ON THE ROAD WITH PORTABLE PCs SMALL IS NOT ALWAYS BEAUTIFUL OR BETTER Even the best-designed notebook and subnotebook computers require awkward tradeoffs of power and convenience. Your fearless correspondent tested several leading models under harsh real-life conditions.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – THE frequent flier in the seat next to me was a lawyer, chalk-striped and fit, diligently typing notes on a Compaq laptop computer that looked a year or two old. Every now and then his authoritative clickety-click would pause, and he would glance disdainfully over at me, the journalist in jeans and photographer's vest, tearing stories out of newspapers with my bare hands, like an ape. His body language said it all: "This miserable brute doesn't even % have a computer." After a while, having shredded four newspapers, I reached into my briefcase and proved him wrong. While researching this story I road-tested a variety of portable PCs on visits to some 20 cities on three continents; during this particular trip I was carrying a Compaq Contura Aero (see table for the complete list). My Compaq, 4.1 pounds including battery and power supply, was a whole lot smaller than the lawyer's, and thus much cooler. I could see the rage and envy in his eyes as he withdrew, humiliated, to his work. This strange, wordless encounter was my initiation into the nerd machismo of portable PCs. That's when I discovered its wild Tarzan cry: "Mine is teenier than yours!" Teeniness became a virtue as these machines evolved into the ball and chain of modern life. Once you become dependent on computers, your brain atrophies, outsourcing many routine functions of cognition and memory. Before long, you can't remember your own middle name without referring to an off-site database. Since portable PCs must accompany the digitally dependent wherever they go, the machines should be as close to weightless as possible and slip into an ordinary briefcase without displacing all the other garbage we lug around. My current goal is an 8-inch by 11-inch by 1-inch PC that weighs well under four pounds and cooks Chinese. Given the laws of physics and the limits of human ingenuity, miniaturization forces difficult tradeoffs. There's something significantly wrong with every one of these computers, none of which is as capable as desktop equivalents costing less. Choosing the model that's right for you becomes a matter of deciding what you're willing to sacrifice: multimedia capability, color screen, long battery life, floppy-disk drive, acceptable keyboard, comfortable pointing device, big hard drive, or affordable price. You may be forced to give up several features you value, so it's important to prioritize your needs. My assignment was to borrow a bunch of portable PCs -- subnotebooks as well as larger units -- and test them under real-life conditions. By design, this exercise was wholly unscientific and subjective. The machines themselves varied too much to permit rigorous feature-by-feature comparison. Since techie journalists are always borrowing PCs from manufacturers and returning them months late, loaners are chronically in short supply. I had to take what I could get, particularly from IBM, which still can't produce enough top-of-the- line ThinkPads to meet demand. , The experience taught me that I'm willing to give up color, an internal floppy drive, and even an hour of precious battery life for the sake of price and portability. This contest produced no blue-ribbon winners. Tied for highest score on the Strat-o-meter were the Compaq, whose price is endearingly low, and Hewlett-Packard's OmniBook, whose nearly ideal size and weight compensate for any number of irritating features. Depending on your needs, though, you might well prefer other machines. Picking a portable computer, like shopping for running shoes, is far too personal a matter to delegate.
IN THE INTEREST of full disclosure, I should reveal a few idiosyncrasies. First, I'm a PC hobbyist who has, in middle age, suddenly run out of time to pursue the avocation. During the course of this story I became cruelly frustrated at the hours consumed by such simple tasks as transferring programs and files from a desktop machine. A few weeks ago, I was disturbed to catch myself fantasizing about hiring someone to play with my computers for me. Foible No. 2: I've become so accustomed to the convenience of digital information that my ability to cope with bulky physical objects, such as paper files, has degenerated. If President Clinton saw my office, he'd declare a national emergency, whereas the universe inside my computers is orderly and serene. These days if something isn't beautiful, tasty, or capable of love, I'd just as soon deal with it in digital form. As a touch-typist, I regard the ergonomics of the keyboard and the pointing device as central to a PC's usability. Hunt-and-peck typists might not care. Only the Apple, Toshiba, and Compaq offered the wrist rest that many experienced computer users regard as essential. Also rare were the rear legs needed to adjust a keyboard to a comfortable angle. No portable but the IBM 750C offered a completely satisfactory keyboard. The H-P, for instance, suffers from a space bar set too low to respond reliably to a normal sideways bop of the thumb, resulting in annoyingly frequent runtogetherwords. The Toshiba, in other respects an excellent product, is one of many PCs that places important keys in all the wrong places. Its home key is where my fingers expect backspace to be, so I often found myself unexpectedly inserting text into whatever word happened to be at the upper-left-hand corner of the screen. I feared that, like Mr. Mxyztplk in the Superman comics of my youth, I would inadvertently produce the combination of letters that would abruptly zap me back to the fifth dimension. The popularity of graphical user interfaces, like those of Apple, Microsoft Windows, and IBM's OS/2, makes some kind of point-and-click device essential. Don't buy a machine with a separate pointing gadget that needs to be plugged or clicked into place. My favorite alternative to the familiar desktop mouse is the big trackball on Apple 100-series PowerBooks. Located right by the thumb, it has great feel. Though I depend on software for IBM compatibles and so could give the two Apples only a cursory examination, I was delighted by this aspect of their ergonomics. If only PowerBooks weren't so heavy.
