows 95 or 98. Indeed, if most of your computing consists of number crunching and E- mailing in that 9598 world--and you're on airplanes a lot--ultralights might be the smarter choice. We particularly liked the excellent Toshiba Portégé 320CT, which can't possibly cause ulna damage.
While the newly redesigned Macintosh PowerBook G3 will never be mistaken for an ultralight-- it's one bulky machine, both in size and weight--it's the best machine in the roundup. The G3, based on Motorola Inc. and IBM's PowerPC RISC chip, features a superior operating system, a bright-and-beautiful screen, and enough Apple-flavored goodies to keep things fun as the "think different" company returns to the forefront of portable computing. And with the Mac's translation capabilities, moving files from Windows to Mac portables and back again should be a snap.
Of course, what we'd really like to see is a Pentium II or PowerPC processor running at 300MHz, a DVD (digital video data) drive, a 14- inch active-matrix screen, full-sized keyboard, and a four gigabyte hard drive--all weighing in under five pounds. And, oh yes, costing under $2,500. If our prognosticating is any good at all, this very machine will be shipping sometime in the summer of 1999--for our next buyer's guide.
What to Look For
Battery Life. Thanks to its 7.5 million transistors, the mobile Pentium II chip devours battery charge like a termite in Balsa Village. What's more, the chip runs so hot that vendors have had little choice but to install fans in their Pentium II notebooks. You know what fans do? They use electricity. With Pentium II notebooks, expect no more than 2.5 hours of battery life. Expect to be frustrated by this. Expect finally to buy an extra battery.
Display. Go with active-matrix displays. Screen manufacturers have gotten a whole lot better at making them, with dramatically higher-yield rates as a result. Not surprisingly, dramatically higher yield rates mean dramatically lower prices for screens. In the past year alone, thin film transistor (TFT) screens have dropped more than 50 percent in price.
Display Resolution. Resolution simply means how big your field of vision is. Accept nothing less than Super VGA resolution (800 x 600 pixels) on your notebook screen. XGA resolution, which is even higher (1,024 x 768 pixels), means you can view more things on your screen than at Super VGA resolution. By next year, almost all notebooks will offer XGA resolution with millions of colors.
Docking Unit. If you travel a lot, get a docking unit to help move data automatically from desktop to notebook and back. If you travel a fair amount, get a simple snap-on port replicator.
Drives. Last year, jumbo drives-- simultaneously housing both the floppy drive and CD-ROM drive--were in vogue. Unfortunately, jumbo drives made for jumbo notebooks. This year, vendors are all hawking the "hot-swapping" of drives--meaning you can exchange the floppy and CD-ROM drives, or vice versa, without shutting off the machine. A nice idea, granted, but several machines froze up on us while hot swapping. Keep things simple. Put the CD-ROM drive in the portable, and get an external 3.5-inch floppy drive. Next year, DVD drives will be the rage. Worry about that next year.
Expansion. For a long time, limited expansion and connectivity was the real Achilles' heel of a portable. But with universal serial bus (USB) ports, and PC card slots, those worries have begun to fade.
Graphics Controller. Insist on a good video card, particularly if you're purchasing a notebook without MMX technology. Both the MMX Pentium and the Pentium II speed up multimedia processing. This is a big plus for those of us who have grown old watching the images load on Web sites.
Hard Drive. While lagging behind the storage found in most desktops, the capacity of notebook hard drives is starting to look pretty spacious. If your notebook is a traveling machine, 2GBs will suffice. If it's your only computer, insist on 4 gigs.
Heat Resistance. Yes, we said heat resistance. The Pentium II portables in the roundup get real hot underneath. You won't need protective clothing or anything, but you probably won't want these notebooks on your lap for very long, either.
Infrared Port. If you move data on a regular basis, don't underestimate the value of a wireless infrared port. We still vividly remember the old days, when transferring files from a laptop computer to a desktop required six cables, a special connector, and three of the Flying Wallendas.
Keyboard. Make sure your portable has good action and a sane keyboard layout. Like good sushi at a reasonable price, this combination is not easy to find.
Pointing Device. Trackballs, sadly, have gone the way of the Hula Hoop. Pointing sticks--the eraser-type thing wedged between the G and H keys--survive, thanks mostly to the folks at IBM and Toshiba. But touchpads are now in, though we don't know why. Sure, it's nice to tap the pad and bring up an application or window. But it's also nice to be able to type where you intended to type, instead of flying all around the screen whenever you accidentally brush the pad. If you're a touch typist, avoid touchpads like the plague.
Processors. It's simple: For running NT, get a Pentium II portable with a minimum of 64MBs of RAM. For Windows 95 or 98, portables with MMX Pentium chips and 32MBs of memory are fine.
RAM. Do not purchase a notebook with less than 32 megs of RAM, unless, of course, you're the type that thinks cricket is a fast-paced game. If you plan to run NT, bump the memory up to at least 64 megs. With the cost of RAM modules so low these days, that should be painless enough. Bear in mind, though, that memory chips consume electricity, thereby reducing battery life.
Speakers. Notebook speakers have gotten a whole lot better. Unfortunately, the placement of them has not. Speakers should be near the display, above the keyboard, or on the side. Any manufacturer that puts speakers on the wrist rest should be forced to take a course in design logic, then dipped in molasses. Really, what good are the speakers if your wrists cover them up?