Take it on the run: Ultraportable laptops

LifeBook P7020

Dell D410

HP nc4200

GCN Lab's look at 11 ultraportable notebooks reveals a nice variety of options

For some notebook PC users, performance is everything, and they don't care about the trade-offs of weight and size. Others emphasize portability. But even if traveling light is paramount, you still need enough power to drive today's demanding applications.

Ultraportables'by our definition, notebooks that weigh less than 6 pounds'come in a range of designs. Low-voltage processors, tiny hard drives and innovative screens'to say nothing of users' vastly different views of what they're willing to consider ultraportable'have led manufacturers to come up with a variety of designs for travelers who need a smaller portable computer than today's standard models.

The GCN Lab took a look at 11 ultraportable notebooks in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny clamshell-shaped Sony Vaio VGN-T350/P to the slim, fully featured Fujitsu LifeBook S7020. Not every system is a winner, but we appreciate the variety.

What we found

First things first: Not one of these ultraportables performs as well as the average notebook PC. So far this year, we've tested rugged notebooks, desktop replacements and standard business systems. The average score for all those notebooks on our GCN/Alterion benchmark suite was about 7,400. The top-performing ultraportable in this review, the Dell Latitude D410, scored 6,699.

In addition, despite the fact that ultraportable notebooks are supposed to be, well, ultraportable'which is to say they should run effectively on the road'their battery test results were not universally impressive. Yes, some notebooks, such as the HP Compaq nc4200 and the Sharp M4000 WideNote, ran more than three hours on fairly standard batteries. But others, such as the Acer TravelMate 3002WTCi, Dell Latitude X1 and Fujitsu LifeBook S7020, couldn't crack two hours. Granted, our tests represent a worst-case scenario (movie playing, power saving not turned on), but we've seen power notebooks run longer on a battery charge.

You'll surely consider performance and battery life in selecting one of these sleek systems. But also keep an eye on features. For instance, we were impressed to see that several of these lightweight systems include internal optical drives'handy for burning data onto disks. A few even come with fingerprint readers.

Our favorites? The HP Compaq nc4200 offers the best combination of features, performance and battery life. But we're also suckers for the LifeBook S7020's nice big screen and fingerprint reader, as well as the Latitude D410's top-of-the-heap performance.

Acer TravelMate 3002WTCi

Pros: Inexpensive

Cons: Unimpressive battery life

Performance: B

Features: B

Battery life: B

Value: A

The TravelMate 3002WTCi is an affordable solid performer that tips the scales at just 3 pounds, 9 ounces, not including its external optical drive.

The system comes with a 12.1-inch screen in a 16-by-9 ratio that displays good, accurate colors at 1280-by-800 native resolution, but it seemed a bit dim compared with others in the review. It's fine for most office applications, but not for multimedia.

The TravelMate features three USB ports, about the maximum in an ultraportable format, and an integrated IEEE 802.11b/g wireless radio. It also has Bluetooth and gigabit LAN ports, plus a 56-Kbps modem if you need to use dial-up.

It scored 5,953 on the GCN/Alterion benchmark test, a respectable score in this company but not cutting-edge, and lasted just under two hours in our grueling battery tests.
The system's most impressive feature is its price. At $1,299 for government buyers, this TravelMate is a true value. You could almost buy two of these moderate-performing portables for what some other ultraportable vendors charge for one. The computer itself won't overimpress, but several of them coming in under budget may be just what your agency needs.

Acer America Corp., San Jose, Calif., (800) 848-2237, www.acer.com

Dell Latitude D410

Pros: Good performance, nice size

Cons: Unimpressive battery life

Performance: A-

Features: A-

Battery life: B

Value: A-

GCN Lab Reviewer's Choice

The Latitude D410 is quite a workhorse considering its 3-pound, 5-ounce form factor. It was hands-down the fastest ultraportable in the roundup, scoring 6,699 on our benchmark tests. Other than remembering to pack the external optical drive, you probably won't have any trouble with the D410.

There are two normal USB ports and one dual-purpose port that can handle a compatible device, such as the system's external DVD drive, and draw its power from the laptop rather than a power cord'sort of important when you're on the road.

