Dual-scan color notebooks under $2,500. (includes information about testing procedures and prices) (notebook computers) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by William Harrel
Until recently, low-cost notebooks were too slow and the screens too hard to see for long hours of sustained work, the kind of work you do in the office or at home. About all they were good for was typing correspondence and sending and receiving faxes and E-mail. Until just a few months ago, machines capable of processing graphics, presentations, and large spreadsheets - say, a 486SX with a color monitor and large hard disk - cost upwards of $4,000.
The times they are a changin'. Because of price wars in the PC industry notebook prices are plummeting. In addition, new technologies - such as low-energy-consuming CPUs, dual-scan color screens, docking stations, and PCMCIA expansion - have catapulted notebooks to new heights in power and functionality. Today's notebooks are powerful enough for all but the most intensive, high-end desktop publishing and graphics applications And these notebooks cost less than $2,500!
Energy and Economics
The heavy power consumption of the most powerful CPUs has prevented their being built into battery-powered notebook PCs weighing less than eight pounds; however, the arrival of the power-saving microprocessors, such as the 3.3-volt DX2 and DX4 chips, means that notebook vendors can now manufacture the fastest, most power-efficient portable computers we've ever seen. Intel's DX2 and DX4 chips for notebooks are spurring on the production of a slew of powerhouse portable computers capable of speeds more impressive than those of some desktop 486DX machines. Several of the notebooks reviewed here, all 486s, take advantage of this clock-doubling and -tripling technology. In our BAPCo speed tests (see the "Our Testing Procedure" sidebar), machines built around DX2 and DX4 chips ran circles around the two using the 486SX technology, which lacks a math coprocessor.
In addition to being fast, these new chips are energy misers. The results of the battery tests varied widely between clock-doubled chips and the SX chips but remained pretty constant in each class (see the Features table). Power consumption, however, really depends on how you use the computer. Applications such as graphics programs, which access the hard disk often, use more power than, say, word processors. Still, the DX2s and DX4s, combined with Microsoft's DOS-based power-saving utility (and the additional utilities that ship with most of these computers) turned in some impressive battery lives. The Texas Instruments TravelMate 4000e WinDX2/50, for example, lasted three hours and 15 minutes. Never before have notebook users been able to get that much computing power for that long off one battery charge.
Coming in for a Landing
These great gains in performance and capability are terrific, but are high-end notebooks actually usable for day-to-day work? After all, the Austin machine, which is feature-rich and incredibly easy to use, has a gorgeous dual-scan passive-matrix display - but it's only 9.5 inches. Compared to the 15-inch CRT on most of our desks, it clearly falls short when you need big-screen clarity. And many of us are accustomed to 17-inch or 20-inch monitors.
Who's going to do high-end graphics and desktop publishing on a notebook? Nobody. Notebook screens are suitable for travel only. Even the largest display - the MidWest Micro Elite's 10.4-inch screen-gives you headaches after a few hours of graphics work. Most of the machines reviewed here are capable of 256 colors at 640 x 480 resolution. All except two (the Toshiba Satellite and Twinhead Slimnote support only standard VGA) support an external Super VGA monitor in one fashion or another. For long hours in a graphical interface, you need an external monitor. A few, such as the MidWest Micro Elite and Austin Dual Scan Power, support resolutions up to 1280x 1028. The Elite even supports true color at some resolutions.
Another prolonged-use impediment is the small keyboards lacking separate number pads. While all the keyboards I tried offer adequate tactile feedback and key travel, you may want to take advantage of the option of plugging in an external keyboard. All of these notebooks allow you to plug in full-size keyboards for easier, less cramped data input and more comfort. Simply set one of these road warriors on your desktop, plug in a keyboard and a monitor, and you've got a quite workable computer for lots of applications.
Meanwhile, docking stations are alive and well. Once used primarily to house a big hard drive and connect to the network, they began to fade away with the advent of 3 1/2-inch 200MB hard drives, faster parallel ports, and PCMCIA (see "PCMCIA Card Expansion" section below) network cards. So why the comeback? Multimedia. Docking stations allow users to easily hook up a CD-ROM drive and a sound card with stereo speakers. All you do is slide the notebook into the docking station, and you've got a full-featured computer, complete with expansion slots.
