Powerhouse portables provide breakthrough features for road warriors and stay-at-home media mavens alike
For all the numb-shouldered schleppers who can't bear to travel without electronics, 2006 is a milestone year—the 25th anniversary of the portable computer. Introduced in 1981, the Osborne 1 boasted a built-in five-inch monochrome display, two floppy disk drives, word-processing and spreadsheet software, and the BASIC programming language for do-it-yourselfers. Hardly a "laptop," unless you never wanted to have kids, the Osborne 1 weighed 24 pounds and looked like a sewing machine. But it fit under an airplane seat, and that was enough to ensure its short-lived success. Priced at $1,795 (roughly $3,850 in current dollars), it sold well until the proliferation of the Microsoft DOS operating system doomed it (the Osborne used CPM). Still, it earned a spot at the Smithsonian and spawned a revolution.
From those overweight, overpriced and underpowered beginnings came the slender, value-priced, muscle-flexing laptops that rule the market today. Last year, for the first time, they outsold desktop computers, driven largely by falling prices. A decent laptop once cost significantly more than a comparable desktop. The gap is now just a few hundred dollars. For well under a grand you'll find well-built laptops, perfectly adequate for office work, homework, e-mailing, surfing the Web, listening to music and playing Tetris—all the computing basics—with a large enough, sharp enough screen (roughly 15 inches measured diagonally) and a comfortable keyboard. A close friend, a retired schoolteacher, recently asked me to help her pick out a laptop. We're not talking road-warrior requirements here. The machine may travel occasionally from her Long Island home to a New York City apartment, but she's not planning to lug it through airports, and her game of choice is Solitaire, not Doom 3. We spent a few minutes on Dell's Web site and put together a perfectly respectable Dell Inspiron 6000 with a 15.4-inch wide-screen display, a 60-gigabyte hard drive, a full gigabyte of memory, built-in wireless networking and a drive that plays DVDs and burns CDs, covered by a one-year warranty, all for just $743, with free shipping no less. That, my friends, is a heck of a deal.
A mainstream computer user looking for a mainstream notebook doesn't need much help from me. Buy from a top-tier manufacturer; avoid the bargain-basement Celeron processors and stick with Pentium M (also known as Centrino, when bundled with Intel's wireless networking chips) or AMD's Turion processor; make sure you're getting at least 512 megabytes of system memory (RAM); and pick a screen size that fits your needs and budget. You Apple acolytes will get less for your money hardware-wise. The lowest-priced iBook runs $999 with a modest 12-inch screen, while the more practical 14-incher goes for $1,299. I'd keep the memory-hungry Mac OS X happy with a full gigabyte of RAM for another hundred dollars. Still, it's not bad for a slick-looking laptop that runs software that many users find addictive. The exciting developments in portable computing, however, don't lie in the mainstream, but at two very different ends of the spectrum.
On one side are the ultraportables, sleek and sexy featherweights that tip the scales at around three pounds. Their siren song is loud and clear for hernia-phobic travelers who grasp the third corollary to Morgenstern's Law of Perpetual Transportation Aggravation: the perceived weight of a laptop increases every five minutes by an amount equal to the physical weight of the machine multiplied by the distance between your connecting gates at O'Hare times the square of your chronological age plus 10 for each obscenity you mutter in transit, or 50 for screamed expletives.
Tipping the scale on the other side are the full-size heavyweights with big screens, fast processors and pretensions to replace your DVD player, stereo system and maybe even your TV and TiVo. These desktop replacements, most weighing in at eight pounds plus, are more suitable for room-to-room computing than for coast-to-coast, but they still offer key laptop features that make them a tempting choice.
I review four ultraportables and five desktop-replacement systems here. While mainstream models tend toward a reliable gray sameness, every machine I tested here has a unique personality—with specialized features that may excite your wallet-grabbing reflex or leave you flat, but are at the very least worthy of attention. First, though, I need to explain the most interesting new development in portable computing since wireless networking: dual-core processors.
