Test lab. (notebook computers)(includes related articles) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Tom Benford, Mike Hudnall, Richard C. Leinecker
Notebook computers have come of age. At one time, laptop and notebook users were beset by limitations, having to to put up with limited mass storage, processing power, display opportunities, battery life, and expansion capabilities. Overcoming any of these limitations meant investing very large sums of money.
While notebook computers still aren't exactly inexpensive, they do offer you far more for your money than previous generations of portable computers did. Perhaps you've been tempted by the freedom notebooks offer you to compute when and where you want or enticed by the promise of increased personal productivity. Perhaps you've resisted that temptation because you didn't want to give up the power and economy of a desktop system. Or maybe you've decided to wait because you're not sure which technology best fits your needs.
Wait no more. This month's Test Lab lineup includes 11 notebooks that in one way or another offer cutting-edge technologies: color displays, advanced power management, raw computing power. And if you've followed the news in the computer industry, you know that computer prices, including notebook prices, are dropping rapidly. You should, for example, manage to find a hard drive--equipped 386SX notebook with features galore and plenty of software for a street price of under $2,000. Whether your portable computing needs are modest or demanding, you'll probably find unexpected bargains wherever you look.
Three of this month's evaluation units offer color displays. Those from NEC and Toshiba boast active matrix color, and AST's notebook gives you a lower-cost passive matrix color display. While gray-scale approximations of color have improved significantly, these color displays are mighty nice.
You want power? Two of this month's evaluation units boast Intel 486 microprocessors: one a DX (TI's TravelMate 4000) and one an SX (Toshiba's T4400 SXC). Two of the notebooks, the Wyse DecisionMate and the PC Brand 486SLC, use the Cyrix 486SLC chip.
Not too long ago, using Windows on a notebook presented a real challenge because of memory limitations, smaller hard drives, and less capable microprocessors. Now many companies bundle their notebooks with Windows and even pointing devices that let you do Windows on the run. In fact, you may find that your Windows apps are more responsive on the new notebook than on the old desktop back at the office. With massive hard drives (up to 200MB), memory expansion of up to 20MB, and expansion-bus technology allowing the use of expansion boxes and docking stations, you might find a notebook that takes the place of your desktop machine. Zenith's Z-Note even offers a port to let you hook into your company's network.
Today's notebooks have also advanced in upgradability, and in this respect, too, they seem to be catching up with desktop computers. From adding a modem to upgrading a hard drive, you'll find more upgrades and options than ever. Samsung's notebook lets you remove the hard drive, and Zenith's promises you can exchange your monochrome display for a color display later. Some of these upgrades still must be performed by the manufacturer, and, in general, upgrading a desktop system is still easier than upgrading a notebook; however, great strides have been made in notebook upgradability.
With the increasing power of today's notebooks, power management ranks high on many people's list of priorities. And several of the units tested this month employ innovative power management technologies. As you ponder future cross-country trips, consider these technologies, and pay careful attention to the battery depletion benchmark statistics.
Should you buy a 486? A 386? A DX, SX, or SL? Should your notebook have an Intel processor, an AMD processor, or a Cyrix processor? This month's Test Lab helps you sort out what each of these microprocessors has to offer; pay particular attention to our benchmark test results. In part, the processor you choose will depend on the applications you use, how much you'll depend on your battery, and how much money you have to spend. This month, as always, Test Lab gives you the information you need to assess your own needs and make a more informed buying decision.
AST PREMIUM EXEC 386SX/25C
Compact and smartly styled, the briefcase-totable AST Premium Exec 386SX/25C color notebook computer uses the Intel 80386SX chip running at a respectable 25-MHz speed. It's the only notebook PC in this roundup that features a passive matrix color display.
The color display is the most distinctive feature of this computer, and I found it to be an acceptable compromise between black-and-white LCDs and the more expensive active matrix color LCDs offered on other notebook models. While the passive matrix technology is less expensive to produce, resulting in a lower overall price for the consumer, there are some video tradeoffs that you should consider. The passive matrix video display, while good, lacks the color vibrancy, the richness and depth, of the active matrix display. Additionally, I noticed in the passive matrix display a marked propensity toward moire patterns and some blotchiness on the screen. It is color, however, and it adds an entirely new dimension to notebook computing when compared to the mundane appearance of even the best black-and-white LCDs.
The Premium Exec's high-density 3 1/2-inch floppy drive is mounted on the front, and I found this to be a much more convenient and accessible site for the drive than the side of the machine, where other manufactures usually place the floppy drive. In addition to the floppy drive, the Premium Exec also comes outfitted with a hard drive; the standard configuration is a 60MB drive, but you can optionally order an 80MB drive or a 120MB drive (the review unit came equipped with the 80MB drive and 4MB of RAM installed).
