Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 163 / APRIL 1994 / PAGE 18

Test lab. (subnotebook computers; includes related articles and glossary) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Jean Marchant

Subnotebook computers represent, in many respects, cutting -edge technology. To provide more computing muscle in a smaller and lighter package with an acceptable display and longer battery life, manufacturers have had to show real ingenuity in their choice of materials, software and hardware decisions, and overall design. Our increasingly competitive and mobile society demands this kind of ingenuity, and the subnotebooks in this month's Test Lab go far toward meeting those demands.

For the purposes of this round-up, we said that each subnotebook (including battery, but not AC adapter) should weigh five pounds or less. Our review of seven unit, the Panasonic CF-1000A, which weighed in at just over five pounds, but we felt that it deserved to be included in spite of this slight excess weight. All of the units in our test (and most of those available today) are noncolor units.

All but one of the units in our test include some type of integrated pointing device. While this kind of integration keeps the size and weight of these devices down, most of them leave something to be desired. Many subnotebook users will probably opt to use keyboard shortcuts for most functions.

In all but one unit in our test, a floppy drive is not included in the main unit. An external floppy drive is a reasonable compromise for times when weight and size are issues, since some of the most usual uses for a floppy drive include installation of software and exchange of data, and those tasks are typically done when weight and size are less important concerns.

Because of the small footprints of these machines, their keyboards do tend to be too cramped for typing for a prolonged period of time. In some cases, the design of the keyboard is such that typing for any length of time could cause discomfort. Also, a small footprint limits the size of the display. What you look for in a display or a keyboard is a matter of personal preference, so it makes good sense to try them out if at all possible before you make a decision. If that isn't possible, check out the return policy of the company from which you buy your subnotebook.

As computers have become smaller and smaller, they have also become more and more powerful. The units tested are all capable of running Windows (although the HP OmniBook runs Windows only in standard mode) with quite reasonable performance. All units came packaged with software (minimally DOS and Windows and in some cases a lot more).

Subnotebook manufacturers have designed many features to enhance power management so that longer and longer battery life can be expected. From NiMH batteries that provide longer life to display technology that reduces the drain on the battery to advanced power management software, there are a number of ways to obtain longer battery life.

For detailed evaluation of each subnotebook, look to the reviews where particular strengths, weaknesses, and recommendations are presented. If you'd like to look at the features of these subnotebooks side by side, you'll want to study the table of features. And if you're interested in how well these computers perform and how long their batteries last, take a look at the benchmark graphs. Whatever your needs in a subnotebook, Test Lab can help you make a more informed decision.


At 3.85 pounds, the ActionNote is one of the lighter machines that we tested, and it turned in one of the faster hardware performances, coming in second in the North Syslnfo performance measurements. Thanks to very good display contrast and support for 64 shades of gray, the ActionNote also has one of the better screens.

Although this machine comes standard with 4MB RAM, you can upgrade the memory to 8MB. Epson offers you two hard drive options, 80MB and 120MB; both are removable drives. The floppy drive is external, which is the norm for subnotebooks. The ActionNote's single Type II PCMCIA slot supports Type I/II memory and I/O cards. Two fax/ data modem PC cards are availabel, one supporting 2400 and 9600 bps and the other supporting 14,400 bps.

There are times when a small display just won't suit your purposes. Fortunately, the ActionNote allows you to attach an external monitor at a resolution of 640 x 480 with 16 colors or 800 x 600 with 16 colors. DOS 6 and Windows 3.1 come preloaded on the hard drive.

Designing a keyboard for a subnotebook presents certain challenges. The keyboard on this subnotebook leaves a bit to be desired. I find the key placement a little confusing, since the right Shift key is outside the up-arrow key, and reaching the right Shift key is more of a stretch on this keyboard than on most keyboards. Also, I find the keys hard to press on this keyboard. The front of the keyboard on this unit is almost an inch above the work surface, which I regard as too high for comfortable typing. Epson includes a port for either a PS/2-compatible pointing device or a keyboard, so if you're using the machine at the office rather than on the road, you can plug in a desktop keyboard if you want.