THE DYNAMIIC DUO
Used to be your computer could do one thing at a time, albeit at a pretty good clip. More and more of us, though, expect our computers to handle more and more jobs at once. You may be working on a word-processing document, for example, while also playing back music or even a DVD, and in the background your antivirus and antispyware programs are keeping an eye on everything, and maybe an instant messaging window is open in hopes of a friendly interruption. With so much going on, an ordinary microprocessor is forced to drop one job to deal with another—in rapid succession. The processor tries to keep up with most of your demands, but sometimes a particularly heavy load hits and everything kind of s-l-o-w-s d-o-w-n. The answer? Create a microprocessor that includes two processors in one. Intel introduced the first dual-core processor, which was called the Pentium Processor Extreme Edition 840, in April 2005. AMD's Opteron processors followed soon after. These dual-core trailblazers were designed for desktop computers, however, since processors for use in laptops have different design priorities. (They need to minimize both heat output and battery drain.) This January, Intel launched the mobile version of its dual-core technology with the Core Duo processor. (Note that when paired with Intel's own wireless networking gear, the Core Duo is marketed as "Centrino Duo," but it's the same processor.)
Does the Core Duo deliver? Absolutely. Most experts agree that in real-world use (as opposed to obscure technical benchmark tests), the Core Duo delivers about a 30-percent improvement over the previous-generation mobile processors. What does that mean to you? Not much, for run-of-the-mill tasks. But if you keep lots of windows open, enjoy processor-intensive multimedia applications like editing videos, creating MP3s or watching DVDs, or hope to play heavy-duty games, this is big news. And the price difference is inconsequential. In fact, by the end of 2006, Intel expects 70 percent of its laptop sales will be dual-core processors.
As I was gathering machines for this roundup, all the major manufacturers were just starting to bring dual-core-equipped machines to market. I was fortunate to pry pre-production models out of product managers' hands in some cases (thanks, HP and Sony), or to grab the first units as they came off the manufacturing line (a tip of the hat to Dell for jumping through hoops for your edification). Not all of the laptops reviewed here are dual-core machines—the chips are making it into desktop replacement machines faster than into ultraportables. One key player in the dual-core horse race is conspicuously absent. Apple just missed my product deadline as its new MacBook Pro machines sailed toward U.S. shores. Also missing here is AMD's dual-core mobile processor, which is due to ship sometime in the first half of 2006.
Still, I was able to immerse myself in several dual-core experiences and I have to say I'm impressed.
Any ultraportable computer purchase requires weighing the pros and cons—literally. There's no hard and fast definition of the category—some manufacturers simply dub their lightest-weight laptop an "ultraportable"—but my standard hovers at about three pounds. At that weight I can throw the computer into my shoulder bag in the morning without regretting the decision by noon.
The inevitable trade-offs to squeezing a complete computer into a miniature box are nowhere near as severe as they once were. Screens are relatively small—most are around 12 inches when measured diagonally, some less than nine. In practice, I find 12-inch screens perfectly legible for hours at a time, and even the 9.3-inch screen on the ultra-ultraportable Fujitsu Lifebook is fine for an extended online excursion at Starbucks. Ultraportable keyboards are also smaller than those on standard desktop computers—usually around 90 percent of the full size. I'm a very fast typist and still adjust easily to the ultraportable layout, but some users are more sensitive.
The more radical compromise for ultraportability is forfeiting a built-in optical (i.e., CD or DVD) drive. As an alternative, you can attach an external drive via USB cable or snap the system into a drive-equipped desktop docking station (though neither drive nor dock is usually included in the base price). When I'm in road-warrior mode I'm willing to go without—I use an optical drive mainly to install new software, which I always do back at the office. Even if you must have a drive while traveling (to watch DVDs in your hotel room, for example), carrying external equipment has become a lot less taxing. In the old days, you'd have to carry a separate power adapter—now many external drives draw power directly from the laptop via the USB connection. Still, for those who weigh the options and come out on the side of a built-in drive, I've fudged my category definition by a few ounces to include the sleek and sexy Sony VAIO SZ Premium, weighing in at 3.7 pounds.