You can expand this notebook's memory to a maximum of 8MB by using single in-line memory modules (SIMMs) in either 1MB or 4MB capacities to populate the two SIMM sockets provided. Adding more RAM is accomplished by removing a sliding cover, which provides access to the interior parts of the machine.
You can also install an optional second serial port adapter when you remove this panel cover, since installation of this option is a snap-in procedure. No technical prowess is required for either of these upgrades, thanks to good overall design. The Premium Exec can also accommodate a 387SX/25-MHz math coprocessor for those chores which are math intensive, so there's good expandability with this machine if and when your needs require more computing oomph.
All of the I/O ports are located at the left rear of the machine and protected by a flip-down door when they aren't in use. A single serial port, a parallel port, a 15-pin Super VGA video port, and dedicated mini-DIN ports for an external keypad and the AC power adapter and battery charger are all grouped together here. You'll find the battery compartment located on the right side of the Premium Exec near the rear of the machine. A snap-off cover on the left side of the notebook provides access to the optional second serial port.
The on/off switch and the brightness and contrast controls are located directly beneath the video display screen on the body of the computer itself. To the left, also at the top, you'll find a bank of six LED indicators which signify power, floppy drive, hard drive, Num Lock, Caps Lock, and Scroll Lock activity.
I found the keyboard quite comfortable, offering good key placement along with a positive, snappy action with an audible click. I really liked the feel of this notebook keyboard, since it closely mimics the feel and sound of my desktop PC keyboard. AST also offers an optional adapter for connecting a desktop keyboard to the Premium Exec if you prefer to use one.
Weighing in at 7.5 pounds, the Premium Exec 386SX/25C is quite totable and, with a charge life of over 1.5 hours under heavy use, serviceable, too. If you're looking for good 386 performance with a color display in a notebook PC at an affordable price, the AST Premium Exec 386SX/25C merits a close look.
BCC AVANTI 025
Very slick, very sleek, loaded with features, and ready to do business--that's the Avanti 025 notebook PC. It boasts lots of innovation with a marked flair for styling as part of its standard equipment package.
With an AMD 386SXL CPU ticking at 25 MHz, the Avanti 025 has a strong basic computing "power plant" to start with. A socket is provided for adding an optional 80387X/25-MHz math coprocessor, and you can expand RAM to a maximum configuration of 8MB (the review unit came equipped with the standard base configuration of 4MB installed). In addition to a side-mounted 1.44MB 3 1/2-inch floppy drive, an 85MB, 19-ms hard drive is also standard equipment.
The shape of the Avanti 025 is its most distinctive feature. Rather than taking the traditional notebook approach with a squared-edge rectangular shape, BCC softened the sharp edges of the case with rounded corners and sculpted curves, which makes the case resemble a clamshell when closed. Molded in a semigloss black plastic, the Avanti 025 looks like a notebook PC that would be right at home aboard a Stealth bomber.
Bright and large, the LCD screen provides 64 shades of gray. The method used to attach the video display housed in the lid to the main body of the notebook is quite innovative. Rather than using a standard hinge, the display screen pivots forward from a closed position, making it possible to use this notebook in very cramped spaces (such as the tray on the back of an airplane seat).
You'll find controls for adjusting the brightness and contrast of the LCD conveniently located just below the display itself--a good place for them, since black-and-white LCDs frequently require adjustment for optimal viewing from one application to another. Illuminated indicators displaying the status of power, battery charge, low battery, floppy use, hard disk use, Caps Lock, Num Lock, and Scroll Lock are also located across the bottom span of the LCD screen.
Advanced Power Management (APM) circuitry built into the Avanti 025 extends battery life, and I had no problem using the computer for 2 1/2 hours or longer per charge, depending on how heavy my usage was. This is particularly significant, since the Avanti 025 also comes equipped with a built-in 9600-bps send/receive fax and 2400-bps data modem which also draws power from the notebook's ni-cads.
Behind a flip-down panel door on the left side of the machine beneath the keyboard, you'll find a 15-pin VGA port for connecting an external color monitor, a parallel port, and a single 9-pin serial port. A PS/2 mouse port and the flush-mounted power switch are mounted on the right side, along with the floppy drive. The AC power connector jack is located at the right rear of the machine, while the dual telephone jacks (for line and phone) are mounted at the left rear corner.
The keyboard features a soft yet sure touch with very short key travel. While this takes a little getting used to if you're accustomed to a full-travel desktop keyboard, I found typing on the Avanti 025 very fast and almost effortless after using it for a short while.
