ThinkPad weighs in as best notebook

ThinkPad weighs in as best notebook<@VM>Of six 750-MHz portables, one rocks, four do OK and one will soon disappear

IBM tops field of six, thanks to light weight and speed, and earns the Reviewer's Choice designation

By Michael Cheek

GCN Staff

First impressions don't usually count for much when it comes to the newest information technology products. But sometimes an initial gut reaction holds true.

That was the case with one of the six 750-MHz Pentium III SpeedStep notebook PCs that arrived recently at the GCN Lab.

I've examined more than 100 notebooks in these pages'thin and light, heavy and full-featured, and everything in between. As I unpacked the six newest ones, my fellow reviewers immediately enthused about the ThinkPad T20 from IBM Corp. I resolved not to get too excited about IBM's notebook'yet.

After a month of testing, however, it won me over, too.

Ziff-Davis' Business Winstone 99 showed a 10 percent drop from SpeedStep depending on the processor's clock speed. Most users would not notice it, but they don't get a corresponding increase in battery life.

Four others were solid contenders. Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Gateway Inc. and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. all sent strong, full-featured entries. Fujitsu PC Corp.'s C-Series Lifebook did not perform as strongly. Just before finishing this review, I learned that Fujitsu will withdraw the C-Series from the U.S. market next month.

The IBM ThinkPad's low weight, efficient battery, integrated network interface and modem, and outstanding benchmark performance made it an easy selection as the Reviewer's Choice.

Among the lab's many tests was a look at the SpeedStep battery-saving feature built into portable Intel Pentium III processors.

It turned out that SpeedStep didn't make much difference. Under maximum drain, half of the units showed no change in battery performance regardless of whether SpeedStep was enabled. The three that did show some benefit gained only about 11 minutes in operation.

Intel Corp. developed SpeedStep to slow down portable processors' clock rate while on battery power. Under AC power, the notebooks ran at their full 750-MHz clock rate. On battery, they dropped back to 600 MHz. Benchmarking revealed an average performance drop of about 10 percent with SpeedStep.

The Compaq Armada M700 can accept a huge amount of RAM'up
to 576M.

Under most circumstances, users would not notice so small a drop. But they would be giving up 10 percent in performance without gaining 10 percent in battery life. The lab's tests showed SpeedStep gave a minuscule benefit, if any.

For the faster portable processors that will arrive in coming months, SpeedStep might extend operation by 20 minutes. But that benefit will be cut by larger, brighter displays that drain the battery faster.

The processor accounts for only part of the battery depletion. Today's notebooks have 14.1-inch and even larger displays that suck the juice from cells. Spindles for DVD-ROM, CD-ROM and hard drives are the second heaviest drain, and the processor comes in a distant third.

SpeedStep needs more maturity to bring real benefits, and Intel also should consider making SpeedStep variable. Current versions clock down by only 150 MHz. A 350-MHz drop might make a big difference.

I'm writing this review on a 133-MHz Pentium PC with only a word processor open. In such common situations, SpeedStep could even slow to half-speed for substantial energy savings without inconvenience to the user.

The lab's maximum drain test is the ultimate trial by fire. It keeps the test notebook busy with the display and processor active, and the hard and optical drives spinning. Under such conditions, a battery lasts the absolute minimum time a user should expect.

The lab rounded up all battery life results to the nearest quarter-hour to accommodate any variations.

The Gateway Solo 9300ls delivered the best performance in this torture test, operating for four hours.

The Dell Latitude CPx had good benchmarks and ran three hours on battery, with or
without SpeedStep, at a high drain rate.

A big deal

But the Solo also weighed the most of all the notebooks tested'more than a pound heavier than all but the Fujitsu Lifebook. Most of the extra pound came from the battery.

To gauge battery performance, the lab staff divided the weight of each battery into its running time, calculating minutes of life per battery ounce. The ratio indicates how efficiently the battery is used.

The Gateway Solo 9300ls battery did a pretty good job, yielding 11.4 minutes per ounce. The Dell Latitude CPx lasted an impressive three hours on the maximum drain test, earning a score of 12.9 minutes per ounce.

The lightweight IBM ThinkPad T20 came out on top. Although it lasted only two hours, 15 minutes, it had the smallest battery at 10 ounces. Its ratio was the highest in the review at 13.5.

You could pack a second 10-ounce battery with the ThinkPad to get slightly longer battery life than with the Solo and still tote almost two pounds less.

The Toshiba Tecra 8100 and the Compaq Armada M700 posted acceptable 11.0 and 10.0 ratios, respectively.