Fujitsu LifeBook P1500D Notebook -- If you want to stop fellow airplane passengers in their tracks as they sideways-shuffle down the aisle, just leave this remarkable little computer on your tray table. Fujitsu isn't the only company to shoehorn a Windows PC into a tiny package. It is the first to deliver a device this small that's not only an intriguing toy, but a practical tool.
All the components you'd expect in a full-size laptop (minus optical drive) are here, including built-in wireless networking and a fast Pentium M processor. The keyboard is considerably squished, at about 80 percent of desktop computer size. I find it too small to type lengthy documents but fine for e-mail and short text, though a female friend with petite paws had no qualms even for extended text entry. Battery life with the standard cell is OK at about three hours—I'd spring for the seven-hour extended battery. You also get a touch-screen display that lets you tap and even write directly on the screen using a stylus. It's mounted on a central pivot, so the screen rotates 180 degrees and folds flat. You can then hold the LifeBook as a pad, navigating and entering information right on screen with a stylus or your fingertip which, given the size and weight of the device, is a perfectly comfortable way to work.
But how practical is it? The P1500D can be purchased with Microsoft Tablet PC software, a complete version of Windows XP with add-ons tailored for pen-based computing. You can enter text into any Windows program by writing on the screen: it does a decent—not flawless—job of translating your pen strokes into letters and words. It may prove more practical to store handwritten notes as "digital ink," then send your scrawled file to coworkers. (Visit www.microsoft.com/tabletpc for details.) Cursed with handwriting even I can't decipher, I can take or leave Tablet PC for my day-to-day work. But the LifeBook also has a full keyboard and runs all my regular desktop software, which makes it a welcome travel companion when I'm not trying to crank out full-length manuscripts. $1,349 and up; 9.3'' x 6.6'' x 1.4''; 2.2 lbs.; fujitsu.com/us/ or 800-838-5487
Sony VAIO SZ Premium -- One of the first lightweight laptops powered by Intel's Centrino Core Duo Processor, the SZ Premium packs a lot of computing power into a delicious three-and-a-half-pound package that's less than an inch thick. The 13.3-inch wide-screen LCD is big for its weight class, and the carbon-fiber casing is as rugged as it is good-looking. The big extra is the built-in optical drive, capable of not only playing but burning CDs and DVDs (that includes high-capacity dual-layer discs). Other smart touches include a built-in mic and tiny camera set atop the screen for video calling, a switch that toggles between highest-quality and longest-battery-life graphics settings, and (in addition to standard wireless networking) a built-in adapter for connecting to Cingular's high-speed wireless EDGE data network (a pricey but appealing Internet-anywhere option: see www.sony.com/cingular for plan details). Battery life is impressive, about seven hours, but the built-in speakers are only so-so and the keyboard is less than ideal. Still, this is one of the few ultraportables I'd consider as a desktop substitute. $1,449.99 and up; 12.5'' x 9.3'' x 0.9''; 3.7 lbs.; sonystyle.com or 877-865-SONY
Gateway NX100 -- For years Gateway has produced serviceable computers with about as much sizzle as a bowl of oatmeal. Now with the NX100, it has a hot ultraportable contender with a tempting price, sharp design and the option of a built-to-order system that precisely meets your computing needs. The feel is luxurious, with its jet-black magnesium casing, comfy rubberized palm rest and a smooth mouse-moving finger pad that's one of the best I've used. This isn't the top choice for heavy-duty computing tasks—the Centrino processor and mid-range graphics chip are capable but unexciting. On the other hand, you can soup up your machine with the ultrabright version of the 12.1-inch wide-screen display, hard drives up to 100-gigabyte capacity and battery options ranging from three to nine hours. Later this year a built-in chip to access Verizon's high-speed wireless data network will be available. What's more, the system comes complete with an external double-layer DVD burner that's power-adapter-free. The fundamentals are fine, the options extensive, the styling superb—it's a Gateway computer the cool kids will finally want to call their own. $1,400 and up; 11.4'' x 8.9'' x 1.0''; 3.1 lbs.; gateway.com or 888-888-2075
