10 for the Road

SAN FRANCISCO (07/26/2000) - While on a business trip, Bob Greschke thought he'd forgotten to pack his new, lightweight laptop. That's when he knew he'd made the right decision to buy it. "I had to keep checking the bag to make sure the notebook was there--the bag was so light, it felt empty," says Greschke, a Socorro, New Mexico-based programmer for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. The 5-pound IBM Corp. ThinkPad 600X that Greschke bought in April weighs 3 pounds less than his old Toshiba Corp. 730XCDT notebook.

More and more corporate "road warriors"--men and women who travel often for business--are arming themselves with laptops that weigh considerably less than an all-in-one "desktop replacement" but still retain much of the latter's flexibility. Ken Dulaney of the Gartner Group Inc., a San Jose-based technology consulting firm, says 60 percent of corporate laptops bought this year will be "two-spindle" notebooks (units that accommodate one internal drive in addition to the hard drive) like Greschke's ThinkPad.

Weighing approximately 4 to 6 pounds with a weight-saving module (or plastic insert) in place, these midsize travel notebooks strike a practical balance between weight and convenience. Each offers an internal bay where one drive goes; this bay can handle a CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, floppy disk, or other drive. The hard drive serves as the other spindle. Their design makes midsize notebooks more versatile than 3-pound superslim laptops like Sony's VAIO Z505, which has no internal bay. Meanwhile, they're significantly lighter than traditional all-in-one notebooks, which come with built-in CD-ROM and floppy drives (that is, three spindles).

Travel notebooks do suffer from several drawbacks that plague other small laptops. If you still use a floppy drive, you'll have to attach it via an external module or swap it with other devices in the expansion bay. Like superslims, some two-spindle notebooks lack such standard notebook connections as a built-in parallel port. And in general you'll pay from US$300 to $500 more for the svelte design than for a heavier, three-spindle notebook.

But the latest two-spindle laptops have a lot to offer in return. They're small enough to pick up with one hand and carry in a briefcase, yet they sport 14.1-inch screens, 12GB hard drives, near-full-size keyboards, and cutting-edge processors. What's more, they work with an array of internal add-in devices, providing a level of flexibility most all-in-one notebooks lack. You can insert a second battery instead of a DVD-ROM drive, for instance, use a Zip drive instead of the floppy drive, or swap in a second hard drive for backing up data.

Good Things In Small Packages

What's the best notebook for business travel? We looked at 10 two-spindle notebooks, from Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., IBM, Micron, and others. We didn't receive new travel notebooks from Gateway Inc. or NEC in time for testing, though both vendors expect to sell them by August. Gateway's 5.5-pound entry will have a thinner, curvier case than the company's usual fare. NEC says its new Versa SXi, also under 6 pounds, will be faster and have longer battery life than the SX it replaces.

Our ten contenders run the gamut in features, weight (from 3.7 to 6.2 pounds), and price (from $2099 to $4588). We tested performance and battery life and conducted hands-on evaluations of each unit to pick the ideal replacement for your old, shoulder-sagging ball-and-chain portable. And because these little laptops may be more vulnerable to breakage and thieves, we tell you how to protect them with insurance and security products.

To settle on a Best Buy travel notebook, we looked for the best combination of size, features, price, and performance. Our pick, the IBM ThinkPad T20, is the successor to IBM's popular ThinkPad 600 series of notebooks. The T20 sets a new standard for lightweight laptops by fitting a 14.1-inch screen into a 4.6-pound package. Equally impressive, the T20 achieves these numbers without skimping on features: It packs almost every standard item found in an all-in-one notebook--and then some. You get a 12GB hard drive; parallel, serial, and USB ports; two PC Card slots; and built-in network and modem jacks. The T20 even manages to squeeze in such features as the ThinkLight LED, which lights up the keyboard for typing in dark rooms, and the new UltraPort Bluetooth connection, which enables the laptop to communicate with a mobile phone or other wireless devices.

Not surprisingly, this well-designed IBM travel machine costs plenty: With a Pentium III-700/550 SpeedStep processor, the $3699 T20 carries the third-highest price tag here. But if money is no object, look no further. On performance and features, the T20 earns its title as the crème de la crème of travel notebooks.