MS-DOS 5.0, Windows 3.1, and WinFAX software all come with the Avanti 025, as does a handsome carrying case with ample room for cables, manuals, and more. All this adds up to a 25-MHz 386 machine with the muscle and equipment needed to do serious business right out of the box. And if that's not enough for you, consider this: The Avanti 025 is designed and manufactured right here in the U.S.A.
Looking virtually identical to the BCC Avanti 025 notebook also covered in this roundup, the BCC SL007 notebook boasts many of the same features as the Avanti model but adds a couple of innovations of its own.
The SL007's video display is the same as the one found on the Avanti, featuring a ten-inch diagonal viewing area--one of the largest and brightest available on any of today's notebooks. The display screen is built into the lid of the notebook, and like the other BCC model, uses a unique pivoting arrangement to erect the screen in much less space than other notebooks require. By pivoting the screen forward when it's open, you can use the notebook comfortably on your lap or on the tray mounted on the back of an airplane seat. This feature will find favor with frequent flyers who need (or want) to compute on the go.
The APM(AdvancedPowerManagement) features of the SL007 will also find favor with commuting computerists, since its average charge life extends well past 1-1/2 hours even with high-demand usage. Normal charge life under average use was typically 2-1/2-3 hours during the review.
A "soft touch" mar-resistant semiflat black sculpted case contains the notebook PC, and its curved lines and clamshell-like appearance when closed give it a very nineties look, indeed.
Standard equipment for the SL007 consists of 4MB of RAM (expandable to 8MB) and a very fast 85MB IDE hard drive. A side-mounted 3-1/2-inch high-density floppy drive, a parallel port, a serial port, and a 15-pin VGA port are also part of the basic complement of features, as is a PS/2-style mouse port. BCC also provides a socket for adding a math coprocessor if you think you might need one.
Unlike the Avanti model, which uses an AMD CPU, the SL007 uses an Intel 80386SL chip running at 20 MHz. While performance on the SL007 was quite good, it didn't have the snappy performance evident in its sibling, the Avanti.
The SL007 also features a built-in 9600-bps send/receive fax and 2400-bps data modem. Software that comes with the notebook includes WinFAX, MS-DOS 5.0, and Windows 3.0, so this machine is factory equipped and configured to do meaningful work as soon as you turn it on.
The most innovative feature of the SL007 is its built-in security. BCC claims that the SL0007 is the "world's first secure notebook," incorporating a DES (Data Encryption Standard) coprocessor so that only authorized personnel can use it. This security feature permits you to assign a special five-character password to the notebook via a utility in the machine's setup section. This is a particularly attractive feature if you have sensitive information on the machine that you'd like to protect from unauthorized eyes when the machine is left otherwise unguarded (as during a lunch break).
A pleasant and unexpected plus is the inclusion of a miniature trackball, which plugs directly into the PS/2-style mouse port of the SL007. The mini trackball, only about half the size and thickness of a standard desktop mouse, is quite serviceable and a handy device to have if you're a traveler using today's GUI-based software, especially since you don't need a flat surface to use it. The thumbball unit is a nice touch that both looks good and works well.
The combination of built-in features, good performance, and encrypted security makes the SL007 a machine worthy of serious consideration.
MICRO EXPRESS NB2500
The Micro Express NB2500 is chock-full of features that will appeal to just about any user. Molded in a black, wrinkle-texture finish that doesn't show fingerprints, the notebook has rugged good looks and is a bit larger than most of the other notebooks reviewed here.
The NB2500 uses the AM386DXL CPU running at 25 MHz. This low-power microprocessor includes an internal 128K RAM cache for high performance, coupled with low current requirements to extend battery life. The extraordinarily flexible power management on this machine permits adjustable sleep modes and other energy-conserving features that contribute to battery charge life of between 2-1/2 and 3 hours under ordinary use and more than 1-1/2 hours under continuous, heavy use.
Standard equipment on the NB2500 includes a high-density floppy drive, an 80MB hard drive, and a built-in send/receive fax/modem. The notebook comes with 4MB of RAM, but you can expand the memory to a maximum of 8MB with an optional 4MB SIMM upgrade ($240).
The display measures nine inches diagonally and delivers 640 x 480 VGA resolution represented in 64 levels of gray. Slider controls just above the keyboard let you adjust brightness and contrast, and a 15-pin jack at the rear of the machine lets you use an external monitor.
Along with the external VGA jack, you get an external keyboard/mouse port, a parallel port, a 9-pin serial port, a telephone jack (for connecting the fax/modem), a proprietary expansion bus, and a scanner port, all located at the rear of the machine beneath a flip-down panel door. The scanner port supports a Marstek handheld scanner (either the 400-dpi or 800-dpi model), and it's certainly a unique and useful idea.
