Don't sacrifice performance on the road
- By Michael Cheek
- Sep 08, 1997
Just substitute one system for two. You can pack all your files when you travel and
save $1,000 to $2,000 overall, depending on the notebook docking combo you choose. While
your notebook is docked at the office, you'll have all the trimmings, including 166-MHz
Pentium MMX performance that rivals full desktop systems.
Portable power likely will expand even more with the introduction of the newest
power-conserving Intel Corp. mobile processors, the 200- and 233-MHz Pentium MMX chips
code-named Tillamook. Look for Tillamook CPUs to go into wide use by 1998. They could be
introduced soon into the models reviewed here.
Most portables have large hard drives--3G standard, 5G soon--and plenty of RAM at 32M
standard, expandable to 80M or more. So all the factors are available to elevate portables
into the mainstream of computing.
But you won't get the perfect notebook docking solution by searching out the best
notebook. Look at the docking station itself.
This is one area that often confuses buyers. Notebook vendors offer docking stations,
docking bars and port replicators. Remember that a true dock needs at least one slot for a
full-sized PCI and/or ISA card like the ones in your desktop PC.
With that stipulation, the GCN Lab staff identified four government vendors with true
notebook docking solutions: Compaq Computer Corp., Gateway 2000 Inc., IBM Corp. and
Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.
All the products are available on General Services Administration Schedule contracts.
Each vendor sent us a slightly different docking station and notebook combination.
The docking stations from Compaq and Gateway rivaled each other in ease of use and
power. Compaq's ArmadaStation dock edged out the Gateway Solo dock with more options and a
configuration that docked the PC vertically like a mini-tower.
Gateway offered the best price for a full-featured docking station. And any of
Gateway's portables--the Solo 2200, 2300 and 9100--work in the dock. Gateway also has
promised future notebook compatibility.
I examined the four vendors' docking stations and five notebooks, two from Gateway. All
five undoubtedly were among the best portables available. I especially liked Compaq's
Armada 7750MT and IBM's ThinkPad 760DX.
For a full docking solution, you also need a monitor, keyboard and mouse. The monitor
is a separate purchase. I requested that the vendors send 17-inch monitors, which many
federal users favor.
Oddly enough, no vendor provided a keyboard and mouse with its docking station. You
must buy them separately.
You may not consider docking station decor important, but a color-coordinated approach
does look best. Compaq and IBM harmonized their hues. The other two vendors' solutions
looked as if all the parts didn't quite belong together.
Toshiba sent a monitor that was color-coordinated with the gray notebook and docking
station. Gateway's monitor was off-white, and its other components were charcoal.
Once I put all the parts together, the best docking package emerged. Compaq's combo
easily earned a Reviewer's Choice designation for its intelligent vision, excellent dock
engineering and strong notebook performance.
Excellent pricing and the Solo 9100's performance also earned Gateway's two offerings a
Toshiba and IBM barely missed earning a Reviewer's Choice. Both submitted good
solutions, but with a few drawbacks. The Toshiba setup needed smoother docking, and
startup sometimes took up to five minutes when the notebook was docked. IBM's
configuration was underpowered, and its monitor screen was marred by swirling dark areas.
Compaq's ArmadaStation lacked only one component, a Universal Serial Bus port. I'm
willing to bet the next version of this docking station will have one.
Everything else made the ArmadaStation the near perfect desktop-portable combo. The
integrated 10/100-megabit/sec network interface card left the two shared PCI/ISA slots
The modular bay permitted battery charging and was the only station to do so.
Modular bay openings let you plug optional devices into a notebook such as a CD-ROM or
floppy drive or an extra battery. All the docking stations had one of these bays, so both
a CD-ROM drive and floppy drive can be used.
A $94 option can turn the ArmadaStation onto its side. That might sound awkward but it
worked quite well. Tucked under the desk, the minitower configuration left the most desk
Of course, the ArmadaStation could sit on the desktop, too, and it had a monitor stand.
This was the only station with an infrared port on the dock itself, which is convenient
for infrared data transfer. The other three docking stations blocked access to the
notebook IrDA port.
All controls on the ArmadaStation were clear and easy to use. I liked the additional
sound controls such as a mute button. Of the three docking stations that provided sound,
the ArmadaStation produced the fullest tones, even in the minitower configuration.
Video output was extremely crisp and speedy, as evidenced by the top video score on the
GCNdex32TM benchmark. The ArmadaStation's other GCNdex scores were strong, although the 2G
hard drive should have been faster.
The Armada 7750MT notebook is an excellent addition to Compaq's growing portable line
and a worthy successor to the popular but recently discontinued LTE line.
The 12.1-inch, active-matrix display wasn't overbright, but its 1,024- by 768-pixel
resolution was extremely acute and gave excellent images.
Battery life was a little low. The 14-ounce lithium-ion cells lasted longer than the
Solo 9100's 1-pound, 5-ounce battery. The Armada's battery was the only one with an
indicator to show the charge level.
Weighing a little more than 712 pounds with an integrated AC adapter, the Armada
7750 felt somewhat heavy. An external adapter adds about half a pound to its weight. Also
integrated was a 33.6-kilobit/sec modem, leaving the PC Card slots vacant.
The Armada was the only notebook that came without application software; the others had
office suites. Depending on your job, this could be good or bad. At startup, you get to
choose between Microsoft Windows 95 and Windows NT Workstation 4.0.
Priced at almost $6,500, Compaq's docking system is a little pricey. But it's a strong
system, and notebooks such as the lightweight Armada 7300 will fit the ArmadaStation.
