By Liz Levy
Not all of us know the comfort of working in a corporate office, knowing that everything we need is at our disposal. Some of us have to get out into the world and interact with our customers, partners, suppliers, and coworkers – face to face.
Almost every business has a couple of road warriors in their army. The needs of your mobile workforce will vary depending on the type of business and frequency of travel. One piece of equipment most mobile workers can’t do without is a notebook PC, but one kind of notebook does not suit all.
Those with basic needs for word processing, e-mail, and Web browsing can do with much less power than those showing presentations or storing large images or multimedia files. There are also size and weight preferences to consider, and, of course, budget constraints are a factor. Notebook manufacturers have been wise enough to categorize their product offerings, making selection much easier, but you should know a little about each category to consider how your needs would best be met.
If you travel more than fifty percent of the time, you’ll want a notebook in this category. These systems are meant for users whose notebooks are their primary machines and are designed to include everything a desktop PC system would, without compromising on power or accessories.
Most of these notebooks allow for the simultaneous running of three different drives (usually floppy disk, CD-ROM, and hard disk drives). Notebooks in all categories include PC card slots, and desktop replacements generally include at least two. They will also include a larger screen and a variety of connectivity options to suit users who find themselves in different environments. Most desktop replacements include a variety of expansion ports, such as parallel, serial, SCSI, USB, Firewire, or video output ports.
Multimedia notebooks are similar to desktop replacements in size and features, but offer better audio and video performance. For example, they will come with DVD players or combo drives for listening to music or watching movies while traveling. While many notebooks use shared system and video memory, a typical multimedia machine will include 8, 16, or 32MB of dedicated video RAM. Speakers are more prominently placed and will be of higher quality, resulting in a clearer, less tinny sound than regular notebook speakers. Most also include S-Video Out port for displaying images on PAL or NTSC television sets.
Thin and Light
While mobile workers like to be well equipped, lugging a behemoth machine across town or across the country can be a pain. Vendors offer slimmed-down, highly portable notebooks that scale back on built-in features. The result is usually a super-slim notebook that weighs anywhere from three to five pounds and comes with several add-on drives or one swappable bay. Users can pop in a CD-ROM, DVD, floppy disk drive, or extra battery as needs change. Their screens are smaller, no bigger than 13.1 inches.
Users with minimal computing needs, or people who use a notebook as a secondary machine, can forgo power and sleek design for some real savings. Usually starting at under $1,500, these notebooks include less powerful processors, smaller hard disks, and smaller displays, and generally forgo sleek designs and expensive materials.
Making the Choice
Personal preferences play a big part in choosing a notebook. If you’re buying machines for a group of people in your company, give them some input. There is a broad array of shapes, sizes, and configurations from which to choose, and you’ll find that choosing the right notebook will require reaching a compromise between power, built-in features, size, and price. To help you with your decision, we’ve taken a look at five notebook PCs from all categories. Remember that most notebook vendors have a variety of lines to choose from, so it’s worth it to shop around, even within one brand.
Apple Titanium PowerBook G4
The Apple Titanium PowerBook G4, weighing 5.3 pounds and measuring 1 inch thick, is a sleek notebook that doubles as a multimedia PC. It’s Apple’s most professionally-minded portable computer, and its most eye-catching feature is the wide 15.2-inch display.
Priced at $2,999, the PowerBook G4 includes a 500MHz PowerPC G4 processor, 256MB RAM, a 20GB hard drive, ATI RAGE Mobility 128 with 8MB of video memory, a slot-loading DVD drive, built-in 10/100BASE-T Ethernet, a V.90 modem, FireWire and USB ports, VGA and S-Video ports, and an impressive five-hour battery.
While the slot-loading DVD drive is less clunky than a tray-loading drive and rates high in coolness, it lacks the flexibility of a swappable drive. If you wanted to add a floppy or CD-RW drive for example, it would have to be attached externally.
The included FireWire allows you to connect to video devices, and with the 30GB hard drive and 1GB RAM option, the G4 is powerful enough to handle the most demanding video-editing tasks. The two small speakers located on either side of the keyboard provide ample sound.
For wireless networking, the PowerBook G4 comes with a slot for Apple’s AirPort Card and two built-in antennas for communicating with the AirPort Base Station. There’s also an infrared port and two USB connections. The neatly hidden PC card slot on the left side of the machine offers expandability, which will come in handy for those needing legacy ports. Another innovative design feature is the removable keyboard plate for stacking additional memory underneath.
The one functional flaw we found with the PowerBook G4 was the lack of a power-management function for keeping the machine from going to sleep when the lid is closed. Add to that its steep price and lack of flexibility, and you have a beautiful, powerful notebook that’s only appropriate for a limited audience.