An optional expansion chassis ($499) adds two full-length 16-bit slots and an additional power supply, and it mates with the NB2500 via the expansion bus connector.
I found the keyboard of this machine really terrific, mimicking exactly the feel, key spacing, and action of my favorite desktop keyboard. All function keys are grouped together at the top, while dedicated cursor control keys occupy the bottom right of the keyboard. As far as notebook keyboards go, I'd rate this one a solid 10 on a 1-10 scale.
The front mounting of the floppy drive on this machine appeals to me. However, I don't like the placement of the green LED power indicator and amber hard drive activity indicator next to the floppy drive. The problem is that when you're typing, your hands obscure the view of these two LEDs. My feeling is that if you're going to put status indicator lights on a notebook, you might as well put them where the user can see them while working. A minor gripe, perhaps, but one I feel is valid.
The notebook proved itself to be a reasonably quick and consistent machine for all of the DOS and Windows applications I ran on it during the reviewing process. MD-DOS 5.0 comes with the NB2500, along with several utility and setup disks. The documentation for the machine is thorough, well written, and logically organized. If you're considering a 386-based notebook, you should consider the Micro Express NB2500.
NEC ULTRALITE SL/25C
The impressive power and features of the NEC UltraLite SL/25C should raise the eyebrows of even the most stoic and jaded computerist. This is a wish-list machine.
The SL/25C's remarkable TFT (Thin Film Transistor) active matrix color liquid crystal display is an absolute pleasure to view, even for the most extended periods. I found the images on this display absolutely stable and the colors strikingly crisp. In the Video Obstacle Course of the Display-Mate Video Utilities, the UltraLite scored and unparalleled 32 out of a possible perfect score of 33; no other color notebook or laptop display I've seen to date surpasses that of the UltraLite SL/25C.
Standard equipment on this notebook includes a built-in high-density 3-1/2-inch floppy drive for transient file work and a fast 80MB hard drive for mass storage. Two mini-DIN ports, one for a PS/2-style mouse and one for an external keyboard, are located next to a 15-pin external Super VGA connector and a single 9-pin serial port, all concealed from view when not in use by a flipdown panel door. Adjacent to this panel you'll find another flip-down door, which houses the parallel printer port and a proprietary connector for an external floppy drive.
Snap-off covers on the right side of the UltraLite conceal an external numeric keypad port and an expansion port. The expansion port connects the SL/25C with its accessory docking station, an optional item which endows the SL/25C with two 16-bit expansion slots and a 5-1/4-inch drive bay to accommodate an extra device, such as a CD-ROM drive.
If you prefer using an internal modem, you can install an NEC modem in the internal slot. Expand RAM to a maximum configuration of 10MB via 2-, 4-, 6-, or 8MB memory modules.
The heart of the UltraLite SL/25C is the Intel i386SL CPU, which runs at 25 MHz. This gives the SL/25C more than adequate performance while keeping the power requirements reasonably modest through the SL chip's power management functions.
While NEC claims that you can get up to 5 hours of operation on a charge with light use and about 1-1/2 hours under constant operation, I found the SL/25C to be a bit on the power-hungry side with average continuous-use sessions lasting only slightly more than an hour between charges. With all of the power management options enabled, I averaged 2-2-1/2 hours per charge, which is a workable charge life in real-world terms.
Thanks to excellent layout and design, using the machine is a joy. Illuminated power, battery, and disk usage LEDs grace the upper left of the unit by the lid hinge, while illuminated Num Lock, Caps Lock, and Scroll Lock indicators appear just above the excellent 88-key keyboard, which features a dedicated cursor keypad and an embedded numeric keypad.
You can adjust screen brightness via a slider control mounted at the lower right of the display, and the standby and power switches are flush mounted at the upper right just above the keyboard. Overall ergonomics of the 7-1/2-pound notebook are excellent, and its black nongloss case gives it a distinguished, business-like appearance.
Windows and DOS-based applications all run at a respectable clip on the SL/25C equipped the way I reviewed it, but adding an optional 80387SX math coprocessor along with some additional RAM would improve its performance even more for those real power-user applications. If you're like most users, however, you'll find that the SL/25C fills your wish list just fine the way it is.
PC BRAND 486SLC
Weighing in at just a tad under seven pounds, the PC Brand 486SLC notebook computer packs the power and functionality of Cyrix's new microprocessor (486SLC) into the convenient and easy-to-carry notebook form factor.
