Speaking man to man, we can all agree that the lap is a sensitive area, and you have to be darn careful what you put there. Sit the wrong adorable baby in your lap, and you're stuck with a hefty dry cleaning bill. Sit the wrong adorable babe in your lap, and the bills can be even higher, especially if you're married.
Somewhere between these extremes lie the perils of picking the wrong laptop computer. In addition to thousands of dollars in monetary damages, consider the toll on your physical and mental health of cramped keyboards, squint-inducing screens and pokey performance.
The basics of picking a laptop are the same as selecting any computer system: make sure that the screen is readable and the keyboard comfortable, that there's enough speed and storage space for your needs, and that the manufacturer will answer the phone in the event of whirring, clicking, or billowing smoke. Before grappling with laptop specs, however, you need to determine how you're going to use the machine. You can order a desktop computer with "the works" and be fairly assured that it will deliver no matter what task you throw at it, but every laptop is an exercise in compromise. For instance, if you choose a model equipped with a big, beautiful screen, you'll be lugging a heavier machine and/or living with shorter battery life. If you want lightning-fast performance, you're going to pay for the privilege -- is it worth an extra thousand bucks to have your laptop idling at a blistering speed while you struggle to figure out the next letter to type into your word processor?
While subtle distinctions differentiate the hundreds of laptops on the market, they can be most significantly categorized with one simple question: Will the laptop be a traveling supplement to your regular desktop computer, or will it serve as your day-in, day-out primary machine?
Replacing a Desktop System
It's easy enough to find a laptop with enough power to handle typical day-to-day business applications, so going laptop-only is a viable option. Odds are you'll need an Ethernet port for connecting to a local area network in the office plus a modem for accessing the Internet while traveling. A large laptop display may be all you need for day-to-day computing -- despite the numeric difference, a 15-inch LCD display on a laptop has as much visible area as a 17-inch desktop monitor, thanks to differences in the way the two are measured. Another desktop-replacement option is to choose a laptop sporting a smaller screen (more portable and less expensive) and a port for connecting a full-size external monitor when working at your desk.
External keyboard and mouse ports allow you to plug in full-size peripherals at your desk. While I never bother plugging in an external keyboard, I'll often reach for a real mouse -- it's much more comfortable than using the built-in pointing device for any length of time.
Then there's the disk drive question. With multi-gigabyte hard drives shipping as standard equipment, outfitting a laptop with plenty of storage is a snap. What you have to puzzle out is equipping yourself with the right combination of removable disk drives. While some people consider the floppy disk a barely useful antique, I still want the option of saving files to a dirt-cheap floppy that I can easily carry to another computer or to a hotel business center for printing. While a drive that can record CD-ROMs seems like an extravagance on the road, it can make sense in a desktop-replacement machine -- recordable CDs sell for half a buck or less today, and they're a great way to back up files. Although virtually no software is distributed on DVD-ROM, you might want to include a DVD drive to play movies on your laptop.
It may also pay to step up to a faster processor. The slowest, least expensive Celeron processor that Intel makes is still plenty fast for basic word processing/spreadsheet/e-mail applications. However, if you want to fiddle with digital photos, edit video footage, or compress audio CD tracks into MP3 files, a faster processor will be appreciated. Then there's the question of computer games. Yes, I know you're a serious guy, much too busy and important to waste time with such frivolity, but a few minutes of mindless violence or realistic video football -- purely for therapeutic purposes, mind you -- is probably good for you. If you want to play games with high-quality 3D graphics, you'll need a fast processor, plenty of memory and, most importantly, a powerful graphics chip.
Another way to acquire desktop-replacement power is the modular approach, using a slimmer computer unit that docks with an expansion base. The HP OmniBook 500 is such a system. Granted, an all-in-one unit is less expensive and simpler. But there's something to be said for toting only three pounds of computer in your carry-on when that's all you need, while consigning the CD-ROM, floppy drive and speakers to an expansion unit that stays on your desk or in your checked luggage.
Portables that replace desktops have one big problem -- they're big. The space-saving alternative is to have a full-size computer back at the office and travel with a smaller computer that handles the basics well. For sending and receiving e-mail, and banging out prose, I'm perfectly happy with a slim, lightweight machine like the Gateway Solo 3350, or even the diminutive Sony PictureBook at just 2.2 pounds. And for sheer technological elegance, you can't beat a sleek, slim ultraportable.
