Traveling companions. (Windows notebook computer, sound system, PC-MCIA fax/data modem) (Windows Workshop) (Evaluation)
by Clifton Karnes
Looking for the perfect Windows notebook computer is my hobby. The problem is that once I find the perfect machine, Windows programs start demanding more powerful hardware, and my search begins again.
Two years ago, I found the ideal Windows notebook: the NCR Safari. It was a cuttingedge 25-MHz 386SX with 4MB of RAM, an 80MB hard disk, an external 1.44MB floppy drive, a PCMCIA slot, and a monochrome backlit LCD. At the time, this was the most advanced hardware you could get, and, to top it off, the machine was beautifully designed, with the best fit and finish I'd ever seen in a notebook.
I loved this computer. Today, however, its hardware is underpowered--especially the CPU, hard disk, and display. The new versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, and Visual C++ demand much more CPU speed. And an 80MB hard disk, even when it's enhanced with Stacker or DoubleSpace, is too small. Color, too, is becoming more important.
For the last few months, I've been reluctantly looking for a replacement for the Safari, and I may have found one: the Sharp 8650 (Sharp Electronics, 201-529-9593, $3,299). The 8650 is a 33-MHz 486DX with 4MB of RAM, a 200MB hard disk, a 1.44MB internal floppy drive, one PCMCIA 2.0 slot, and an 8.4-inch color active matrix display. The bundle weighs just 6.4 pounds.
The fit and finish of the Sharp rival the Safari's. The case is a handsome dark gray with monochrome LCD indicators. When you open the machine, you'll find a layout that's simplicity itself. The keys are nearly full-size, are colored in two shades of gray, and include 12 function keys and cursor keys in an inverted T. The only controls you'll find on the machine are an on-off switch and a brightness control for the display.
Turn the 8650 on, and you'll be amazed by the quality of the display. It's 640 x 480 with 256 colors, and it's one of the best LCD screens I've ever seen. Other options include an internal fax/data modem and a trackball that snaps onto the front of the computer.
Looking at the machine's ports, you'll see everything you'd expect: a parallel port, an external keyboard PS/2 connector, a serial port, and an external monitor port. As with many LCDs, you can use the external monitor at higher resolutions, including 800 x 600 with 16 colors and 1024 x 768 with 16 colors. These display resolutions can be switched using software, and the internal LCD can be either active or inactive when you're using an external monitor.
I've used this machine on two trips, and when my desktop system at work failed recently, I used it for two weeks as my main computer. Through all this it's performed superbly. On the road, the battery life is about two hours for full-blown Windows computing, which is about average. If the 8650's too pricey for you, consider Sharp's dual-scan passive matrix model with a slightly larger 9.4-inch screen for $2,999.
I want to talk about three traveling companions that have made working with this Sharp notebook more productive and more fun. The first is the DSP Solutions Portable Sound Plus (DSP Solutions, 415-494-8086, $199). This wonderful 16-bit Sound Blaster-compatible sound system plugs into your parallel port and turns any notebook (or any desktop, for that matter) into a real sound machine. The quality of the sound is excellent, and the system couldn't be easier to install.
Another worthy traveling companion is the GVC 14.4 PCMCIA fax/data modem (GVC Technologies, 201-579-2954, $299). I simply slip this tiny card into the 8650, and I can get online at almost any speed--and send and receive faxes. For size and ease of use, this PCMCIA modem beats a serial port connector any day.
Last, I've found the perfect case in which to carry all this stuff. The Tamrac World Traveler Executive 2886 (Tamrac, 818-407-9500, $249.95) is a handsome computer briefcase made with high-quality ballistic nylon and leather accents. It features lots of pockets and storage compartments and can carry almost any accessory you can imagine. It was designed to have all the features of a traditional briefcase plus the storage of a computer carrying case, and it achieves this goal admirably. It boasts three very large pockets that I use for the power supply, mouse, and extra phone and power cords. In a different compartment, it has smaller pockets you can use for airline tickets, sunglasses, and an address book. You'll find several pen pockets, too, plus storage for disks and lots of compartments that can hold papers, folders, and manuals. After the computer itself, this Tamrac case is my most important piece of equipment. It's by far the best computer case I've ever seen.