Top 15 Notebook PCs

SAN FRANCISCO (03/20/2000) - Speedstep. Isn't that the latest aerobic exercise craze? Close: It's Intel Corp.'s nifty new dual-speed mobile processor, which runs a plugged-in notebook at a heart-pounding 600 or 650 MHz and reduces its speed to 500 MHz when the notebook is unplugged to conserve battery power. This month, the first SpeedStep business notebooks--the big-screened Quantex Corp.

W-1511 and Dell Computer Corp. Inspiron 5000 G650VT--step onto our charts.

1 Gateway Solo 9300LS

WHAT'S HOT: Unlike many big laptop screens, the Solo's 15-inch display feels sturdy enough to withstand the occasional bump or accidental twist. And it sports a featherweight price of $2748--down $118 from last month. The unit's 12-cell lithium ion battery easily outlasted other laptop power packs in our tests, running for a record-breaking 5 hours and 13 minutes.

WHAT'S NOT: Our test system came with a relatively stingy (for this price range) 64MB of RAM and 6GB hard drive. The Solo 9300LS's speakers produce fairly loud audio but have a weak bass response and sound fuzzy at higher volumes.

WHAT ELSE: This beefy desktop replacement bulges with multimedia connections.

It carries TV-in and -out ports and a Dolby jack for connecting a Surround Sound stereo system. The polished, black 9300LS also boasts external buttons for launching applications. Two modular bays make configuration changes a snap.

You can swap out the floppy drive or the CD-ROM drive in favor of a second hard drive of up to 10GB (for an extra $499), a SuperDisk drive ($75), or a second battery ($100).

BEST USE: Presenters and digital editors will appreciate this beautifully designed, reasonably priced notebook.

1 HP Pavilion N3290

WHAT'S HOT: This $2399 Pentium III-500 version of HP's consumer model (the Pavilion Notebook PC) combines above-average sound with external buttons for convenient DVD and CD playing. You can program the touchpad buttons to launch applications, and the keyboard is quiet and comfortable. Parts are easy to access; the hard drive is locked in by one screw.

WHAT'S NOT: Calls to HP's technical support staff are on your nickel, and the company charges you for this support after three years. The headphone port sits inconveniently at the back of the unit, and the translucent-blue CD controls are hard to read and too shallow to press easily.

WHAT ELSE: With a PC WorldBench 2000 score of 109, the Pavilion's performance is average for a PIII-500 notebook. Likewise, its 2:52 battery life is mediocre.

BEST USE: The Pavilion N3290 would make a nice personal machine for a music-loving desk jockey or for someone with money to spend on a fast processor, a big screen, and a DVD-ROM drive.

1 HP Pavilion Notebook PC

WHAT'S HOT: Like its higher-priced Pentium III-500 sibling (which occupies first place on our midrange chart), this well-rounded budget notebook can function as a stand-alone CD player. At 6.6 pounds (not including the AC adapter), the Pavilion is trim for a notebook with built-in floppy and CD-ROM drives. Parts on this system are easy to access, including the hard drive, which is locked in by a single screw.

WHAT'S NOT: Though fast for a budget notebook, this Celeron-433 performs 15 percent slower than a typical Celeron-400. Free telephone support (to a toll number) ends after three years, and we have the same design quibbles about it as with the Pavilion N3290: The headphone port is inconveniently located on the back of the unit, and the shallow, dark-blue CD controls are difficult to read and press.

WHAT ELSE: You can program the mouse buttons to launch your favorite applications. You get the same attractive consumer software bundle as with the Pavilion N3290: Microsoft Works 2000, Money 2000, and Quicken Basic 2000.

BEST USE: Only HP's parsimonious support policies prevent the $1573 Pavilion from being the perfect starter notebook.

What's New

The arrival of notebooks based on Intel's new Pentium III-650/500 and PIII-600/500 SpeedStep processors is forcing Pentium III-500 laptop prices down to more affordable levels. Single-speed PIII-550 notebooks grabbed four of the five spots on our midrange lineup.

Meanwhile, SpeedStep notebooks command the highest prices. Dell's $3727 Inspiron 5000 G650VT, in third place among power notebooks, costs a pretty penny. But others are relatively good deals: The new Quantex W-1511, number four on this month's power chart, lists for a reasonable $2899.

In March's Top of the News story "Double Time: New PIII Notebooks Run at 650 or 500 MHz" (www.pcworld.com/mar00/p3_notes), however, we reported that a SpeedStep processor only affects performance if you use heavy-duty appli-cations. If you're in the habit of watching a couple of DVD movies every time you make a cross-country flight, for instance, a SpeedStep processor can squeeze up to 14 percent more time out of one battery charge. But Intel's SpeedStep has little effect with more typical business applications.

This month we looked at three notebooks that have similar case designs. Dell's Inspiron 5000 G650VT looks like a heavier, thicker, more decked-out version of the Quantex W-1511. For a lower-cost version of essentially the same case, check out Chem USA's $2399 ChemBook 3015, in third place on our midrange list.

Despite being the most modestly equipped of the three, the ChemBook 3015 still sports a Pentium III-500 processor and a 14.1-inch screen. All three units offer a modular bay that can hold a second battery, among other extra-cost add-ins.

Contributing Editor Carla Thornton regularly covers notebooks for PC World.

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