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No-Limit Laptops

Powerhouse portables provide breakthrough features for road warriors and stay-at-home media mavens alike
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

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.

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.

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