Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 142 / JULY 1992 / PAGE 62

Get right, get light. (selecting a portable computer)(includes related articles on portable sound devices and phone jacks in hotel rooms) (Buyers Guide)
by Peter Scisco

Any calendar will tell you the eighties are over, but you'd never know it by looking around an airport. America's get-it-now business road show teems with mobile executives squeezing every ounce of productivity they can from pay phones, sky pagers, cellular linkups, and public fax stations.

Enter another weapon: the portable computer. Smaller, faster, more powerful, and less expensive than ever, laptop and notebook computers have become terror weapons in the road warrior's arsenal.

But portable computers aren't just for business anymore. They make great second computers for the office, for home, or for school. Or they can be used as mobile communications centers. And while you might not believe it, the time is coming when a portable computer will replace that desktop computer you're using now.

Portable computers are the fastest growing segment of the computer market and have garnered a loyal following among computer users of all stripes. These small and powerful systems have the potential for increasing productivity while at the same time granting flexibility in work schedules and environments. They can serve as a second computer in the office or at home, can travel as a communications tool, or even take over the functions of a desktop personal computer.

But for first-time buyers, the array of laptops and notebooks can be intimidating. Balancing the expense against the gains is possible only when you can determine your needs, and then match a system to those requirements and your personal preferences.

To make the right fit between your power needs and the constraints of your budget, you must develop a strategy. This guide will help you determine where you stand in the field of portable computing. Use it to develop your personal strategy for buying the laptop or notebook system you need.

For Under a Grand

Here's the kind of machine you can expect to find for less than $1,000.

System Profile:

* 80C86, V20, or 10-MHz 80286 processor

* CGA-compatible supertwist backlit LCD display

* 1MB of RAM

* Internal high-density 3-1/2-inch floppy drive

* 20MB hard drive

Buyer Profiles:

* Students

* Writers

* Occasional travelers

* Anyone looking for a second home computer

If you're ready for a second computer but the money around your house is tight, you can get a serviceable laptop computer for under $1,000. You probably won't get VGA-compatible displays or 20-MHz processing speed, but you'll get enough of a machine for word processing, modest number crunching, and telecommunicating. If you're a student or if you have a student in your house, if you plan to do only word processing, or if you need a laptop only for occasional travel, then a portable computer in this price range should enter your consideration.

You'll be able to find several brand-name laptops in this category through mailorder outlets, including the Toshiba 1000XE the Hyundai Super LT-3, and the Bondwell B310SX. The Toshiba is an XT-class system, the Hyundai offers AT-class performance, and the Bondwell actually contains a 386SX chip. Each of the packages in this price range includes a hard drive, backlit LCD, and high-density floppy drive. At the time this feature was written, each package was advertised in the $1,000 range.

Bundle any of these laptops--or comparable systems--with the right software, and you have a very capable portable computer. Use an integrated software package such as Microsoft Works or Spinnaker's Eight-In-One for light number crunching, word processing, and contact management (with the built-in database modules). If you want a more intuitive environment, you could use DeskMate or GeoWorks Ensemble. Integrated packages usually offer file import/export capabilities in standard formats such as ASCII, WK1, and dBASE. Tandy's DeskMate adds task switching (as does DOS 5.0); Ensemble provides multi-tasking within its own applications, even with an XT-class machine.

Save the money you would have spent on a more powerful system to outfit your inexpensive laptop with an external pocket modem. That will increase your productivity by linking you to information services and by providing a remote link to your desktop computer.

For a Couple of G's

This is what you can expect to find for between $1,000 and $2,000.

System Profile:

* 12-MHz 80286, 16- or 20-MHz 386SX processor

* VGA-compatible backlit LCD display

* 1MB of RAM (minimum)

* High-density 3-1/2-inch floppy drive

* 20MB hard drive (minimum)

* Internal or external modem

* DOS 5.0

Buyer Profiles:

* Business students

* Number-crunchers

* Traveling salespeople

* Telecommunicators

* Marketing professionals

If you find that your computing needs are more substantial than those described in our first category, you can spend a little more for a speedy AT- class (or better) laptop that will work nearly as well as your desktop computer. As prices continue to drop, the price differential between the 286- and the 386SX-based notebooks becomes less and less a factor.