Pointing devices also present a challenge to designers of these subnotebooks. Like most subnotebooks, the ActionNote includes a less-than-ideal pointing device--in this case, a built-in two-button trackball. Epson has located it in the upper right corner, just above the keyboard. By default, the left button is placed to the right of the trackball, and the right button is placed to the front. Many of COMPUTE's readers would probably seriously consider using keyboard commands.

Light weight, very good performance, and very good display options make the ActionNote a subnotebook you should consider.


With dimensions of 9.75 x 5.9 x 1.6 inches, the 2.94-pound HandBook from Gateway 2000 is extremely portable. In fact, it's the smallest unit in our roundup. Though small, the HandBook fared well in the Norton SysInfo performance measurements.

Standard on this unit is 4MB memory, expandable to 8MB or 20MB. The 80MB IDE hard drive has a 15-ms average access time. The optional external floppy drive uses the parallel port. There's one Type II PCMCIA slot, which can accommodate optional cards, including a 2400-/9600-bps fax/data moderm, a 14,400-bps fax/data moderm, an Ethernet BNC adapter, and an Ethernet Twisted Pair adapter. You also get a serial port and a PS/2-style external keyboard port. Packaged software includes DOS 6, Windows 3.1, and power management software with four preset battery power settings plus the option to customize settings of the six major power control items.

One of the negatives with this unit is that the display's aspect ratio has been compromised so that a 7.9-inch screen (measured diagonally) will fit into the very trim packaging. On this screen people in a photo look fatter than usual.

Instead of a trackball, Gateway uses a "pointing stick," placed on the right side of the keyboard. The buttons, however, are located on the front of the unit. I found it difficult to feel in control of the pointing device, and it seemed that upward movements required more pressure than expected. Also, if you're left-handed, you might find this pointing device more of a challenge than you'd like.

At about an inch above the work surface, the keyboard is a little too high for comfortable typing. Some of the special keys (for example, function keys, Insert, Delete, and arrow keys) are quite small--again a compromise needed to fit so much into a small package. Except for the size of some of the special keys, the keyboard has a fairly nice feel.

When running the battery-life tests on this unit, we used the Maximum Battery Life setting on the Power Management menu, but we needed to use the Auto Low setting for CPU performance. The Maximum Power Savings setting didn't work with our test suite.

The HandBook is an ideal choice if you want a very small and lightweight computer capable of running Windows in 386 enhanced mode and if you can work with (or around) the built-in pointing device. Gateway offers a 40-MHz 486DX2 (Intel Enhanced SL) version of the HandBook for about $500 more. According to Gateway, it has the same dimensions, weight, and battery life as the 486SX version, but the hard drive is 130MB rather than 80MB. Gateway also offers a ColorBook, which is larger (11.7 x 8.5 x 1.77 inches) and heavier (5.7 pounds) than its HandBooks and comes in 25-MHz 486SX and 33-MHz 486DX versions.


A numbers of unique features distinguish HP's OmniBook from the other subnotebooks in this month's roundup. With software applications preloaded in ROM, the OmniBook is the most ready-to -use unit in the group.

Applications provided by HP include scaled-down versions of Word for Windows 2.0, Excell 4.0, DOS 5, and Windows 3.1. Also packaged with the unit are LapLink Remote Access, a phone book, an appointment book, and the HP Financial Calculator. The bidirectional infrared port communicates (wirelessly) via LapLink with a handful of other products. The default LapLink is 2400 bps.

I found the nonbacklit LCD a little hard to read in dim lighting, but it's less of a power drain than a backlit model. The pop-out mouse on this unit is the best pointing device in the group, and the keyboard is one of the best, with a better "feel" and fewer function key combinations than most.

Because of some of the unique features of this computer, there were some difficulties in executing the test suite designed for this Test Lab roundup. The first problem arose with the performance test. The base memory configuration for this unit is 2MB, and the database application in our test would not run in this coonfiguration. To remeby the problem, I installed a 2MB RAM expansion card, bringing total RAM in the OmniBook to 4MB. It was easy to install and configure the memory, and with it, I was able to complete the performance test suite successfully.

