Sometimes, less is more

Sometimes, less is more<@VM>With one of these inexpensive units, you'll still have the power<@VM>With one of these inexpensive units, you'll still have the power (cont.)<@VM>With one of these inexpensive units, you'll still have the power (cont. 2)

You can still find bargain notebook PCs to fulfill basic tasks

By John McCormick

Special to GCN

The definition of a low-end notebook PC has changed radically in the past year, ever since the arrival of the portable Pentium III processor and Intel's SpeedStep technology, which adjusts clock speed on the fly to reduce power consumption.

IBM's ThinkPad i series of notebooks come with 500-MHz Celeron processors, 64M of RAM, 6G hard drives and 12.1-inchs screens. They weigh 6 pounds and start at $1,700.

Last year, a high-end notebook PC came with a Pentium II chip fast enough to handle most Microsoft Windows applications as long as you weren't running sophisticated 3-D graphics or animation software. Now, many manufacturers consider low-end to be a bare-bones Pentium III model that doesn't have SpeedStep.

But all the breakneck speed and power you get in the newest models might be more than you need, particularly at notebook PC prices. Many office workers are still very productive running 266-MHz or even slower Pentium II desktop PCs, so why not buy a notebook with similar capabilities?

Actually, there is a good reason why not'they can be hard to find. Unlike desktop systems, for which a PC typically is priced without the monitor, portable computers come with relatively expensive flat-panel displays reflected in the price of even low-end models.

This sets a comparatively high entry point for notebook PCs because the processor is not the most expensive component, as it is with many low-end desktop computers. If you're already paying for the monitor, the price difference in adding more computing power might not look so big. Perhaps as a result, manufacturers don't make many low-end models.

A notebook PC buyer needs to consider a slightly different set of criteria than does someone shopping for a desktop system.

Because it's impossible to upgrade a notebook PC's monitor and usually expensive to upgrade its processor, memory or hard drive size, it often makes sense to buy more notebook PC power than you need at the moment. Full-time mobile executives, presenters and technicians who essentially need desktop PC power on the road should consider that approach. This guide is not for them.

The TransPort NX from Micron Electronics has a 400-MHz Pentium II processor, 64M of RAM, a 6G hard drive and a 15-inch screen. It weighs 6.2 pounds and is priced at $1,549.

But many notebooks are used only occasionally or are passed around the office to whoever is on the road. In that case, a low-end unit could be in order.

The occasional notebook PC user most likely needs three things: word processing, spreadsheet and e-mail programs, usually combined with limited Internet browsing.

Unless you are trying to run Microsoft Windows 2000, the slowest new notebook you can buy today can easily handle all these office tasks.

Hard drives of 2G to 6G are plenty for these occasional users' demands, as is 64M or even less of RAM.

Even weight isn't as important a factor. When you carry a portable computer only occasionally, you can put up with a few extra pounds that would be unacceptable as everyday luggage.

Some heavy-duty road warriors who just don't have the budget for the computing power they really need are stuck with low-end notebook PCs. For these workers, it's important to remember that the size and quality of the screen are probably the two most vital features, even before performance.

Hewlett-Packard's OmniBook XE2 is a 6.4-pound unit with a 450-MHz K6-2 processor, 32M of RAM, a 4.3G hard drive and a 12.1-inch screen. It's priced at $1,197.

It's a little annoying to have to wait a few extra seconds for a spreadsheet to recalculate, but a poor-quality screen can become unbearable when you work for several hours at a stretch.

Most of the models included in this buying guide use Intel Celeron processors, although there also is a good assortment of Pentium II processors and notebook PCs with K6-2 chips from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif. And the refurbished models listed also feature some first-generation Pentiums.

The base weight of these PCs goes as low as 2.4 pounds for the Sony Electronics Inc. Vaio PictureBook, which has only an 8.9-inch screen, and as high as 7.6 pounds for Sager Midern's NP2330-C. If you're going to be carrying it around, remember that a unit's travel weight will be about 2 pounds more than its base weight, once you have accounted for batteries and other accessories.

For many occasional users who need a notebook for basic on-the-road tasks, screen size and quality can be more important than processor speed. Although many low-end models have displays of only 12.1 inches or even less, some of the models listed here feature 14-inch screens'and one, Micron Electronics Inc.'s TransPort NX, has a 15-inch screen.

The luxury of having a bigger viewing area is reflected in the price; it's up to you whether the extra money you'll pay is worth it. Price is another area where desktop and notebook PCs diverge. You can find a fairly powerful desktop model for $1,000 or less, a price range that doesn't carry over to portables'at least not to new ones. Discontinued and refurbished notebooks are the only sub-$1,000 portables available today.