An abundance of good features make this notebook an attractive choice for many users. For example, the 486SLC comes equipped with two serial ports rather than the single COM port usually found on notebooks. These dual ports, as well as a single parallel port, reside behind a dropdown panel door at the right rear of the notebook. An adjacent panel houses the PC Brand proprietary expansion connector used for attaching peripherals.
On the left side of the machine, you'll find a jack for an external keyboard; a mini-to-standard-DIN keyboard cable adapter is also thoughtfully provided with the notebook. On the right side of the notebook, you'll find the floppy drive, a 15-pin external VGA jack, and an AC power adapter or battery charger jack.
PC Brand has placed the controls for the notebook's display within easy reach, right below the display screen itself. The LCD screen is one of the best I've seen, completely devoid of any moires and flickering, which makes it easy to view for even extended periods. I did notice some streaking and image persistence, although these weren't major concerns.
Compared to keyboards on other notebook PCs, this one is slightly stiff and doesn't produce an audible click, but the action is positive, and most fast typists will like the speed and feel this keyboard offers. I found the key arrangement and spacing quite satisfactory; the dedicated cursor keys and the embedded numeric keypad make it an almost perfect input device. To page up or page down, you must depress the Fn key and the up- or down-arrow key, but the absence of dedicated Page Up and Page Down keys was the only real feature I missed on this keyboard.
Unfortunately, the user's manual for the 486SLC wasn't ready in time for the review, but a manual for the PC Brand NB/386SX was supplied as a substitute. While most of the information covered in the 386-model, manual covers the 486SLC model, as well, I was at a loss for specific information germane to the 486SLC (like power-conserving features). The 386 documentation was excellent, and if it is representative of the user manual, then the manual for the 486 will be equally complete, easy to read, and well organized.
While all Windows- and DOS-based applications ran without a hitch during the review, the performance of the 486SLC (using the Cyrix 486SLC microprocessor) wasn't as good as I expected it to be, based on my experience with i486-based notebooks. Even running it with all of the power-saving options turned off (CPU timeout disabled, display and hard drive timeouts disabled), its performance overall was lackluster and more in keeping with a faster 386-based machine rather than a 486 notebook.
The 486SLC comes with a zippered carrying case, the external-keyboard adapter cable mentioned earlier, and MS-DOS 5.0, as well as setup and utility disks.
SAMSUNG NOTEMASTER 386S/25
Samsung's 5.8-pound NoteMaster 386S/25 is one of the lightest and best-looking notebooks around, and its removable hard drive and battery features are sure to appeal to business travelers.
The attractiveness of the NoteMaster is immediately apparent in its molded case, which uses a nonglossy, semitextured, gunmetal gray plastic with a black inset panel on the lid for contrast. Opening the lid reveals that the clean, uncluttered lines are carried through here, too. The hinge that serves to keep the display screen joined to the main body of the notebook does double duty as an indicator panel.
Rather than the traditional rectangular LED indicators usually found, Samsung has shaped its indicators on the NoteMaster in the form of icons representative of their status. For example, the power indicator LED is an illuminated light bulb icon, the floppy drive indicator is a disk icon, and so forth. While not a major feature, it's one of the little niceties that make this such an attractive notebook.
The NoteMaster uses the AMD 80386SXL as its central processing unit, and its clock ticks along at a pace of 25 MHz. Two megabytes of RAM come standard with the notebook, along with a 40MB hard drive. You can expand RAM up to 8MB using a memory card, and if you want a larger hard drive, you can order a 60MB or 80MB model. For extra number-crunching power, you can also order an 80387SX math coprocessor. Samsung has provided convenient access to the coprocessor socket via a door on the underside of the notebook; you don't have to disassemble the notebook to insert the chip.
A unique feature of the NoteMaster is its ability to use alkaline batteries instead of its own rechargeable ni-cads. This feature can really come in handy if you run low on power and you don't have access to an AC power source. Just pop in the optional ($69) alkaline pack, which uses standard AA alkaline batteries, and you're good for another hour of computing. Additionally, you can change batteries while the NoteMaster is in operation without losing power.
Without a doubt the most innovative feature of the NoteMaster 386S/25 is its removable hard drive. Yes, you read that correctly; the hard drive can be removed from the NoteMaster, since it's mounted in a convenient handheld caddy. Samsung decided on this unique removable hard drive approach as a feature that would appeal to business users who'd like to be able to transfer data conveniently from their NoteMasters to their office desktop PCs.
Samsung is also offering an internal hard drive receptacle as an accessory item ($249) that allows a desktop PC to accept the hard drive from the NoteMaster. The removable drive caddy also makes it easy to upgrade or switch hard drives in the NoteMaster. Now that's innovative!