The D410 doesn't cut corners on features. Our test system came with a generous 80GB hard drive and an Intel Pro wireless chip set for use on an 802.11a, b or g network.

That said, we were expecting a bit more battery life out of the D410, which ran just under two hours in our test. If you need more per- formance, a nine-cell extended battery is available for $122, a deal you should probably consider.

The good news is that the D410 is reasonably priced. At $1,807 for government buyers, you can upgrade the battery, likely achieve the three-hour-plus battery life you want and still come in at under $2,000.

Dell Inc., Round Rock, Texas, (800) 388-8542, www.dell.com

Dell Latitude X1

Pros: Thin, light and sleek design

Cons: Poor performance, just one USB port

Performance: C

Features: B

Battery life: B

Value: B-

At less than 3 pounds, the Latitude X1 is one of the lightest notebooks in our review. It's also razor-thin'less than an inch with the case closed. The system is so sleek and compact, it's almost like a personal digital assistant with a roomy keyboard.

The thing is, you're also not likely to confuse its performance with that of a modern notebook. To achieve the X1's design, Dell opted for an ultra-low-voltage processor running at just 1.1 GHz, which will limit what you can use the X1 for. The system scored just 3,952 on our benchmark test, the worst in the review. We don't mean to be processor snobs, but that performance is not good enough for a notebook system today. What's more, the supposedly efficient processor did little for the X1's battery life, which came in at just 1 hour 52 minutes. That's not terrible considering the system comes with a three-cell battery, but you have to wonder what you could achieve with a low-voltage chip and one of the batteries that come with the other ultraportables we reviewed. You must opt for the $113 six-cell upgrade.

The unit we tested included one 512MB DIMM memory chip in addition to the system's standard 256MB. It also had an 802.11b/g radio and integrated Bluetooth. The system came with a 60GB hard drive, but it only spun at 4200 RPM, slow compared with most of the others here, including the 5400RPM 80GB drive in its sister system, the D410.

Ultimately, the X1 may look sleek, but you can't always judge a book by its cover.

Dell Inc., Round Rock, Texas, (800) 388-8542, www.dell.com

Fujitsu LifeBook S7020

Pros: Good performance, internal optical drive, three USB ports

Cons: A touch heavy, mediocre battery life

Performance: A-

Features: A

Battery life: B

Value: A-

GCN Lab Reviewer's Choice

At first glance, the LifeBook doesn't look like an ultraportable. The large, 14.1-inch screen looked out of place next to all the 10- and 12-inch versions in our review. But we'd take this notebook on the road in a heartbeat, even if it is about a pound heavier than some of the competition. In many ways, it's in a class with the Latitude D410.

Fujitsu has packed a bunch of good stuff into the LifeBook S7020 while keeping the weight down to 4 pounds, 7 ounces. For starters, it has an internal multiformat DVD writer, which is a big plus. The drive is modular and can be replaced, if you don't need it, with a blank bay that reduces the weight by about 10 ounces. The system also has a gigabit Ethernet port, an 80GB hard drive, 512MB of RAM, three USB ports and a tri-mode wireless chip for 802.11a, b, or g networks. To top it all off, this model comes with a fingerprint sensor for additional security, something only two other ultraportables in this review were equipped with.

Its benchmark score of 6,601 and battery life of 1 hour 53 minutes are nearly identical to those of Latitude D410. In other words, fast for an ultraportable but not especially long-lasting. The fingerprint reader and bigger screen add a little to the cost, but it ranks up there with the best systems we tested.

Fujitsu Computer Systems, Sunnyvale, Calif., (800) 538-8460, www.computers.us.fujitsu.com

Gateway M250ES

Pros: Large, crisp screen, long battery life

Cons: On the heavy side

Performance: A-

Features: B+

Battery life: A-

Value: B+

At nearly 6 pounds, Gateway's M250ES is a bit heavier than a typical ultraportable, but its features make it almost worth the weight. The widescreen display is nice, bright and crisp, and it extends almost to the edges of the case. With an internal CD/DVD-W drive and three USB ports, it should meet virtually any multimedia needs.