The performance of this machine in the database portion of the test was slow, but its performance in the word processor and spreadsheet portions of the test was reasonable. General Protection Faults appeared during the battery -life test with the ROM-based versions of WinWord and Excel, but only after the test loop had completed several iterations. The HP phone and appointment apps were placed in the test script in place of WinWord and Excel, and the suite then executed without errors. HP claims up to 4 1/2 hours typical battery life for this hard disk model and up to 8 hours for the flash disk model.

The OmniBook requires several drivers which use a lot of RAM. After these drives are loaded, you're left with less than 415K conventional RAM. By fiddling with the software, you can get more memory. The default CONFIG.SYS does not load DOS into high memory. In addition, Windows on the OmniBook is supported only in standard mode.

You can connect an optional external 3 1/2-inch drive to the parallel port, but keep in mind that it's not speedy; this one turned out to be the slowest of those we tested. As for the hard drive, the tested model came with a 40MB unit. With DoubleSpace and the apps preloaded in ROM, there's a fair amount of room for data files if you don't need to load too many additional applications. Instead of using the hard drive, you can use a 10MB flash disk, but even with no additional applications loaded and with DoubleSpace, you could run out of disk space quickly.

This sleek unit will be extremely appealing to users whose needs for applications can be met with the bundled ROM-based apps. This unit will also be a top choice for subnotebook users who want the feel and control of a mouse rather than a trackball on their portable units.


Although heavier than the other units in this roundup, the CF-1000A offers a very good display an an internal floppy drive.

According to Pasasonic, the CF-1000A weights a mere five pounds, but on our scales, it weights just over that. It's the heaviest notebook in the group.

It's also the only subnotebook we tested that has an internal floppyu drive. You can remove the floppy drive, however, and replace it with a second battery if you need extra battery life more than access to a floppy.

DOS and Windows disks don't ship the machine, but you canm easily builds disks. This is one of the steps in the Getting Started section of the User's Guide.

The CF-1000A boasts the largest display in the group. This sidelit LCD has 64 levels of gray, and I found it bright and easy to ready--a real advantage if readability is an isssue for you.

This notebook is the thinnest we tested. I found the Panasonic keyboard easier to use for an extended period thatn teh kjeyboards on some of the other computers. while the unit doesn't come with a built-an point device, there is a PS/2-style mouse port.

The unit comes with 4MB memory standard, expandable to either 8MB or 12MB. To expand the capabilities of the system, you use an optional docking unit which can hold two AT expansion boards (one long card and one short card or two short cards). The docking unit is an alternative way of adding memory, a LAN adapter, or additional ports for desktop use with standard peripherals.

The notebook's setup utility includes a power management menuy that allows you to set power consumption settings for a dozen options. There are four groups of settings: default, long-life, super-long-life, and high-performance. We used the super-long-life setting for out batteryu-life test and the high-performance setting for the performance test.

The CF-1000A is an excellent choice if weight isn't much of a factor for you and if you'd like the readability of a larger display and the convenience of a built-in floppy drive.


The unit we tested, model T3400, is a sales sample, which is not quite a production unit but close to it. Normally, we tested only production units, but we felt it important to cover this one. As it turns out, the Portege wa the fastest both in our performance test and in the Norton SysInfo performance measurement. It also had the second-longest battery life.

The design of the keyboard includes some erognomic considerations. The keyboard itself is positioned as far back as possible, which allows for a flat area on which to rest you palms. Alsso, there are fee that fold out to elevate the back of the unit and make for a more natural typing angle. While the keyboard is more confortable to use than most, the keys seem a little crowded, and the space bar is positioned too low for a typical touch-typist.

The pointing device on this unit, the AccuPoint, does a better job than other devices of accommodating both left-and right-handed people, as both the pointing device and the associated buttons are centrally located. However, I found it to be one of the more difficult pointing devices to use.

Bundled software includes DOS 6, Windows 3.1, UltraFont, CommWorks for Windows, and advanced power management software. The default Windows color scheme on this unit uses white charaters on a dark back-ground. To me, this is a little harder to read then dark characters on a light background, the scheme used by most of the other units. This is one of the two subnotebooks in our roundup with local-bus video.