For itinerant folk on tighter budgets, we recommend Acer's $2799 TravelMate 602TER. It weighs about the same as the ThinkPad with its bay filled (with a standard CD-RW drive), and at only 11.7 inches wide and 9.3 inches deep it occupies less tray-table space. The TravelMate includes fewer features than the ThinkPad: It has a smaller (13.3-inch) screen, a single PC Card slot, and a miniconnector that uses a split cable instead of built-in ports to support parallel and serial connections.

Still, this handsome laptop clobbered the ThinkPad and most other units we tested in battery life, lasting 4.3 hours on one charge, more than an hour above average. And the Acer has the best keyboard in the group, topping even the ThinkPad. Except for their smaller-than-average function keys, both keyboards are easy to type on, but the TravelMate is much softer and quieter, a feature your next airplane seatmate might appreciate. The TravelMate is the only notebook here that comes standard with a CD-RW drive, which Acer pitches as a floppy drive replacement.

Portable Workhorses

Several other notebooks in our roundup might make a good match with your mobile lifestyle, depending on your particular computing needs. Peripatetic number crunchers will be happy with Micron's 5.4-pound TransPort LT, our third favorite, thanks to its polished, lightweight design. Though it is less compact than the ThinkPad and almost as pricey, the $3599 TransPort LT blew past every notebook other than the Dell Latitude CPx J750GT in our speed tests. Running Windows 2000 Professional, the Micron turned in a PC WorldBench 2000 score of 146--making it the speediest system we saw with a PIII-650/500 and 128MB of RAM. Another plus: The TransPort LT
is the only notebook we tested that shipped with Microsoft Office 2000 Small Business Edition.Professionals whose job requires them to take digital snapshots on the road could find happiness with the 3.9-pound Fujitsu LifeBook S-4510. At a modest 11.3 inches wide and 8.9 inches deep (not much bigger than a standard sheet of typing paper) and a scant 1.2 inches tall, the diminutive LifeBook may be the smallest laptop capable of holding an internal device. A small digital camera ($229) is among the add-ins the Fujitsu can carry inside its slim expansion bay.

The LifeBook cuts many of the same corners as a superslim laptop, however, with fewer standard notebook connections, a narrower keyboard, and the smallest screen in this roundup. Available only with Intel's PIII-400 processor designed especially for subnotebooks, the LifeBook lagged 24 percent behind the group average in performance. Still, it comes well equipped for its size, sustained a respectable 2.7-hour life in our battery tests, and costs a reasonable $2399.

The Pentium III-650/500-equipped ChemBook 8200B offers budget minders a slightly larger comfort margin than the LifeBook, at a bargain-basement price ($2099). The ChemBook is every bit as compact as the Acer TravelMate (measuring 11.7 inches wide by 9.3 inches deep), almost as frugal with a battery (chugging along for 4.2 hours on one charge), and a terrific performer for the money.

With all this going for it, you may not mind its plain looks, springy keyboard, and lack of a built-in modem jack (the jack sits on the end of a separate cable).

Accommodating Design

To avoid the extra weight, most travel portables don't offer dual pointing devices, but such a combo is worth considering if you buy notebooks for a workforce that divides its loyalties between the touchpad and the eraserhead.

Of the ten laptops we looked at, only HP's $2999 OmniBook 6000, a Pentium III-600/500, and Dell's $3502 Latitude CPx J750GT, a PIII-750/600, come with both pointing devices. Though either the HP or the Dell would make a serviceable corporate notebook, we slightly preferred the OmniBook's design overall. It takes up more desk space than the Latitude, at 12.4 inches wide by 10.4 inches deep, but it weighs slightly less, a reasonable 6 pounds including CD-ROM drive (HP doesn't provide a weight-saving module). It performed well in our speed tests, ran for 3.5 hours on one battery charge, and includes both network and modem connections. And like the ThinkPad, it comes Bluetooth-ready.

Despite being the fastest unit in the group, the Latitude does not have the best design. After the Sony VAIO PCG-XG19, it is the heaviest notebook we tested, tipping the scales at 6.1 pounds with a weight-saving module in place.

And Dell is the only vendor that doesn't offer its notebook with built-in modem and network connections--a drawback for companies that don't want to hassle with PC Cards or docking stations.