For as little as $500, you can get a top-name refurbished notebook PC with 64M of RAM, a 4G hard drive and perhaps a 200-MHz or faster Pentium processor.

This can be an excellent buy for a user who needs only word processing or e-mail access.

Acer America's TravelMate 505DX has a 433-MHz Celeron processor, 32M of RAM, a 4.8G hard drive and a 12.1-inch screen. It weighs 5 pounds and is priced at $1,099.

The disadvantage in buying an older system isn't reliability; you can easily get one with a one-year warranty. Nor is it the slow processor speed; in many cases, a first-generation Pentium will do a fine job.

The biggest problems are the older screen technology and slower modems that come in many refurbished units.

On the other hand, a $1,500 budget can buy three refurbished notebooks instead of only one new machine.

Because even the hottest notebook has a practical lifetime of about three years'and only one year before needing a $100 or $200 battery upgrade'it can make a lot of sense to buy two or even more identical refurbished notebooks.

You can get one into the hands of each person who needs one, and you can treat the PCs as disposable items that you'll need to replace in a year or two.

Before you look at price, weight, or performance, it's vital to focus on who precisely will use a notebook and what tasks they will have to perform.

Taking the low road

' For general use, buy a bit more power than you need at the moment.

' For limited uses, check out refurbished notebooks'they are the real bargains.

' In making your choice, balance price, processing power, screen quality and weight.

' Remember that older refurbished models lack Universal Serial Bus ports and might also need modem upgrades.

' View low-end refurbished notebooks as disposable.

For occasional use and only basic word processing and spreadsheet needs'which is about what you would have asked a midrange office desktop PC to do three years ago'you can probably choose a notebook almost entirely on price.

At what cost?

And if price is your primary criterion, keep in mind that, for some users, a low-end notebook PC will be only slightly more useful than a personal digital assistant, which will cost and weigh far less.

When looking at very low-end notebooks, consider just how many of the required functions can be performed with a PDA instead of a notebook.

A PDA can do word processing, share files, handle database files and even use Microsoft Excel-compatible spreadsheets, so for some users it could be an even better choice than a low-end portable.

John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with computers since the early 1960s.

VendorProductProcessorSpeedOSBase weight in poundsRAMHard driveDisplay size in inchesOptical drive56-Kbps modem?NotesPrice
Acer America Inc.
San Jose, Calif.
TravelMate 512TCeleron366 MHzWin986.864M4.3G12.124X CD-ROMYesUSB, touchpad, speakers$1,399
TravelMate 507DXCeleron466 MHzWin986.832M4.8G12.124X CD-ROMYesPassive-matrix screen$1,100
TravelMate 507TCeleron466 MHzWin986.864M4.8G12.124X CD-ROMYesPassive-matrix screen$1,300
TravelMate 514TVXCeleron466 MHzWin986.864M6G14.1DVD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,800
TravelMate 505DXCeleron433 MHzWin98532M4.8G12.124X CD-ROMYesHPA screen (improved passive-matrix)$1,099
TravelMate 505TCeleron433 MHzWin98532M4.8G12.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,399
ARM Computer Inc.
San Jose, Calif.
TS290iCeleron433 MHzWin983.732M4.3G11.324X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,599
TS5100-C500Celeron466 MHzWin983.764M6G12.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,461
Compaq Computer Corp.
Notebook 100AMD K6-2475 MHzWin986.832M5G12.1CD-ROMNoHPA screen, Word 2000$1,099
Presario 1694AMD K6-2450 MHzWin987.564M6G14.1DVD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,600
Presario 1200 XL106K6-2475 MHzWin987.332M5G1324X CD-ROMYesHPA screen (improved passive -matrix)$1,000
Presario 1247K6-2400 MHzWin987.332M3.2G12.124X CD-ROMYesHPA screen (improved passive-matrix)$900
Presario 1277K6-2433 MHzWin987.364M4.2G1324X CD-ROMYesHPA screen (improved passive-matrix)$1,000
Presario 1200-110K6-2475 MHzWin987.364M6.4G12.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,200
Presario 1200-118K6-2500 MHzWin987.364M6G1324X CD-ROMYesHPA screen (improved passive-matrix)$1,100
Presario 1692K6-2433 MHzWin987.564M6.4G12.1DVD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,400
Presario 1694K6-2450 MHzWin987.564M6.4G14.1DVD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,700
Presario 1930Celeron450 MHzWin987.564M10G13.3DVD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,900
Armada V300Celeron400 MHzWin98332M4.3G12.124X CD-ROMYesHPA screen (improved passive-matrix)$1,200
Armada V300Celeron466 MHzWin98364M4.3G14.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,700
Armada V300Celeron500 MHzWin98364M6G14.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,900
Dell Computer Corp.
Austin, Texas
Inspiron 3800Celeron450 MHzWin986.7564M4.8G12.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,419
Inspiron 3800Celeron500 MHzWin986.7564M4.8G12.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,419
Inspiron 3500Pentium II266 MHzWin986.7564M4.8G144X DVD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,499
Inspiron 3500Pentium II300 MHzWin986.7564M4.8G1424X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,549
Inspiron 3800Celeron500 MHzWin986.7532M4.8G14.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen, Microsoft Works$1,649
Fosa Computer Inc.
South Plainfield, N.J.
Paragon 3100CLCeleron500 MHzWin986.664M6.1G14.124X CD-ROMNoTFT screen$1,680

