Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 140 / MAY 1992 / PAGE S2

How to choose the best laptop computer. (Compute's Getting Started with Portable Computing) (Buyers Guide)
by Peter Scisco

If you've got the feeling that everybody around you is buying a portable computer, believe it. Over the last couple of years, several computer market research firms have declared that portable computer systems are selling faster than almost any other kind of computer. Even the venerable New York Times in January declared that laptop computers are "in."

But there's more going on here than status and market reports. Portable computers--especially laptops and notebooks--provide flexibility and control in measures unheard of with desktop computers. With a laptop, you decide where you do your work and when. You aren't tied to office hours, or even to the office. You can act immediately, without waiting to get back to headquarters to draft a memo or issue a report. You can write in the living room, in the kitchen, in the back yard. You can perform those final what ifs during the flight to present your pet project. Control and flexibility--welcome to the world of portable computing.

Start With a


With all of the portable computers available, it's difficult to figure how to choose among them. Start by defining how you plan to use the computer: Will you use the laptop frequently or occasionally? Will you be travelling long distances, or just back and forth to work? Think about your desktop computer at home: Does it need upgrading? Is it frequently tied up by another family member? The answers to these questions will help direct your search.

Let's say that you need a laptop computer for occasional business trips. Further, after examining your needs, you determine the basic functions that it must carry out:

* Word Processing

* Contact Management

* Expense Reports

These are fairly rudimentary tasks that anyone involved in business travel might have to perform. None of these functions requires a lot of power. You could use an integrated software package such as Microsoft Works to handle all of these jobs. Or, you could use a small character-based word processor, such as PC-Write, a downsized contact package such as Maximizer Lite, and a small spreadsheet that exports in WK1 format (or a dedicated expense report writer).

These kinds of programs don't require more than XT-class power. And if you're only making occasional trips, it doesn't make sense to tie up money in an expensive system. With some retailers and mail-order companies, you can spend as little as $800 for the Toshiba T1000XE (Toshiba America, 9740 Irvine Boulevard, Irvine, California 97218; 714-583-3000). That includes 1 megabyte of RAM, a 20-megabyte hard disk, an external 3.5-inch floppy drive, a rechargeable battery, and a carrying case. With its CGA-compatible display, this Toshiba model isn't state-of-the-art. But it's an excellent system for either the casual business traveler or college student.

You can probably find similar systems for nearly the same price--certainly less than $1000. Even if your tips are infrequent, a laptop like this can pay for itself in gained productivity.

Road Warrior

If your travelling is more frequent, or if you find you need a second computer at home because your desktop home computer is being used by the students and game players in your house, you should consider buying a more powerful laptop. a list of your computing tasks, besides the ones previously listed, might also include:

* What-if analysis

* Communications

* Database management

Prince of 386SX notebooks are coming down even as 386SL-based laptops are gaining in popularity. This means that prices for AT-class portables should drop slightly over the course of 1992. A 286-based laptop can handle all of these demands quite adequately, especially if you can get a system with a fast hard disk. Competition for these kinds of systems, from both large and small businesses, is still fierce, however, so most prices hover around the $1500 mark. Add an internal or external fax/modem, and you're looking at around $1800. That's almost double what you'd pay for an XT-class laptop, but if you need this kind of power and flexibility it's better to have it than to wish for it.

In this class, street prices have been as low as $1000 for the NEC Ultralite 286F (NEC Technologies, 1414 Massachusetts Avenue, Boxborough, Massachusetts 01719;508-264-8000) and the Sharp 6220 (Sharp Electronics, Sharp Plaza, Mahwah, New Jersey 07430; 201-529-9500). Radio Shack has advertised the Tandy 1800 HD (Tandy, One Tandy Center, Fort Worth, Texas 76102; 817-390-3011) for less than $1300. It has a 20MB hard disk. Zeos is currently selling its 286 notebook with a 20MB hard drive for just $1295 (Zeos International, 530 5th Avenue, N.W., St. Paul, Minnesota 55112; 800-423-5891). Other, less recognizable names are selling for $1000 to $1500. At these prices, it's hard not to step up to a 286-based system even for casual use--but the extra money might be better spent on a moden, which would increase the functionality of an XT-class portable without requiring additional processing power.

The Next Generation

A recent wave of thinking holds that a portable computer should be your only computer. With the development of faster and less expensive processor chips, better shock mounting and increased capacity for hard disk drives, and VGA-compatible displays, the current crop of notebook and laptop computers can serve as well as any desktop computer.

If your desktop computer is showing its age, or if your house is ready for its second system, a 386SX-based notebook might be the perfect next step. Also, if your work requires frequent travel or if you rely heavily on graphics-based software such as Windows applications or presentation graphics programs, you'll need the power of a 386 processor to ensure adequate software performance. Added to the list of tasks previously discussed, your job might also encompass:

* Business presentations

* Remote computing

* Engineering design

A 386SX notebook will prove adequate for performing most computing tasks. In both 16-MHz and 20-MHz models, these top-flight notebooks sport an array of features, such as large hard disks (40MB is the new standard, though some models offer as much 105MB), VGA displays (gray scale), extensive power-saving features, and maybe a modem.

Prices for this kind of power are all over the board, with most models falling in the $1500 to $4000 range. The Acer Acros (Acer America, 401 Charcot Avenue, San Jose, California 95131; 408-922-0333) is available at many consumer electronic outlets for less than $2000. This is a 20-MHz system that includes an internal fax/modem, 40-MB hard disk, Logitech mouse, Windows, and PFS:WindowWorks.

Wyse Technology announced price drops earlier this year on its ultra light DecisionMate (Wyse Technology, 3471 North First Street, San Jose, California 95134; 408-473-1200; $1895). It has a 20-MHz 386SX with a 30MB hard disk, 1MB of RAM, a carrying case, LapLink software, and cables.

The advantages of using a portable computer as your main PC include never having to transfer work from one machine to another, instant portability, and control over your working environment. The disadvantages include the cost of an external monitor and keyboard, and the lack of easy inexpensive access--at least for now--to new technologies such as sound cards and CD-ROM drives.

Get Small

Portable computer are already changing the way we work. The variety of available systems means that anyone can find a model that suits his or her style of work. Whether as a remote writer's tool, a presentation on the wing, or a state-of-the-art communications device, a laptop computer is a ticket to freedom. So punch your ticket and get on board.