IBM ThinkPad X60s -- The latest addition to the ThinkPad ultraportable line (now made by China's Lenovo, but still plastered with an IBM logo for marketing purposes) brings Intel Core Duo processing power to a rock-solid design. Low on flash but strong on security and system customization, it is businesslike. None of your entertainment-oriented wide-screen displays here, mister—you get a rectangular 12.1-inch panel that gets the job done, though without much brightness when running on battery power. Same for the audio system: the throttled-down volume won't disturb the guy in the cubicle next door. The keyboard, however, is the best I've used on an ultraportable, and the one-button ThinkVantage Productivity Center is an ingenious way to access all your system settings, backup and restore operations, software updates and network setup in one convenient, unintimidating place. Add in lots of configuration options (including Verizon broadband data networking and an optional battery that delivers up to eight hours of portable productivity), then factor in the generous three-year warranty, and you'll understand why the old saw applies: "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM"—even if IBM doesn't make the machine anymore. $1,399 and up; 10.5'' x 8.3'' x 0.8''; 3.2 lbs.; pc.ibm.com or 866-968-4465
To someone raised on big towers connected to desktop monitors, keyboards, mice and speakers, the ability to tackle virtually any computing project with a box that takes up just a square foot of desk space and stows away when not in use is nothing short of amazing. You used to add expansion cards inside a large computer case for additional capabilities—today, everything's built into the box from the get-go, and any external devices connect conveniently via USB port. With a beautiful 17-inch display built into a desktop replacement notebook, most users have no need for an external monitor at all, though all of these machines let you hook up a bigger screen. You could also connect an external keyboard, though I wouldn't bother, unless a numeric keypad is key for you (and even then, the HP model reviewed below has you covered). The one item standing between you and complete computing pleasure is a mouse—dragging your finger across the built-in touchpad to move the cursor gets old fast—but adding a mouse is cheap and USB-easy.
Some ultraportable machines deliver the same processing power as the heavyweight desktop replacement models, but there are good reasons to trade up. A full-size keyboard is part of the story, but the main attractions are high-quality audio and a big screen that make your notebook computer a viable replacement for a stereo system and even a TV set in a den or dorm room. Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition isn't a requirement for making your computer more entertaining, but it certainly helps. A full-fledged version of Windows XP with additional entertainment-oriented features, it includes a convenient full-screen menu displaying all your TV, video, DVD, photo and music options. The system also supports TV tuners for viewing live shows or recording programs. It even allows wireless remote control. Keep in mind, though, that a Media Center PC doesn't automatically include a TV tuner or remote—with most systems these are extra-cost options, worth ordering if you're planning to catch the game or the latest episode of "Lost" on your computer, expendable otherwise.
Dell Inspiron E1705 -- I'm not sure about the white and silver color scheme (the heavy hand of iPod design influence at work, I fear), but as an entertainment-friendly desktop replacement machine, this Dell scores well across the board. The bright 17-inch screen is easy on the eyes, the keyboard is very comfortable, and connections for external devices rival any desktop machine, with six USB ports, FireWire, a memory card reader, and both digital and analog connectors for external monitors. Audio performance is impressive for both music and DVDs, pumping surprising volume from the compact speakers, with play/pause/stop/fast forward/rewind/mute control buttons conveniently situated on the front panel. The system ships with Windows Media Center Edition installed, though there's no internal TV tuner option available—an external USB tuner and wireless remote control are available as a $130 option. $949 and up; 15.5'' x 11.3'' x 1.6''; 7.9 lbs.; dell.com or 800-953-6014
