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