Tread Lightly

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted January 31, 2001
by David Haskin

Life often requires trade-offs, and this especially applies to subnotebook computers. Subnotebooks are lighter and smaller than standard laptop computers, and are defined here as being single-spindle, meaning that they have only one drive. They are a joy to travel with and easy to use on airline seat-back tray tables. To get the smaller form factor though, you typically must sacrifice usability. For instance, screens and keyboards are usually smaller than they are on larger laptops and they often don't have built-in serial or parallel ports, or network connections.

Different subnotebook vendors make different trade-offs, however, as we discovered while reviewing the five models in this Buyer's Guide. We found only a few similarities among them. For instance, all had PC card slots for adding items like Ethernet adapters or wireless modems, and all enable you to attach full-size external monitors for chores such as showing PowerPoint presentations.

Overall, the five units we reviewed were very diverse, sporting three different operating systems among them. The NEC MobilePro runs Windows CE Professional, a slightly more robust version of the operating system used by handheld computers. Models from Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard, and Compaq came with Windows 2000 Professional, whereas the Sony Vaio PictureBook came with Windows Millennium Edition and, uniquely, the new Crusoe processor from Transmeta. Most of these vendors also offer their wares with Windows 98.

Screen sizes varied from under nine inches to more than 13 inches. Weight varied from just over two pounds to almost five, and prices varied from about $1,000 to more than $3,000. In short, there's a lot to consider when buying a subnotebook.

"The laptop I had was too heavy," said Ed Harris, a management consultant in Madison, Wis. "My quest was to find an under-five-pound machine." Harris' quest ended when he bought an IBM ThinkPad T20 and shortly thereafter, he put it through the acid test.

"I took a trip last week and it was the first time I made it through O'Hare without my shoulder hurting," he said. "It's about four pounds less shoulder weight than I had before." This is what subnotebooks are all about.

For those who are forced to do most of their work on the road, having the proper peripherals handy is also important. It's hard to do without printers, scanners, and storage devices. Luckily these units come in small packages too.

How We Tested
We focused our testing on usability and other factors that are important to traveling businesspeople, such as weight and battery life. We placed less emphasis on speed and performance. If it's performance you're after, you'll typically find more power on larger laptop machines.

We also looked at comfort, paying close attention to how it felt to use the keyboard, pointing device, and the screen, since these are the major points with which users interact. They are also three of the major areas in which trade-offs occur when creating small devices. The 15-inch screens found on larger laptops simply aren't possible on subnotebooks. Nor are larger keyboards.

As part of that real-world test, we examined whether the units could connect to such typical office peripherals as printers and other desktop computers. Being able to transfer data between the subnotebook and a desktop computer is also important for those who work in and out of the office. For this, subnotebooks need some sort of removable storage device such as a floppy drive and input/output options such as serial, parallel, and USB ports.

Finally, for long days on the road, battery life is very important. As a result, we measured how long the battery lasted after its full charge using such typical office applications as word processing.

Compaq Armada M300
Rating 91

The Compaq Armada M300 is one of the least powerful subnotebooks in this roundup, but it ranks at the top in value and in balancing a small form factor with solid functionality.

The Armada is about two inches narrower than the HP and Toshiba subnotebooks and only an inch wider and deeper than the tiny NEC MobilePro 880. In this roundup, only the Sony PictureBook and MobilePro are lighter.

The smallish form factor would be a detriment, not a benefit, if the machine was difficult to use, but we found the Armada's ergonomics quite satisfying. For pointing, the Armada uses a touchpad with two buttons. Its keyboard is small and we would appreciate a bit more vertical space between the keys, but it is laid out well, making touch typing for long periods easy. There are four keys at the top of the keyboard for launching your browser, e-mail, and other commonly used programs.

We particularly appreciated that the arrow keys were isolated in the lower-right corner of the keyboard, so we didn't have to hunt for them among other keys. The trade-off, though, was that the Insert and Delete keys are hidden in the upper-right corner of the keyboard, as they are on most subnotebooks. Compaq also makes typing more comfortable by cleverly placing its removable battery bar at the back of the device and enabling it to pivot down, which lifts the back of the computer. This slants the keyboard down like a desktop-size keyboard.