VendorProductProcessorSpeedOSBase weight in poundsRAMHard driveDisplay size in inchesOptical drive56-Kbps modem?NotesPrice
Fujitsu PC Corp.
Santa Clara, Calif.
Lifebook C-4235K6-2450 MHzWin98764M6.4G12.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,300
Lifebook C-5235K6-2450 MHzWin98764M6.4G13.3DVD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,600
Lifebook C-6177Celeron500 MHzWin98764M6.4G14.1DVD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,900
Lifebook C-6330Pentium II400 MHzWin98764M10G14.1DVD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,900
Lifebook E-5140Celeron433 MHzWin986.564M6.4G13.324X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,500
Lifebook E-5320Pentium II366 MHzWin986.564M10G13.324X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,800
Gateway Inc.
North Sioux City, S.D.
Solo 1100Celeron466 MHzWin986.632M6G12.124X CD-ROMYesHPA screen (improved passive-matrix)$1,199
Solo 2150Celeron500 MHzWin986.632M6G12.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,599
Hewlett-Packard Co.
Palo Alto, Calif.
OmniBook XE2K6-2450 MHzWin956.432M4.3G12.124X CD-ROMYesHPA screen (improved passive-matrix)$1,197
OmniBook 4150Celeron450 MHzWin 20006.664M6G14.124X CD-ROMNoTFT screen$1,857
IBM Corp.
Armonk, N.Y.
ThinkPad A20mCeleron500 MHzWin985.964M6G12.124X CD-ROMYesInternal floppy drive$1,799
ThinkPad i (1117-330)Celeron500 MHzWin 2000 Pro664M6G12.124X CD-ROMYesTFT Screen, Office Suite, floppy drive optional$1,899
ThinkPad 240Celeron450 MHzWin982.964M6G10.4NoneYesTFT screen, external floppy drive$1,999
ThinkPad i-1421Celeron466 MHzWin98632M6G1324X CD-ROMYesHPA screen (improved passive-matrix)$1,200
ThinkPad i-1422Celeron500 MHzWin98632M6G1324X CD-ROMYesHPA screen (improved passive-matrix)$1,300
ThinkPad i-1442Celeron500 MHzWin98664M6G12.1DVD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,700
ThinkPad i-1542Celeron500 MHzWin98664M12G12.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,800 Inc.*
Lincoln Park, N.J.
Dell Latitude XPIPentium I150 MHzNone7.332M1.4G12.110X CD-ROMNoTFT screen$499
Dell Latitude XPIPentium I133 MHzNone7.324M1.2G11.5NoNoTFT screen$349
HP OmniBook 800 CTPentium I166 MHzNone4.880M2.1G10.4NoNoTFT screen$549
IBM ThinkPad 380EDPentium I166 MHzNone7.116M2G12.1NoNoFRSTN (enhanced passive-matrix screen)$525
IBM ThinkPad 1411Celeron366 MHzWin987.132M4.3G12.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,150
Toshiba 2595CDSCeleron400 MHzWin957.764M4.3G1320X CD-ROMYesDSTN (enhanced passive-matrix screen)$999
Toshiba 2595CDTCeleron400 MHzWin957.764M6.4G12.120X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,099
Marine Park Computers Inc.*
Brooklyn, N.Y.
Compaq Presario 1247K2-6400 MHzWin987.332M 64M 32M4G12.124X CD-ROMYesHPA screen (improved passive-matrix)$800
Compaq Presario 1692K2-6 Celeron433 MHzWin987.564M6.4G12.1DVD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,400
IBM ThinkPad 390ECeleron366 MHzWin987.132M4.8G12.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,100
Toshiba Satellite 2595 CDSCeleron400 MHzWin986.764M4.3G1324X CD-ROMYesPassive-matrix screen$900
Toshiba Satellite 4090 XDVD-ROMCeleron400 MHzWin986.764M6G14.1DVD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,500
Toshiba Tecra 8000Pentium II400 MHzWin987.564M10G14.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,700