Dollars And Sense

The three notebooks that landed at the bottom of our list--Toshiba's $3599 Tecra 8100, Sony's $3999 VAIO PCG-XG19, and Compaq's $4588 Armada M700--are overpriced for what they offer. The Tecra 8100 is a reasonable choice for Toshiba-standardized companies, because it performs well and offers a big, comfortable, eraserhead-equipped keyboard and a 14.1-inch active matrix screen.

But the ThinkPad, another eraserhead-equipped notebook, provides a 14.1-inch screen in a smaller, lighter package for only $100 more.

With its built-in IEEE 1394 port, 18GB hard drive, and truckload of Sony software for digital video editing, the funky purple-and-gray VAIO PCG-XG19 may appeal to video pros looking for a midsize laptop with plenty of storage. (We know of only two other notebook vendors that offer IEEE 1394 connections:

Gateway, with its Solo 9300XL; and Fujitsu PC, with its new LifeBook C Series notebook, which we'll cover in October's Top 15 Notebooks.) The PCG-XG19 also has a ventilating flap. Located on the bottom of the notebook, the flap automatically lifts to provide further heat dissipation when you open the notebook. And the keyboard comes with Sony's Jog Dial device--a thumbwheel located on the side of the keyboard, which you can set up to launch applications. But the VAIO is pricey, heavy, burns through batteries much too quickly, and lacks standard parallel, serial, and PS/2 connections.

Unless you adore Compaq notebooks, don't buy the $4588 Armada M700. The thinnest notebook of the bunch at a mere 1.1 inches tall, the Armada costs the most and performed worst among notebooks with SpeedStep processors. To add insult to larceny, its wide case holds one of the most cramped keyboards.

Dodging On-The-Road Dangers

Overhead bins with weak latches. Bustling airports full of covetous strangers.

Coffee cups fanatically devoted to Murphy's Law. It's a dangerous world out there for notebooks, especially small, attractive ones that rely on thin cases to protect their screens and delicate circuitry. Standard warranties cover parts and labor for manufacturing defects, but not for theft, fire, or other unexpected disasters. Among the companies whose products we've reviewed here, only Fujitsu covers accidental drops and spills on the keyboard in its standard warranty. Toshiba and Dell offer supplemental insurance to cover such accidents. Toshiba's SystemGuard plan costs $169 for a three-year policy.

Dell's CompleteCare plan also costs $169 for three years and is available everywhere but Florida, Montana, and New Mexico.

Fortunately, you can easily create your own laptop safety net with common sense and a judicious selection of security products. First, choose a carrying case that both cushions and camouflages the notebook. Most laptop vendors sell padded sheath cases for between $50 and $100; these in turn can go into larger packs to disguise your cargo. For holding your laptop, paperwork, and other important stuff, we recommend a sturdy backpack like Codi's 3-pound MaxPak, which can accommodate a second notebook, a portable printer, and all of your CDs, floppies, and paper files.

As soon as you've purchased your new laptop, write down its serial number, so the police can trace it if necessary. Get in the habit of locking the hard drive with a password; a thief would have to send the notebook back to the manufacturer to unlock the hard drive. Three of the notebooks we reviewed--Dell's Latitude, Micron's TransPort LT, and Toshiba's Tecra 8100--have removable hard drives that you can stash in your hotel's safe. If your laptop carries sensitive information, consider downloading and installing a free software encryption package for e-mail, files, folders, or entire hard drives from Web sites like www.freewarehome.com.

For times when your laptop will be in plain view, consider buying a security cable. Almost all notebooks, including our roundup units, come with security slots that accommodate a steel cable--such as the $40 Kensington Notebook MicroSaver cable sold by Kensington Technology Group--for securing your notebook to a desk leg (www.kensington.com).

If someone does steal your notebook, your odds of recovering it will be dramatically higher if you installed a homing device on it ahead of time.

Absolute Software's CompuTrace program (www.computrace.com) sits hidden on the hard drive and can't be erased by reformatting. When you notify CompuTrace, the company begins monitoring signals sent from the software, which transmits an electronic serial number and the phone number it's calling from every time the thief goes online. With your permission, CompuTrace then works with police to corral the suspect. The package and one year of coverage cost $50.

Blow the whistle on notebook hijackers with TrackIt (www.trackitcorp.com), a $49 antitheft product consisting of a receiver inside the notebook and a small transmitter unit the owner carries. If a receiver-equipped notebook moves more than 40 feet away from the transmitter, an alarm on the notebook sounds.

