High-end notebooks BUYERS GUIDE






Armada 7800, Solo 5100XL serve well as weapons for road warriors.
High-end notebooks offer a smorgasbord of features.







These could be very happy days if you’re in the market for a high-end
notebook computer.


Six or eight months ago, Intel Corp. released its zippiest and most powerful mobile CPU
to date, the 266-MHz Pentium with MMX.


On April 2, 1998, the world’s largest chip set manufacturer again blew the minds
of notebook users, this time with the release of its super-powerful 266-MHz Mobile Pentium
II processor.


The release of the 266-MHz Mobile Pentium II was like a shot heard around the computing
world. A large-screen notebook with the CPU can successfully compete with a similarly
configured desktop PC.


Load up a $3,000 Pentium II notebook with a docking station or port replicator, and
you’ve got a single, all-purpose machine to use on your desktop or take on the road.


A fine comb of Mobile Pentium II Web sites turned up a flurry of activity.


Leading notebook manufacturers are rushing to bring 266-MHz Pentium II portable PCs to
market. Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., IBM Corp. and Gateway Inc. timed
release of their Pentium II systems to be almost concurrent with the Intel release.
Digital Equipment Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. soon followed suit.


The releases are only the first spark of what will be a summer wildfire of mobile
Pentium II systems. Of the 41 notebooks in this guide, 24 are 266-MHz Mobile Pentium II
systems; the other 17 are 266-MHz Pentium MMX units. But nearly every notebook
manufacturer will soon offer both. Look for 300-MHz Mobile Pentium II CPUs later this
year.


Prices for a loaded Pentium II notebook like Compaq’s Armada 7800 and IBM’s
ThinkPad 770E still hover around $5,400, but plenty of new units are priced at less than
$4,000—Dell’s Inspiron 3200 D266X is $3,399. A few sub-$3,000 portables are also
showing up.


But don’t forget about 266-MHz Pentium MMX notebooks. They’re an exceptional
value for buyers looking for a high-performance notebook that need not double as a
full-fledged graphics workstation.


The price for a typical 266-MHz Pentium MMX notebook averages about $2,500 and will
probably drop closer to $2,000 by year’s end as Pentium IIs become more ubiquitous.


It’s hard telling when the bonanza will end. Intel is already planning to replace
the Mobile Pentium II CPU with 400-MHz and faster chips, code-named Katmai, as soon as the
end of next year. With development of the Intel/HP Merced chip, a 500-MHz and faster RISC
CPU, put off, it will likely be at least 2000 before mobile versions of the chip show up
in notebooks.


But for now, hold onto your hat and enjoy the ride. It doesn’t get much better
than this.


Intel made a giant leap in mobile chip technology last year when it added multimedia
extensions to its mobile Pentium processors. MMX adds 57 instructions that greatly improve
graphics, sound and communications performances of Pentium chips. For the first time,
notebooks with fast 233-MHz and 266-MHz Pentium MMX processors could compete with the
performances of desktop systems when processing graphics-, video- and audio-intensive
applications.


The Mobile Pentium II chip is an even larger advance. It’s built on a 0.25-micron
design and comes with 7.5 million transistors in a thumbnail-sized configuration no
thicker than a dime.


With the .25-micron design, the CPU’s power consumption drops to 1.7 volts. It
produces less heat than its predecessors, and it is more efficient.


The Mobile Pentium II also has a dual-independent bus architecture, a full 64-bit
system bus, integrated primary cache, 512K of Level 2 cache and a math coprocessor, plus
features such as a thermal diode and clock-cycle gating.


The Intel Mobile Module (IMM) architecture is a standard 280-pin design that lets
mobile Pentium and Pentium II users upgrade the CPUs in their notebooks with a simple
swap-out of the processor.


Buyers, take notes


Make sure your Pentium II notebook comes with a 440BX or equivalent chip set.
266-MHz Pentium MMX notebooks are a good buy for all but the highest-end power users.
A docking station or port replicator adds flexibility.
300-MHz Mobile Pentium II notebooks are just around the corner.
More than 64M of SDRAM is overkill for most notebooks.




If you buy a notebook with a 266-MHz Pentium II CPU today but want to swap it for a
300-MHz CPU when they come out, you probably won’t have to send the system back to
the maker. A 240-pin IMM Minicartridge design is available for thin and ultra-thin
notebooks.


Most new Pentium II notebooks will also support Intel’s Wired for Management 1.1
specification, which calls for common sets of internal options in notebooks, greatly
reducing the cost of operating and maintaining fleets of notebooks within a single
department or agency.


The Mobile Pentium II chip isn’t quite perfect. Although it operates at a low 1.7
volts, its cooling system requires more power than the 266-MHz Pentium MMX. You can expect
less battery life from a Pentium II notebook than from a comparably equipped Pentium MMX.


A Compaq Armada 7800 running Microsoft Windows 95 and Office 97 provided about two
hours of battery run time. With different applications and use of the CD-ROM drive, the
time could change significantly up or down.


Take the double-the-raw-performance claims of the Pentium II CPU vs. the Pentium MMX
CPU with a grain of salt. Other components, such as CD-ROM drives, graphics accelerator
cards and hard drives, also contribute to a notebook’s overall performance. You
won’t get a 2-to-1 performance boost, but the 266-MMX Pentium II will probably result
in a performance improvement of at least 20 percent.


You should consider other factors when you’re seeking a high-performance notebook.


Take a close look at a notebook’s backplane for an inventory of its ports.


High-speed serial and parallel ports should be a given, along with PS/2 ports for mouse
and keyboard, an external monitor, audio and video devices, and Type II and Type III PC
Card slots.


An infrared port for wireless connection to another computer or printer should come
standard with a high-end notebook.


One or even two Universal Serial Bus ports should be somewhere on the notebook’s
backplane. When it’s fully implemented, USB technology will provide 12-Mbps speed
between devices, allow daisychaining of up to 127 devices and enable hot swapping.


The Armada 7800 Pentium II notebook has an Accelerated Graphics Port for advanced
graphics processing More notebooks will include it as AGP, like USB, catches on.


If you’ll also use the notebook as a desktop PC, look for an elongated 100- or
120-pin port on the back of the unit. It’s for a docking station or port replicator,
which provides a permanent parking place for monitors and keyboards.


If a 266-MHz Mobile Pentium II CPU is your notebook’s V-8 engine, its chip set is
the transmission.


A CPU is designed to make the notebook run as fast as it can, but it can’t do it
without the help of a chip set to synchronize functions such as managing the system’s
RAM controller and hard drive controller, and synchronizing its real-time clock.


Building on its older 430MX and 430TX capabilities, Intel has optimized its newest chip
set, the 440BX PCI, for the Mobile Pentium II. The 430MX helped bring 32-bit PCI bus
architecture to notebooks. The 430TX brought support for MMX and the Concurrent PCI bus
enhancement that resulted in smoother audio-visual performance than the 430MX.


It also supported USB and synchronous dynamic RAM, the fastest memory available in
Pentiums.


Without the 440BX, or one of similar design from a third-party maker, your notebook
won’t be able to take full advantage of the Mobile Pentium II CPU. The 440BX is a
good power manager; it features the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface that lets
notebooks power up from sleep states much faster than did earlier chip sets.


The 440BX optimizes the Pentium II’s Dual Independent Bus architecture, which lets
the CPU and chip set execute multiple transactions simultaneously.


With the 440BX PCI chip set, notebooks are a hair’s breadth—and AGP
support—away from providing all the bells and whistles of desktop PCs.  


J.B. Miles writes about communications and computers from Carlsbad, Calif.

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