Good things come in even smaller packages

Dell Latitude x300 stays superportable by making its optical drive external, a tactic that subtracts about a pound of extra weight.

Rick Steele

IBM Thinkpad x40 is fast, light and very easy on its battery'it ran more than 4.5 hours on a charge.

Fujitsu Lifebook p7000 is a real deal at $1,792 GSA, but you won't like its small screen for work sessions.

Ultraportable notebook PCs aren't just getting smaller, they're getting bigger'in capabilities, that is.

Last year the GCN Lab reviewed some of the first dual-spindle, sub-4-pound ultraportable notebooks.

This year, half the test units had embedded optical drives, and their average weight was only 2 pounds, 10 ounces compared with last year's average 3 pounds, 9 ounces.

Last year, the average ultraportable measured 11 by 8.6 by 1.2 inches. Now the average dimensions are 10.6 by 8.3 by 1.1 inches. That's less to pack, which means a lot if you're often on the road.

Weight and performance

We torture-tested six high-performance ultraportables to see which performed best and was easiest to tote around. Those criteria determined the grades, along with extras such as DVD burners, wireless cards, good battery life and low price.

At first glance, the 10.8- by 9.2- by 0.8-inch Dell Latitude X300 doesn't look like one of the most portable notebooks, especially alongside the narrower Fujitsu or Sony notebooks. But at only 2 pounds, 9 ounces, the X300 weighs a full pound less. And its 12.1-inch screen is more useful for office tasks than the 10.6-inch Fujitsu and Sony screens.

What most impressed us about the X300, however, were its benchmark results. Averaging 5,018 on the GCN Lab's test suite from Alterion Corp. of Conshohocken, Pa., the X300 beat the average benchmark score of 4,024 by about 25 percent. We attributed that mostly to the fastest processor in the review, a 1.4-GHz Pentium M backed by 640M of RAM and a 40G hard drive.

The only feature we would change is the external optical drive. Although a DVD+ rewritable combo drive is a huge plus that comes standard on the Latitude, it's still external and therefore bulkier for travel than a dual-spindle drive design.

The X300's battery life is poor. It died after 1 hour, 56 minutes. An optional extended battery costs $116 and weighs 1 pound, 2 ounces. It can extend system life to a lengthy 5 hours, 6 minutes, and we recommend that you spring for it. At a low government price of $2,100, the X300 is well worth buying as a lightweight workhorse.

The IBM ThinkPad X40 was hot on its heels. Both units earned the same grade, A-, and Reviewer's Choice designations.
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The light and wispy X40 weighs 3 pounds, 4 ounces when undocked. But to use the optical drive, you must attach the notebook to its docking station, which doubles the bulk. You can also leave the station behind'an external optical drive brings the weight up to 3 pounds, 13 ounces.

The docking station is well designed. Attaching the X40 takes only a light push. To remove it, you pull a lever.

The 12.1-inch screen ties for second place in terms of size and good work area. The 1.2-GHz Pentium M processor with 512M RAM scored 4,743 on our benchmarks, just slightly slower than the Dell X300.

Good battery performance depends on eight cells, like those in the optional Dell battery. In default configuration, the X40 ran a respectable 4 hours, 33 minutes.

The Fujitsu LifeBook P7000 combines everything most mobile users need in a tiny 3-pound, 8-ounce package, lighter than the Dell or the IBM when you factor in optical drives.

The LifeBook is one of two clamshell designs in this review, the other being the Sony Vaio. The LifeBook is the more impressive, scoring a respectable 4,209 on the lab benchmarks and earning third place for performance.

It is also among the least expensive at $1,792 to government buyers.

The battery lasted 3 hours, 54 minutes'almost unbelievable considering the unit's weight and the fact that our battery tests run continuous video with sound.

The one negative about the LifeBook and the clamshell chassis in general is that a 10-inch screen is too small. The LifeBook's is oriented in a 16:9 rectangular aspect instead of the more common 4:3 monitor aspect.

That means two things. First, the small screen extends battery life, because an LCD is a major power drain. But combined with the rectangular orientation, the small screen leaves little room for applications such as word processing or spreadsheets. You'll have to do lots of scrolling.

It's ideal, however, for watching DVD movies with a theater screen orientation.

If you can live with that, the LifeBook is a great system for not much money. We gave it a Bang for the Buck designation and a B+ grade.

For true mobility, you'd be hard-pressed to beat the Sharp Actius PC-MM20, which weighs only two pounds without its optical drive and just 15 ounces more with it attached.
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But you can't judge a book by its cover. The Actius's 994-MHz Transmeta Efficeon processor, which got its start in personal digital assistants, could not measure up to the other units' Pentium M chips. The Actius scored only 2,039 on the benchmark, less than half the top score.

Battery life also is unimpressive because the light weight doesn't allow for a heavy battery. The Actius ran 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Graphically, however, it does well with a Mobility Radeon card instead of the Intel 82852 in the others.

A switch toggles between top performance and mobile battery life. We left the switch in the mobility position.

Had its performance been on a par with the Dell X300 or the IBM X40, the Actius would have won our top grade, hands down.

You can almost fit this B+ system into your pocket.

The Panasonic Toughbook CF-Y2 is large but light. Weighing only 3 pounds, 4 ounces, it's among the lightest, which seems a bit odd because it also has the largest screen at 14.1 inches, just like a standard notebook.

Benchmark performance was good at 4,207, about 800 points lower than the leaders but comfortably above the 4,000 threshold for good performance.

Adding to the weight paradox, the CF-Y2 ran 4 hours, 4 minutes despite its huge screen. What a feat'Panasonic built a light, full-size notebook with great battery life.

One nice feature is the integrated optical drive, which sits to the right of the touchpad and is opened by pushing a lever. When it's not in use, you can cut off its power, or have it turn itself off if inactive. We left it on in our tests, a testimony to how well the system is optimized.

The large screen did seem dimmer than others, even at maximum brightness. And illumination did not look crisp throughout. Corners were a bit darker than the center.

With the second-highest price in the review, the CF-Y2 could not be called the top performer this year. It's great as a full-sized, lightweight notebook and a solid B- system for travelers.

Like the LifeBook, the Sony Vaio PCG-TR5 has a clamshell design. But it starts out with the disadvantage of a top government price, $2,910.

Some of that high price probably goes for the 1G of RAM, which in fact turned in only marginal benchmark performance at 3,930, slower than the other clamshell, which is one of the least expensive units. Also, the LifeBook has only 512M of RAM.

The Vaio has some of the same screen size limitations as the LifeBook, too. Though it looked great running movies, the small screen and keyboard weren't great for typing.

There are a few nice extras such as a camera built into the monitor. But even if you really love the clamshell design, you'd do better with the far cheaper LifeBook. The PCG-TR5 earned a C+.

The GCN Lab invited Hewlett-Packard Co. and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. to submit review units, but the manufacurers declined.

GCN Lab technician Arthur Moser contributed to this review.

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