Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 10, NO. 1 / JANUARY 1984 / PAGE 18

Choosing a notebook computer. David H. Ahl.


Eight years ago, several of us paid a visit to Alan Kay at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Late in the afternoon, the mood was given over to blue-sky dreaming, kind of a "wouldn't it be nice if . . .' session. One dream that seemed to be shared by everyone in the group, managers, researchers, and educators alike was that it would be wonderful to have a truly portable computer about the size of a three-ring binder with computational, word processing, and color graphics capability at an affordable price.

Today, except for the color graphics capability, such a machine is here. And it probably won't be too long until the graphics are available too.

Such a computer is not necessarily for everyone, but it is far easier to name people who could make good use of such a machine than those who could not. Anyone who works with numbers knows the benefits of a computer or programmable calculator. Most writers are switching to word processing systems in the home office. Now even the field notebook and pocket tape recorder can be replaced.

But notebook computers will find application with scores of people who have never touched a computer before--sales people making presentations to clients, business people at a branch office, students in the library, scorers at athletic games, and just plain folks who need to jot down a note or do a quick calculation.

What Is A Notebook Computer?

In a sense, there are three, or possibly four, categories of portable computers. There is the group that first took the name portable--the Osborne, Kaypro, Compaq type of machine. We prefer to think of these sewing-machine size computers as "transportable' rather than truly portable. Most weigh well over 20 pounds and are not something you would want resting on your lap for an extended period of time. Their appeal for most users is something other than portability. These machines are not included in our roundup.

At the other end of the spectrum are the pocket computers such as the Sharp PC-1500, Casio FX-700P, and Radio Shack PC-1. These are capable little units for computational applications, but rather limited for general purpose computing. We have included two machines in this roundup that overlap the pocket category, the TI CC-40 and HP-75C, but we have excluded the true pocket units.

Between these two extremes lie the notebook computers. The forecasters at Future Computing see this group as being split between the Radio Shack Model 100 type of computer and machines with more extensive capabilities such as the Sharp PC-5000, Gavilan, and Grid Compass. We have chosen to ignore this split, although with the rapid migration to this part of the market, perhaps we, too, will be seeking new categories before long.

At the time we put this article on our editorial schedule, there were six notebook computers. In the next three months, ten additional machines were introduced, with two introduced the week before our deadline. Of this total of 16 machines, 14 are included in this roundup. The two that are not included are the Grid Compass and Universal Data UDI-500. We excluded the Compass because its $9000 price was more than twice that of the next machine down, and we felt that it had appeal for a rather different market. We excluded the UDI-500 because we were unable to get the data on it in time for our print deadline.

The Same and Different

The 14 notebook computers are similar in some ways, but quite different in many other ways. All are portable, although 1 1/2 pounds is a great deal more portable than 11 pounds. All perform computations, although the fastest is a staggering 20 times faster than the slowest. The minimum amount of user programmable memory ranges from 8K to 128K, a 16 to 1 difference.

Most use a proprietary operating system, although in most cases it is not an operating system at all, but simply a traffic cop to direct information flow. All but one of the machines speak Basic, mostly Microsoft, many have communications capabilities; but fewer have word processing or spreadsheet packages available.

From these few comparisons, you can see that it is not just a matter of deciding you want a notebook computer, marching down to your local computer store, plunking down you money, and taking one home. As with any other computer purchase, you should have some idea of what you want to do with it, and then look for a machine to meet both your needs and your budget. Also, as with other computers, you almost certainly will find more uses for the machine than you originally anticipated; thus you should buy as much capability as you can comfortably afford.

As you get acquainted with notebook computers, you will find that the manufacturers have made all sorts of tradeoffs. Size versus extra features is an obvious tradeoff--you just can't fit a large display, modem, and printer in a package the size of a paperback novel. Price is a tradeoff against nearly everything--speed, memory capacity, and technical sophistication. In the following sections, we discuss some of the key features--and related tradeoffs--in more detail.

The Display

Every one of the 14 notebook computers uses a liquid crystal display (LCD), and three of them (Gavilan, Sunrise, and Toshiba) have the capability to drive a CRT monitor as well. Note that these are also three of the highest priced units.

The LCD display is the familiar black on gray found in most digital watches and calculators today. A key advantage to an LCD display is that it draws relatively little power and is more or less shock resistant. It is light in weight compared to a CRT, but, because of the rigid material required for the display, larger ones start to add pounds, not ounces, to the weight of a computer.