Dell Inspiron 8100
Featuring an nVidia GeForce2 Go graphics card with a whopping 32MB of video memory and a bright 15-inch Ultra XGA display, Dell’s new Inspiron 8100 is a multimedia powerhouse. Our test machine came with up to a PIII 1.13GHz processor, 256MB of system memory, and two built-in drives with one modular bay, including a DVD/CD-RW combo drive.
The machine has a convenient panel for CD/DVD player buttons. These player buttons double as a set of hot keys for launching applications and the Dell Solution Center support Web site.
Multimedia features abound. The two speakers on either side of the machine offer powerful sound quality, but we noticed a break in the sound when we closed the lid of the machine during play. The S-Video allows you to connect to a television, and there’s a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port for use with video devices and digital cameras.
The unit also includes two full sets of navigation keys to accommodate different work styles. There is a pointing stick with two small left and right click keys just below the space bar for easy control while typing, and a touch pad with two large left and right click keys on the palm rest.
The design of the Inspiron is far from sleek, but the machine look can be personalized with snap-on faceplates in various colors and designs. The machine has Ethernet and modem connections as well as parallel, serial, and two USB ports.
At $2,882, the speedy Inspiron 8100 is a well-rounded machine for users who demand better multimedia features and do a lot of graphics work from the road. Other business users might find the multimedia enhancements overkill.
Gateway Solo 1200
At the bargain price of $999, the Gateway Solo 1200 is a value for users with basic computing needs. Our test configuration included an 800MHz Intel Celeron processor, 128MB of memory, a 10GB hard drive, built-in CD-ROM and floppy disk drive, 12.1-inch TFT display, and an integrated v.92 modem and Ethernet port. The Solo 1200 has a built-in 802.11b antenna for wireless networking. For another $200, Gateway will throw in an extra 64MB of system memory and install a miniPCI card that activates the antenna for wireless connectivity.
For expanding the unit, there is one built-in PC card slot. There are also one parallel port, a monitor port, and two USB ports; what’s missing is an external keyboard/mouse port. Instead, the Solo 1200 has a touch pad with left and right click buttons with an extra rocker switch for scrolling, zooming, and panning a document. There are also four programmable hot keys above the keyboard for launching various applications.
Measuring 11.99 inches by 11.61 inches by 1.83 inches and weighing 6.8 pounds, the Solo isn’t the sleekest-looking machine, but the case has a rugged, solid feel. It is also geared at consumers, though you can get a version with Windows XP installed, which would be infinitely more appropriate for the office.
If you don’t mind a smaller monitor, and you’re looking for a reliable bargain, the Gateway Solo 1200 makes a reasonable choice for a businessperson on the go.
IBM T23 Series
The T23 is the highest-end model in IBM’s T Series. Included in our $3,299 test system was a PIII-M 1.13GHz processor, 128MB RAM, a 48GB hard drive, 16MB of video RAM, a DVD drive, and Windows 2000. Add to that healthy inventory a built-in Wi-Fi 802.11b wireless networking, Ethernet and dial-up connections, and two PC card slots (Bluetooth support comes in the form of a PC card add-on).
All the notebooks in the T Series feature an UltraBay Plus drive with swappable components like CD-ROM, DVD, floppy, or combo DVD/CD-RW drives. While swappable drive bays have been around for some time, the Plus bay offers some new components, like an ejectable numeric keypad and a cradle and charger for a Palm or Pocket PC handheld. On top of the ThinkPad’s bright 14-inch screen you’ll find the IBM UltraPort for connecting devices like the UltraPort digital camera, compact flash reader, or digital array microphone.
With video-out and external monitor ports, the T23 is ready for showing presentations. The ThinkLight at the top of the screen dimly shines down on the keyboard in low light, which can also be helpful when showing presentations in a dark room. A new feature of the series, the IBM Secure Chip, provides hardware encryption for connecting to your network remotely, using a biometric device, or encrypting specific files.
For navigation, the T Series provides a pointing stick, left and right click keys, and an extra scrolling key. Holding down the scrolling key while moving the pointing stick allows you to easily pan documents. Other than the three volume control keys and the ThinkPad help access key above the keyboard, there are no hot keys for launching applications.
The T23 is somewhat clunkier than other slim notebooks, but it does add flexibility that most notebooks in this category do not. Many business users will probably take the awkwardness and high price tag in exchange for the power, reputation, and features this notebook provides.
Toshiba Satellite Pro 4600
Weighing 7.4 pounds and measuring almost 2 inches, the Toshiba Satellite Pro 4600 is a hefty desktop replacement with a standard 15-inch TFT display, floppy drive, and a CD-ROM, CD-RW, DVD, or combo drive. The unit we reviewed included a PIII 900MHz processor with 128MB RAM and Windows 98 (you can opt for Windows 2000 Professional). Our combo and floppy drive were fixed in on the right side of the machine without the ability to swap in other drive components.
