Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 164 / MAY 1994 / PAGE 53

How to choose a portable computer. (includes related article on selecting notebook computer software) (Compute's Getting Started With: Portable Computing) (Buyers Guide)
by Richard O. Mann

Most of the action in today's PC market is in the white-hot notebook and subnotebook segment. New generations of notebooks with ever-better features appear every few months, and prices continue to fall. If you've ever thought you might want a portable computer, now is the time to strike--the computers are excellent, and prices are reasonable.

A tour of today's notebooks shows significant changes from just a year ago. All now sport 486 chips and supply pointing devices. Windows comes preinstalled (though many now supply Windows for Workgroups 3.11 as an option).

Standard hard drives start at 80MB and go up to 340MB for notebooks; subnotebooks don't often go above 170MB. Most have at least one PCMCIA slot.

Buying Considerations

When purchasing a notebook or subnotebook, serious analysis and testing are in order. Consider each of the following factors.

Weight. Determine how big a load you can stand to carry. Don't forget to add in the extras, which are never included in the quoted weight: AC transformer and cords, the carrying case itself, external floppy drive for subnotebooks, and extra batteries, for example.

Brand name. Unknown manufacturers may expose you to service problems. Also, be aware that the battery is going to fail in a year or two. Batteries are almost always built especially for each machine; will your computer vendor be there to sell you a new battery when the time comes?

Battery life. Don't believe manufacturers' claims; it's almost always less, often by half. Test the battery life, if possible, or read an unbiased test report. Determine how important battery life is for your usage patterns before spending a lot for longer battery life. Longerlife NiMH batteries are often available at extra cost.

RAM and RAM upgrades. You'll need at least 4MB of RAM, but get 8MB if possible. Note the price of memory upgrades and whether you'll have to send the machine to the shop to install the upgrades.

Color screen. If you can afford it, color makes a laptop seem 100 percent more useful and usable. Word around the industry is that within a year, color screens should cost little more than monochromes, but now they run $400-$1,500 extra. Nevertheless, color screens are magnificent.

Active matrix color is the real thing, with vivid, bright colors. Passive matrix color uses less power, costs much less, and produces paler colors. The new dualscan passive matrix screens are a good compromise.

Monochrome screen. If you're going monochrome, go with 64 shades of gray if possible. Look for accessible brightness and contrast controls. The key advice here is to actually work with the screen in realistic lighting before buying. Screens blur, fade, wash out, and render color programs with odd shadings. Your reaction to any gray-scale screen is very individual; you can't predict it without actually trying the machine.

Keyboard. If not the most important factor, the keyboard is at least the second most important factor. First, look for standard key arrangements, particularly with regard to the cursor arrows, PgDn, and so on. Many manufacturers are still piggybacking the PgDn, PgUp, Home, and End keys on the arrow keys, requiring you to press a special Fn key to use them. I will never buy a machine with such a keyboard, though it may not pose as big a problem for you. WordPerfect users may also want true F11 and F12 keys (other programs use them as well).

Keyboard touch is extremely important. Size is critical in considering a subnotebook. Again, you can't tell if it's a keyboard you can live with unless you actually type on it. Test it to see if it's pleasant and comfortable to use.

Pointing device. Almost every system comes with a trackball. They vary wildly in usability, so this, too, is something you'll have to test. A picture of the unit won't tell you if the trackball is tight or loose, properly spaced for your hands, and so forth. After using a dozen different arrangements this month, however, I can tell you that built-ins are generally more satisfactory than units that hang off the sides.

Power management. Determine if the unit runs at 3.3 or 5 volts--3.3-volt units have much-superior battery life. Look for power management features built into the 486 chip.

Try Before You Buy

Because so many factors are subjective (screen quality, keyboard touch, and so on), you really need to get your hands on the unit and work with it before you can have any idea whether you'll like it. You wouldn't buy a car without a test drive; don't buy a notebook without test-driving it (or having a 30-day no-questions-asked return period).

The Computers

COMPUTE invited a sampling of the leading notebook and subnotebook manufacturers to submit their products for brief review here. Not all were able to provide computers for review, but this listing is a representative sample of the outstanding notebook and subnotebook computers available today.