The optional 12-cell battery our unit shipped with lasted nearly four hours in testing, but it weighs at least 10 ounces more than the standard-issue six-cell. Considering that we tested smaller batteries with similar performance, we were slightly underwhelmed. Also, in addition to sticking out a bit in the back, the larger battery tilts downward about half an inch, causing the whole laptop to tip forward. If you simply must have a flat keyboard, the smaller battery is your only option.

The M250ES achieved a respectable score of 6,403 in our benchmark test, placing it in the top third. But we really like its $1,701 price for government buyers. That in-cludes the 12-cell battery upgrade; if you don't need it, you can pay $60 less for the standard pack.
Gateway's offering is good for the traveler who needs a powerful multimedia laptop and doesn't mind lugging a couple of extra pounds.

Gateway Inc., Irvine, Calif., (800) 846-2000, www.gateway.com

HP Compaq nc4200

Pros: Long battery life, multiple inputs

Cons: No optical drive

Performance: A-

Features: A-

Battery life: A-

Value: A-
GCN Lab Reviewer's Choice

The nc4200 from Hewlett-Packard dances across the scale at just 3 pounds, 4 ounces but still somehow manages to pack in a good many features. Its 12.1-inch display is fairly large considering its weight, and its keyboard has a good, full-size feel to it. It has both a pointing stick and a touchpad for moving the cursor. And since each device has its own set of mouse buttons, you can use whichever is more comfortable.

In battery life testing, it lasted 3 1/2 hours, which is impressive for a battery that doesn't stick out beyond the casing. Its 1.8-GHz Pentium M processor achieved an above-average score of 6,403 in our tests and should be fast enough for most needs.

The nc4200 does not have an internal optical drive, which may be a deal-breaker if you absolutely need one. Ours came with an external model. However, if you don't mind lugging the extra drive or can live without it, this laptop is a winner.

The $1,999 government price is competitive, especially considering its power, longevity and ergonomics. The nc4200 is perfect for someone who wants to keep the carry-on baggage light without skimping on features.

Hewlett-Packard Co., Palo Alto, Calif., (800) 888-9909, www.hp.com

Lenovo ThinkPad X41

Pros: Fingerprint scanner, full-size keys

Cons: No touch pad, limited ports

Performance: B-

Features: A

Battery life: A

Value: B-

Lenovo's ThinkPad X41 still comes with the IBM logo on it, and it still has everything we expect from Big Blue. At 3 pounds, 4 ounces, it is lighter than most of its competition. Despite its compact size, it still manages full-size keys for easy typing.

However, in order to make room for the nice keyboard, which goes right to edge of the case, the designers had to forgo any touch pad, instead putting in only a pointing stick. Some people can't get used to moving the cursor with the eraser-tip-sized button, and this might prevent them from buying the ThinkPad, no matter what else it might offer.

Agencies will appreciate the X41's security features. The fingerprint scanner and secure data card reader should make it easy to keep unauthorized users out. The model as tested came with a docking bay with, among other things, three extra USB ports and a CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive. This adds about 1 pound, 8 ounces to the total weight.

The battery lasted 3 hours 28 minutes, which is good for the system's weight and size.

However, the X41's 1.5GHz Low Voltage Pentium M did not prove as fast as other, more powerful processors, getting a final score of 5,135. Also, the minimal 40GB hard drive could cause space issues sooner than other laptops.

Its list price of $2,149 is rather high, but not exactly the worst deal out there, especially if you need the extra security it offers. Still, shop around before settling on this ultraportable.

Lenovo International Inc., Purchase, N.Y., (866) 968-4465, www.lenovo.com

MPC Transport U1000

Pros: Internal DVD-RW drive

Cons: Short battery life, small hard drive

Performance: B-

Features: B-

Battery life: C

Value: B-

At 3 pounds, 6 ounces, the Transport U1000 is about average for the ultraportable class. With its 1.8-GHz processor and 768MB of RAM, it managed a middle-of-the-road result in our benchmark test with a score of 5,185.

Unfortunately, these are pretty much the only things about the Transport that are up to par. Its battery tests came in at an abysmal 1 hour 1 minute. This was so far below all the other notebooks that we ran the test repeatedly to make sure it wasn't a fluke. It wasn't.