LCD displays have several disadvantages. First, the response time is much slower than a CRT. Second, the pixels are relatively large thus ruling out high-resolution graphics. Third, in certain lighting conditions, LCD displays are difficult to read, even though most of the computers provide both tilt and contrast adjustments. And fourth, LCD displays are very sensitive to cold; at temperatures below freezing, they don't work reliably, and may stop altogether.

The Gavilan, RoadRunner, and Sharp display the most text characters, although the physical size of the displays on these machines is not the largest. This means that the characters are quite small--about the same size as dot matrix printer output. The WorkSlate, a spreadsheet-only machine, displays even more characters in its higher 16-line x 46-character display; it is more readable.

The displays on the remaining machines use larger pixels; they thus have larger character sizes and are more legible. On the other hand, computers with one-line displays (HP and TI) are not usable for word processing, and are barely usable for spreadsheet work or even Basic programming. Even the two machines with 4-line by 20-character displays (Canon and Epson) are difficult to use and have been eclipsed by the larger LCD displays.

It is unlikely that you would want to use a notebook computer for any serious graphics except simple plots and bar charts. Ten of the computers provide such rudimentary plotting capability (see chart); we judge the Canon and Epson unsatisfactory for graphs even though Basic allows pixel addressing.

Speed and Accuracy

We were unable to run our benchmark on three of the 14 computers; however, based on the mpu, clock rate, and operating system, we were able to estimate the values for the Gavilan and Sunrise. As Basic is not offered on the WorkSlate, it is not included in the chart.

The two 16-bit 8088-based machines, the Sharp and Gavilan, are the speed demons. Both use MS-DOS with Microsoft GW (Gee Whiz) Basic. The Toshiba, NEC, and RoadRunner also use Microsoft Basic, but with an 8-bit 80C85 mpu, the CMOS version of the Z80A. Accuracy is grim, but speed isn't bad.

The Epson also uses Microsoft Basic, but on a different Z80 look-alike, a CMOS 6301 mpu. It is slightly slower, but considerably more accurate than the 80C85.

The Radio Shack Model 100 is a virtual twin of the NEC 8201 (both are made by Kyoto Ceramics in Japan), but Radio Shack elected to use double precision variables as the default mode. Hence, it is 2 1/2 times slower than the NEC, but has astoundingly greater accuracy. The Canon X-07 uses a similar approach but, because of running the mpu at a slower clock rate, is even slower.

Incidentally, double precision variables can be specified on the NEC, Toshiba, and RoadRunner and will yield the same speed and accuracy as the Model 100. The reverse is not true; specifying single precision on the Model 100 results in only about an 11% improvement in speed.

For a small machine, the HP-75 is amazingly fast and accurate; indeed it is the most accurate of all the computers we have ever tested, including several running in double precision mode.

The Casio and TI are the leisurely performers, but TI Basic with its 16-bit TMS 9995 mpu has the second best accuracy of all the computers tested, a nice plus for engineers and scientists who need accurate results to seven decimal digits.

Memory and Mass Storage

Four of the basic computers come with 8K of memory or less. Our experience indicates that this is barely adequate for any but the simplest applications. Two of the computers, the TI and the WorkSlate, can be expanded only to 16K; this, too, may prove limiting.

The upper internal memory limit on the next five machines is 32K, which should be adequate for most jobs. However, if you intend to leave several large programs or data files permanently or temporarily in the computer, you will probably want even more memory. The two 16-bit computers, the Sharp and Gavilan, provide the most internal memory capacity.

It is in the area of mass storage that manufacturers have taken radically different approaches. The HP-75C uses small magnetic cards, very convenient, but with rather limited capacity. Three of the computers have built-in microcassette recorders, the Epson, Xerox, and WorkSlate. This is a very satisfactory approach with a notebook computer as it does not require an external recorder with its added bulk and messy cables to be dragged around.

Another satisfactory, but more expensive approach, is plug-in RAM cartridges. The cartridges on the NEC, Toshiba, and RoadRunner are standard CMOS memory with a lithium battery. Even more expensive, but higher capacity bubble memory cartridges are available for the Sharp and Teleram.

Unique among the 14 machines is the Gavilan with a built-in 3 floppy disk drive. Obviously, it must be treated with added care since a mechanical drive is inherently more sensitive to shock than a solid state device. Since none have been in the field long enough, we cannot comment on reliability.

Two of the computers, the Sharp and Toshiba, provide an interface to standard floppy disk drives for operation at home base. Several of the others plan to offer optional floppy disk interfaces.