SECOND BEST among the pointing devices was the IBM-designed TrackPoint, a teeny joystick shaped like a pencil eraser that protrudes between the g and h keys and responds to pressure. A similar device is found on the Toshiba Portg and other PCs, but it is most successful on the IBM 750C. Third place went to Apple's model 540C, with a new gizmo called a Trackpad. You control the Apple's cursor simply by moving your fingertip across the Trackpad, a pressure-sensitive square located on the wrist rest. Chandler, my 4-year-old daughter, enthusiastically recommends it. Here's a brief rundown on the five IBM-type PCs:
-- Compaq Contura Aero 4/25. This is a workmanlike machine distinguished by portability, price, and a few nice features. First, the bad news: The keyboard design is annoyingly quirky. The trackball, embedded in a wrist rest, demonstrates the dark side of nerd machismo: Some things can be too teeny, and this pointer is one. Compaq's standard-issue Duracell battery was deplorably weak, good for two hours or less. Buy the high-power battery for $95 extra. The good news is that in its monochrome version, fully loaded with options including a 250-megabyte hard drive, the Compaq lists at $2,399, among the least expensive machines tested. Yet its functionality and performance were solidly in the middle of the pack. This was one of only three PCs (the others were H-P and Toshiba) that fit comfortably in my briefcase, and at 4.1 pounds with battery, its weight was among the lowest. On balance, good enough.
-- H-P OmniBook 430. This computer is slightly thinner and three-tenths of a pound lighter than the Compaq, and therein lies most of its appeal. The emphasis on those fractional differences may sound fussy, but when you find yourself, as I did, on an itinerary such as Greenbrier, West Virginia, to & Portland, Oregon, via Washington, D.C., Newark, New Jersey, and Denver, every extra millimeter and ounce become obstacles to inner peace. Thicker and heavier, this machine would have little appeal. Its screen, available only in black and white, ranked worst of the lot. The hard drive is small, the keyboard ill-designed. The 4.5-hour battery lasts three hours or less. But as the old Tandy TRS-80 once did, the minimalist OmniBook defines state-of-the-art portability.
-- Toshiba Portege T3400CT. Hugely popular with the industry press, this computer is the first portable with a color screen that I ever used. At first sight I longed to possess it -- not as a loaner, but as mine, all mine! The 5.4-pound Toshiba is a middleweight, but it slides sweetly into a briefcase. The wrist rest and AccuPoint pointer entice. Indeed, the appeal was so intense that at first I hardly considered the machine's hair-raising sticker price: $4,544, with options. But this was not true love. The Toshiba's unresponsive keyboard became hateful to me, with its FN key to the left of the space bar where I expect ALT. Since I couldn't type accurately on it, I reluctantly concluded that the Toshiba is an elegant but expensive doorstop. Get with it, manufacturers: We demand standard keyboard layouts!
-- IBM ThinkPad 500. Because of the three-pound difference between the model 500 and the 750C, I decided to try them both. The 500 is a subnotebook, a bit too thick for my briefcase but among the lightest of all the PCs tested. Though far from outstanding in most aspects of design and performance, this is a stolidly adequate machine. The screen is so-so, the keyboard is unresponsive to touch-typing, the TrackPoint's buttons are poorly placed, the screen is monochrome -- but everything works. The machine's main appeal is its portability, relatively modest price, and IBM pedigree. The brand is backed up by first-rate customer service. When I encountered trouble moving files one Sunday at 6:24 a.m. -- don't ask who woke me up -- I called IBM's help center and reached a tech-support guy named Louis who cheerfully solved my problems, including one that wasn't IBM's fault. One great feature is the battery life, long enough to last through most of a trip across the Atlantic. IBM provides two batteries as standard equipment. The company charges $45 extra, though, for a leather portfolio-style carrying case so slim it can fit little more than the PC, a pen, and a couple of vellum business cards -- an accoutrement suitable only for advertising executives and titled Europeans.
