High-end notebooks offer a smorgasbord of features

Here’s a checklist of the features you should look for in a high-end notebook.


CPU. For true power notebook computing,
the 266-MHz Mobile Pentium II is the way to go. But the Pentium II’s full punch
isn’t needed for typical word processing, spreadsheet, database and multimedia
applications.


Chip sets. For a notebook with a 266-MHz
Pentium MMX CPU, the Intel 430TX (or a similar design from another manufacturer) is fine.
If you move up to a 266-MHz Mobile Pentium II, the 440BX PCI is the way to go.


Memory. Your notebook should come with at
least 32M RAM, preferably 64M. More, however, is overkill. Even Pentium II notebooks
aren’t designed to handle it. Many Pentium notebooks still come with EDO RAM, but the
fastest RAM available is Synchronous Dynamic RAM, which is more than 20 percent faster
than EDO RAM.


Cache memory. Cache RAM is an intelligent
buffer system that uses algorithms to store metadata, or data about data, that helps
preselect certain data types for faster computations. Pentium MMX and Pentium II
processors have 32K of Level 1 cache. Level 2 cache comes in 256K and 512K on Mobile
Pentium MMX chip sets. Mobile Pentium II chip sets come with 512K of Level 2 cache, and
future versions will contain up to 1G.


Hard drives. Most notebook hard drive
cylinders spin at about 4,800 revolutions per minute. Average seek time—the time it
takes the drive’s read/write head to find a piece of data—is about 12
milliseconds. Direct Memory Access (DMA) drives are common in notebooks, but faster
Ultra-DMA drives are coming on rapidly. Minimum size for today’s notebooks is about
3G. If you’re willing to spend a little more, most notebooks offer 4G, 5G or even 8G
drives.


CD-ROM drives. CD-ROM drives and 1.44M
floppy drives are often modular units that you can swap out in the notebook’s single
modular bay. If the notebook has hot swapping, you can swap the two drives while the
machine is running. If your concern isn’t weight but battery life, you can get a
permanent CD-ROM drive with a modular floppy drive you can swap for a second battery pack.


Most notebooks come with 20X or 24X CD-ROM drives, a distinction that doesn’t mean
much as drive speeds at this level are attained by compression technologies. Optical
digital video drive disks that can store about 20 times as much information as CD-ROMs are
optional with some Pentium II notebooks.


Displays. The most common LCDs on
high-end notebooks are 13.3-inch active matrix systems that use individual thin-film
transistors inside each liquid crystal cell. This accounts for their astounding clarity
and resolution, usually no less than XGA at 1,024 by 768 pixels per inch. As the price of
producing the displays drops, models with 14.1- or larger displays are showing up.


Multimedia. Virtually all notebooks come
with built-in audio circuitry, along with audio drivers, input/output jacks and speakers.
The best units come with at least 16-bit stereo capability and wavetable MIDI technology
that stores the sounds of real musical instruments in RAM or ROM.


A notebook graphics card with at least 2M of RAM is sufficient for most purposes; 3-D
graphics accelerators with 4M of RAM are better for high-quality professional purposes.
S-video capability lets you add a camera. Don’t expect too much from your
notebook’s built-in speakers; buy speakers with external power supplies for the best
sound quality.


PC Cards. Most notebooks come with slots
for two 5-mm Type II cards or one 10.5-mm Type III card. Modems and Ethernet cards
typically use the Type II slot. Memory cards and Zoomed Video cards use the Type III slot.
The PC Card standard provides for both a 16-bit I/O data bus and a 32-bit CardBus data
bus. A high-end notebook should offer CardBus.


Batteries. Lithium-ion batteries provide
up to 3.6 volts, more than double the power of nickel-metal hydride and nickel-cadmium
batteries. At 400 charges, their cycle life is longer than the others, making them the
preferred battery for power-hungry Pentium II notebooks.


Input devices. Touch pads, eraser tips,
track balls—none work as well as a mouse. Plug an external mouse into the PS/2 port
if you’re doing lots of work.


Keyboard. Ditto.


Docking station. It’s the best
long-term investment you can make if you have a notebook that allows for one. Use one to
save yourself and the pins on your notebook’s I/O ports from unnecessary wear and
tear.


Security. Notebooks are catnip to
thieves; if you don’t want yours to leave home without you, get one with security
features.


Newer notebooks come with a lock slot through which you can connect a security cable.
 


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


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