Ultralight notebooks may be a pleasure to tote, but many have lousy battery life. That's because an ultrathin, sub-4-pound laptop commonly uses a power pack half as big and half as powerful as the one on a full-size notebook. But the new Pentium III-400 processor eases the problem: Intel Corp.'s first PIII chip designed specifically for small notebooks uses less power -- 1.35 volts instead of the usual 1.6 volts -- so the ultralight's smaller power pack lasts longer.
To put PIII-400 ultralight notebooks to the test, we evaluated three preproduction models: Dell's Latitude LS H400ST, Fujitsu's LifeBook S Series and NEC's Versa FX. The verdict: Ultralight battery life is improving. The six-cell batteries on the Latitude and the LifeBook lasted about 2.4 hours on a charge, near the average full-size PII or PIII notebook's battery life of 2.7 hours. In contrast, two popular ultralights we tested recently, the Sharp Actius A250 and the Toshiba Portege 3110CT, run for 1.5 and 2 hours, respectively. The only disappointing time turned in by a newcomer: 1.1 hours by the NEC Versa FX's three-cell battery.
All three PIII-400 notebooks deliver more than enough speed. On average, they earned a PC WorldBench score of 198, about 15 percent behind the typical PIII-500 notebook's score of 232, and 5 percent better than the average Pentium II-400 portable. (PII-400 ultralights are rare; most use 300- to 366MHz PII or Celeron chips.)Big ScreensThese handsome, powerful laptops break new ground on the features front, too.
The 3.7-pound LifeBook is the lightest notebook we've seen with an internal bay. All three notebooks have 12.1-inch screens; the Dell and Fujitsu models have 6.4G-byte hard drives, and the Fujitsu has a 9G-byte hard drive -- important milestones for this weight class. But some ultrathin notebook weaknesses remain. None of the three have decent stereo audio, and you'll still have to juggle external drives and accessories.
With its 10.5-inch-wide case, Dell's 3.7-pound Latitude LS H400ST is the smallest of the notebooks here, yet it offers the quietest, most comfortable typing. It's also the only machine here that has built-in standard connections and a network jack. On the downside, our pricey US$2,677 Latitude was accompanied by only an external floppy drive. An external CD-ROM drive costs $99 and must time-share an external media caddy with other optional drives.
(Dell sells a $299 6X DVD-ROM drive, a $139 LS-120 drive and a $199 Iomega Zip 100 drive.)On-the-go professionals who need to take snapshots may find Fujitsu's LifeBook appealing: It accommodates a digital camera ($229 extra) in its internal bay.
The camera's viewfinder sits outside the main unit like a periscope.
But camera or no camera, the LifeBook is the best deal in this group. Its $2,699 price covers the 9G-byte hard drive, an external floppy drive and an internal 6X DVD-ROM drive. The Fujitsu notebook is LAN-ready with a built-in ethernet jack. It works with a wide range of optional devices. (In addition to the camera, Fujitsu offers an optional $179 LS-120 drive, a $449 CD-RW drive, a $79 Type I or II PC Card slot, and a $229 second six-cell battery for the internal bay.) Our only quibble: The LifeBook relegates parallel, serial and PS/2 connections to a 10.5-ounce bundled port replicator, which you must snap onto the notebook in order to use the floppy drive.
NEC's Versa FX boasts a simplified design: Instead of standard parallel, serial, and PS/2 connections, this 3.4-pound notebook has three USB ports. But overall, the FX isn't a great choice. The two connections for the external floppy and CD-ROM drives can handle parallel and serial peripherals, but only with adapter cables. Or you can buy a $129 USB legacy port bar ($199 with a network connection).
Upgrading from the FX's three-cell battery (to improve on its meager battery life) will cost you: A replacement six-cell battery goes for $179. A second battery -- a nine-cell pack that plugs into the bottom of the notebook -- runs $319 and adds 1.4 pounds.
Ultralights still can't match the longest-lasting full-size portables: Some Gateway Solo notebooks run for more than 5 hours in our tests. But Intel's new PIII-400 processor seems to help wring a bit more time out of small power packs. This advance, plus bigger screens and hard drives, makes the latest round of ultralights the most appealing yet.
Dell Latitude LS H400ST
Street price: $2,677; Dell Computer; +1-800-388-8542; http://www.dell.comFujitsu LifeBook S SeriesStreet price: $2,699; Fujitsu PC; +1-877-372-3473; http://www.fpcdirect.comPRODUCT INFO NO. 721NEC Versa FXStreet price: $2,499; NEC; +1-888-632-8701; http://www.nec-computers.comPRODUCT INFO NO. 722