Software, Internal and External

Eight of the 14 computers have proprietary operating systems which, as we said earlier, are generally not operating systems per se, but rather controllers of information and data flow. The two 8088-based machines, the Sharp and Gavilan, have full MS-DOS operating systems with, seemingly, few compromises for the small size.

For the 8-bit machines have CP/M or CP/M compatible operating systems. These four computers plus the two with MS-DOS are theoretically able to run more existing software packages than the machines with proprietary systems. But it doesn't always work out that way.

The chart shows the availability of Basic (Microsoft, on all but four machines). The calculator-like machines, TI and HP, each use their own Basic. The TI Basic on the CC-40 is similar to Microsoft, but HP Basic has many differences and idiosyncrasies. Casio Basic is similar to Microsoft, and the WorkSlate, of course, has no Basic at all.

The other software packages listed in the chart are those that are built into the basic hardware or are currently available on the appropriate media. On the machines with standard operating systems, other software packages can often be loaded through the RS-232 port and will run with minor modifications. For example, we loaded WordStar into our Teleram and got it running with relatively few problems. On the other hand, the menus the CRT screen overlays do not fit the LCD displays on these notebook portables, so even if a package can be loaded, it might not work.

Some of the manufacturers are encouraging the development of software by third party vendors, some are "not discouraging development,' and still others plan to do everything internally or under contract and are not encouraging development at all.

Beyond the packages listed in the chart, currently, the most additional software is available for the TI, HP, and Toshiba computers. A goodly amount is available for the Radio Shack 100, and slightly less for the Epson and NEC 8201.

Just How Portable is Portable?

Although notebook computers are considerably more portable than the machines that created the portable label just 1 1/2 years ago, some are much more portable than others. In general, size is inversely proportional to capability and features, but this is not universally true.

Three of the machines weigh under two pounds and are about the size of a hardback novel Two, the TI and HP, have one-line displays, but one, the Canon X-07, packs a four-line display in this size package.

The WorkSlate is slightly larger but, because of its flat, less-than-full-stroke keyboard, it is just an inch thick. Its 16-line x 46-character display is a nice treat on a machine this small.

Going up in size, the next six machines (Epson, Radio Shack, NEC, Casio, Xerox, and RoadRunner) all weigh between four and five pounds, and all are the size of a thick (2 to 3 ) three-ring binder. All will fit easily in a standard attach[e case, and weigh no more than an equivalent amount of paper.

The next four machines represent a big jump in size and weight. While none of them approach the size and weight of the sewing machine portables, you will probably think twice before tossing one of them in your briefcase. Ten pounds sounds light, but on long trips your arm will start to fell as though it is stretching.

In some sense, the Toshiba is not a true portable, since it requires an AC power source. The design philosophy was to produce a machine, the cpu of which could be carried around along with a small LCD display, modem, and memory cartridges for work away from the home office. Back home, the same T100 serves as a desktop computer with a stationary monitor and floppy disk drives.

Overall Ratings

The overall ratings of any products are, of course, affected by the biases of the testers. This is no exception. We are computer enthusiasts, so we look for good performance. We are writers, so we look for excellent word processing. We travel a great deal, so we look for light-weight portability. We are underpaid, so we look for an attractive price. We are impatient, so we look for fast storage.

In an effort to remove our biases, we rated each computer in each of 12 areas, as objectively as possible. We added up the total points and plotted the resultant value against the price.

The following are the 12 areas of ranking, and how each was scored.


Our Chart, And Yours

At the bottom of the ratings chart, we left room for two additional computers. Here you can rate the new ones that inevitably were introduced the day this magazine went to press. Or you can rework some of our figures.

After computer the ratings, we plotted the overall total against the suggested list price. Five of the machines are practically sitting on the price/performance curve. They are the Casio, WorkSlate, HP-75C, Road-Runner, and Xerox. All are priced fairly for their capability and features.

The computer that was introduced the earliest in this group of 14 is the Teleram 3000. At the time of its introduction, it represented a breakthrough on many fronts, and was priced accordingly. Today, however, a different competitive climate exists, and the Teleram, at $2495, appears to be overpriced for what it delivers.

The Toshiba T100 is also over the curve, but for a different reason. As we mentioned earlier, the T100 is the cpu component of a full-fledged desktop machine, one which we rated very highly in our review in November. Hence, it should not be compared only to portables, but should be viewed in its dual role. In this light, it may well represent a bargain.