The ultimate protection against losing your notebook to theft, fire, spilled coffee, or even a computer virus, is insurance. For a reasonable $50 to $75 a year, you can pick up a rider to your existing homeowner's or renter's insurance that covers computers. Policies can differ greatly, so interview several providers and carefully compare their offerings. For instance, few policies designed for homeowners or renters cover accidental breakage or reimburse the full purchase price. In contrast, however, companies that specialize in insuring computer equipment, such as South Coast Metro Insurance Brokers (www.coveragelink.com), commonly offer those types of coverage. (See this month's Home Office column on page 47 for more tips on how to keep your laptop safe.)Never Too ThinThe problem with buying any computer is that something a little faster and with a few more features always lurks just around the corner. With travel laptops, weights keep dropping. That's why Bob Greschke is now eyeing the ThinkPad T20, which not only comes with a bigger screen than his now-obsolete ThinkPad 600X, but also weighs 8 ounces less.

"This weight stuff becomes an obsession," he admits sheepishly. "Who cares if a new notebook is faster or has a bigger screen? It's half a pound lighter!"

For more information about the notebooks discussed in this review, visit www.pcworld.com/sep00/travel_notes. Carla Thornton regularly covers notebooks for PC World. Testing was conducted by Robert James and Thomas Luong of the PC World Test Center.

Setting a New Standard

What's the first word that pops into your head when we say "laptop"? Anchor?

Albatross? If so, IBM's ThinkPad T20, our Best Buy travel notebook, can put the spring back into your step on those long jaunts between home and hotel. The ThinkPad offers everything a top-notch travel notebook should have, including good performance, strong battery life, easy-to-use electronic documentation, and a terrific 4.6-pound design that features a comfortable keyboard, a beautiful 14.1-inch screen, a 12GB hard drive, and a full set of built-in connections. Though the $3699 ThinkPad is a bit pricey for a Pentium III-700/550, it is worth every penny for travelers who can afford the best.

Thin doesn't always mean lightweight or limited in expandability. Compared with an all-in-one desktop replacement laptop (the NEC Versa LXi at the bottom of the stack), these travel notebooks manage to fit a media bay into a compact case.

Stack 'Em Up

How to Live With Just One Bay

A lightweight travel notebook can spell relief for tired shoulders, but its single expansion bay and other limitations can take some getting used to. Here are some tips to ease the transition from an all-in-one notebook to a travel model.

* Make sure any notebook you consider comes with hot-swapping software. This feature lets you exchange one device in the expansion bay for another without restarting the notebook.

* Instead of purchasing a Zip drive, DVD-ROM drive, or other add-in as an internal device from the notebook company, consider a third-party external drive that works with a PC Card or USB connection. External drives eliminate drive swapping and allow you to use more devices at the same time.

* If your notebook does not have a full set of built-in legacy ports, make your next printer or mouse a USB model. The Acer TravelMate 602TER, the Fujitsu LifeBook S-4510, and the Sony VAIO PCG-XG19 all require you to use easy-to-lose extra cables or other equipment in order to add a parallel port or other legacy connection. Only the TravelMate comes with two USB ports.

* Prefer or require floppies over more capacious media? You'll be happiest with a notebook that adopts floppy drive-friendly design. Chem USA's ChemBook 8200B, Toshiba's Tecra 8100, and Sony's VAIO PCG-XG19 offer the best configuration for floppy fans: Each ships with an internal floppy drive that can also attach externally to a connection other than the notebook's parallel port. This allows you to print, access the floppy drive, and use another device in the bay simultaneously. HP and Micron offer internal floppy drives only: To establish an external connection, HP makes you pay $43 extra for a parallel-port cable, and Micron requires $20 for its external USB caddy. Conversely, the Fujitsu LifeBook's floppy drive works only as an external device.

* Unwillingly to accept a travel notebook's compromises? Opt for a moderate-weight all-in-one. But these are rare and have fewer nice features than a typical two-spindle notebook that weighs the same. The best we've seen is Compaq's $1799 Armada V300, which comes with a built-in floppy drive, plus a modular bay that can accept one of five devices, including a second battery.

With a weight-saver module, the V300's weight drops from 6.3 pounds to about 5.5--but the notebook's screen measures only 12.1 inches.

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