Power users take note

IBM's ThinkPad T40p comes with a 1.6-GHz processor and a price from $3,169 to $3,400.

Gateway's 600 series, priced from $1,745 to $3,277, has models with 15.7-inch screens.

You might not travel light, but souped-up notebook PCs let you ride in style

Power-user notebook PCs are the Hummers of mobile computing. Most of them are fast, powerful'and heavy. In fact, many of them are so heavy that you might wish they had wheels, just like their gas-guzzling counterparts.

Although all are very capable of traveling, some are definitely not for off-road use, while others are go-anywhere, do-anything machines.

There has never been a better time to buy a notebook. Back in 2000, notebooks accounted for about 20 percent to 25 percent of all PC sales; today, it's closer to half.
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The reason is twofold. Desktop PCs that are several years old are still up to the tasks of most offices, so new-equipment budgets can go toward cutting-edge technology with the highest productivity gains. Add the fact that notebook prices have plunged, and you have surging sales.

Full-featured notebooks now sell for well under $1,000, and the drop in prices explains why even some high-end notebooks are priced under $2,000.

Most people think of two categories for power-user systems. The first is the desktop replacement notebook, which emphasizes computing power at the expense of weight and battery life. The second is the ruggedized mobile system with survivability as the top consideration.

But that's too narrow a definition. A power-user notebook isn't just the most expensive; it's any computer at the extreme edge of performance.

What extremes should you look for in this category?
  • Plenty of storage

  • Best graphics performance

  • Largest screen

  • Best multimedia

  • Most ruggedness

  • Longest battery life

  • Most expansion options

  • Best connectivity.

Some of these are mutually exclusive'best graphics performance is bound to cancel out longest battery life'and most add two more superlatives to the mix'the most expensive and the heaviest.

With notebook PCs, it isn't enough to say you want the most capable computer because 'most capable' means such different things to different users.

With a desktop PC, you can just keep throwing money at the specifications until you get massive performance, because you aren't limited by weight or battery life.

But the same power user might need very different capabilities in a notebook PC, depending on whether it will be running outdoors in bad weather or traveling to meetings through several time zones.

If the work is critical enough, then the no-compromise approach is to have several types of notebooks available. If not, you must strike a compromise among price, performance, weight and battery life.

That's why the accompanying chart includes such a range of prices and performance characteristics.

Most of these notebooks are optimized in many ways, though none in all ways. Some are simply good all-around performers and aren't particularly expensive.

Class by itself

In an almost separate class from the other models in the chart are rugged notebooks. Although generally associated with military and public-safety users, these extraordinary machines can be important to people from executives to field engineers.

Rugged notebooks generally include:
  • Waterproof or water-resistant keyboards

  • Sealed ports

  • Shock-mounted hard drives

  • Magnesium frame and case

  • Lower-resolution screens than on other notebooks

  • Heavy weight

  • High price.

You can't expect highest performance from rugged notebooks. And you'll have to settle for smaller, lower-resolution screens because the screen is often the most delicate component.
You also might find that you can't swap drives or batteries easilyin the field'if at all'because the only way to protect a system is to seal it as much as possible.

There is more than one level of ruggedness, and both price and weight go up dramatically as you raise the durability of the system.

You can drop an ultrarugged system three feet into a mud puddle and hose it down, and it will keep running. At the other end of the spectrum, slightly rugged notebooks will survive a light mist and a drop of a few inches but not much more.

Other rugged notebooks designed for vehicles must tolerate everything from constant vibration to a deploying airbag. They typically are sold to police departments but also could be suitable for field engineers or others who must work from their vehicles.

True, an inexpensive docking station or vehicle work desk can hold any notebook in a car seat, but an average notebook just won't stand up to the abuse of being shaken at every pothole.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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