Z-Note 433Lnc. (Zenith Data Systems, 800-553-0331, $4,399) This gorgeous powerhouse is the clear pick of this particular litter of computers. In a gleaming white casing with a breathtaking active matrix color screen, it stops all passersby for an admiring once-over. Not just a pretty face, it has a 200MB drive, 4MB of RAM, a sturdy Notepoint trackball that snaps securely on the front of the unit, and preloaded network software. A special ZDS-designed high-speed communications port hooks directly to Ethernet networks. It has the full complement of cursor keys and comes with a NiMH battery.

The Z-Note series starts at $2,599 for a 25-MHz monochrome model and includes a pair of dual-scan passive matrix models--the 33-MHz version runs $3,599.

Austin 486DX2/66 Notebook. (Austin Computer Systems, 800-752-1577, $4,499) This Austin notebook with a 340MB drive, 8MB of RAM, one PCMCIA slot, a built-in trackball in front of the keyboard, and an active matrix color screen is another gem. The keyboard lacks a dedicated F11 and F12 and takes some getting used to, as you have to reach over the trackball area (it's not wide enough to rest your wrists on). The screen is perfect--with its local-bus video and 8MB of RAM. This notebook runs Windows faster than my comparably equipped desktop.

Austin offers notebooks in many configurations, from a 486SX/25 with a 130MB drive and a monochrome screen for $1,899 through the unit mentioned above.

Gateway ColorBook. (Gateway 2000, 800-846-2000, $1,995) The Gateway ColorBook's dual-scan passive matrix screen produces more-than-adequate color--as long as you haven't just come from an active matrix system.

The ColorBook is a 486SX/25 with an 80MB removable drive, 4MB of RAM, and two PCMCIA Type II slots. Its keyboard has an acceptably firm touch and doesn't have piggybacking. Its trackball slides forward from the front of the machine and, although small, gives immediate and positive cursor control. Two models with faster chips and 170MB drives are available.

Olivetti Philos 44. (Olivetti, 800-633-9909, $2,453) This unusual monochrome notebook (also available with color) shows its Italian heritage by offering new and interesting features. It's a 486/25 with an 84MB removable hard drive. It piggybacks the cursor keys and provides an innovative but less-than-totally-successful mouse substitute: a trackball unit on a steel strap that pops out of the right side of the computer. You have to grasp the unit to hold it still in order to click the switch.

The Philos comes with a Business Audio feature-- essentially, it's a digital tape recorder with a built-in microphone and speaker. It also has a unique small ten-key numeric pad above the keyboard. Accountants, take note!

TravelMate 4000E Win SX/25. (Texas Instruments, 800-527-3500, $2,499) TI is selling a ton of these 486 WinSX and WinDX notebooks, including this pleasant passive matrix color model. (The top of the line, a 50-MHz DX model with active matrix color, runs $4,999.)

The 400E WinSX/25 comes with a 120MB drive, 4MB of RAM, and a Microsoft BallPoint trackball with QuickPort (meaning cordless attachment off the right side of the unit). The keyboard includes all cursor keys, as well as the F11 and F12 keys. The new keyboard design gives a better-than-average touch.

TI's TravelMates are sleek, lightweight Windows machines.

Toshiba T4600. (Toshiba, 800-334-3445, $3,299) The Toshiba T4600 is a fast 33-MHz machine with a 120MB drive, 4MB of RAM, and a Microsoft BallPoint trackball with QuickPort attachment. It features two PCMCIA Type II slots and a 150-pin connector for a docking station or SCSI adaptor. The T4600 is available in monochrome or color, with drives of up to 340MB (top-of-the-line price: $5,499).

Toshiba's notebooks are unfailingly excellent, with full-sized keyboards with the best touch in the business and no piggybacked keys.


Quaderno 33. (Olivetti, $1,750) This one's the smallest--so small that its keyboard isn't quite usable by a person with large hands. Like the Philos, it has sound-recording capabilities, but it has a better trackball. With a 60MB drive, 4MB of RAM, and several built-in applications, it's a full-blown PC in a tiny package.

ZEOS Contenda. (ZEOS International, 800-423-5891, $1,894) The Contenda is a little larger and has a good-sized, usable keyboard (with piggybacked cursor keys); a bright, sharp (but tiny) screen; and a difficult-to-use trackball at the upper right of the keyboard. With no PCMCIA slots, its expandability is limited.