The Armada has the best standard connectivity and input/output options in this Buyer's Guide. It is the only subnotebook we looked at that comes with a local-area network adapter as standard equipment, and it comes with an external floppy drive.

In addition, unlike the majority of subnotebooks we examined, the Armada has built-in serial, parallel, USB, and video ports. The combination of built-in ports and the standard external floppy drive means many users won't need to buy the add-on docking station module. On the downside, Compaq doesn't offer a stand-alone CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive, so for that you will need to purchase the add-on docking station.

The Armada's battery lasted about two hours and forty minutes between charges. That was a hair better than the two-and-a-half hours that was typical of the others, but it doesn't constitute a major advantage.

Still, at $2,499 the Armada M300 is comparatively inexpensive, highly portable, very usable, and comes loaded with more capabilities than most of the other subnotebooks here. That makes it, arguably, the best value in this Buyer's Guide.

Compaq Armada M300
$2,499
Compaq Computer Corp.
www.compaq.com

HP OmniBook 900
Rating 88

The Hewlett-Packard OmniBook 900 doesn't have the snazzy design of the Sony PictureBook plus it is larger than some of the subnotebooks in this roundup. It is a solid performer at a low price, which makes it well worth your consideration. The four-pound OmniBook we reviewed had a 500MHz Pentium III processor, a 12GB hard drive, 64MB of RAM, and ran Windows 2000 Professional.

It includes an attachable bay for adding different drives to the device. The bay comes standard with a floppy drive or you can optionally buy a DVD-ROM, CD-ROM, or Zip drive. To switch drives you pull a lever on the housing to eject the drive and insert the next drive. The drives for the OmniBook are hot-swappable, meaning you need not turn off the computer before adding or removing the drive.

The OmniBook's ergonomics get very high marks. Its 13.3-inch LCD was as large as any in this roundup, delivering a crisp image with 16-bit color. Of course, the trade-off for the big screen is that the unit is relatively large -- almost as large as the Toshiba Protégé, which is the largest subnotebook in this roundup. The OmniBook is about a half-pound lighter than the Toshiba.

Subjectively, the keyboard was the most satisfying in the roundup, with deep key travel and a clean layout that made touch-typing quite comfortable. It is the only subnotebook in the roundup with both a pointing stick in the middle of the keyboard for moving the cursor and a touchpad. You can switch between the two since both are operational at the same time.

The basic input-output options are built right into the OmniBook, including parallel, serial, and USB ports, as well as a VGA connector for monitors. Battery life was typical of this group of subnotebooks at about two-and-a-half hours.

Like most of the other subnotebooks, it comes with no bundled office applications. Surprisingly, however, the OmniBook was the only subnotebook in this roundup without a built-in modem, although you can add one easily enough using its PC Card slot.

The price of the OmniBook we tested with a 12GB hard drive was in the middle of the pack. However, if you can live with a 6GB hard drive, the price of the OmniBook 900 drops to $2,099. With its large screen and comfortable keyboard, the OmniBook is another good value.

HP OmniBook 900
$2,649
Hewlett-Packard
www.hp.com

NEC MobilePro 880
Rating 85

The NEC MobilePro 880 is much less expensive than other subnotebooks in this roundup. It's the smallest device after the Sony Vaio PictureBook, and it gets an extremely long charge out of its lithium ion battery. Yet the MobilePro is the least powerful subnotebook in this group, being more a scaled-up palm-size handheld than a scaled-down laptop. Based on the Windows CE Pro operating system typically used on pocket-sized handhelds, it doesn't have a hard drive; rather, it stores everything in memory.

This approach offers both benefits and drawbacks. The lack of a hard drive severely limits the applications that you can install, although the MobilePro does come with "pocket" versions of such Microsoft Office programs as as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Interestingly, the only other subnotebook in this roundup that came with an office application was the Sony PictureBook, which included Microsoft Word.