The Fujitsu's ratio was 7.5, and the unit stayed alive for less than two hours'unacceptable compared with the battery life of the average notebook.

In a recent survey of GCN readers, their top request was to lighten their load [GCN, Aug. 21, Page 24]. Readers said full-featured notebooks weigh too much.

The Fujitsu Lifebook ran less than two hours on battery but had good peripheral ports.

The table accompanying this review shows three different weights. The first is the unit's weight in operating mode. That includes the notebook, the battery and anything else within the chassis. If no connectivity devices are integrated, the weight also includes a PC Card.

Four of the test notebooks were dual-spindle configurations. Spindles can rotate hard, floppy, CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drives or a combination of them. The most common configuration is one hard and one optical drive. All four dual-spindle units weighed less than 7 pounds.

Two notebooks came in a triple-spindle configuration, which means three storage devices'hard, optical and floppy drives'inside the chassis at the same time. That adds weight, bringing the units up to more than 7 pounds.

For comparison, the table also shows the triple-spindle weight if a user decides to carry the third spindle device plus a cable to access it.

Interestingly, adding the third spindle did not make the dual-spindle designs weigh more than the triple-spindle ones. The only exception was the Dell Latitude CPx, which tipped the scale an ounce heavier than the triple-spindle Fujitsu.

Figure on this

The third figure in the table, the luggable weight, takes into account an AC cable and transformer brick.

In every configuration, the Gateway Solo 9300ls was the heaviest and the IBM ThinkPad T20 the lightest. But the ThinkPad, unlike the other dual-spindle designs, did not have a special cable so that all three spindles could be used at once.

That turned out to be the only flaw in the incredible portable.

In dual-spindle configuration, the ThinkPad T20 weighed only 5 pounds, 5 ounces despite a 14.1-inch display and integrated network interface and modem. The T20 was at least a generation ahead of the rest in this comparison.

The Toshiba Tecra
8100 earned the top score for graphics on the
ZD Business Graphics WinMark tests.

IBM also offered the widest peripheral selection for the modular bay: a CD recordable-rewritable drive, a 120M Imation Corp. SuperDisk drive, a 250M Iomega Corp. Zip drive or even a second battery for operating in single-spindle mode.

Although the third spindle could not be accessed, the device in the modular bay could be changed on the fly, as with most of the other notebooks in this review.

A final feature that put the ThinkPad over the top might seem insignificant, but frequent business travelers would find it indispensable.

On international and red-eye flights, cabin lighting often is dimmed or turned off. It's impossible to see the keys on a dark-colored keyboard.

The ThinkPad had a tiny light on the overhang lip above the display. When turned on, it put out just enough light to show the keyboard and did not interfere with the display.

Under the maximum drain test with the small light powered on the entire time, I noticed no effect whether the light was on or off.

The IBM keyboard was the absolute best I've ever used on a portable. Keys had a strong, pliable feel. They sprang to life and responded naturally to touch-typing.

I also liked the mouse buttons, which did not click or have a cheap, plastic feel. Instead, they felt more like the keys.

The ThinkPad adopted the current fad of a third, larger button beneath the left and right mouse buttons. Like the Compaq's third button, it could scroll on the display in whichever direction the eraser tip was pushed.

I wish IBM would make this button totally programmable, letting the user decide how it should work.

The ThinkPad had hardware volume controls as well as a mute button for the two speakers on the front. Audio was good, though it lacked the depth of the Gateway and Compaq audio.

The 18G hard drive was one of the largest currently available for portables. All the notebooks had 8M of memory in their Accelerated Graphics Port X2 adapters.

The ThinkPad performed remarkably well on all benchmarks, earning the top spot under the all-around Business Winstone 99 suite. The GCN Lab uses the Ziff Davis Media Inc. Winstone and WinBench benchmark tests.

The Gateway Solo 9300ls ran the longest of any unit reviewed: four hours.

Business Winstone performs common tasks from the three leading office suites. A desktop PC with a 233-MHz Pentium MMX processor sets the 10.0 baseline for Business Winstone.

What's the score?

The ThinkPad scored 36.6, meaning it was about 3.7 times faster than the baseline 233-MHz PC. That score was even better than for some 1-GHz desktop systems the lab recently tested [GCN, Aug. 21, Page 41].

Even when the IBM processor clocked down to SpeedStep's 650 MHz, it still performed the best on Business Winstone, earning a 33.7 score.