It's clear that if you need to run moderately powerful character-based applications while on the road, you'll need the power and extra memory that a laptop in this price range will give you. If your work is in marketing and accounting, you'll appreciate the ability to run applications like Lotus 1-2-3 or Borland's Quattro Pro. Salespeople will want the extra speed and power to run contact-management software. And every professional who needs to communicate with corporate headquarters or with home will appreciate the telecommunications capabilities available in this price range.

To find top-end machines at the low end of this price range, you'll have to shop mail-order companies or direct sellers. The number of notebooks that promise the power of desktop computers is mind-boggling. But among these, a few recognizable names stand out. ZEOS, for example, offers several notebook computers that fit our profile ranging in price from $1,295 (12-MHz 286) to $1,795 (20-MHz 386SX). Recent advertisements list the NEC Ultralite 286f at $999.

Radio Shack has had the Tandy 1800 HD sale priced at $1,299. This system matches the basic system profile for this group and comes with DeskMate and America Online software (an internal 2400-bps modem is optional at $199). The 1800 HD is housed in a smart-looking black case that resists dirt and scratches.

Further up the price and features ladder, Wyse Technology recently cut the price of its DecisionMate Model 30 to $1,895. This 20-MHz 386SX system tips the scales at barely 4-1/2 pounds (including battery) and offers one of the most comfortable keyboards on the market (though the small function keys in a double row in the upper right corner take some getting used to).

The DecisionMate exceeds our system profile with its 30MB hard drive, soft leather carrying case, copy of Traveling Software's Laplink (with cables), and Battery Watch. Optional equipment includes an extended-life battery (for up to 4 1/2 hours of battery power at an additional two pounds) and snap-in modules for fax/modem capabilities, mouse input, and a second serial port (each module weighs between five and seven ounces). An external 1.44MB floppy drive is included.

Another 386SX 20-MHz notebook computer within this price range is the Acer Acros (available at several consumer electronics stores). This system boasts a fast hard drive and comes bundled with MS-DOS 5.0, Windows, and Spinnaker's PFS WindowWorks.

With the variety of systems available between $1,000 and $2,000, it's easy to find portables as powerful and functional as the typical desktop machine. You might not be able to put all of your applications on a 20MB hard drive, but you should be able to get your critical applications loaded. If your system gets crowded, you can always use a compression program like Stac Electronics' Stacker to increase your hard disk space.

Two Thousand to Infinity

If you have plenty of money to spend, you can get plenty of computer. Here's the kind of highflier you can find if the sky's the limit.

System Profile:

* 20- or 25-MHz 386SX or 386SL processor

* VGA-compatible backlit LCD display

* 2MB of RAM (minimum)

* High-density 3-1/2-inch floppy drive

* 40MB hard drive (minimum)

* Internal or external modem

* DOS 5.0

Buyer Profiles:

* Critical field personnel

* Mobile executives

* Windows users

* Status seekers

Once you get above the $2,000 mark, there are few limits on what a portable computer can do. Leading-edge engineering has put 80MB hard drives, 25-MHz processors, paper-white VGA displays, and graphical interfaces within reach of power-hungry professionals. In fact, with the right components, you could easily configure a portable computer to work as your only computer (adding an external monitor and keyboard for the office). No longer would you have to transfer or copy files or log on to your desktop machine from a remote site (at long-distance charges). All of your critical applications and files would stay with you wherever you go.

This kind of price range also brings into view Intel's top-of-the-line notebook processor, the 386SL, which is designed to extend battery life by using less power than its 386SX counterpart. Some notebook and laptop computer makers are using AMD's 386SXL processor (and watch for additional Intel competition from other chip companies). Either way, a notebook or laptop in this category can rightfully boast the speed and power to scream past many desktop systems.

