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

Why go portable? (types of portable computers) (Compute's Getting Started With: Portable Computing)
by Richard O. Mann

The long-predicted day when we all have a powerful computer as a constant companion is almost here. We don't quite have Dick Tracy wrist computers yet, but we do have pocket-sized units. In reality, we probably won't bother with wrist computers; now that there are practical checkbook-sized units such as the HP100LX, the next generation of users is moving toward the slightly larger PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) for pocket-sized work.

For serious mobile computing, we're settling on notebook and subnotebook computers, which, while not pocket-sized, are wonders of miniaturization, giving us full desktop abilities in notebook and smaller sizes. (I probably should say "last year's full desktop abilities." This year's desktops are multimedia screamers, with fast CD-ROM drives and booming stereo sound. Only a few laptops offer these features--and at a steep price.)

The Hierarchy of Portables

We classify larger portables (weighing up to about 12 pounds) as laptop computers. Current machines are this big only to offer special features such as multimedia presentation hardware.

The next step down, and the major part of the market, is the notebook computer (weighing up to about six pounds), which is usually phone book-sized or smaller. Its keyboard is usually about 90 percent of normal size, with the function, lock, and cursor keys scrunched tightly around the edges, It has a 486 chip, a hard disk, a VGA LCD video, a floppy disk drive, and usually a PCMCIA slot or two. These workhorses match desktops feature for feature.

When you go smaller to the subnotebooks (weighing up to about four pounds), you start having to make significant compromises. Keyboards, usually laid out similarly to those of the notebooks, are reduced to the smallest reasonable size for typing--which may or may not be too small for you. Floppy disk drives are usually jettisoned to become separate, carry-along units. Hard disks are much smaller, and screens are tiny. You need to have a passion for things light and small to use a subnotebook, but they are admirable tools for on-the-go situations not requiring heavy computer use.

At the next level down are palmtops and PDAs, and here the delineation gets fuzzy. A palmtop is a checkbook-sized, under-one-pound computer that can be a full DOS computer, such as the HP100LX, or a proprietary unit with dedicated software, such as the Psion 3a or Sharp Wizard.

PDAs, the latest innovation, are larger--the size of a large paperback book--and eschew keyboards in favor of pens. They promise wireless transfer to desktops, cellular connections to E-mail services, and other wonders. A Sharp Wizard on steroids, perhaps.

The Portable Appeal

We all seem to be fascinated by the siren call of portable computers. From those who will own only one computer--a fully loaded notebook--to those who also want casual computing power in a subnotebook or smaller unit, millions are buying these exciting carry-out powerhouses each year.

If you're embarking in these waters--or would like to be--check out the articles that follow for the current state of the equipment in all of these categories, some advice on choosing software, and 20 tips to ease you into the happy waters of portable computing.