Notebook PC power boosts silently lap those of desktop PCs

If you haven’t taken a serious look at notebook computers lately, you may
not know that their power has risen even faster than that of desktop systems.


A year ago, you would have paid about $4,000 for a 150-MHz IBM ThinkPad. This summer,
266-MHz Pentium II notebooks with 13-inch screens commonly cost less than $3,000.


That’s double the clock speed, and you also get more memory and a larger hard
drive for 25 percent less. Notebooks have been leapfrogging Gordon Moore’s Law, which
predicts that power doubles every 18 months.


The big jump comes from Intel Corp.’s Deschutes chip design for the desktop and
mobile Pentium II. The mobile version has 7.5 million transistors, special
voltage-reduction technology to conserve power and a built-in temperature monitor.


The mobile Pentium II runs at a low 1.8 volts. But what it gains in power management,
it seems to lose in cooling. The very latest mobile chips use more power than the previous
generation, reversing a desirable trend.


Nevertheless, the performance increase, along with digital video disk drives, larger
screens and lower prices, make it a good time to evaluate your office’s portability
needs and replace some aging hardware.


While Intel enhances processor performance, Philips Mobile Computing Group of Campbell,
Calif., pushes the performance envelope for palmtop computers.


Philips’ Velo 2 boasts a 133-MHz chip set and a software modem. The Velo’s
3.3-volt chip draws only 360 milliwatts.


Remember Apple Computer Inc.’s Newton MessagePad, which was dropped in March along
with the eMate handheld? Both lines now seem to be out of stock online and from dealers.
Despite this setback, the MessagePad 2100’s StrongARM chip is likely to show up in
other palmtop brands later this year. The


latest StrongARM runs at a whopping 200-MHz clock speed.


If you liked Newton, expect to see the same performance—if not the Newton
operating system—in a different package this year.


Want a powerful portable for presentations? This is a burgeoning market; you won’t
even break your budget.


Dell Computer Corp.’s Inspiron 3000 is a good example: a $2,400 multimedia road
machine with 13.3-inch active-matrix screen, Sound Blaster Pro audio, 20X CD-ROM drive,
32M RAM and 3.2G hard drive.


That is about as limited as you can go and still claim to have a presentation-quality
multimedia notebook. But many users probably will find the Inspiron adequate for
everything they do.


You could spend a lot more and get little more power in the $5,000-plus Compaq Armada
7792DMT, which has similar features but a 5G hard drive and built-in modem.


The IBM ThinkPad 770E carries about the same price tag as the Compaq unit and has a DVD
drive option and a slightly larger 14.1-inch screen.


All three notebooks boast 233-MHz Pentium MMX microprocessors, Motion Picture Experts
Group video encoding and 1,280- by 1,024-pixel displays.


If you want to show your presentations on a Macintosh, there’s only one choice:
the $5,000-plus PowerBook G3, whose 12.1-inch, 800- by 600-pixel screen falls short of
those in Intel-based presentation notebooks. Nevertheless, Apple’s Web site describes
the 250-MHz PowerBook as “one heck of a sophisticated presenter.”


The 250-MHz G3 has a 5G hard drive, 20X CD-ROM drive and 32M of RAM, so it is
comparably priced with the IBM Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp. notebooks and has four
built-in speakers instead of two. Even so, the screen size is a handicap.


If screen size is a major consideration, look at the ChemBook 7000 from Chem USA Corp.
of Newark, Calif. It has a 15.1-inch, 1,024- by 768-pixel, active-matrix screen and
supports 1,280- by 1,024-pixel output.


It equals the Dell, Compaq and IBM in most features and weighs about 2 pounds more. But
it lists for only $3,650, which makes the weight a bit easier to take.


One final note: Take these prices and specs with a grain of salt—this stuff seems
to change almost weekly these days. 


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at powerusr@penn.com.

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