Jacks of all trades

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Jacks of all trades

Lab puts new mobile PCs under the scope

Most notebook PC users do a little bit of everything, so they need a workhorse that can plow all kinds of fields. And notebooks today are lasting longer, which raises the chances of having to host demanding new applications.

That makes the right notebook choice a challenge, particularly since Intel Corp. released new Pentium M chips last month and reclassified all its processors.

For this midsize notebook and desktop replacement review, vendors sent a diverse mix of processors and chassis to the GCN Lab.

We graded each notebook's performance on the Odin benchmark suite from Alterion Corp. of Conshohocken, Pa., which tests processor strength and graphics performance. We also ran battery-life tests. Those results, combined with overall value and any extras, determined the final grades.

The IBM ThinkPad T42 blew past the competition with its new 1.8-GHZ Pentium M 745 processor, outscoring its nearest benchmark competitor by more than 800 points and earning our Reviewer's Choice designation. The T42 was 33 percent faster than the lowest-scoring notebook and 15 percent faster than the average score of 6,927. It performed almost twice as fast as last year's notebook average.

But that's just statistical. Let's talk practical. The T42 measures 13 by 10.6 by 1.4 inches, making it easily portable, and the titanium composite frame weighs only 5.3 pounds without power cables.

Earlier IBM notebooks did not comply with Section 508 accessibility requirements be-cause you needed two hands to open them, but the latest ThinkPad's single-latch system opens easily with limited motion and one hand. Likewise, only one hand is needed to remove the op-tical drive.

One of the first symptoms of notebook age and overuse is deterioration of the latches connecting the LCD. Eventually a user has trouble keeping the notebook open.

IBM remedied this wear-and-tear problem by making its latches of durable metal instead of plastic. The T42 is the only notebook in the review with a locking mechanism for the hard drive in case of a fall. Software and hardware on the motherboard ensure data protection much like a vehicle's airbag system.

Even with these advances in chassis design and a brand-new, 1.8-GHz Pentium M 745 processor, the T42 we tested is aggressively priced to the government at $2,904. List price is more than $3,000.

Last time we looked at the Dell Latitude D800, it performed un-der par on the benchmark and received an average grade [GCN, May 26, 2003, Page 36]. This year it was a different story.

Dell submitted a top-of-the-line, 2-GHz Pentium M 755 notebook with 512M of RAM and a robust Nvidia GeForce FX Go5650 video card that helped it earn second place on the Alterion benchmark.

The new Pentium M and a well-designed chassis kept the unit running for 4 hours, 2 minutes on our battery stress benchmark. The nine-cell lithium-ion battery outlasted every other in the review by an average of almost an hour.

Looking at the large 14.2- by 10.9- by 1.5-inch frame, we could hardly believe the long battery life. Comparable notebooks such as the Sharp and Fujitsu units below lasted barely an hour. That's a testament to the efficiency of the new Pentium M, particularly compared with a desktop Pentium 4.

The test unit had an extra 128M of dedicated video memory as well as a robust Dell WLAN 1350 802.11b/g card, which delivered the third-best signal strength in the review.

The D800's $2,823 price on General Services Administration schedule is only about $300 higher than the review average. We consider the long battery life and good Alterion benchmark scores well worth the extra $300. The Dell D800 merits a Reviewer's Choice designation.

Both Dell and IBM offer security options such as smart cards and removable hard drives. But we consider the integrated biometric features in the Gateway 450XL and MPC TransPort T3000 better for agencies where security is paramount.

Both Gateway and MPC embedded the silicon TouchChip fingerprint reader from Upek Inc. of Berkeley, Calif., on their submissions, which had similar results on the battery and processor benchmarks. We gave the Gateway 450XL a Bang for the Buck designation for being a hair faster than the MPC and costing slightly less.

Gateway also took a more subtle approach to biometric security with its fingerprint enrollment and administration software. The utility is on the toolbar, whereas MPC initiates it by default at each log-in, forcing a user to enroll.