The compromise comes in screen size. The Sony doesn't even have a full-height screen -- it's about half the depth of a standard computer monitor -- but I don't really need to see full pages at a glance to read e-mail or write memos at 30,000 feet. The smaller-than-standard keyboard is more of an issue. Some people are very sensitive to slight reductions in keyboard size. For myself, even significant shrinkage doesn't appreciably slow my flying fingers. I do have major problems, however, if the keys don't have much travel -- the distance they move when struck. Keyboard preference is highly personal, so my best advice is to type on any laptop you're considering before buying, or purchase one that carries no-hassle return privileges if you're unhappy.
I want built-in Ethernet, even in an ultraportable, so I can take advantage of broadband Internet access in offices I'm visiting (and, increasingly, in hotel rooms offering high-speed connectivity as an option). My other key concern when choosing an ultraportable is battery life. The smaller the laptop, the smaller the battery, and that means as little as two hours on a charge. One way around this problem is buying an extra battery and remembering to charge it before traveling.
Choosing the Best
In a market that offers an array of good to excellent laptops, I'd shy away from no-name vendors. Because portable computers are built with much closer tolerances than desktop machines and require precision assembly and carefully matched components, stick with industry leaders.
The laptops featured here include my current favorite desktop replacements (the Dell and HP) and ultraportable (the Gateway). Rather than suggest additional solid but fundamentally similar machines, I've rounded out the field with three unique models that offer interesting, nonstandard features you just might find irresistible. From Sony, there's the tiny PictureBook, which, in addition to its extraordinary compactness, includes a built-in digital camera -- a very useful traveling companion. From IBM, there's the TransNote, a computer with unique appeal for anyone who still feels more comfortable with pen and ink than a keyboard. And from Apple, we have one of the sexiest- looking portables on the planet, the titanium-clad PowerBook G4, with a wide-screen display that lets you see more work at once and enjoy DVD movies in style.
Hewlett Packard OmniBook 500
The OmniBook is basically two laptops in one. The base unit is a first-rate 3.7-pound ultraportable, with a handsome 12.1-inch active-matrix display and a battery that lasts for more than three hours, which is certainly not too shabby. The controls are laid out especially well, with a comfortable pointing device, dedicated audio controls and two programmable buttons you can set for one-touch access to your favorite programs. The OmniBook processor is either a 500-MHz Celeron or a 600-MHz Pentium III, letting you choose between price and power. The base unit has two USB connections, a built-in modem, an external monitor connector and a selection of hard drives up to 20 gigabytes in memory, but no built-in floppy or CD-ROM drives. That's where the well-designed multimedia expansion module comes in.
The laptop fits securely into the expansion base. While some expansion systems are clumsy contraptions, the HP in effect transforms into a full-size laptop, and a good-looking one at that. The base provides a full spectrum of connectors, including serial and printer ports, S-Video TV output and external keyboard and mouse connectors. The stereo speakers by PolkAudio play music nicely and have enough volume to use the OmniBook to give business presentations. Most importantly, the base provides two modular bays that you can fill with additional drives or batteries. That could mean a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive and a floppy, or an additional battery, or you might forget the drives altogether, load up with two more batteries, and achieve an extraordinary 10 hours of portable computing time.
Prices start at $1,899 with expansion base; www.hp.com, 1-800-613-2222
Dell Inspiron 8000
If you plan to live your computing life from your notebook, this is the power-user laptop of choice. All Dell computers are built to order, with a variety of options. Any Inspiron 8000 is a seriously capable computer, and with the right choices, it can be a computing behemoth in an eight-pound package.
Choose a run-of-the-mill Celeron processor if you like, but Dell will happily pop in the fastest mobile Pentium processor there is, running at 1 GHz. When it comes to the video chip you can again go ordinary with an ATI chip, or go whole hog with the new nVidea GeForce2 Go graphics processor, the first mobile video rig that truly delivers desktop-level performance for 3D games and graphics applications. Displays come in two flavors, a decent 14.1-inch and an extraordinary 15-inch Ultra XGA panel with 1600x1200 resolution.
Among the standard features are the superb keyboard, complete with both TrackPoint and touch-pad pointing devices, and a full array of external connections (including FireWire for connecting a digital video camera). Two expansion bays allow enormous flexibility in choosing extra drives and batteries to suit your needs.
Prices start at $1,599; www.dell.com, 1-888-799-3355
Gateway Solo 3350
For the traveler who wants maximum comfort and convenience in an ultraportable computer, this wafer-thin Gateway is a terrific choice. The Solo 3350 delivers a bright, high-resolution 12.1-inch display in a computer weighing just 3.65 pounds -- a noteworthy accomplishment. The combination of lightness and slimness (one inch) makes this laptop extremely easy to transport -- I usually carry mine in a standard briefcase instead of a bulky notebook carrying case. The 600-MHz Pentium III processor is more than adequate for business and multimedia computing tasks, while the light-blue magnesium alloy case adds ruggedness and good looks to the package.