As one would expect in such a well-appointed and innovative machine, all of the basic requirements are covered, as well. The NoteMaster comes equipped with a serial port, a parallel port, and external keyboard and 15-pin VGA ports, as well as a proprietary expansion slot. The keyboard offers firm, positive action along with excellent spacing. Performance, I found, was pleasingly quick using applications under DOS and Windows 3.1, and battery charges regularly lasted over two hours, even when the notebook used the battery a great deal.
For styling and features, the NoteMaster is an excellent choice in a 386 notebook.
TI TravelMate 4000 WINDX/25
Texas Instruments describes its TravelMate 4000 WinDX/25 notebook as "486 desktop power to go." This is an accurate statement, since this machine is armed to the hilt with heavy computing artillery.
The core of the WinDX/25's power, its 486DX CPU, runs at 25 MHz. The 486DX CPU has a builtin math coprocessor and associative caching, so it's a veritable powerhouse to build upon. And that's exactly what Texas Instruments did. The machine comes with 4MB of RAM as its standard complement, and this can be expanded up to a 20MB maximum.
The WinDX/25's case is remarkably thin (under two inches), and the machine could rightly be described as compact. With a weight of just over 5-1/2 pounds, it's certainly one of the lighter and easier-to-carry notebooks presently available. The case sports handsome two-tone brownish gray plastic with clean lines and flush-mounted controls.
The machine's high-density floppy drive is front mounted, and the jack for connecting an external keypad occupies the right side of the WinDX/25. You access all other ports--serial, parallel, external video, and PS/2-style mouse--behind a flip-down door on the left side. In the rear you'll find a proprietary expansion bus and the AC power adapter or battery charger jack. If you prefer an internal fax/modem, you can order one as an option for this notebook.
The WinDX/25 comes preconfigured to do useful work as soon as you turn it on; its 120MB internal hard drive comes already loaded with MS-DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.1. Texas Instruments also includes its TravelPoint pointing device to facilitate your use of Windows and other GUI applications. The TravelPoint is a little trackball (thumbball is a better description) mounted on a platform which attaches to the right side of the notebook. While it takes a little getting used to, I found it a worthwhile and functional device that gives the notebook additional productivity as part of the standard package.
The video capabilities of the WinDX/25 are well taken care of. The ten-inch (diagonally measured) liquid crystal display (LCD) features 640 x 480 resolution with 64 shades of gray. It has 1MB of video RAM and TI's Mouse Quick display technology, which provides instant screen updates of mouse movements without lag. While I found the LCD to be good, it did exhibit some tendency toward moires, ghosting, and streaking. On the plus side, the machine features a video-reversal switch which instantly changes the screen from dark on light to light on dark. This compensated for less-than-optimal screen patterns and contrast levels with some applications, and it is an attractive feature.
The external VGA capabilities of the WinDX/25 make it a natural for using with a good color desktop monitor when you're not traveling about. When you use a CRT display instead of the built-in LCD, the video adapter supports 640 x 480 resolution with 256 colors, 800 x 600 resolution with 256 colors, and 1024 x 768 resolution with 16 colors.
Texas Instruments also provides a jack that allows you to use an external keyboard, although I found the machine's native keyboard to be one of the best I've used. Its action is positive without being stiff, and there's just the right amount of key travel for my taste. Key spacing is excellent, and a dedicated cursor keypad with an embedded numeric keypad makes this keyboard very utilitarian. All function keys line the top row, and all eight of the machine's LED status indicators are flush mounted just above the function key row.
You'll find the screen controls for brightness and contrast flush mounted and the power switch recessed to prevent your accidentally pressing it.
If you're looking for the power of a 486DX in a well-designed notebook, you'll certainly want to consider the WinDX/25.
Striking, sleek, impressive, fast, expensive, and maybe even sexy are all valid descriptors for Toshiba's impressive T4400SXC color notebook computer. So if you're looking for a color notebook that's on the leading edge of technology and your pockets are deep enough, this machine may be just the ticket for you.
If good things come in small packages, then Toshiba has produced a good thing indeed by stuffing a 486-based computer with an active matrix color display, floppy and hard drives, multiple I/O ports, and a full-size keyboard into a demure package that fits easily into a briefcase and weighs only 7-3/4 pounds with its battery installed.
The heart of the T4400SXC is an Intel 80486SX CPU running at 25 MHz. The i486 chip has its own 8K internal cache, which, combined with the 25-MHz speed, makes even the most laborious computing task a remarkably speedy operation. Should you require even more computing speed and power than this mini-Titan delivers in its standard configuration, the CPU can be upgraded to a 25-MHz 486DX chip.