An hour is hardly enough time to do much of anything.

The 40GB hard drive is about the smallest you can put into a laptop these days and still have it run well. So the U1000 may encounter storage shortages soon after you begin using it.

Not even price can save the U1000. Considering what you get, the $1,935 government price is too high. We didn't expect it, based on our experience with MPC notebooks, but the U1000 simply turned in a lackluster performance.

MPC Computers LLC, Nampa, Idaho, (888) 224-4247, www.mpccorp.com

Sharp M4000 WideNote

Pros: Good battery life, large hard drive

Cons: Slow performance

Performance: C+

Features: A

Battery life: A-

Value: B+

The WideNote is quite a bit heavier than Sharp's lightest systems, but it makes up for that with features.

At 3 pounds, 10 ounces, the WideNote is a few ounces heavier than some of the other ultraportables in this review. But with a CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive and a larger-than-average 70GB hard drive, its weight is reasonable. In addition, its full-size keyboard has a welcome feel to it, and the widescreen display is nice and large'something we've come to expect from Sharp.

The WideNote's battery life is also impressive considering its features, clocking in at 3 hours 4 minutes. Unfortunately, its 1.73-GHz Pentium M processor did not perform nearly as well in our benchmark test as its similarly equipped competitors, with a final score of 4,449.

At $1,799 list price, the WideNote is not a bad deal, especially if you won't be running applications that need better performance. Had the system run faster, it might have earned a Reviewer's Choice.

Sharp Systems of America, Huntington Beach, Calif., (800) 237-4277, www.sharpsystems.com

Sony Vaio VGN-T350/P

Pros: Long battery life, lightweight

Cons: Small keyboard, slow

Performance: C+

Features: A-

Battery life: A

Value: C

The Vaio VGN-T350/P from Sony has everything you'd expect from a clamshell'which is to say almost pocket-sized design.

At 3 pounds, 1 ounce, it is one of the lightest systems in the review. This even includes a DVD-RW drive, which is pretty darned amazing, making it by far the lightest system in our review to have an optical drive.

The Vaio's widescreen display, while smaller than others, is probably the best-looking one we tested. Everything is crisp and clear, and the colors are vibrant. It is perfect for watching movies.

The downside, the nature of the clam-shell beast, is the Vaio's cramped working environment. The keys are uncomfortably small, and the touch pad is barely large enough to move the cursor. The system might be good for popping in a DVD on the train, but it's not ideal for long hours of working.

Its battery lasted 3 hours 52 minutes in our tests, another amazing feat considering its four-cell battery. Just don't expect high-end performance in graphically intense applications. Its 1.2-GHz CPU, 512MB of RAM and Intel graphics chip could only muster 4,315 on our benchmark test.

Taking all that into consideration, we're not sure we'd pay $2,100 for this Vaio model, which is almost more like a portable DVD player with computer capabilities than vice versa. Still, we like the fact that Sony continues to be one of the great notebook innovators.

Sony Electronics Inc., San Diego, (877) 865-7669, www.sonystyle.com

Toshiba Portege R200-S234

Pros: Fingerprint scanner, extremely light

Cons: Slow performance

Performance: C

Features: A

Battery life: B+

Value: B-

Toshiba's Portege R200-S234 is the lightest notebook we tested. At 2 pounds, 2 ounces, it's about a half-pound lighter than any other system in this review.

For such a light laptop, it achieved a respectable battery life, lasting over 2 hours 46 minutes in our torture testing. The Portege is also one of the few units we tested that has a fingerprint scanner, which has become a security necessity for federal users.

Performance is where the Portege falls short. Its 1.2-GHz processor got it one of the lowest benchmark scores (4,065) in our tests. Toshiba also decided for some reason to give the Portege a small keyboard even though it has a normal-sized footprint. There is so much wasted space above and below the touch pad that they should have been able to fit in some bigger keys.

At a $1,947 government price, the Portege is not a bad deal, but there are better values out there.

Toshiba America Information Systems Inc., Irvine, Calif., (949) 583-3000, www.toshibadirect.com

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