Affordable portables

Dell's SmartStep 100N has a 14.1-inch display, a 1.06-GHz Mobile Intel Celeron processor and a V.90 data and fax modem. It's priced at $899.

IBM's ThinkPad R31 has a 13.3-inch display, a 1.06-GHz Mobile Intel Celeron processor and a 10/100 Ethernet LAN-V.90 modem card. It's priced at $1,249.

Inexpensive notebook PCs cover the basics

If your computing requirements don't include cutting-edge graphics, digital imaging and photography, engineering, or heavy video gaming, why spend $3,000 or more for a high-end notebook PC?

Most people use their notebook PCs for standard business applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail and Web browsing. For them, one of the systems in this guide, priced between $810 and $1,249, will do just fine.

Don't assume quality and usability will suffer just because the price is right. All of the models in the accompanying chart have features formerly found only in premium systems.

Most come with 1-GHz or slightly faster processors and 13.3-inch or 14.1-inch TFT screens with XGA resolutions of 1,024 by 768 pixels. Most also have 128M of synchronous dynamic RAM, 10G or 20G hard drives, 24X CD-ROM drives, combination 10/100-Mbps Ethernet LAN and V.90 modem cards, and plenty of legacy interfaces such as serial, parallel and Type II and III PC Card slots. Notebooks PCs with two or more Universal Serial Bus ports are well-suited for connecting printers, scanners, digital cameras and other peripherals.

The following checklist of features will help you find the system best suited to your computing requirements and budget:

Displays. Virtually all notebooks now offer XGA TFT displays with crisp resolution and good color. Only a year ago, 12-inch screens were typical in inexpensive notebook PCs, but 14 of the notebooks in the chart have 14.1-inch displays. Five have 13.3-inch screens, and only the Apple iBook listed retains the 12.1-inch screen format.

Processors. The 1.06-GHz Mobile Intel Celeron processor'a proven performer'was bundled into eight of the 20 notebooks.

If you're considering a notebook with a Mobile Intel Pentium III, or the $1,199 Apple iBook with the 500-MHz PowerPC G3 processor, don't be put off by the slower CPU speeds listed. Because the Mobile Pentium III architecture differs from the Celeron's, a direct comparison of processing speeds is misleading for many computing tasks.

And because the Apple G3 CPU design is considerably different from that of Intel or Advanced Micro Devices Inc. CPUs, its lower MHz rating doesn't necessarily indicate slower performance.

The relatively new 1-GHz 1GigaPro VIA Mobile processor, built into three of the notebooks listed here, is living up to its early billing as an inexpensive but high-performing alternative to Intel's Celeron and AMD's Duron.

RAM. Synchronous dynamic RAM running at 133-MHz is the order of the day for most of today's notebooks. Even entry-level systems now come with 128M of SDRAM, which is perfectly adequate for typical business and personal computing applications. Nevertheless, more memory is better, so look for a notebook with 256M if possible, or be sure that your notebook vendor can supply extra RAM in 128M increments.

Hard drives. You can find notebooks with 40G or even larger hard drives, but not in this price range; don't expect more than 10G or 20G. This is enough for most users. But if your notebook PC has several USB ports, you can easily add a portable hard drive or Zip drive from Iomega Corp. of Roy, Utah, for extra storage.

Floppy drives. Because startup applications now come almost exclusively on CD-ROM, many notebooks don't have floppy drives. If you need one, add a portable Zip drive, and you're in business.

Optical drives. Entry-level notebook PCs typically come with CD-ROM drives, but increasing numbers of them have 8X DVD-ROM drives. These can read CD-ROM data and play DVD data such as movies and video.

CD-RW drives haven't yet entered the low-priced notebook market, but they could within a year or so, as notebook and peripheral prices continue to drop.

Internet and network access. More and more, even low-end notebooks have integrated 10/100-Mbps Ethernet network interface cards and 56-Kbps V.90 data and fax modems that allow access to the Internet from networks or standard dial-up telephone lines.

Multimedia. A notebook PC's multimedia capability usually includes a CD-ROM drive, a sound card or built-in sound support, a video card and speakers. If your system has a DVD drive, it also should have an MPEG decoder card for viewing movies and video.

Interfaces. All notebooks should have interfaces such as serial, parallel, Type II/III PC card slots, VGA, PS/2, IrDA (infrared) and external microphone or headphone connections.

Don't forget USB

Don't buy a notebook without at least two USB interfaces. For now at least, USB is the best way to link multiple devices to a single host computer with a minimum of fuss.

As for more sophisticated interfaces such as IEEE 1394 FireWire, IEEE 802.11b or Bluetooth interfaces, you can forget about them in most low-end notebooks. If you think you want wireless connectivity, you'll have to move up to a higher class of notebooks.

Battery power. Lithium ion (Li-Ion) and nickel-metal hydride batteries are the two leading types for notebooks, with smart Li-Ion types holding a commanding lead. Most manufacturers claim their notebooks will provide between three and four hours of uninterrupted service without recharging.

But remember: Battery life is application-dependent. Since your affordable notebook won't be used much for graphics-intensive or video applications, your battery's uninterrupted service life should be fine.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at jbmiles@hilobay.com.

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