A high-density 3-1/2-inch drive, located on the right side of the T4400SXC near the front, handles floppy media, while an internal 80MB IDE hard disk takes care of your mass storage. For even more storage, you can order a 120MB hard drive for about $500 more.
The I/O ports are located at the rear of the machine, hidden from view when they're not in use by a flip-down door. This panel also hides a dedicated PS/2-style mouse port, a 15-pin RGB video port, a parallel printer or external floppy drive port, and a 9-pin serial port. Also at the rear of the machine, you'll find a Toshiba proprietary expansion connector, protected by a removable snap-off panel cover. This connector lets you use the T4400SXC with its desktop docking bay, which offers two full-sized industry standard expansion slots, a parallel port, a serial port, a PS/2-style mouse port, a VGA monitor port, a keyboard port, a floppy drive port, and a 5-1/2-inch bay.
The left side of the machine houses the flush-mounted power switch near the rear of the unit and an external keypad port (hidden by a snap-off cover) at the middle of the left side. Near the front, you'll find a modem line port under another snap-off cover. This gives you access to an optional, internally mounted, 9600-bps, cellular-ready fax/modem.
The review unit came outfitted with the standard 4MB of RAM, but the total memory capacity of the machine can be upgraded to 20MB. While the 4MB configuration proved more than adequate for all of the DOS- and Windows-based software I used on the T4400SXC, expanding the RAM and possibly upgrading to the DX CPU would increase the multitasking and overall throughput power you might need if your application demands are extraordinarily heavy.
You can power the Toshiba T4400SXC three ways: through its own internal rechargeable batteries, through its AC power adapter, or through the optional desktop docking bay. One of the big surprises of the T4400SXC was the longevity it enjoyed from a fully charged battery; a charge life of over 2-1/2 hours was routine, with some computing sessions approaching a full 3 hours before the low-battery warnings started. Toshiba claims a 3-hour battery life with a 90-minute recharge, and my experience corroborates this claim.
The 83-key keyboard has a comfortable, positive action with good tactile feedback, although it lacks an audible click. I found key placement and spacing excellent, so if you're a fast touch-typist, you'll really fly when using it.
The active matrix liquid crystal display (LCD) is truly superb, capable of supporting all standard color and VGA modes as well as SVGA color (256 colors at 640 x 480 resolution from a palette of 185, 193 colors). If you hook up an external monitor to the RGB port on the T4400SXC, you can see video on the LCD screen as well as on the external monitor, a handy feature for sales, training, or classroom presentations. The colors are absolutely brilliant with excellent hue and saturation; I found the screen easy to view from virtually any angle and under almost any lighting conditions. Since this computer uses an LCD panel rather than a cathode-ray tube, the images are rock steady with pristine definition. To say that viewing on the T4400SXC is a pleasure is an understatement.
There's lots to like with the T4400SXC, even though it will seriously deplete your piggy bank. As of the writing of this review, prices for this notebook are already dropping; competition from other manufacturers will doubtless make this and other leading-edge products more affordable for the masses in the not-too-distant future.
WYSE DECISION-MATE 486SLC
Just when you think you've seen it all when it comes to making notebook PCs slimmer, Wyse introduces its DecisionMate 486SLC notebook computer, which pushes the thin profile envelope further still. This five-pound notebook measures less than 1-1/2 inches thick.
The DecisionMate's finish, with a handsome wrinkle-texture bronze color, resists fingerprints and presents a most pleasing appearance. The machine is uncluttered without being boring.
Wyse managed to keep the weight and thickness down by opting for a detachable floppy drive, which attaches to the notebook via a proprietary port located at the left rear of the machine, beneath a snap-off panel cover. This same panel also conceals the single serial port.
The detachable floppy drive could be a mixed blessing for some users who don't want to plug and unplug the device, although business travelers who ordinarily do their file exchanges via a modem or file transfer cable and rarely or never use floppies while on the road will love it (a LapLink cable and file transfer software are provided with the DecisionMate). Of course, you can always pack the floppy drive along in the supplied carrying case, since it weighs only about a pound. [TABULAR DATA OMITTED]
The 486SLC CPU provides performance comparable to that of a 486SX running at the same clock speed of 25 MHz but provides additional power conservation features to extend battery life. During the review I averaged 1-1/2 hours of constant use with all of the power-saving features disabled and 2-1/2- to 3-hour averages with the power management turned on.
The base configuration comes standard with 4MB of RAM, and you can expand this to 8MB. Wyse offers two models of the DecisionMate; the only difference between them is internal hard drive capacity. The Model 80/4 comes with an 80MB drive, while the Model 120/4 comes with a 120MB drive; the latter unit was supplied for the review.