Although the Gateway 450XL didn't outlast the Dell D800 in battery life, it did come close, averaging 3 hours, 45 minutes'an hour longer than the average life span in the review.
The 450XL's 1.8-GHz Pentium M 745 chip is augmented by 512M of RAM and a strong ATI Radeon 9600 video card with 128M of dedicated memory.

The Gateway has the thinnest frame in the review and a competitive $2,099 price tag, but the MPC TransPort T3000 did a great job, too.

Depending on how often you travel, the MPC might be better for your needs. MPC engineers have developed an ingenious internal battery system for hot-swapping batteries without having to turn off the unit or save work.

The T3000's toolless hard drive is also very easy to remove, which could be invaluable for daily security storage in a safe.

The T3000's 1.7-GHz Pentium M 735 processor was fast and energy-efficient enough to run our battery benchmark for three hours, 16 minutes'longer than the IBM and 35 minutes longer than the average time.

But the T3000's built-in Intel Centrino 802.11b wireless connectivity was outperformed by the Hewlett-Packard Compaq nc8000 in our wireless data transfer tests.

The nc8000's proprietary HP W400 802.11b/g wireless card detected some wireless access points that the T3000 couldn't find. It consistently transferred data files faster than the T3000.

Unfortunately, everything else about the nc8000 is just average, including its Alterion benchmark score of 7,048.

We were surprised that the Compaq's battery didn't pass the three-hour mark; it had the same 1.8-GHz Pentium M 745 processor as the Gateway 450XL.

With its relatively high $2,949 price tag, the highest in the review, the Compaq earned a B grade.
Although the Sharp Actius RD3D has a robust 2.8-GHz desktop Pentium 4 processor and 512M of RAM, its Alterion benchmark score of 6,224 was below par.

It doesn't seem built for energy efficiency'perhaps it shouldn't even be run unplugged'but it does have a couple of extras for the user who wants a notebook to do a little of everything.

The built-in multibay can read CompactFlash, SmartMedia, MultiMediaCard and Secure Digital cards. Likewise, the chassis is a veritable Swiss Army knife of interfaces: floppy drive, FireWire, serial and PS/2 ports as well as four USB 2.0 ports.

We found the RD3D a reliable workhorse that doesn't overheat easily despite its hefty processor. And one other feature, despite the low benchmark scores and high sticker price of $2,909, makes this unit worth the money. Its 15-inch LCD, tilted at the proper angle, shows objects in three dimensions. This revolutionary way of running an application relies on proprietary software to convert digital pictures into 3-D images.

Few applications can yet take advantage of the 3-D display, but converting still or moving images as well as pre-existing applications to 3-D format is not too difficult, and more 3-D operations should appear over time.

The $1,899 Toshiba Tecra M2 has a 1.7-GHz Pentium M 735 that scored below average on the Alterion benchmarks and well below average in battery life.

Weighing just 5.2 pounds and measuring 12.3 by 10.1 by 1.4inches, the notebook would be very portable if the battery life weren't so short and the processing so weak.

Another factor that diminished performance was the Nvidia GeForce Go5200 video card, which has only 64M of RAM instead of the 128M more common in this review.

Many features of the Fujitsu LifeBook P2000 are similar to those of the Actius RD3D, such as four USB 2.0 ports and a SecureDigital port that can also accept Sony MemoryStick media.

The LifeBook got the lowest Alterion score in the review, which is odd considering that it comes with the most impressive specifications: a 3.2-GHz, hyperthreading desktop Pentium 4 processor and a whopping 1G of RAM.

We judged the cooling system inadequate for our Alterion benchmarks, which take up to six hours. By the end of the third hour, the lab table under the P2000 got so hot we had to move the notebook.

On the plus side, the moderate $2,599 price buys a beautiful 16.1-inch LCD that makes navigating the Microsoft Windows XP Pro operating system a pleasure.

Likewise, the Atheros Communications Inc. 802.11 a/b/g card gave us excellent wireless performance in all bands. That, coupled with the DVD-rewritable combo drive, could have merited a Bang for the Buck designation with either better ventilation or a Pentium M processor.

GCN Lab technician Arthur Moser contributed to this review.

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