Notebook Nirvana

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted September 01, 2000
by Tracy Baker

The perfect notebook system for mobile employees is difficult to define. Bulky systems are tough to travel with, yet few lightweight notebooks have the necessary features to serve as an employee's primary computer. Since the notebook will be moved often, durability and overall design quality also are important considerations. Then there is always the question of cost-effectiveness. How should your business weigh each of these diametrically-opposed criteria when making a purchasing decision? That's exactly what we asked the top-tier companies that manufacture the products which appear in this Buyer's Guide. Typically, we hammer out a specific set of rules that each submission must match. However, this time we put the ball in the manufacturer's court by asking the companies to submit a notebook they thought would best meet the needs of a mobile employee. The results were wildly divergent with regard to configuration and price. But each product attacks the problem of creating the ideal system for the mobile employee in a unique and sensible way.

The only standard requirement for this Buyer's Guide was that companies had to submit products that are readily available. Each manufacturer complied but it was a close call in many cases. For example, IBM's submission shipped to customers only two days before our deadline.

That explains why some of the quotes from customers refer to a company's service in general instead of specific, hands-on experience with the product we've reviewed. Our test results should be sufficient to fill in those gaps.

HOW WE TESTED

We used each notebook extensively (some for nearly a month) in a typical office environment, paying particular attention to each unit's ability to serve as the primary system for employees who frequently must disconnect from the office network and work on the road. We focused on capability instead of portability, placing more importance on each system's ability to serve as a desktop replacement rather than how comfortable it was to lug around a busy airport.

We also looked closely at each notebook's build quality and, when possible, asked a few customers how they would rate their experience with technical support. None of these machines would survive if dropped on a hard surface, but all look as if they would stand the test of time under normal circumstances. Some attention was given to the standard warranty, but all of these manufacturers offer extended service plans with generous lengths and terms that are likely to be worth the additional expense.

Acer TravelMate 602TER
Rating 89

Acer has taken a bold approach with the TravelMate 600 series, creating a line of notebooks that eschews older hardware, such as a floppy drive, in favor of newer, faster devices. A 4x(write)/4x(rewrite)/20x(read) CD-RW drive replaced the floppy drive, and serial and parallel ports have been removed in favor of twin USB ports and an infrared port.

Opening the lid of our TravelMate 602TER, we were greeted by a bright, clear 13.3-inch XGA TFT display, a solid, well-arranged keyboard with full-sized keys, and a touchpad that is sensitive but a bit too small. Touchpad flaws aside, however, these elements create a notebook that is easy to work with for several hours a day.

The TravelMate 602's low 1.29-inch profile and light 5.41-pound weight belie the power within. Our test system was equipped with a 650MHz Mobile Pentium III processor with SpeedStep technology, 128MB of RAM, and a cavernous 12GB hard drive. It simply blasted through every application we tested. A single Type II PC Card slot, instead of the twin slots found on most full-sized notebooks, is the only compromise Acer made to keep the design so thin.

Our initial worries about the CD-RW's impact on battery life were quickly dissipated during real-world testing. We copied the entire contents of the Programs folder (192MB) to a CD-RW in about 13 minutes, and all that hardware activity (the hard drive and CD-RW drive constantly spinning) drained the battery by only six percent, as reported by the Power Meter utility. Copying smaller individual files is practically instantaneous and much more convenient than waiting for a floppy drive to do the job.

The drawback to the convenience and speed of the CD-RW drive is that any other computers used to read the media would have to be equipped with either a CD-RW drive or a MultiRead CD-ROM drive.

Alas, all of this technology comes at a price. The configuration we tested retails for $2,799, including a one-year warranty. It's a powerful desktop replacement system that should hold up well for some time, but the weak software bundle that includes Works 2000 as its software suite prevents the TravelMate 602TER from attaining the top slot.

Compaq Notebook 100
Rating 84

Compaq obviously focused on one thing when designing the Notebook 100: price. This is a no-frills notebook with few configuration options because everything is bolted into the machine. Both the floppy drive and the CD-ROM drive are integrated with the machine, meaning that there is no way to do fancy swapping tricks to add things like extra batteries or a DVD-ROM drive. What you see is what you get. That's not to say the Notebook 100 isn't suitable for use by mobile employees. The notebook whirs through office applications with ease, courtesy of its 475MHz AMD K6-2 mobile processor and 64MB of RAM. The 5GB hard drive could be bigger but should be adequate for mobile work. No LAN adapter is included, forcing users to buy a separate card to plug it into the Notebook 100's single Type II/Type III PC Card slot.

The Notebook 100's major weakness is its washed-out 12.1-inch HPA color screen, which delivers poor color reproduction and grainy output with a strange shimmer at its low fixed resolution of 800 by 600. Ghosting is so bad that the typing eventually became a blur, which would make working with the notebook for long periods a real headache. We would not advise using the unit for presentations. Looking at the display from any angle other than dead-on renders the screen practically unreadable. It doesn't help that the video adapter doesn't have its own integrated RAM but instead steals 8MB from the main system's memory pool.