All the essential expansion ports, including Ethernet, are included, along with a capacious 6-gigabyte hard drive. To maintain its slender profile, the 3350 doesn't include a built-in floppy or CD-ROM drive, though an external floppy is included (an accessory CD-ROM costs $99, a DVD-ROM $199). Battery life (two hours) is only so-so -- pack a spare if you're flying far.
Prices start at $1,999; www.gateway.com, 1-800-846-2000
Sony VAIO PCG-C1VN PictureBook
This one-of-a-kind laptop brings distinctive Sony style to the ultraportable world -- and 2.2 pounds is about as "ultra" portable as you can get while running the full-fledged Windows operating system and retaining a touch-type keyboard. It's a great traveling machine, especially if you're scrunched into a coach seat and the lunkhead in front of you decides to lean back for a snooze. The screen isn't as deep vertically as a standard display, but it's bright and crisp, and shows a full-screen width.
When you buy a Sony product, you expect a little multimedia razzmatazz, and this PictureBook delivers with a built-in camera that is mounted on the top of the display and pivots toward or away from the user. Click the special Capture button and you have a digital photo, ready for e-mailing, posting on the Web or printing out. The same camera can create video files (using the built-in mike for sound capture).
The PictureBook, based on the power-saving Crusoe processor from Transmeta, runs roughly two or three hours on the standard battery -- not bad, though I like the option of a larger quad-capacity battery rated at eight to 20 hours ($500) for serious travel. While it has plenty of built-in connectivity, the system comes with no disk drives -- an optional USB floppy costs $80, a CD-ROM goes for $300.
Prices start at $2,100; www.sel.sony.com, 1-800-571-7669
If you're a pen-and-paper person trapped in a computer age, the TransNote can help you bridge the gap in style. Inside the handsome portfolio case you'll find a thin ThinkPad notebook PC, with a touch screen that lifts to reveal a standard keyboard. On the other side is a standard legal pad with a distinctly nonstandard pen -- that's where the magic lies. As you write on the pad, your scrawl is transmitted and recorded on the computer via IBM's Ink Manager software. Whether it's a handwritten memo, a diagram or a doodle, what you write is saved as an image file that can be stored on the hard drive or transmitted via e-mail. If you ordinarily have your assistant transcribe handwritten memos, now you can follow the same procedure on the road, using e-mail to send out your deathless prose.
The computer itself is small but practical, with a 10.4-inch screen and a keyboard that's a bit petite but functional. There's power to spare with a 600-MHz Pentium III processor, and the 10-gigabyte hard drive is more than generous. The TransNote screen can easily be flipped over and inverted to face the person sitting across from you, an unusual feature that's ideal for making face-to-face presentations. One area that may be an issue is battery life, with an estimated running time of just 2.5 hours. However, that's no problem for the handwritten memo user, since the pad has its own separate memory and battery. You can turn the laptop off and write up to 50 pages on the pad before transferring the results to the computer.
Prices start at $2,999; www.ibm.com/thinkpad,1-888-746-7426
Apple PowerBook G4
The créme de la créme of Apple's portable line, the PowerBook G4 is fast and flashy, clad in a distinctive titanium shell and sporting an unusual wide-screen display.
This is the first portable equipped with Apple's high-end G4 processor, providing the desktop replacement power needed for muscular applications such as gaming and digital video editing. What's going to make people stop and stare, though, is the display, which is 12.5 percent wider than a standard screen. That's still not as wide as a DVD movie in letterbox format, but movies do look great -- and it's fun to feed disks into the slot-loading DVD drive, which sucks in the disk without popping out a tray. What really appeals to me about the display is the ability to simultaneously show two screens of information side-by-side. If I'm doing research on the Internet, I can launch my word processor, open a Web browser right next to it, and cut-and-paste or take notes seamlessly.
Another big plus for the new PowerBook is battery life. Apple claims you'll get up to five hours on a single battery -- you won't (actual battery life never matches manufacturer specs), but its performance is still impressive.
In terms of pure portability, the PowerBook falls somewhere in the middle of the pack at 5.3 pounds -- titanium may be a very lightweight metal, but that big screen adds bulk. On the other hand, if you dig deep for this pricey PowerBook, you're unlikely to need a separate desktop Mac. With built-in everything (including USB and FireWire ports, an external monitor connector and a modem) plus decent speakers and an extraordinary screen, you get a lot of "oooh-ahhh" for the money.
Prices start at $2,599; www.apple.com, 1-800-692-7753
Steve Morgenstern writes regularly for Cigar Aficionado on