Also above the curve is the Gavilan. This is a state-of-the-art machine that offers many novel and unique features--built-in 3 floppy disk, touch pad, snap-on printer, and Lisa-like software. Obviously, this all costs money, and the Gavilan is priced accordingly.

But perhaps most interesting are the five machines that fall below the curve, and thus represent a relative bargain. At the low end is the TI CC-40. For professionals, students, and engineers, this is an unbeatable machine at only $250, frequently discounted to well under $200.

Although we haven't had an opportunity to give the Canon X-07 a thorough shakedown, at $350 it appears to be a good buy.

Coming up a bit, if you can put up with the small screen size of the Epson HX-20, it offers a large amount of capability and extra features such as a built-in microcassette and printer and long battery life.

The Radio Shack 100 and NEC 8201 twins also fall below the curve. In our ratings, the NEC is the preferred machine, mainly because of the plug-in memory cartridges and on-screen Basic editing. On the other hand, if you want a built-in modem, the Model 100 is the machine of choice.

At the high end, the Sharp PC-5000 falls way below the curve. This is a spectacular, state-of-the-art computer offering tremendous capability in the $2000-3000 price range. The only real disadvantage of the Sharp is the 11-pound weight and somewhat greater bulk than many other units. To us, this seems a small drawback against its outstanding performance.

Obviously, our choice is not necessarily yours. Choosing a notebook computer--or any computer for that matter--is not easy. The increasing number of entries in the market and the bewildering array of features make the choice a tough one. Armed with the information from this issue, plus a healthy does of skepticism and patience, you should be able to find the computer that best meets your needs and budget.

Computer, Issue Reviewed Manufacturer Name & Address

Canon X-07 Canon USA One Canon Plaza Lake Success, NY 11042 (516) 488-6700


Casio FP-200 Casio, Inc. 15 Gardner Rd. Fairfield, NJ 07006 (201) 575-7400


Epson HX-20 (March 1983, Buyer's Guide 1984) Epson America, Inc. 3415 Kashiwa St. Torrance, CA 90505 (213) 539-9140


Gavilan Gavilan Computer Corp. 240 Hacienda Ave. Campbell, CA 95008 (408) 379-8000


HP-75C (Buyer's Guide 1984) Hewlett Packard 1000 N.E. Circle Dr. Corvallis, OR 97330 (503) 757-2000


NEC PC-8201 (August 1983, Buyer's Guide 1984) NEC Home Electronics 1401 W. Estes Ave. Elk Grove Village, IL 60007 (312) 228-5900


Radio Shack 100 (August 1983, Buyer's Guide 1984) Tandy Corp. Fort Worth, TX 76102 (817) 390-3011


RoadRunner (January 1984) MicroOffice Systems Technology 35 Kings Highway East Fairfield, CT 06430 (203) 367-2525


Sharp PC-5000 (January 1984) Sharp Electronics Corp. 10 Sharp Plaza Paramus, NJ 07652 (201) 265-5600


Teleram 3000 (January 1984) Teleram Communications Corp. 2 Corporate Park Dr. White Plains, NY 10604 (914) 694-9270


TI CC-40 (August 1983, Buyer's Guide 1984) Texas Instruments P.O. Box 225012 Dallas, TX 75265 (214) 995-3741


Toshiba T100 (November 1983) Toshiba America, Inc. 2441 Michelle Dr. Tustin, CA 92680 (714) 730-5000


WorkSlate Convergent Technologies, Inc. 2441 Mission College Blvd. Santa Clara, CA 95050 (408) 727-8830


Xerox 1810 Xerox Corp. Xerox Square 006 Rochester, NY 14644 (716) 423-3539


Table: LCD Display

Table: Time and Accuracy


Table: Price versus Performance

Photo: The Radio Shack 100 and NEC PC-8201 are twins in some regards, but they have their differences.

Photo: Four representative notebook computers: Teleram T3000, Radio Shack 100, TI CC-40, and Epson HX-20.

Photo: All of the notebook computers fit in an attache case. Here is one of the largest, the Toshiba T100, in a case with LCD display, acoustic modem, memory cartridge, and cables.

Photo: The full-featured Gavilan has a touch pad, printer, and 3' floppy disk built in.

Photo: Notebook computers are an excellent sales tool. Here is a RoadRunner in the field.

Photo: Notebook computers are excellent travelling companions. Unfortunately, four airlines have banned their use in recent weeks.