So what's the latest in this top category? If you work with sensitive data and you believe that James Bond movies carry a cachet of adrenaline-charged excitement, the BCC SL007 from Beaver Computer is your machine. Its 20-MHz 386SL chip rides herd on a 32K cache memory and works in tandem with a DES encryption processor (optional) to encode and decode sensitive data on the fly. The SL007 ships standard with 4MB of RAM, a 62MB hard drive, VGA graphics, send/receive fax/modem, Windows, WinFAX, plus other features, all housed in a soft-touch black casing that resists scratches. Very cool stuff.

If you're a power user who needs room to move, consider Advanced Logic Research's line of expandable portables, the VIP M series. Each VIP M notebook can move from a 20-MHz 386SX workhorse to a 25-MHz 486DX screaming demon through a CPU-module upgrade. If you need something in between, a 20- MHz 486SX upgrade is also available.

The advent of color laptops and notebooks makes this upper echelon even more attractive. Sharp and Toshiba--to name but two companies--offer color notebooks with fantastic displays that are even sharper than what you see on a desktop. These machines top out at about the price of a Saturn GSL automobile. Start saving now. Sharp's active matrix color PC-6881 should be available by the time you see this.

What You Need

Here are some items you should look for in you portable computer package.

* Flexible power-saving features for extending battery life. Such features might include an automatic "sleep mode" for disk drives and screen, the ability to switch to a slower processing speed, the use of nonvolatile RAM for data storage, and the ability to switch off unused I/O ports.

* Software bundles that add value to your purchase, like MS-DOS 5.0, Windows, an integrated productivity program like Eight-In-One, or a file- transfer program like LapLink.

* A sharp, fast display (VGA compatible if you can afford it) with sufficient backlighting and easy-to-work adjustment controls that will allow you to work in varied lighting conditions.

* A hard drive that tests faster than a 20-millisecond average access time. If you use a slower drive, you'll feel that you've sacrificed too much to get away from your desk.

* A comfortable, well-spaced keyboard that fits your typing style and resists double-strikes.

* Well-spaced I/O ports that will accept a printer, an external monitor, and a serial device simultaneously.

Microsoft's Portable Initiative

Last winter, Microsoft announced its Portable Computing Initiative, the first phase of which is Advanced Power Management (APM); a ROM version of MS- DOS 5.0; a data-transfer utility; and solid-state memory support.

The APM specification was developed jointly by Microsoft and Intel and is designed to extend the battery life of portable computers by up to 25 percent during full-on conditions. APM works by allowing the system BIOS and operating system to share critical power-management data while preserving compatibility between the hardware and software during the power-conservation process. An APM driver for MS-DOS 5.0 has shipped, and a Windows 3.1 driver followed soon after. APM is also compatible with non-APM applications. Though APM can be implemented on any of the i86-processor family, Intel built specific APM-support features into its 386SL chip. These features allow portable computer makers to implement APM functions and to keep APM overhead to a minimum.

The data-transfer utility, called interInk, supports a transfer rate of up to 36K per second via a parallel port. It also supports serial transfers. Microsoft's support of solid-state memory will help developers port their disk-based DOS applications to "smart cards" like Flash Memory and SRAM cards.

Several portable computer makers, including Toshiba, Everex, Epson, Zenith, and NEC, support the Portable Computing Initiative. Portable computers designed according to the new specifications should be available on the market in early 1993.

So What's It Gonna Be?

No matter what kind of computer user you are--hobbyist, white-collar worker, student, mobile executive, road warrior, power user--there's a portable computer in your future. The latest laptops and notebooks compete with desktop systems in terms of power and speed and are far better machines in terms of desktop real estate and portability. But don't write off older 8088-based, dual-floppy systems. You can get them used for a very good price, and even older portable systems with less processing power still offer a flexible solution to the problems of a fluid information environment. And flexibility is the best power you can buy.