Low-End Laptops, and an Excel Extra

FRAMINGHAM (04/06/2000) - Just a year or two ago, many organizations were starting to replace significant numbers of desktop computers with laptops. But that was before the $500 business desktop computer. Still, if you really need a computer to go -- and lots of folks do -- there's no substitute for a notebook computer, even though there may not be much money available to buy one.

With that in mind, I took a look at a few low-end laptops, beginning with a new machine from Compaq Computer Corp. It's not labeled with any of Compaq's existing brand names - no Presario, Prosignia, Armada or iPaq label in sight.

Instead, it's called the Compaq Notebook 100, and with its $1,099 price tag, it's aimed right at the most price-sensitive section of the market.

What you get is an Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) K6-2 475-MHz CPU with 32MB of RAM (however, 4MB of that is dedicated to the onboard Accelerated Graphics Port, so you net out at 28MB), a 5GB hard drive, a built-in 56K-bit/sec. modem and a single PC Card slot.

The 12-in. Super VGA screen uses a passive-matrix LCD that's dimmer and provides less contrast than the thin film transistor (TFT) displays I've gotten used to. This is a three-spindle machine with onboard floppy and CD-ROM drives.

It weighs in at 6.7 lb. You can get an active-matrix display for an additional $400, which also buys you an extra 32MB of RAM (but again, 4MB goes to graphics).

Alternatively, for $1,299 Compaq will sell you its Prosignia 150, which has a slower (380-MHz) AMD K6-2 processor and smaller hard drive in a slightly different case. However, it does have a 12-in. TFT display. And a quick tour of price-comparison Web sites reveals that you can get similar bargains on notebooks from Toshiba America Inc., Acer America Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM. At those price levels, nearly every maker is using dual-scan displays and low-end CPUs, and the CD drive is sometimes optional.

Personally, I won't ever recommend a notebook that doesn't have an active-matrix screen. The display quality makes a tremendous difference in usability. I'd choose smaller and brighter over larger and dimmer every time.

If you're spending $1,000-plus on a computer, you shouldn't buy one that's harder to use and harder to work on just to save a couple of hundred dollars.

When dual-scans used to cost $800 less than TFT displays, it was easier to justify choosing them, but no more.

With that in mind, the one bargain that stood out from the rest was IBM's ThinkPad 390X, with a 400-MHz Celeron processor, 64MB of RAM, a CD-ROM drive and a 12-in. active-matrix display, at a street price as low as $1,299 ($1,995 list).

All of these low-priced laptops are hefty. Don't look for anything under 6 to 7 lb.

Slick Spreadsheet Add-on

I recently tried out a clever product that augments Microsoft Corp.'s Excel spreadsheet in a really useful way. Basically, it addresses the needs of the manager who has to keep track of a number of areas (such as different departments or sales regions) on a regular basis. You may need and get updated reports and figures from all those folks, but consolidating them is a tedious cut-and-paste affair. There's really no good way to automate the process with Excel's native capabilities.

Distributed Spreadsheet, developed by Communications Enhancement Products Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz., tackles that problem in two ways.

First, it lets you set up a workbook that has separate pages for each department or sales territory, as well as one or more summary sheets that consolidate them. Each of the individual sheets is assigned one or more designated owners.

Second, with a couple of clicks, it lets you e-mail all the owners blank copies of their worksheets and ask for updates. When replies come in, you can automatically gather them and consolidate them with a single menu selection.

You can even send out reminders automatically.

What's handy about this system, besides the labor savings, is the fact that each person gets to see only the particular data he's authorized to see.

Another nice feature is that Distributed Spreadsheet also makes it simple to retain old versions of spreadsheets without renaming them. It works with any e-mail system that's compliant with the Messaging Application Programming Interface. It's entirely file-based and can be cleanly uninstalled, leaving no residue other than the workbooks you've created.

Distributed Spreadsheet integrates itself into Excel nicely, adding a menu item. It costs $129, and a 30-day trial version can be downloaded at www.distributedspreadsheet.com.

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