As for individual components, the IBM took second place for graphics and hard-drive performance. On the CPUmark 99 test, which examined the processor, caches and memory, the ThinkPad with SpeedStep engaged had the best score.

Although its $4,199 price tag was pretty steep, the ThinkPad was not the most expensive notebook in the review. Top-of-the-line notebooks generally cost about twice as much as equivalent desktop PCs.

Because I could not attach the third spindle to the notebook'among the technical requirements for this review'the ThinkPad T20 lost half a grade for usability, resulting in an A-. Otherwise the ThinkPad would have earned an A.

The Compaq, Dell, Gateway and Toshiba notebooks each earned a solid B. Each had interesting features that make them worth buyers' consideration.

I've reviewed Compaq's Armada M700 before in the 500-MHz Pentium III version [GCN, Feb. 7, Page 25]. I gave it a B then, too.

Compaq has made some improvements. Like the ThinkPad, the M700 had network interface and modem integrated'a must for current portables. In February, only a modem was integrated.

Compaq also improved battery life by 30 minutes, boosting the life-to-weight ratio from 8 minutes to 10 minutes per ounce.

The M700's sleek, 1.1-inch-thick chassis weighed in at second lightest in the review.

Like IBM, Compaq did not configure its submission according to the lab's specifications. The Armada had only 64M of RAM instead of the requested 256M. Oddly enough, however, Compaq's Web site listed 128M as the base memory for a 750-MHz Pentium III unit running Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional.

The Armada did have the largest memory expansion potential of any of the notebooks'up to 576M. Anyone who does massive calculations or database applications on a notebook might consider that much extra memory a compelling plus.

Lack of memory in the test unit, however, probably hurt the Armada on the Business Winstone 99 tests, where it came in fifth.

Compaq had a nice selection of extras for the modular bay, including a second hard drive of 6G, 12G or 18G. Many government sites require any hard drive storing secret or classified material to be removable for storage in a safe. Compaq had a modular hard drive available that was larger than the built-in 11G drive. But the company did not offer an optional CD-R/RW module as Dell, Gateway and IBM did.

The keyboard had four Easy Access Internet buttons as an extra. Located above the function keys, they were supposed to provide instant access to e-mail, the Web and other Internet functions. But they did nothing when pressed, even with a browser or e-mail application open. I could not find a utility to control the buttons.

The Armada's power button was too small, in my view, but it did not stick as earlier versions did. I liked the safe separation of power and suspend/resume buttons. The suspend mode reduces battery drain when the notebook is not in use or when the user wants a virtual pause.

Get to the point

The keyboard's eraser tip pointer was too low in relation to the keys around it. And sometimes the unit registered an erroneous B key press when the pointing device was moved.

The 14.1-inch display was too dim. The two speakers pointed directly beneath where users would rest their palms, although the sound came out very full.

At $4,951, the Compaq was the most expensive of the bunch by almost $500. I didn't find $500 worth of extra features. Some government contracts might have a little lower price, but when I configured a unit on Compaq's General Services Administration Web sales form, I came up with a price higher than $5,000.

The Dell Latitude CPx was the least expensive of the B-graders at $3,786. Bargain hunters might want to keep an eye on the CPx, which is reaching the end of its lifecycle. Dell likely will introduce a new form for the Latitude in the coming months. In its day, it was the lightest full-featured, dual-spindle unit. Now it's the weightiest.

In the same review with the 500-MHz Compaq mentioned above, I looked at a 500-MHz version of the Latitude CPx. What a difference eight months have made.

The Latitude showed strong overall performance on all benchmarks. It had the fastest hard drive and improved in battery life, going from 2 hours, 15 minutes to 3 hours. That brought the life-to-weight ratio up from 9 to 12.9. It also earned the Latitude CPx second place across the board'second in overall life behind the Gateway and second in efficient use to the IBM.

Dell offered an optional CD-R/RW drive for the second media bay, but not a Zip or SuperDisk drive.

What hurt the Latitude was the lack of integrated communications devices. Dell did offer a good combination network adapter and modem card from Xircom Inc. of Thousand Oaks, Calif. The PC Card, nominally was a Type II but as thick as a Type III, so it took up both slots.

That means military users of Fortezza PC Cards could not connect to a network and encrypt messages at the same time. For other users, the lack of an integrated communications device would be less of a concern.

Another negative: At almost 7 pounds, the Latitude CPx was just too heavy.

It had two pointing devices'an eraser tip and a touchpad, both with their own buttons. The 14.1-inch display was bright and clear and the sound generally good. Everything about the Latitude indicated solid performance, which is why Dell's design has hung around for a couple of years. But as notebook technology has advanced, it's time to shed some weight.