PCMCIA Card Expansion
In 1989 the PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) was formed to solidify hardware standards and software interface requirements for removable memory cards and their receptacles.
There are currently three PCMCIA card formats: Types I, II, and III. All three formats measure 54 mm (2,13 inches) by 85.6 mm (3.37 inches), Type I cards are 3.3 mm thick, Type 11 cards are 5 mm thick, and Type ill cards are 10.5 mm thick. Any card will fit into its own type slot or a larger type slot. The PCMCIA standard also specifies connector configurations so that you can plug and unplug the cards in an active, or hot, slot.
Theoretically, PCMCIA cards are interchangeable among all machines that support the standard and card type (I, II, or III). However, this has not proved to be the case. The technology is still maturing, and, apparently, vendors aren't doing extensive tests of one another's cards. Depending on the kind of PCMCIA card you are trying to use, you can expect different levels of compatibility. Fax modems seem to be the most compatible, with SCSI cards being the least compatible. As PCMCIA technology matures, you'll do well to use cards manufactured by the maker of your notebook. This isn't possible, of course, if your manufacturer doesn't provide an option. If you buy a third-party PCMCIA card, make sure you get a money-back guarantee.
All but one notebook in this roundup, the Texas Instruments TravelMate 4000e, supports PCMCIA card technology, though types supported vary among the others. The TravelMate lets you use conventional internal or external devices for modems and a docking station for other expansion options. When looking at a notebook computer, consider whether you'll benefit from PCMCIA expansion.
Color on the Road
Color really is a necessity. Windows practically demands color-especially on portable displays. Otherwise, it's just too difficult to discern small objects. There are two major types of color screens: active-matrix and passive-matrix. Active-matrix provides the best, clearest display and truest colors. But it's expensive. As long as manufacturing yields on active-matrix screens remain low, prices will remain high. For the frugal buyer, dual-scan passive-matrix technology - in which the top and bottom halves of the screen are refreshed independently at twice the normal refresh rate - provides an excellent alternative to the high end. Dual-scan screens deliver richer colors with less smearing than single-scan passive-matrix screens.
All of the computers in this review have dual-scan, passive-matrix screens, another reason vendors can bring them to you for so low a price.
Our criteria for participation in this review were simple: Give us a dual-scan passive-matrix notebook with a hard disk larger than 120MB and with a street price less than $2,500. In addition to the above criteria, we also asked vendors to equip each notebook with 8MB of RAM. The BAPCo tests contain a WordPerfect for Windows session that does not run reliably in 4MB RAM (which is the standard configuration for most notebooks). In some cases, the extra 4MB RAM kicked the price over our $2,500 cutoff. If you're not running memory-intensive applications, however, 4MB of RAM is sufficient.
The seven vendors here were the first to meet our requirements. However, many other manufacturers had new machines in development but couldn't meet our deadline. Notebooks from Ambra and Compaq arrived too late to be included in this roundup, but you'll find stand-alone reviews of these products in the Reviews section of the magazine. By the time you read this, there will be many fast color 486s available.
Our Tests and Evaluation
To test the speed of these computers, we used the Business Applications Performance Corporation (BAPCo) test, discussed in the sidebar "Our Testing Procedure." While speed is important to all computer users, it is more important to some. Graphics artists, for example, require more brute processing power than word processing and spreadsheet users. When looking over the speed-test results, weigh them against the other features and options offered with each notebook.
In addition to performing speed tests, I also carried these machines around for a while and used them to do some of my daily work. Included in the review are some of my not-so-scientific observations about the notebooks. I evaluated the keyboard layout, the clarity of the display, energy-saving utilities, ease of use, and battery life. The following reviews combine descriptions of conventional speed and battery life test results and my humble, subjective observations. You'll also want to check out the Features table for side-by-side comparing. Now's a great time to buy a color notebook, and the facts, figures, and analysis in Test Lab can help.