Buyers should ask for the TFT display option when placing an order. This will up the purchase price by $200 but your employees will be grateful.

Display issues aside, the design of the notebook is extremely solid. The large, quiet keys make typing a joy and are backed by a firm foundation. The touchpad used for cursor control is responsive and never got in the way of typing.

Any criticisms we can level at the Notebook 100 lose their potency when its low price of $1,099 is taken into consideration. The notebook is backed by a one-year warranty, including parts, labor, and 48-hour mail-in turnaround. The price also includes a copy of Office 2000 Small Business Edition.

We spoke with Compaq customer Eric Shuster, managing director of Access Markets International, a 25-employee research and consulting firm that tracks the small business market. He is impressed with the overall quality of the Compaq notebooks used by employees at his company. "We have a mix of brands inside of our company and from a notebook perspective, the Compaq notebooks have done very well," he says, adding that technical support has exceeded his expectations. On one occasion, "after a problem was fixed, I got an e-mail from them [technical support] saying 'you might want to take a look at this URL because there's some additional information from Microsoft,'" he tells us. "They were pretty focused on fixing my problem."

Dell Inspiron 3800
Rating 96

The first thing we noticed after firing up Dell Corporation's Inspiron 3800 was the breathtaking quality of its 14.1-inch XGA TFT display. It's one of the brightest, most uniform screens we've ever tested, with terrific contrast, crisp whites, and completely saturated color. Mike Bonfigli, COO and founder of Earthcars.com, a company that develops applications and Web solutions for the auto industry, agrees. "The performance from a display standpoint was definitely superior," says Bonfigli. "It's hard to ignore that when you're spending 15 hours a day staring at it."

Earthcars.com's employees have used their Inspirons with great success as desktop replacement systems, and Bonfigli has been especially impressed with Dell's technical support. "It's been super, super fast ­ I mean instantaneous," he says, recalling one instance when a screen failed after heavy use. "We had someone come to us in Los Angeles with no notice. They were here the next day," he told us. "They didn't even ask that many questions; they just knew that it was down and they responded immediately."

Inspirons come in several configurations (and colors) and Dell sent us a mid-range unit. Ours came with a zippy 600MHz Pentium III SpeedStep processor, 64MB of RAM, a 6GB hard drive, and a 24x CD-ROM drive. Works Suite 2000 was preinstalled but an Office 2000 Small Business Edition option is available. As expected, considering the hardware involved, the Inspiron proved to be terrific at running business applications during our tests.

While most notebooks have slightly mushy keys, the large keys of the Inspiron have a satisfyingly crisp action that really helped us cut down on typing errors. The inclusion of both a touchpad and a touchstick further enhances the product's usability. They were engineered so both can operate at any time without interfering with one another. We only wish that every manufacturer provided customers with so many choices.

Dell's submission was a real smooth operator in all our tests, and just about any configuration based on the notebook's overall design would serve well as a desktop replacement. This is one of those rare products that can do everything users ask and look good doing it. The only drawback is that it is impossible to put both a floppy drive and a CD-ROM drive in the unit at the same time. Still, for $2,069 as tested, with a one-year, next-business-day, on-site parts and labor warranty, who's complaining?

Gateway Solo 9300se
Rating 93

Much like the Dell customer we talked with, the operations manager of Pinnacle Pension Services, Darin Kaye, is a loyal Gateway customer because of it's responsive technical support. Pinnacle is a third-party pension administrator that uses five Gateway Solo 9300 series notebooks as primary workstations. "Gateway has a separate support line for the notebooks, so the support is almost instantaneous," Kaye says. He cites one incident that particularly impressed him. "In one of our laptops, there was an indication that the hard drive might be failing, and after communicating with the technicians at Gateway, they agreed to send out a replacement hard drive even though it actually hadn't gone bad yet," he tells us. The swift response gave Kaye time to offload all the data from the bum hard drive to the new unit. "Had it been a little bit later, we would have been down."

The Solo 9300 we looked at has a solid construction and a 14.1-inch XGA TFT display that is nearly as impressive as the one installed in the Dell unit. It is very bright and capable of vibrant colors, but text was not quite as crisp. The touchpad works effortlessly and the large keys on the massive and solid keyboard made typing for extended periods comfortable. We liked the addition of a row of special-purpose buttons above the keyboard that allow such things as one-click access to the Internet and easy volume control.

Many older Gateway notebook designs provided only one drive bay for the floppy drive and CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive. The Gateway 9300 is roomy enough to accommodate both drives, something both we and Kaye really appreciated. "That was a big improvement," Kaye tells us. "Prior to that, you had to swap out devices."