That's equally good advice for Gateway's Solo 9300ls. Its triple-spindle design and 15-inch display raised the weight to almost 8 pounds. Despite all that avoirdupois, the Solo 9300ls lacked an integrated network interface. It did have a modem, however.

The Gateway battery lasted longest of all with an efficient life-to-weight ratio of 11.4. For users who spend more time at the desk than on the road, the Solo 9300ls could be a good choice.

Gateway's memory configuration seemed a little odd, though. The 64M soldered onto the motherboard meant that Gateway could not hit the lab's target 256M. Instead, it sent 288M. Despite so much RAM, Gateway installed only an 11G hard drive.

The 8M graphics adapter on the AGP X2 bus had more real estate to cover on the Solo's 15-inch-diagonal display compared to the other units' 14.1-inch displays, and its video performance turned out to be the worst. Otherwise, its benchmark scores were solidly middle of the road.

Gateway did build in two Universal Serial Bus ports; most other notebooks have one. And it offered an optional 250M Zip drive, as well as a CD-R/RW drive for the modular bay.

Get with the program

Like Compaq, Gateway provided four programmable buttons on the keyboard, but the Solo 9300ls used the Control Panel to make them work. It supplied hardware volume and mute controls.

Along the front base of the Solo were CD/DVD controls for play/pause, forward, reverse and stop. There also was a flip switch for locking and unlocking the controls. The placement was somewhat awkward. Speakers were located on either side of the controls along the front.

The Gateway had one weird quirk. Some systems can boot from the optical drive, which is handy for loading operating systems. But when I had an audio CD in the drive, the Gateway would lock up on boot.

At $3,798, the price wasn't heavyweight, but the Solo was too heavy for a road warrior.

Weight is one thing Toshiba's Tecra line has been shedding. The Tecra 8100 came in at 6 pounds, 4 ounces. When I last looked at a Tecra, it weighed more than two pounds heavier [GCN, Sept. 8, 1997, Page 33].

One area where the Tecra 8100 stood out was in an over-engineered power optimizer. Toshiba replaced Windows 2000's power control panel and the special add-in provided by Intel for SpeedStep. Although Toshiba's arrangement gave granular control over almost every battery-draining element, it was complex to operate and understand.

A small light-bulb icon in varying colors appeared in Win 2000's system tray at the bottom right corner to show what mode the notebook was operating in.

A level above

The level could influence monitor brightness, processor speed, hard drive access and other aspects of system performance'a great idea. Toshiba incorporated its own default settings, but the light-bulb icon was just too small to see nuances of orange, yellow and red.

If the panel were redesigned to be easier to understand, it would be helpful. I also found it confusing that Microsoft's power options remained in the Control Panel. At launch, a window would pop up a warning to 'close Microsoft Windows 2000 Power Options and use Toshiba's Power Saver.'

One other good power feature was a little door that slid over the power button to prevent accidental powering on or off in transit.

The Tecra lacked a network interface, although it did have a modem. It did pretty well on benchmarks, garnering the top spot for graphics performance. But when the processor was operating in SpeedStep mode, the performance cut was almost 19 percent'a lot more than the 10 percent average.

At $4,405, the Tecra came in second-costliest.

The Fujitsu Lifebook C-6577 was the least expensive unit and will soon go off the U.S. market, which may be why its price is about $600 lower than the Dell's.

Performance was poor on benchmarks, partly because the C-6577 could not accommodate the requested amount of RAM, and only 192M at its maximum. Also, Fujitsu sent the unit with Windows 98 Second Edition installed instead of Win 2000 Professional, costing the Lifebook as much as 20 percent on some benchmarks.

Quite a drain

The Fujitsu battery lasted less than two hours on the maximum drain text. Its 7.5 minutes of life per ounce were the lowest in this review.

Neither the DVD drive nor the floppy drive could be removed. Its triple-spindle design came in at 7 ounces lighter than the Gateway's.

The 14.1-inch Lifebook display had a tendency to flicker constantly, as if some connection were off. Two USB ports and a FireWire 1394 port were present.

The LCD showed date and time, as well as the current operating mode. That could be handy, but mostly it just seemed awkward. Four buttons in front controlled the optical disk's play/pause, stop, forward and reverse functions.

Or, with a flip of a switch, they became programmable buttons.

In its remaining lifespan, the Lifebook might be a buy for bargain hunters.

