HP's nc4000 is one potent portable

HP's nc4000, priced at $2,049, has a 1.6-GHz Pentium M and plenty of RAM.

The HP Compaq Business Notebook nc4000 from Hewlett-Packard Co. carries on the fine Compaq tradition for solid, respectable notebook PCs.

There might be faster ultraportables, and others like the Sony Vaio TR1A'equipped with a digital camera and internal DVD player'that are sleeker and geared to consumer fun. But few sub-4-pounders pack as much performance, rugged design and storage as the $2,049 nc4000.

HP, like rivals IBM Corp. and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc., took only the best part of Intel's Centrino package'the low-voltage, 1.6-GHz Pentium M'so it could mix and match alternative support chips.

That's why the nc4000 has WiFi from Atheros Communications Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., and Mobility Radeon graphics from ATI Technologies Inc. of Marlborough, Mass., according to HP product manager Ken Cotter.

I bought a day pass from wireless provider T-Mobile USA of Bellevue, Wash., so I could try a WiFi hot spot at my local Borders bookstore. The experience was pure pleasure: The nc4000 recognized the hot spot in a second, and Web content, even streaming video, downloaded crisply over T-Mobile's broadband pipe.

Standard extras

The nc4000's other main components are pretty standard on the better ultraportables. They include a 12.1-inch TFT color screen with 1,024- by 768-pixel XGA resolution, 256M of double-data-rate memory and several hard drive sizes. Mine had 40G, but you could upgrade to 60G. Windows XP Professional comes preloaded.

The hybrid 8X DVD/24X CD-rewritable drive resides inside what HP calls an External MultiBay, a thin, compact peripheral box barely wider than the drive. You can swap other optical drives or a floppy into the MultiBay, which is self-powered by a little connector alongside the nc4000's Universal Serial Bus port that eliminates a dedicated AC adapter.

This theoretically saps more juice from the notebook's internal battery, but I found the machine consistently hitting its claimed 3.5 hours.

The MultiBay optical drive, though, is ultimately a rather slow, awkward appendage, like all external portable drives. The arrow keys could be bigger, and the cursor seemed to hang to the left determinedly. But those are minor quibbles. All told, the nc4000 is a very capable ultraportable. It can easily function as a desktop replacement if you are rarely at your desk.

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