High-speed travelers

IBM's ThinkPad G40 has a 3-GHz Pentium 4 processor, a DVD-CD combo drive and a 15-inch diplay. It's priced at $1,599.

Heavy-duty notebook PCs can handle road work and a hefty office load

You can find plenty of powerful notebook PCs on vendor Web sites and retail shelves, and many of them are available at surprisingly low prices. But if you want exactly the right PC for your requirements, do a little digging first.

Check notebook specifications carefully. You'll see plenty of systems running Intel Corp. or Advanced Micro Devices Inc. processors at an impressive 3 GHz or faster. But raw speed isn't everything. Processors have to be balanced with the correct chip sets and other components to get all the power you want.

With a target price of $2,500 in mind, I set out to find 20 notebooks powerful and versatile enough to be considered strong business assets. What I found should make almost every serious buyer happy.

With one exception'Apple's $2,599 PowerBook G4'most of the notebooks in the accompanying chart on Page 38 are priced several hundred dollars under my target price. Ten of them came in at $2,000 or less, with Toshiba's A45-S1501 the lowest at $1,479.

If given the option, I selected the fastest and most powerful processor available from each vendor and paired it with a suitable chip set. All systems had to have at least 512M of memory, one installed hard drive, a DVD/CD combo drive, a V.90/92 modem, an Ethernet or Gigabit Ethernet network interface card and wireless capability.

If choosing a 16- or 17-inch display meant exceeding the $2,500 target price, I dropped back to a 15-inch or 14.1-inch screen. I chose the fastest graphics cards available with the most memory possible.

All the notebooks listed come with Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition or Windows XP Professional Edition, with the exception of the PowerBook G4, which came with Mac OS X.

I selected the base warranty for all notebooks'in most cases a one-year limited warranty'and I did not select options such as 12V adapters or extra batteries if they added to the cost of the unit.

In checking out notebook PCs, it's a good idea to keep the following features in mind.

Processors. Four of Intel's Pentium 4 series are targeted at the requirements of power notebook users. The Pentium M runs at 1.3 GHz to 1.7 GHz and is a battery-saver because it uses less power than most.

Some manufacturers put the Pentium 4 into their notebook PCs. These run in excess of 3 GHz and provide all the processing payoff of desktop PC systems. The trade-off comes in short battery life.

Intel's latest is the Mobile Pentium 4, which provides the same capability for multimedia and graphics-intensive applications as the Pentium 4 but uses less power.

Intel's powerful desktop Pentium 4 with Hyper-Threading technology also is being used in some notebooks. Hyper-Threading lets a single processor execute two instructions simultaneously, so applications run up to 25 percent faster than on a standard Pentium 4 system. A Pentium 4 with HT processor employs either a 533-MHz or 800-MHz system bus and runs at speeds up to 3.2 GHz.

Intel's Mobile Celeron processors are best suited for lower-end, budget notebooks, as are most of AMD's mobile CPUs. But in January AMD released the Mobile AMD Athlon 64 that can run at up to 3.2 GHz and can handle both 32-bit Windows and future 64-bit applications. Designed to directly compete with the Pentium 4 with HT, it costs less and has a surprising array of features.

Optical drives. CD-ROM drives are practically things of the past. Many notebook vendors now provide CD-RW/DVD drives as standard gear, offering an optional upgrade to higher-end optical drives and burners. DVD/RW burners are quite expensive but will cover virtually all your optical storage requirements, so consider one if you have several hundred dollars to spare.

Network connections. Most government agencies employ 10/100-Mbps Ethernet or 10/100/1000-Mbps Gigabit Ethernet LANs as the basic framework for their networks. A notebook pre-equipped with an Ethernet/Gigabit Ethernet network interface card is a necessity if you want it to plug and play on your network.

Wireless. Wireless connectivity is becoming a preferred mode of notebook connectivity. There are three de facto wireless standards:
  • IEEE 802.11b wireless fidelity provides highly reliable 11-Mbps connections and is used by many hot spots.

  • 802.11a provides 54-Mbps connections but is incompatible with the more popular 11b standard.

  • 802.11g also offers 54-Mbps connectivity and will eventually make the others obsolete because of its compatibility with both of them.

Display. A relatively new development in notebook technology is the wide-screen display. Available in 15-, 16- and 17-inch formats, the term has a specific meaning. Instead of the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio of most computer displays, wide-screen displays come with a 16:9 aspect ratio, the same as wide-screen TVs.

This, along with their crisp 1,280-by-768-pixel WXGA resolution, makes them ideal for DVD movies and computer games. Specifications aside, it's best to look at the screen of the notebook PC that interests you rather than taking a vendor's word for it.

Graphics. A fast graphics card can add hundreds of dollars to your notebook's bottom line, but having one is worth it if you insist on fine, detailed graphics with subtle color distinctions and speedy changes.

The ATI Radeon Mobility 9600 series and nVidia GeForce FX 5200 series are known for their quality and will perform well for serious users. Look for a card with 64M or more of video memory if you want the best performance.

I/O ports. Since a power notebook PC may be used as a desktop replacement, you'll want plenty of ports for connecting with other devices.

Look for at least one Type II CardBus PC Card slot, two or three USB slots, one IEEE FireWire slot, one S-Video TV out port, one serial port, one parallel port, one infrared port, one external monitor or LCD display port, one PS/2 slot for mouse or external keyboard, one headphone plug, one microphone plug, one RJ-11 slot for telephones and one RJ-45 for LANs.

J.B. Miles of Honomu, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at jbmiles@starband.net.

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