New PCs travel light, deliver the goods

New PCs travel light, deliver the goods

Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq put 500 MHz in under-7-pound packages

By Michael Cheek

GCN Staff

Desktop processors this year will hit a super-high note at the 1-GHz clock rate, but mobile-processor speeds won't lag far behind.

New technologies from chip maker Intel Corp. will keep batteries running power-hungry notebooks a little longer. Add to the symphony a few ethereal notes from fast wireless links that rival wired Ethernet rates.

With 10 months still to go, I'd call 2000 the year of the portable computer, except that what is available now does not quite yet live up to that promise.

Weight on it

The 500-MHz Pentium III notebooks all had adequate features, but the Compaq Armada M700, although innovative, lagged in performance.

The GCN Lab asked notebook makers to send general-purpose, 500-MHz Pentium III portables weighing 7 pounds or less. Not many vendors make dual-spindle designs at that weight. Heft eliminated several full-featured portables from consideration, but three makers hit the mark.

Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. each sent a solid notebook with adequate features. Most notebook makers plan revised or all-new designs based on Intel's new 650-MHz Mobile Pentium III, so stay tuned.

In this roundup, the HP and Dell notebooks harked back to their predecessors without showing much innovation. Only Compaq had something new: the redesigned Armada line launched late last year.

Instead of going with the innovator, however, I came down on the side of the solid performers. Dell's Latitude CPx and HP's OmniBook 4150 ran neck-and-neck through testing.

Both these notebooks earned Reviewer's Choice designations.

The Compaq Armada M700, which integrates a modem and weighs a pound less than the Dell and HP units, did not perform as well as they did. The too-small power button stuck occasionally, and the function and arrow keys were meager in size.

Compaq added a third button to allow scrolling, but its awkward placement often caused me to hit it instead of the often-used left button.

The third button was not programmable as it should be, and it came nowhere close to the handiness of a wheel for scrolling.

The Armada's component benchmark performance fell into line with the other 500-MHz Pentium III notebooks. But in the real-life application scripts of Ziff-Davis Benchmark Operation's Winstone 99, the Compaq unit performed on average about 19 percent slower than the other two. Perhaps over-engineered drivers interfered.

About the same

I checked with Compaq's notebook lab tester and confirmed that Compaq itself got similar results.

Slower performance isn't a fatal flaw. I prefer solid reliability to breakneck speed, but the Armada sometimes simply paused, as if it were thinking about the key I had just pressed. The problem wasn't confined to one review unit. Compaq earlier had sent another Armada M700 that displayed similar hiccups.

The Armada's battery life was middle of the road. On the lab's maximum-drain torture test, it survived about two hours. Taking into account the weight of the lithium-ion battery, the Compaq lasted about eight minutes per ounce of battery weight'not bad.

The Dell Latitude CPx survived a bit longer'two hours, 15 minutes, or about nine minutes per battery ounce. The HP OmniBook came in third, surviving about two hours; its slightly heavier battery delivered about seven and a half minutes per ounce.

Although the Dell performed better in battery life, the HP OmniBook squeaked out slightly better benchmark scores'except in hard-drive access, where it blew the other two notebooks away. In all other categories, its scores compared to those of the Dell.

So I checked the original equipment makers of the Dell and HP units.

A nameplate isn't a true indicator of who manufactures something. In conjunction with Asian manufacturers that produce several brands, Dell, HP and Compaq design and manufacture their notebooks overseas except for final assembly and customization in the United States.

Separated twins?

Of the three 500-MHz Pentium III notebooks, the HP OmniBook performed a little better than the Dell Latitude and a lot better than the Compaq Armada.

I first thought the Dell and HP portables might have come from the same factory, but research indicated they didn't. Taiwanese companies Compal Electronics Inc. and Quanta Computer Inc. make the OmniBook and the Latitude, respectively. Nonetheless, their similarities were uncanny, from the speaker and power button placements to the nearly identical weights.

Both notebooks had almost the same complement of ports, including a single Universal Serial Bus plug.

The Dell had an S-video out port; in the same place, the HP had a small button to mute speakers.

Both notebooks came with two pointing devices: a touchpad and an eraser-tip pointer. Both had four buttons, two for the left mouse button and two for the right.

Neither the HP nor the Dell unit had an integrated modem. The Compaq Armada line is going to get an integrated network adapter, but all three test units lacked one. In future revisions, the makers should incorporate communications devices that won't take up one of the two PC Card slots.

Of course, wireless networking requires a PC Card slot, but the infrastructure for the recently approved 11-Mbps wireless standard needs building out, so current notebooks need a wire-based integrated Fast Ethernet adapter.

Compaq and HP both included a DVD-ROM drive for their modular bays. The Dell unit came standard with a CD-ROM drive, but DVD was an option.

All three had hot-swap bays, although the Dell and Compaq units supplied a cable to attach the third spindle'generally a floppy drive'without having to swap out. That's a nice feature for in-office use.

All three had good-quality, 14.1-inch XGA displays. Compaq's could have been brighter. All used similar 8M graphics adapters from ATI Technologies Inc. of Thornhill, Ontario.

The Latitude distinguished itself in one aspect: price. Costing $1,200 less than the other two, it earned GCN's Bang for the Buck designation.

But HP and Compaq will drop their prices soon as the new 650-MHz Mobile Pentium III replaces current top-end portable processors in coming months.

Speed needs

As I searched for government pricing, I noticed several contracts flush with 366- and 400-MHz Pentium II versions of the OmniBook 4150.

If having the fastest processor isn't important, consider them. Deep discounts are available to get Pentium II processors out of the pipeline.

Overall, the three 500-MHz notebooks make solid players, although the Armada's quirky hardware hurt its score.

Except for Dell's low price, neither the Latitude nor OmniBook were particularly outstanding in the features department, and users would be happy with either.

Don't regard these three as the final note for portable computers this year. The PC industry is pumping out about two new notebook systems per month. Expect the GCN Lab to check out more portable computers throughout the year.

500-MHz notebooks are solid but not extraordinary

Armada M700
Compaq Computer Corp.

Latitude CPx
Dell Computer Corp.
Austin, Texas

OmniBook 4150
Hewlett-Packard Co.
Palo Alto, Calif.
Government price
Pros and cons

Lightweight; integrated modem
Poor performance; sticky power button

Solid performer; terrific price
Lacks integrated comm device

Best overall performance
Better power management needed
GCN maximum-drain test
Minutes per battery ounce
Input devices

2 hours
5 pounds, 11 ounces
Single: eraser tip with
three buttons

2 hours, 15 minutes
6 pounds, 12 ounces
Dual: eraser tip and touchpad
with four buttons

2 hours
6 pounds, 13 ounces
Dual: eraser tip and touchpad
with four buttons
Features and Configuration
Standard spindles
Optional modular bay spindles
Graphics accelerator
Graphics memory

12G hard drive, DVD, floppy
CD-ROM, LS-120, 12G or 10G hard drive
ATI Mobility-P (AGP X2)
56-Kbps modem

9.2G hard drive, CD-ROM, floppy
ATI Mobility M1 (AGP X2)
None integrated

10.7G hard drive, DVD, floppy
CD-ROM, LS-120, 10G hard drive
ATI Rage Mobility (AGP X2)
None integrated
CPUmark 99
Business Graphics WinMark 99
Business Disk WinMark 99

1.85 megabytes/sec

1.86 megabytes/sec

2.83 megabytes/sec
Features and configuration





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