The Solo 9300 came with everything needed to connect to the office, including a PC card modem and a PC card 10/100Base-T Ethernet adapter for jacking into the office network. The system specifications are more than adequate for office chores, with a 600MHz processor, 64MB of RAM, and a 6GB hard drive. The only thing lacking was software. No office suite was included with our test system, although customers can purchase one as a configuration option. The 9300se Deluxe comes with Office 2000 Small Business Edition for only $129 more than the $2,448 price of our test machine.

Gateway's 9300 systems come with a generous three-year parts and labor limited warranty. That eliminated much of our concern regarding the Solo 9300se's price, which seemed a little high compared to other systems we looked at with similar specifications.

Hewlett-Packard Pavilion N3295
Rating 88

Hewlett-Packard sent us the Pavilion N3295, a real powerhouse of a system with a 600MHz Pentium III SpeedStep processor, 64MB of RAM, an integrated modem, and a 6GB hard drive. Those specifications made the Pavilion a real performer in our office tests, which were a pleasure to conduct thanks to its 14.1-inch XGA TFT screen and comfortable keyboard layout. This keyboard had more sag than the others we tested and the touchpad device wasn't quite as responsive as it could have been, but we quickly adapted and discovered that the two potential drawbacks had no real impact on usability.

The Pavilion N3295 was the only notebook that came with a DVD-ROM drive, which we consider to be a frivolous expense on an office workhorse, but it doesn't seem to impact the price too much. Works 2000 is included, so customers will have to pony up some extra dough to get more robust applications.

The $2,299 purchase price includes a one-year limited warranty and really isn't bad for a notebook with so many advanced components. If only we could swap the DVD drive for a CD-ROM drive and spend the money we saved on an extended warranty, this system would be a real contender.

IBM ThinkPad A20m
Rating 89

The ThinkPad A20m that IBM submitted came with a 550MHz Mobile Celeron processor, a 6GB hard drive, and 64MB of RAM, which was more than adequate for our office testing. The only major component we didn't care for was the display. It is of extraordinary quality for a TFT design but the small 12.1-inch size and low fixed 800 by 600 resolution on the model we tested greatly reduces the unit's overall usability. We suggest opting for a larger display if the ThinkPad A20 is to be used as a desktop replacement system.

Display issues aside, this is one terrific notebook for working with office applications all day. The keyboard had a little sag on the right side but that didn't seem to affect our ability to comfortably type on it for hours. The integrated touchstick-pointing device works flawlessly, requiring little pressure for precise cursor movement. Integrated modem and Ethernet adapters should keep employees in touch with the rest of the office regardless of their location.

We spoke with a few small business customers who have used IBM notebooks similar to the A20 series in the past, and they were universally impressed with the company's technical support. Lucy Baney, president and owner of Access Technologies Group, a 26-employee software development company, recently had to return one of her notebooks to IBM for repairs. "I sent it in on a Monday and had it back Wednesday morning at ten," she says. "I've come to expect that kind of service and I don't know that anybody else can deliver it as well as IBM can." The other customers we talked with echoed her sentiments. We recommend the system as a sensible desktop replacement provided that it is ordered with a 14.1-inch or larger TFT display. All A20 systems come with a one-year limited warranty, except the top-of-the-line A20p, which has a three-year standard warranty. The system we tested sells for $1,899.

WHAT WE THINK

All of the notebooks we tested meet the unique needs of mobile employees in their own special way. However the Acer, Gateway, and Dell units offer the best blend of performance, price, and usability. We were especially impressed with Dell's Inspiron 3800 because of its beautiful display, dual cursor controls, high build quality, many available configurations, and universally positive customer feedback. As if that list wasn't enough, Dell manages to offer some impressive hardware at an incredibly reasonable price. Small businesses would be hard-pressed to find a better overall value.

QUESTIONS TO ASK

HOW SKILLED ARE YOUR EMPLOYEES? Workers who are not very computer savvy will be better off with all-in-one integrated notebook designs like Compaq's Notebook 100. There are no parts to swap in and out and, therefore, fewer installation headaches for novices to worry about. On the other hand, a system that uses all cutting-edge technology, like the Acer TravelMate 600 Series, could be a good choice because there are no tricky legacy interfaces and devices to worry about.

DO YOU NEED ANY EXTRA FRILLS? DVD-ROM drives and enormous hard drives are nice, but if you don't have a specific need for them, you can save a lot of cash by opting for low-tech or low-capacity components. Don't necessarily be wooed by the low prices associated with integrated modems and LAN adapters, though. Spending a little extra money to buy some quality PC Card devices will mean you can carry them over to new notebooks when the old ones are retired.

WHERE SHOULD YOU SPLURGE? Any time you can trim some hardware or software features and still meet your business needs, consider using the money you saved to bump up your warranty. Notebooks have become much more reliable over the years, but people haven't, and notebook accidents are always expensive.

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