The MobilePro has a small keyboard, but was still large enough for comfortable touch-typing. It doesn't, however, have a mouse substitute. Instead, like most handheld computers, you use a pen-like stylus to point and tap on-screen. This makes sense for handhelds, but we found it difficult to get used to picking up the stylus instead of reaching for a pointing device that is attached to the computer. Its 9.4-inch screen supports 64,000 colors and was easy to view despite its comparatively small size.

The MobilePro isn't attractive for those with heavy-duty computing needs, but it is extremely usable for traveling if your needs are modest. At an inch thick, 7.4 inches deep by 9.6 inches wide and 2.6 pounds, it is quite small and easy to carry.

Besides making the device so easy to carry, another advantage of the MobilePro 880's lack of power compared to other subnotebooks is its battery life. We used the device off and on for a couple of weeks and, in constant use, the battery lasted more than six hours, easily the best score in the group.

The MobilePro 880 has a built-in 56Kbps modem. It also comes with software that turns the device into a network terminal, or thin client, on a corporate local area network. That means you can log on from virtually anywhere and access your company's server-based applications. It has a USB port, but neither a serial or a parallel ports.

For some, a significant benefit of the MobilePro is that, like handhelds, it synchronizes both personal information such as appointments, contacts, and files with your desktop computer. It is the only subnotebook in this roundup to do so. Its ActiveSync 3.0 software can be set to synchronize automatically as soon as you connect the device to your desktop PC.

The NEC MobilePro 880 is a highly useful choice, but only if you primarily need a subnotebook for e-mail and light use of office applications. However, it will drive you mad if you need significant computing power, disk storage, or complex applications.

NEC MobilePro 880
$2,599
NEC Computers Inc.
www.neccomp.com

Sony Vaio PictureBook C1VN
Rating 85

The Sony Vaio PictureBook subnotebook is so unique and eye-catching that it is certain to help you strike up conversations with strangers on an airplane.

For one thing, this is the smallest subnotebook in the group. At 1.1 inch high, 9.8 inches long, 6 inches deep, and 2.2 pounds, it dwarfs even the teensy NEC MobilePro 880. This is the first subnotebook to use Transmeta's Crusoe TM5600 600MHz processor, which, in our tests, ran Windows Millennium Edition.

Oddly, while Crusoe chips are billed as having long battery life, our PictureBook's battery ran out of juice after a rather mundane 2.5 hours. In fairness, we did some power-hungry video capture and editing, and we tested a late preproduction model and not a fully commercialized version. A spokesperson for the company said that the device typically goes longer between recharges.

What really makes this subnotebook unique is its built-in progressive scan camera on the top edge of the screen that captures both still images and video in MPEG-1 format. Pushing a button above the keyboard launches a SmartCapture program, which shows a live video image. You can select whether to snap a still image or record a movie by clicking on the appropriate option in the capture program.

The PictureBook comes with Windows Millennium Edition. Its 12GB hard drive and 128MB of RAM initially seem like a lot, but they're necessary if you capture and edit video. It has a Memory Stick slot, which is Sony's proprietary expansion technology. Its bundled applications include Microsoft Word and programs for editing and playing various types of multimedia.

Besides being fun, the imaging capabilities are potentially useful for niche applications: Realtors, for example, may need to take pictures of homes. However, for most business users, although the PictureBook covers the basics, it does have some shortcomings. While the tiny keyboard is about the same overall size as the NEC MobilePro's, its layout made it clumsier to use. Specifically, the function keys were miniscule and some of the right and left arrow keys were too small. It uses a pointing stick in the middle of the keyboard and buttons below the space bar as a mouse substitute. Yet, we couldn't comfortably rest one finger on the pointing stick and another on the buttons. As a result, we used one hand for pointing and another for clicking, which grew tiresome over time.

