Portable PCs that do what PDAs do not

Lightweight, low-cost notebook PCs hold the middle ground of mobile computing. At one end, they're an attractive alternative to bigger notebooks because they save money and weight while packing enough computing power to get most jobs done.

Lightweight, low-cost notebook PCs hold the middle ground of mobile computing. At one end, they're an attractive alternative to bigger notebooks because they save money and weight while packing enough computing power to get most jobs done.At the other end, they're the heavyweight alternative to personal digital assistants.The power of PDAs and their growing reputation as powerful computers, not just contact-list managers, means that road warriors who want to travel light face a decision: Do they really need a full computer, or can they accomplish everything just as well with an enhanced PDA?Many color PDAs can run Microsoft Windows software, connect to the Internet through wired or wireless modems, take and store photographs, carry databases and text files, and perform more exotic tasks such as mapping and Global Positioning System triangulation.Even if you double the carrying weight of a PDA by adding a folding keyboard, the average handheld will still weigh far less than the lightest notebook, will probably have much longer battery life, and will cost less. On the other hand, the screens are tiny, and PDAs can't be connected to external monitors for use in presentations. That means a notebook PC still might be the best choice after all. And a lightweight model at a modest price is often the best fit.Notebook PCs have a lot of options, so it's wise to tailor them to the job. When you add options, price and weight climb. Put as much thought into what you don't need them for as you do into what you do need them for.If your users' needs vary a lot, consider buying external optional devices such as optical storage drives. They weigh a lot and are more expensive than internal drives, but if they aren't always needed, you can get a few external USB drives and portable printers that can be doled out to any user on demand.Some users work from a CD-ROM or other optical drive most of the time. These users will consider dealing with a separate unit and cable an annoyance; such people need notebooks with internal drives.Another option is to choose notebooks with removable hard drives and floppy drives that can be replaced with extra batteries or other kinds of drives to customize the notebook at a moment's notice.If an office has several notebooks, this is an excellent argument for standardizing on a particular model so users can pick and choose from an inventory of drives and power packs to customize their notebooks for each use.Here are some common options and a brief look at the situations that demand them. Important for installing software and carrying large databases, CD-ROM drives are a major power drain, and they add a significant amount of weight. So if your notebooks are managed from a network connection and users don't need to carry CD-ROM databases, skip the internal CD-ROM. If users need one only occasionally, consider an external CD-ROM drive that can be shared among several users. Even if you install notebook software from CD-ROMs, you don't do it every day. These can substitute for a CD-ROM because they can read CD-ROM disks, but their extra features are seldom needed by the average office user and add a considerable amount to the price of a notebook. DVD movies won't be played on most office notebooks. Furthermore, they won't look good on an inexpensive notebook anyway. It's virtually impossible to find a notebook without sound capabilities. But if your users don't need audio, you can ignore any questions about quality and compatibility'and you shouldn't pay anything extra for a fancy sound card. A 56-Kbps fax modem probably is essential for any notebook PC. Every unit in the accompanying chart includes one. Whether you need this option depends on how a notebook is used in the office. For some users it will be essential, for others a waste of money. It's necessary for doing mobile video production but probably not for anything else. None of the notebooks listed is really suitable for video production. A definite advantage for most users, the Universal Serial Bus has delivered what SCSI only promised'wide acceptance, easy connectivity and simple expandability. Necessary for GPS and some other expansion options, one Type II slot should be considered essential for most users. A PC Card slot is also needed for some security and encryption cards.

The Lowdown

  • What is it? The notebook PCs in this guide all weigh less than 6 pounds and cost less than $2,500'most of them significantly less in both categories.

  • Are the listed weights accurate? The base weights for these systems can be misleading because different configurations have different weights. Travel weight is what you'll actually have to tote around, and that includes adapters, a carrying case, portable storage devices and other attachments, depending on what you need. Add a minimum of one pound to the weight given for the bare notebook. Travel weight is very different on a local, two-hour trip, where a notebook relies on a fully-charged battery, than on an overnight or cross-country journey during which the battery must be recharged.

  • How powerful are they? Minimum notebook prices haven't really come down lately, but the list of standard features keeps increasing. It's common to find built-in video-out for presentations along with a monitor port. Hard drives typically are 10G or bigger, and base RAM often is 128M. Internal 56-Kbps fax modems are standard. Many notebooks even include 10/100-Mbps Ethernet ports. Although low-end notebooks have some audio capabilities, they are minimal. None of these notebooks should be considered acceptable multimedia systems for any but the most basic needs.

  • Is there a caveat? Battery recalls are common, even among top-brand makers, so it's important to keep track of these potential fire hazards.

  • Must-know info? Chip prices are falling regularly, and vendors are fighting to retain or gain market share. That makes this a good time to buy almost any computer, from personal digital assistants to desktop PCs. Look for the many special upgrades and other deals being offered on numerous brands of notebooks.

    The downside, as the FBI recently learned when it had to tell Congress that 184 notebook PCs were missing, is that portables, particularly very small ones, have legs and can sometimes walk away.

  • The WinBook X1, with an 800-MHz Pentium III chip, 20G hard drive and 128M of RAM, is priced at $1,799.

    IBM's ThinkPad T21, with an 800-MHz Pentium III processor, 20G hard drive and 128M of RAM, is priced at $1,830.

    The Dell Inspiron 2100, with a 700-MHz Pentium III chip, 20G hard drive and 128M of RAM, is priced at $1,699.

    These notebook PCs strike a balance of weight and power












    Take your pick













    CD-ROM.



    DVD-ROM and CD-RW.

    Audio.

    Modem.

    Network adapter.

    FireWire.

    USB.

    PC Card slots.

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