As impressive as the performance numbers were, the Norton SysInfo report did show that the disk speed was the lowest, both in overall disk speed and in the data transfer rate. Since out tests involved a fair amount of disk activity, the rest of the system design seems to have adequately compensated for this shortcoming.

This was the only unit with an optional port replicator containing serial, parallel, external video, PS/2 mouse, and PS/2 keyboardc ports. These ports offer easy, one-touch connection with the desk-top environment. A Type II PC-MCIA slot extends the Portege's capabilities even further.

With the performance this machine offer, it's an excellent candidate for the person who wants to use the same unit both for travel and on the desktop with some full-size peripherals.


Of all the subnotebooks we testex for battery life, the Z-Lite had the longest life, and it also fared well in the application performance test.

The design of this unit is sleek, with the back slightly thicker than the front (which certainly gives it) more of a notebook appearance). also, the AC adapter connects direclty to the external floppy drive, which in turn connects to the left side of the computer, giving the AC adapter and floppy drive the appearance of a single unit. The pointing devife, called the LITEPOINT, is a separate (and optional) unit that connects directly into the front of the computer, also giving this portion of the system the appearance of a single unit.

the benefit of the LITEPOINT design is that it provides a partial palm rest when using the keyboard for an extended period of time. The keyboard is positioned at a 3.5-degree slope, which also benefits keyboards users.

Software shipped with this unit includes DOS 6, Windows 3.1, - and PCMCIA card and socket services.

The unit includes two PCMCIA slots, which allow it to be configured with both a modem and a LAN adapter for ultimate flexibility.

Interfaces available include one serial, one Enhanced Parallel Port (which can perform high-speed bidirectional transfer of data), a mouse/keypad/keyboard port, and an SVGA-compatible video port (which can be used for simultanoeous display).

The Z-Lite has a full-size 8-1/2-inch black-on-white VGA display that is backlit. Separate controls adjust contrast and brightness.

A panel of icons above the keyboard displays the status of the power source, hard drive activity, floppy drive activity, PCMCIA activity, the battery-life gauge, and so forth.

The Z-Lite comes standard with 4MB of RAM, which you can expand to 20MB with a 16MB memory module.

There are three hard drive sizes available, the largesst of which -is 170MB.

The Z-Lite will especially appeal to users for whom long battery life is a key concern but who don't want to make any compromises in performance.


The Contenda is a lot of computer in under four pounds. Test results showed both good battery life and good performance. And in this Test Lab roundup of subnotebooks, it's one of the two machines featuring local-bus video for Windows acceleration.

The unit supports simultaneous display of its own screen and an external SVGA color monitor. An optional full-size keyboard is available, which you plug int the parallel port. Software packaged with the unit we tested includes DOS 6, Windows 3.1, Lotus Notes, and advanced power management software. The advanced power management software runs under both DOS and Windows. Battery-life test were performed with the maximum power conservation setting.

One particularly useful utility that comes with the Contenda allows you to use an optional big cursor, which is a lot easier to keep trackj of when performing operations with the pointing device. This is one of the two units in our test without any PCMCIA slots, but the unit does incliude an internal fax/data modem slot.

The backlit display is crisp and bright, although the 7.4-inch (diagonally measured) screen is the smallest in the group. Brightness and contrast adjustments are software based (made with function key combinations) rather than hardware controlled.

As wiuth some of the other units, thi sone has a keyboard that I feels sits too high above the work surface--at least an inch. You turns this unit on and off with keypresses rather than a switch. While we were working with the machine, the keyboard and trackball became inactive. As a result, we couldn't warm- or cold-boot the system (Ctrl-Alt-Delete didn't work, and we couldn't turn the power off because doing so requires a keypress). We have to wait until we lost battery power and then reboot.

The trackball on this unit is placed just above and to the right of the keyboard--not an ideal placement for a left-handed user.

The computer has an optional DC-DC adapter that plugs into the cigarette lighter of an vehicle that has a 12-volt electricalk system. The adapter can be connected to either the computer o rthe battery charger.

The Contenda scored close to the top in several key categories, making it an excellent selection--almost the smallest, almost the best in performance for 25-MHz machines, almost the best in battery life, one of the two with local-bus video, and one of the two with 64 shades of gray.