The PictureBook's 8.9-inch LCD screen is longer in proportion to its height than standard monitors and LCDs. Specifically, it supports 1024 by 480 resolution (standard is 1024 by 768). This means fewer lines are displayed on-screen when using Microsoft Word than on the other subnotebooks.

The PictureBook also lacks connectivity options. It has a built-in 56Kbps modem and USB port but doesn't have a standard floppy drive, serial, or parallel port. As a result, you must buy the optional external floppy drive if you want to copy files to your desktop PC or the optional CD-ROM drive if you want to install more programs.

We had so much fun with the Sony Vaio PictureBook C1VN, and appreciated its design and unique features so much that we returned the review unit with great reluctance. And while this is an excellent choice for people such as realtors who need both maximum portability and built-in imaging, for our next business trip we'll carry a more mundane but more practical subnotebook.

Sony Vaio PictureBook C1VN
$2,299
Sony Electronics Inc.
www.sony.com/vaiopc

Toshiba Protege 7220CTe
Rating 84

The Toshiba 7220CTe is the luxury sedan of this roundup, with a sleek appearance, a large footprint, and a high price.

This stylish silver and gray subnotebook is only an inch thick, although it has the longest and deepest dimensions in this roundup. It came with 128MB of RAM, a 650MHz Pentium III, a 12GB hard drive, and Windows 2000 Professional. Its 13.3-inch display was crisp and easy to read at 1024 by 768 resolution and 16-bit color.

Overall usability was excellent. Its keyboard is laid out well, with a spacious feel and good vertical key travel. There are full-size Insert and Delete keys to the right of the space bar, while most other subnotebooks hide half-sized keys somewhere in the upper-right corner of the keyboard where the hand doesn't fall naturally. A pointing stick sits in the middle of the keyboard with buttons below. The spacing between the pointing stick and the buttons was perfect for one-hand operation.

Toshiba made some interesting connectivity choices for this subnotebook. It comes with a built-in modem, as do all the subnotebooks in this roundup except the HP OmniBook. It has a video adapter but no serial or parallel ports, and it comes standard with a small port replicator that plugs into the device that includes a serial and parallel port and a plug-in for a mouse or keyboard. It also comes standard with an external floppy drive.

If you want more elaborate input and output options than that, you'll need Toshiba's $649 docking station, which includes a DVD-ROM drive, a floppy drive, a local area network adapter, speakers, and a video port.

Like a luxury sedan, the Protege was quite heavy, weighing in as tested at 4.8 pounds. Strangely, that's almost a pound heavier than the HP OmniBook, which had only slightly smaller dimensions. Like all the other subnotebooks in this roundup except the Sony PictureBook and the NEC MobilePro, it does not come with any office applications. Battery life was average at a bit under 2.5 hours.

The usability of the Protege 7220CTe makes it the best choice if you want your subnotebook also to be your desktop computer as well. That flexibility comes at a price. The 7220CTe is both expensive and heavy for a subnotebook.

Toshiba Protege 7220CTe
$3,228
Toshiba America Inc.
www.toshiba.com

What We Think
The five subnotebooks in this Buyer's Guide are all are well designed and are good choices, depending on your specific needs. Given the trade-offs typically required for subnotebooks, none will please everybody.

If you want computing power and flexibility, if money isn't an issue, and if you want to use your notebook computer on your desktop, a bigger subnotebook like the Toshiba Protege is a good option to consider. If you travel a lot and aren't a demanding user of office applications, a smaller subnotebook like the NEC MobilePro 880 is an inexpensive alternative. For those creative types the Sony Vaio PictureBook was a whiz at multimedia applications with its built-in camera.

For most users, though, the Hewlett-Packard OmniBook 900 and the Compaq Armada M300 most successfully walk the line between size, function, and price. Both include a lot of on-board capabilities such as a full-complement of input/output ports. Of the two, the Armada is a bit smaller and more complete, coming with a built-in LAN adapter and modem.

The bottom line on subnotebooks is that, while desktop computers are reasonably similar among competitors, choosing a subnotebook wisely is much more difficult because of the wide variety of choices.

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