Security is something the folks at Wyse have taken seriously. The computer features password protection that prevents unauthorized eyes from seeing your data or entering the system configuration menus. In addition to the password protection, the DecisionMate also comes with a hardware security kit, which consists of a restraining bracket, cable, and combination lock. This kit tethers the notebook to a desk to make sure it will still be there when you get back from a trip to the water cooler.
I found the VGA liquid crystal display screen bright and easy to read, especially with the special character set Wyse uses. A 15-pin port on the left side of the machine lets you attach an external VGA or SVGA monitor (up to 800 x 600 resolution is supported), and a mini-DIN connector lets you attach a PS/2-style mouse or keyboard. The parallel port and the dial controls for video brightness and contrast are located at the right side; the power connector is located at the rear.
Wyse preinstalls MS-DOS 5.0 on the hard drive, as well as software for menuing, disk caching, expanded memory management, setup, and testing.
The keyboard is excellent, with an inverted-T dedicated cursor pad and an embedded numeric pad. Wyse groups the function keys together in two rows at the upper right corner of the keyboard, and all LED status indicators are flush mounted above the keyboard.
High marks go to the design team at Wyse for producing a functional notebook that's a delight to use and look at.
ZENITH Z-NOTE 325L
Zenith has taken a different approach in designing its Z-Note 325L notebook. From its striking exterior design to its innovative expansion and power conservation features, Zenith has clearly eschewed the commonplace to claim a place above ordinary notebooks.
This is apparent starting with the almost paper white color of the notebook's plastic case. Clean, squared lines accented by a square-embossed trim give the Z-Note a businesslike appearance.
One of the unique features of the Z-Note is its liquid crystal display (LCD) system status panel. Rather than the usual bank of LED indicators to signify power, drive activity, and lock-key status, Zenith has built in a four-pane LCD window that keeps tabs on these functions by providing status icons in the window panes.
Individual icons show the status of AC power operation, standby mode, battery power operation, hard drive activity, floppy drive activity, port replicator, external CRT, modem, LAN controller, speaker, Num Lock, Caps Lock, Pad Lock, and Scroll Lock. With all these areas to provide user feedback for, Zenith's system status panel makes a great deal of sense.
In fact, the only LED indicator on the machine is a small power LED located in the center of the machine just below the display screen, which changes color according to the current power or battery conditions. This LED is visible with the lid in either the open or closed position, so you'll always know at a glance if the Z-Note is turned on.
The review unit came equipped with an 85MB hard drive and 4MB of RAM, a popular configuration for today's high-demand applications. If that isn't enough, the RAM can be expanded to 12MB using 2MB and 8MB memory expansion modules. The CPU of the Z-Note, an Intel 80386SL microprocessor, runs at 25 MHz, which gives the Z-Note a good balance of performance and power-conserving features. You can install an 80387SL math coprocessor in the available socket if you need the extra processing power.
Most of the ports (15-pin external video, parallel, mouse/keyboard, serial, and proprietary port replicator) reside behind a panel door at the rear of the machine, along with the AC power adapter jack. The high-density floppy drive is mounted on the right side along with the modem port access panel and the LAN port access panel. This notebook complies with IEEE802.3 and Ethernet specifications--a connector for interfacing with a LAN adapter card is provided under this panel. The left side houses the battery and the security bracket, a hardened steel loop that provides a means of securing the notebook to a desktop or other stationary object with a cable and lock.
Zenith has taken a modular approach in its expandability for the Z-Note. For example, you can replace the ten-inch VGA LCD screen with an active matrix color VGA display screen, upgrade the hard disk to a 120MB unit, and replace the standard 1.44MB floppy drive with an ultra-high-density 2.88MB floppy drive. This approach makes sense for users who anticipate needing more features in the future; they can be added or upgraded when the need arises.
The Zenith Z-Note is easily the battery-life champion. This machine regularly delivered charge life times approaching 3 hours under continuous heavy-duty use and 4-1/2-5 hours of usable life under average use with all of the power-saving features activated. The secret of this charge longevity lies in the Z-Note's NiMH (Nickel-Metal Hydride) battery pack that provides approximately 40 percent more operational time than a standard ni-cad battery pack.
Couple this battery life with the APM (Intel's Advanced Power Management) features of the SL chip and complementing support circuitry, and you have a notebook that can keep you computing all the way on a cross-country flight and still have some power left.
If you need a high-performance notebook for today that gives you plenty of expandability for tomorrow, the Z-Note 325L may be the ticket for you.