Top 15 Notebook PCs

SAN FRANCISCO (05/01/2000) - Ready to make the leap to Universal Serial Bus peripherals? Expect more laptop companies to attempt to wean you off parallel, serial, and other standard connections this year in favor of the USB port. Our new midrange Best Buy, Micron's TransPort LT C500 subnotebook, can accommodate an optional USB floppy drive caddy ($20 extra), and Compaq Computer Corp.'s new budget-priced Notebook 100 can dock to an optional USB legacy hub.

1 GATEWAY SOLO 9300LS

WHAT'S HOT: This big, sophisticated desktop replacement offers a lot in return for a considerable outlay of cash. The 9300LS with Intel's SpeedStep processor has great battery life, although not quite as long as that of its predecessor, a PIII-450 version we ranked a Best Buy last month. Two modular bays let you choose what to take along: Instead of the LS-120 drive that our test unit came with, you can swap in a second hard drive or a second battery, or you can swap out the CD-ROM drive for either a DVD-ROM drive or a CD-RW drive.

WHAT'S NOT: At $3324, the Solo 9300LS is not for bargain hunters. And the hard drive is a bit lean for a power portable.

WHAT ELSE: The 9300LS bristles with audio and video extras, including a TV-out port and a Dolby jack for connecting a Surround Sound stereo system. External buttons make playing music CDs more convenient, and four programmable buttons at the top of the keyboard can launch applications. A charge indicator light on the outside of the notebook lets you check on remaining juice without removing the battery. While speedy, the 9300LS performed a bit more slowly than the similarly configured HP OmniBook 900.

BEST USE: Presenters with deep pockets will appreciate this beautifully designed notebook most. With a second battery inserted, the 9300LS should let you work away from an outlet all day.

1 MICRON TRANSPORT LT C500

WHAT'S HOT: The easy-to-tote TransPort LT weighs only 5 pounds, not including the AC adapter. Any of five devices can plug into its lone internal bay: the floppy drive, the CD-ROM drive, a $190 6X DVD-ROM drive, a $139 LS-120 drive, or a $99 second battery. To make it easier to use the floppy drive externally alongside a device in the bay, Micron sells a $20 USB floppy drive caddy, which you can plug in without rebooting the notebook.

WHAT'S NOT: For $2000 these days, we would expect to see something bigger than a 12.1-inch screen. Also, if you need to run diagnostics or recover your system using a bootable floppy disk, you will have to use the internal bay, since you can't boot from floppies through the USB port.

WHAT ELSE: For its size and processor, the TransPort LT's 2.5-hour battery life and speed generally fall in line. The keyboard has a somewhat shallow feel, but it lets you launch applications via the mouse buttons and one programmable key just right of the spacebar.

BEST USE: The Transport LT would make a fine business laptop for frequent travelers who are willing to sacrifice screen and hard drive size for the portability of a lightweight machine.

1 DELL INSPIRON 3800

WHAT'S HOT: Dell's latest budget business laptop is a head-turner. Its upper casing and screen frame come in a choice of colors: forest green, sierra maroon, Tahoe blue, or a standard matte gray. The internal bay can hold any of eight different devices (the floppy drive, the CD-ROM drive, a second battery for $99 extra, a Zip or an LS-120 drive for $139, an 8X DVD-ROM drive for $199, or an 18GB hard drive for $598).

WHAT'S NOT: Though Dell notebooks usually offer good battery life, this Inspiron 3800 disappointingly lasted just under 2 hours in our tests--about 40 minutes less than the average laptop.

WHAT ELSE: This Celeron-500 version of the Inspiron 3800 churned through business apps about 7 percent faster than a Celeron-466. You can reduce its weight to 6 pounds by using an included plastic space holder in the modular bay, and the hard drive and memory are easily reachable for upgrading. Finally, among other perks, there is a video-out jack for sending images to a TV screen.

BEST USE: With refreshing good looks, the Inspiron 3800 is a fine value for companies that are ready to break out of the boxy black laptop mold.

What's New

This month's easy tote award goes to HP's OmniBook 900 (4.6 pounds with no attachments), in a respectable fourth place on our power chart. The $3499 OmniBook may be the second most expensive machine on the list, but it plows through business tasks the fastest. Its PC WorldBench score of 132 is especially impressive considering the OmniBook had only half as much RAM as other notebooks with similarly high scores.

Change swept through our budget chart this month, leaving only one notebook standing from last month (Acer's TravelMate 514TXV, in fifth place). Compaq's $1449 Notebook 100, in second place, is the company's new low-end business portable, replacing the similarly priced Prosignia 150.

Tired of going through a password screen to log on to the company notebook? The $1699 Fujitsu LifeBook E-5140, number three on the budget chart, offers four external buttons for punching in a password. Located on the front of the case, the buttons double as application shortcuts when the notebook is running.

Contributing Editor Carla Thornton regularly covers notebooks for PC World.

Beyond The Top 15

We evaluated the following system along with the others, but it didn't reach the Top 15 Notebook PCs chart. For a write-up, visit PC World.com (www.pcworld.com/top400).

*Compaq Armada M300.

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