* Indicates seller of refurbished equipment

VendorProductProcessorSpeedOSBase weight in poundsRAMHard driveDisplay size in inchesOptical drive56-Kbps modem?NotesPrice
MegaMax Inc.
City of Industry, Calif.
Mobolmax SuperSlimPentium I300 MHzWin983.732M4.3G12.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen, Lotus Millennium suite$1,500
Mobolmax P2000Celeron500 MHzWin98664M6.4G12.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen, WordPerfect Suite$1,809
Micron Electronics Inc.
Nampa, Idaho
TransPort NXPentium II400 MHzWin956.264M6G1524X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,549
TransPort ZXCeleron433 MHzWin986.264M4.8G14.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen, 10/100 NIC$1,690
TransPort LTCeleron500 MHzWin984.864M6G12.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen, Office Suite$2,099
Sager Midern Computer Inc.
City of Industry, Calif.
NP2330-CCeleron500 MHzWin987.664M6G14.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen, includes carrying bag$1,675
NP3360-CCeleron500 MHzWin986.864M6G13.324X CD-ROMYesTFT screen, includes carrying bag$1,675
Sony Electronics Inc.
San Jose, Calif.
VaioPentium II366 MHzWin983.264M6.4G1324X CD-ROMYesHPA screen (improved passive-matrix)$1,500
Vaio 505 Super SlimCeleron333 MHzWin982.764M6.4G10.4NoYesTFT screen$1,399
Vaio Z505 Super Slim ProPentium II366 MHzWin983.564M6.4G12.1NoYesTFT screen$1,899
Vaio PicturebookPentium I MMX266 MHzWin982.464M2.3G8.9NoYesTFT screen$1,399
Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.
Irvine, Calif.
Satellite 1605CDSK6-2450 MHzWin986.932M4.3G12.124X CD-ROMYesDual scan screen$900
Satellite 2105CDSK6-2400 MHzWin98764M4.3G12.124X CD-ROMYesDual scan screen$900
Satellite 2140XCDSK6-2450 MHzWin98764M4.3G1324X CD-ROMYesDual scan screen$1,100
Satellite 2180CDTK6-2475 MHzWin98764M4.3G12.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,150
Satellite 2210XCDSCeleron500 MHzWin98664M6G1324X CD-ROMYesPassive-matrix screen$1,200
Satellite 2210XCDTCeleron500 MHzWin98664M6G1324X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,500
Satellite 2615DVD-ROMCeleron433 MHzWin986.764M6G12.1DVD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,500
Satellite 2655DVD-ROMCeleron466 MHzWin986.764M6G14.14X DVD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,900
Tecra 8000Pentium II400 MHzWin987.564M10G14.124X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$2,000
Tecra 8000Pentium II400 MHzWin987.5128M14G14.1DVD-ROMYesTFT screen$2,400
Protage 3110CTPentium II300 MHzWin953.464M6.4G10.424X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,600
TrueData Products Inc.*
Uxbridge, Mass.
CompaqCeleron300 MHzWin95Not listed32M4G12.110X CD-ROMYesDual scan screen$799
CompaqK6-2433 MHzWin98Not listed64M6G14.14X DVD-ROM33.6 KbpsTFT screen$1,499
CompaqPentium II333 MHzWin98Not listed64M4G13.324X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$1,099
CompaqK6-2366 MHzWin98Not listed32M4.3G12.124X CD-ROMYesHPA screen (improved passive-matrix)$849
CompaqPentium I166 MHzWin95Not listed48M2.1G12.16X CD-ROM33.6 KbpsTFT screen$699
CompaqPentium I150 MHzWin95Not listed32M2G12.14X CD-ROM33.6 KbpsTFT screen$599
DellPentium I166 MHzWin95Not listed32M2G12.116X CD-ROM33.6 KbpsTFT screen$649
NECPentium I133 MHzWin95Not listed40M1.08G10.14X CD-ROM28.8 KbpsTFT screen$499
NEC Versa 4080HPentium I120 MHzWin95Not listed40M1.08G10.5NoNoTFT screen$299
ToshibaPentium I100 MHzWin95Not listed16M810M11.34X CD-ROM28.8 KbpsPassive-matrix screen$449
HP OmniBook 2000Pentium I166 MHzWin95Not listed80M1.4G12.110X CD-ROM28.8 KbpsTFT screen$599
CTX 700eK6233 MHzWin95Not listed32M1.4G12.120X CD-ROMYesTFT screen$699
WinBook Computer Corp.
Columbus, Ohio
Si 533/32Celeron533 MHzWin986.932M6G12.124X CD-ROMNoHPA screen (improved passive-matrix)$1,199

* Indicates seller of refurbished equipment

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