Of six 750-MHz portables, one rocks, four do OK and one will soon disappear
Armada M700
Compaq Computer Corp.
Latitude CPx
Dell Computer Corp.
Austin, Texas
Lifebook C-6577
Fujitsu PC Corp.
Santa Clara, Calif.
Solo 9300ls
Gateway Inc.
N. Sioux City, S.D.
ThinkPad T20
IBM Corp.
Armonk, NY
Tecra 8100
Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.
Irvine, Calif.
Pros and Cons


+ Lightweight
+ Integrated NIC and modem

- Expensive
- Four Internet buttons failed

+ Impressive battery life
+ Good performance

- Lacks integrated modem and NIC
- Heavies dual-spindle

+ Inexpensive
- Flickering dispaly

- Slow performance

+ Good battery life
+ 15-inch display

- Won't boat withdisk in optical drive
- Heavy

+ Full-featured yet lightweight
+ Keyboard light

- Lacks attachment for third spindle

+ Power button protection
+ Excellent display

- Quirky power-saving applet
- Lacks integrated NIC

Usability (60 percent)
Unit Weight
Triple spindle weight
Luggable weight
Maximum drain with SpeedStep*Maximum drain without SpeedStep*
Extra time gained by SpeedStep
Battery weight
Minutes per battery ounce
5 pounds, 13 ounces
6 pounds, 9 ounces
7 pounds, 6 ounces
2 hours, 30 minutes
2 hours, 30 minutes
15 ounces
6 pounds, 10 ounces
7 pounds, 6 ounces
8 pounds, 7 ounces
3 hours
3 hours
1 minute
14 ounces
7 pounds, 5 ounces
7 pounds, 5 ounces
8 pounds, 2 ounces
1 hour, 45 minutes
1 hour, 45 minutes
14 ounces
7 pounds, 5 ounces
7 pounds, 12 ounces
7 pounds, 12 ounces
8 pounds, 10 ounces
4 hours
4 hours
1 pound, 5 ounces
6 pounds, 5 ounces
6 pounds, 12 ounces
6 pounds, 8 ounces
2 hours, 15 minutes
2 hours, 15 minutes
3 minutes
10 ounces
6 pounds, 4 ounces
7 pounds, 4 ounces
8 pounds, 5 ounces
2 hours, 45 minutes
2 hours, 30 minutes
11 minutes
15 ounces
Features and configuration (20 percent)
Operating system (as tested)
RAM (base/as tested/max)
Hard drive
Display size and resolution
Graphics adapter (video memory)

Spindle design
Third spindle
Spindles available

Network interface
Other features
Win 2000 Pro
14.1-inch XGA
ATI Rage Mobility P (8M)
Eraser tip pointer with three buttons
DVD, CD-ROM, hard drive (6G/12G/18G), SuperDisk LS-120, battery, floppy

NTSC/PAL video out, four Internet buttons
Win 2000 Pro
14.1-inch XGA
ATI Rage Mobility M1 (8M)
Touchpad and eraser tip with two buttons each
DVD, CD-R/RW, CD-ROM, hard drive (18G), floppy

Separate PC Card
Separate PC Card
S-video out
Win 98

14.1-inch XGA
ATI Rage Mobility P (8M)
Touchpad, two buttons and a scrolling lever
No modular bay options

Separate PC Card
1394 FireWire port, two USB ports
Win 2000 Pro
15-inch XGA
ATI Rage Mobility M1 (8M)
Touchpad and two buttons

DVD, CD-R/RW, CD-ROM, hard drive (6G), Zip 250M, floppy

Separate PC Card
NTSC/PAL video out, RCA audio out, two USB ports
Win 2000 Pro
14.1-inch XGA
S3 Savage IX8 (8M)
Eraser tip pointer and three buttons
Not attachable
DVD, CD-R/RW, CD-ROM, SuperDisk LS-120, Zip 250M, battery, floppy

Keyboard light
Win 2000 Pro
14.1-inch XGA
S3 Savage IX8 (8M)
Eraser tip pointer and four buttons
DVD, CD-ROM, hard drive (6G/12G/18G), battery, floppy

Separate PC Card
NTSC/PAL video out, protected power button
Performance (20 percent)
AC power
Business Winstone 99
CPUmark 99
Business Graphics WinMark
Business Disk WinMark

Battery-powered using SpeedStep features
Business Winstone 99
CPUmark 99
2.69 megabytes/sec

4.65 megabytes/sec

1.49 megabytes/sec

3.38 megabytes/sec

4.32 megabytes/sec

3.62 megabytes/sec

Features and config.
Overall grade

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