Gateway's Solo twosomes gave good price-performance, and the docking station was
The station wasn't that fancy in basic box form, but the sliding notebook base made
docking and undocking easy. The modular bay supplied a desktop 514-inch external bay
and a 312-inch internal bay--more expandability than in any other station tested.
The Solo Docking Station's PC Card slots could hold a Type III and a Type II card at
the same time.
The Gateway notebooks boosted the docking station's performance into the stratosphere,
especially the Solo 2200, at $3,299.
The Solo 2200's battery would not chargewhen the unit was hot-docked. A hot dock means
that you plug the notebook in while it's running. Rebooting started the charging.
The 13-ounce lithium-ion battery showed adequate endurance but drained quickly toward
the end of its life.
Although the 2200 could output 1,024- by 768-pixel external video at 16-bit color
depth, I don't recommend it. The screen showed ghosted lines and had poor image quality.
At 800 by 600 pixels, output was better though a bit fuzzy.
On the other hand, the Solo 9100 produced excellent video output, reaching XGA
resolution at 24-bit color depth. The 13.3-inch active-matrix display was quite good.
During hot docking, the 9100 had an intermittent problem synching up external video.
The 9100 was the heaviest of the notebooks, weighing almost 812 pounds, and the
battery contributed 114 pounds.
Gateway described the 9100 as a multimedia notebook, but the speakers couldn't quite
pump out the volume I'd expect. The 9100 was the only one with a USB port.
On GCNdex tests, the 9100 did exceptionally well with its fast 3G hard drive and 11X
maximum CD-ROM drive that spun even faster than the rated speed.
The CD-ROM drive was built in along with a 312-inch floppy drive in the same
space where a CD-ROM drive would go in other notebooks.
Both Solos bundled anti-virus software, Microsoft Office 97 Small Business Edition and
Microsoft AutoMap Streets Plus.
The Solo 2200 earned a Bang for the Buck designation for its total price, less than
$4,500. The 9100 cost almost $6,300, but that was less than the other high-end systems
IBM's SelectaDockI fell short on power compared with the others. The SelectaDock I
wasn't IBM's top-end solution, although it was priced in the same range as Gateway's.
The SelectaDock II costs $200 more than the SelectaDock I and has three card slots--
two shared PCI/ISA and one PCI--plus an industry-standard 514-inch external bay. My
test SelectaDock had only one shared PCI/ISA slot and no desktop bay, only a modular bay.
The ThinkPad 760XD would not slide easily into the SelectaDock. To hot-dock, I had to
leave the display open until it locked into place--a difficult proposition with the
monitor just above the docking station. The ThinkPad did not eject mechanically, unlike
PCs did from the other docks.
Also, the SelectaDock I had no external speakers. Only muffled sounds from the ThinkPad
760XD were audible.
The SelectaDock works with the ThinkPad 760 series but not with other IBM notebooks.
IBM did not provide a network interface card.
I plugged an Ethernet PC Card into the SelectaDock to connect the ThinkPad to the GCN
On IBM's G72 monitor, some dim, crescent-shaped areas affected overall image quality.
The IBM dock keyboard had an eraser-tip pointer instead of a separate mouse.
Personally, I'm not a big eraser-tip fan, but if you are, you might like this keyboard.
I found the eraser tip on the external keyboard extremely stiff compared with the one
on the ThinkPad.
For IBM devotees, the keyboard keys make the comforting click-clack sounds when
The ThinkPad 760XD itself was exceptional. Running off the lightest battery at about 13
ounces, it lasted just as long as the other notebooks.
I especially liked the LCD panel just above the keyboard that showed the percentage of
The ThinkPad tied with the Solo 2200 as the least heavy. Like the Solo 9100, the
ThinkPad had a 3G hard drive. Like the Toshiba, it integrated a 28.8-kilobit/sec modem.
Access to the battery, CD-ROM and other components was beneath the keyboard, which is
standard for ThinkPads but different from other notebooks.
Once I got the hang of it, access was no big deal. The ThinkPad's 12.1-inch, XGA
active-matrix display was quite bright. Bundling anti-virus protection and Lotus
Development Corp. SmartSuite 96, the ThinkPad made a stout offering, even considering its
At $6,400, IBM came very close to Gateway's pricing.
Toshiba's Tecra 740CDT updated two previous 730CDT and 720CDT models reviewed by the
lab [GCN, Jan. 13, Page 44, and Aug. 5, 1996, Page 35]. Both were strong notebooks.
The 740CDT is rather heavy at more than 814 pounds, but it sported a 13.3-inch,
XGA active-matrix display and a new Pentium MMX. It had a 28.8-kilobit/sec modem but
lacked a USB port.
The battery lasted more than two hours on GCN's maximum drain test. But that endurance
was thanks to the 114-pound lithium-ion battery. It weighed almost exactly the same
as the Solo 9100's battery but lasted about 30 minutes longer--a testament to the Tecra's
The Toshiba Desk Station V+ was a bit bulkier than the other docking stations and had
The extra PC Card slots could accommodate two Type III cards, good for expandability.
The Desk Station V+ works with several Toshiba Tecra and Portege models. But it had its
Occasionally on startup after a cold dock, it had an inexplicable five-minute waiting
period. Turning it off and back on only made matters worse.
I liked the speakers on the front of the Desk Station, although the sound tended to be
loud and was impossible to adjust except via the hardware control on the notebook.
Unfortunately, the control was underneath the closed lid.
Toshiba supplied a lot of software, most of it not really needed. It was nice to find a
full version of Microsoft Office 97 Professional installed.
At $7,100, the Toshiba solution was the most expensive. But users who prefer Toshiba's
reliability may be willing to pay more for this stalwart.