Voodoo Heavyweight Envy u:709 -- Throughout the monthlong testing process, everyone who strolled into my living room/computer lab was instantly drawn to this showy machine. No wonder. It looks like a sports car parked on your desktop, with its refined lines and richly polished paint job (even the 11 color names smack of an automotive heritage, from Laguna Seca Blue to Monza Olive). And unlike any of the other machines in our roundup, under the hood beats the heart of a full-throttle gaming machine—an AMD Athlon 64 dual-core processor designed for desktop PCs. The downside: a bit more heat and a lot more cooling fan noise than other machines, 13 pounds of digital pulchritude and paltry battery life (figure about half an hour). The upside: impeccable processing, video and audio performance on even the most demanding tasks, including gaming and video editing. A nice bonus is the 1.3-megapixel camera perched atop the screen, great for capturing video e-mail or online face-to-face chats. This is a niche-audience computer, designed for the serious game player or multimedia maven looking for no-compromise desktop power that you can close up and stow away at the end of the day. If that's you, and you don't mind the Porsche-worthy wallet wallop, the Envy won't disappoint. $4,300 and up; 15.5'' x 11.8'' x 2.0''; 13 lbs.; voodoopc.com or 888-708-6636
HP dv8000t -- I spent hours exploring each laptop covered here, but when it came time to actually write, I relied on this HP machine. The most compelling reason: the display. Most laptop screens rely on a single backlight for illumination. The dv8000t uses two lamps to deliver brightness that looks astonishing (even with the sun shining through the window behind me), and doesn't sacrifice any sharpness or color purity. (The Toshiba reviewed below shares this dual-lamp scheme.) Unique to the HP, the full-size keyboard includes a numeric keypad on the right-hand side, just as you'd find on a desktop computer. All the arrow keys, cursor movement controls and numerals are just where you expect to find them—what a pleasure! While there's no built-in TV tuner to go with the Media Center Edition operating system, HP does offer a card-based option ($130) that slips unobtrusively into an expansion slot, which is very convenient. Finally, the dv8000t is a wonderful multimedia machine, powered by the Intel Core Duo processor, with a high-quality nVidia graphics card and impressive Altec Lansing speakers mounted up front. While eight pounds and change isn't going to make this machine my on-the-road companion anytime soon, it's fine to take room to room. $1,099 and up; 11.1'' x 15.6'' x 1..8''; 8.2 lbs.; hp.com or 888-999-4747
Toshiba Qosmio G35-AV600 -- It isn't often that I say "Wow!" when I unpack any new product, much less a laptop computer. But this Qosmio had me at "hello," and never disappointed as our relationship deepened. Yes, you can get all your work done on the machine if you insist—it runs a fast Intel Core Duo processor, the full-size keyboard is comfy, and with two 80-gigabyte drives installed you have enough storage to run a small corporation. What the Qosmio really wants to do, though, is keep you entertained, a task it handles with aplomb. Just for starters, you get Windows Media Center Edition, a wireless remote and a built-in TV tuner—connect one coaxial cable and you can start watching your favorite shows, pausing and rewinding them, and recording them to the hard drive using a convenient (and free) on-screen program guide. The 17-inch screen is truly a thing of beauty, using dual-lamp technology to deliver brightness that rivals a traditional TV. And the sound system, with harman/kardon bass reflex stereo speakers mounted near the screen, incorporates a Dolby pseudo-surround-sound system that actually works, delivering a big, convincing audio experience from your favorite DVD. $2,400; 16.0'' x 11.6'' x 1.8''; 10.1 lbs.; toshibadirect.com or 800-316-0920
Acer 5670 -- If you're looking for a desktop replacement with less bulk, this new Acer model offers it without sacrificing performance, thanks to Intel Centrino Duo Mobile Technology and a snappy ATI graphics chip. The 15.4-inch diagonal screen lacks the showy brightness of the HP or Toshiba, but it's fine for normal indoor work environments, with impressive sharpness and satisfying color accuracy. You do get a few nice touches, including a built-in camera and slot-loaded DVD burner (you just slip in the disc, instead of having that annoying disc tray stick out its tongue at you when swapping CDs). The 120-gigabyte hard-drive capacity option is also impressive, and the built-in wireless adapter worked well even at extended distances. Audio is OK, though I'd be inclined to connect a set of external speakers for serious listening, and the 3.5-hour battery life is fine but not exceptional. Bottom line: the Acer won't earn you bragging rights in a technological pissing match, but at 6.6 pounds you can carry it with far more comfort than the other desktop replacement systems reviewed here, and for the price you won't have to hide the receipt from your wife. $1,399; 14.3'' x 10.8'' x 1.1''; 6.6 lbs.; acer.com/us or 800-571-2237
Steve Morgenstern covers technology for Cigar Aficionado.