-- IBM 750C. If you are the sort of pasha who glides through life followed by bearers carrying your possessions on their heads, the IBM 750C is for you. (In May, IBM replaced it with the slightly improved 755C model.) Nearly two inches thick and over 11 inches wide, it weighs 7.4 pounds and requires a hefty briefcase of its own. Unless you're a Hindu god with plenty of extra arms, you'll want someone else to carry it for you. This baby cost $9,324 fully loaded ($12,789 for the new 755C), and it's rare enough to turn heads, the way good-looking people did in the old days before microelectronics became generally affordable. Ostentatious though it is, the 750C performs. Its color screen is lovely, and its keyboard, though missing a wrist rest, is excellent. The battery lasted about three hours. The hard drive is huge -- and removable, making the machine easy for multiple users to share. And when you're at the office or making a presentation, you can slap the 750C into the most deluxe docking station this side of outer space, fitted out with stereo speakers, a CD-ROM player, and more. Anyone seeking more information about these and other portables will find plenty available. PC magazine regularly subjects IBM-compatible machines to rigorous and reliable benchmark testing, and includes a useful "Bang for the Buck" comparison chart in its reports. Mac User magazine's reports on Apples are well regarded. For a broader range of views, swap E-mail with people who are using the products that interest you. CompuServe (1-800-848-8990) is one of several on-line services that harbor lively and candid discussions. Neophytes might benefit by consulting the Spec Watch column at the back of every issue of PC Computing; it does a fair job of defining the features you should demand in many product categories. Above all, try before you buy.
MANUFACTURERS' claims about battery life are almost universally worthless. Remember the old gag about the three great lies, starting with "The check is in the mail"? Add a fourth: "The battery will last up to nine hours in a typical workday environment." Only one of the batteries I tested lasted much more than three hours, and some pooped out in less than two. Buy an extra battery and keep it in your carry-on bag. It seems obvious that portable computers require built-in communications capability, but Apple's 540C is the only one of these machines to offer a modem as standard equipment. If you want to transmit files and e-mail from the road using a typical portable, you'll need a credit-card-size modem that fits into a special receptacle called a PCMCIA slot. Although admirably compact, these devices usually require kooky, ill-designed cables and software that can be complicated to install. Manufacturers, are you listening? Before committing to a portable, think through the logistics of transferring files between it and your desktop or network. The best idea yet is the LapLink Wireless system from Traveling Software (list price: $300). It comes with two teeny radio transceivers, which you plug into your portable and desktop computers. Bring the two machines within range and presto! the program automatically copies files back and forth until both have updated versions of your files. Don't assume your computer will be equipped with everything you need. I'd recommend buying a machine with an external floppy-disk drive -- for backup, file transfer, and emergency boot-ups -- and a port replicator, which reconnects your portable to such desktop conveniences as an external monitor and keyboard in one easy step. You'll also want to travel with an adapter enabling three-prong plugs to fit into two-prong electrical sockets (only the Toshiba boasts a convenient two-prong plug); a floppy disk containing emergency programs, including a copy of system software such as MS-DOS; and an extra-long phone cord, since the sadists who run hotels like to put phones at bedside rather than near a desk. If you're heading overseas, make sure you have the right plugs and cables to connect to the local electricity and phone system. I was miserable in South Africa when I discovered my kit of electrical plug converters didn't include one usable in that country. I feared having to husband 40-odd minutes of remaining battery life over a two-week trip, until an experienced voyager who lives there taught me the solution: In many countries, readily available small appliances such as tea kettles use electric cables that fit the standard connector in a PC power supply.
ANOTHER LESSON learned: It really is okay to send your computer through the X- ray machines at the airport. I'd been told not to worry, but never dared try until I had the opportunity to risk someone else's machine. Not only was the hard disk unharmed every time I did it, but even data in active RAM memory survived unscrambled. The next question is how to get my cherished Citizens Utility Co. souvenir belt buckle through airport security without setting off the metal detector's alarm. I'd hate to have to switch to something teeny.
Strat Sherman's E-mail address is 76330.540 compuserve.com
CHART: NOT AVAILABLE CREDIT: NO CREDIT CAPTION: A QUICK GUIDE TO LAPTOP COMPUTERS