ActionNote 4000. (Epson America, 800-289-3776, under $2,000) This one's an impressive little computer, with an excellent keyboard (although the cursor keys are piggybacked) and bright backlit screen. The trackball at the upper right of the keyboard is only adequate. The largest of the units I saw (almost the size of a notebook), it wasn't the heaviest.

Epson portables feature Epson's Extra Care Road Service, which guarantees a replacement unit overnight if yours needs service. Removable hard disks make using a loaner easy.

HandBook. (Gateway 2000, $1,495) The HandBook features a keyboard of adequate size and good touch with separate cursor keys. Its screen is larger than that of most of the others while the unit itself is smaller; an enviable achievement. The pointer is a pencil-eraser-like joystick at the right of the keyboard (similar to IBM's popular TrackPoint II on the ThinkPads). The two buttons that go with it are on the front of the unit, where one-handed operation is surprisingly facile. The pointer itself, however, takes some getting used to.

The HandBook is priced right. Its primary drawback is its large, ungainly AC adapter unit--nearly half the size of the computer.

Z-Lite 425L. (Zenith Data Systems, $1,899 to $2,499) With a 170MB drive, this 25-MHz 486SL with two PCMCIA Type II slots is ready for serious computing. Its LitePoint trackball attaches in a full-width bar across the front of the unit and provides excellent cursor control. The external floppy drive snaps onto the AC adapter, which in turn snaps onto the side of the unit, making the whole thing easier to use and control than the normal setup with cables and boxes everywhere.

The keyboard gives a slightly cramped feeling, but the key travel and touch is good. There's no piggybacking. The screen is nearly as large as that of a normal notebook. The Z-Lite is, however, quite thin--much thinner than any of the others I tested.


There was a time (not long ago) when choosing software for a notebook computer required an informed but delicate touch. Hard disks were small and disk compression was uncommon, but Windows with its bloated programs was already on the scene. Today the matter is much easier, but unless you have a newer notebook with a healthy-sized hard disk, you still need to be sensitive to the need to conserve disk space.

Conserving Disk Space

First, compress the disk with DoubleSpace or Stacker 4.0. You'll need the space before long.

Then consider disk-wise software. If you must remaln compatible with a desktop unit or your office software, you may not have too much choice-- but you may have more choice than you realize. To remain compatible with even major Windows appllcations, you can run several smaller programs which produce files that can be read into the larger program back at home base.

Go Lean

Try the Works programs-- Microsoft Works for Windows, Lotus Works (for DOS), ClarisWorks for Windows--for integrated word-processing, spreadsheet, graphics, and simple database work. Each produces files in formats that mainline applications can easily read. Yet these programs can save 30 or 40 megabytes over installing mainline applications to accomplish the same things. Of course, the Works programs can't do everything the big boys can, but you'll be surprised at their power.

Along the same lines, Symantec's new Q & A for Windows provides word processing combined with a unique database that has been extremely popular as a DOS program.

Even if you're now a Windows wizard, don't abandon DOS programs when you need to conserve disk space. Why waste megabytes on a Windows communications program, for example, when 650K of Procomm Plus works fine?

Lean DOS utilities such as Norton Commander or QDOS 3 can manage your files beautifully without all the overhead and exotic functions of a massive PC Tools.

Notebook-Specific Programs

Every VGA notebook should run Personics' Laptop UltraVision. By reclaiming that half- to full-inch border that most portables leave unused at the top and bottom of the screen. It makes text and images noticeably larger and easier to read. It also supplies a wealth of attractive screen fonts and a wonderful blinking-box cursor for DOS programs. Get this program.

Unless your notebook is your only computer, you'll want a file transfer program. The undisputed king of the field is Traveling Software's excellent Lap-Link V, which now also provides file synchronization (copying files between computers so they both have only the latest versions of files).

For Windows, you'll want a cursor enhancer unless one came with your computer. I like the running-sand-in-the-hourglass animated cursor of Cursorific Professional, though there are a dozen equeliy fine competitors.

The Diminishing Difference

With each generation of notebook computers, the differences between portable computers and desktops diminish, as does the need for special software. For now, the guidance above should give you enough information to inteligently populate your notebook's hard disk.