The notebook boasts five network connection choices with integrated Wi-Fi 802.11b, Ethernet, V.90 modem, infrared, and a Bluetooth PC Card. The Satellite 4600 also includes two PC card slots, as well as parallel, serial, video-out, TV-out, two USB, and external keyboard/mouse ports. It has a pointing stick in the center of the keyboard with left and right mouse-click buttons on the palm rest. Located just above them, there are also two extra scrolling keys that let you pan a document and serve as back buttons when a browser is open. The 4600 has an adequate sound system that’s easily controlled via a volume dial.
The machine has some extra conveniences, such as the switch on the left side for quickly turning off the wireless reception. We’re also big fans of shortcut keys, so we liked the Fn-esse utility, which lets you combine the function key with another key to launch any application or open files.For a notebook of this size, we would like to see a touch pad and perhaps a set of hot keys, but we’ll swap those in exchange for the low price. The Toshiba Satellite 4600 is a solid all-in-one notebook that could stand up next to any desktop PC.
What’s New in Notebooks: Wireless
You may have thought computer technology had peaked when the 1GHz processor hit the market, but there have been several developments in notebooks. Wireless technologies, for example, have left their vaporware status behind and have quickly become a standard option in today’s portable PCs.
Bluetooth is a radio frequency technology that allows mobile phones, computers, PDAs, and other smart devices to connect with each other over a short-range wireless network. Enabled devices can send and receive both voice and data even when they are not within the line of sight. The maximum range is 10 meters and data can be exchanged at a rate of 1-2Mbps.
Wi-Fi or 802.11b is another radio frequency technology for sharing data over a wireless LAN. Data speeds are up to 11Mbps. The over-the-air connection can take place between a wireless client and a base station or between two wireless clients. Products certified as Wi-Fi by WECA are interoperable with each other even if they are from different manufacturers.
The easiest way to differentiate Bluetooth and Wi-Fi is to think of Bluetooth as a ‘shortwire’ replacement for the mass of cables we use to connect personal devices, like portable computers, mobile telephones, headsets, PDAs, and digital cameras. Wi-Fi is a ‘longwire’ replacement for the networking cables that connect PCs to a hub or server. Users can log onto their network without the need to be physically attached. Removing the wires helps simplify network setup and troubleshooting and gives workers the flexibility of being able to go anywhere within the network, an important plus to mobile users.
Questions to Ask
What kind of removable media drive do I need: CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, CD-RW, or floppy? Many of today’s notebooks offer a swappable drive bay that can accommodate all four of these options, but your best bet is a CD-RW drive. You can use it for backing up data, distributing files to coworkers, storing presentations, and playing audio CDs. Combo drives that read DVD-ROM and CD-ROM discs and record to CD-R or CD-RW discs are a handy, expensive option. The drives are a convenient way to squeeze an extra function out of a single drive, which helps to keep a notebook’s size down.
What if I’ll be using this machine for presentations or other multimedia tasks? You’ll need to pay more attention to the audio system and display. Almost all notebooks have a set of speakers and jacks for audio input and output, but some provide slightly better sound and video quality. You’ll also want a larger display that’s viewable from different angles if you plan on showing a presentation at a conference table. For auditoriums, you’ll want a video-out port for connecting your system to a TV.
What about connectivity? Business travelers often encounter different network environments, so it helps to have a few communication options. Almost all machines now come standard with an integrated 56K modem and most come with an Ethernet adapter. Wireless options like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are also quickly catching on for connecting mobile workgroups.
In terms of connecting older peripherals, find a machine with legacy ports, such as Parallel, SCSI, and serial. You’ll also need at least two USB ports. Firewire is not widely seen, except on Mac systems, but is a must for video editing applications and some digital peripherals. PC card slots are useful for a variety of devices and can be used to quickly add another communication type, like a wireless LAN card, to your machine. Most desktop replacement machines include two Type II PC card slots.
How much computing power do I need? Because of the special power-saving requirements of notebook PCs, they have their own processors that are smaller, lighter, require less power, and generate less heat. Value-line machines most often come with Intel Celeron processors while the most powerful notebooks are 1GHz PIIIs (with Intel SpeedStep for controlling the speed of your notebook in order to save power).
Start with an Intel Celeron 800MHz processor and work your way up from there. Notebook memory ranges from 32MB to 512MB (1GB on Apple PowerBook G4), and even the most basic business tasks now require 96MB or 128MB.
Our rating system uses six categories to evaluate products. Each category is weighted equally. The overall rating is the average of the scores achieved in each category. Ratings reflect our personal experiences while testing the products.
We consider the following categories:
Reliability: Does the product live up to the technical specifications that the manufacturer advertises?
Compliance: Does the product work with most operating systems and international standards? Will it work with old and new technologies?
Ease of use: How easy is installation? Is training necessary? Does the product require full-time support?
Scalability: Will it expand as technology demands increase or change?
Quality of service: What type of warranty, customer service, and support is available? Is there 24/7 technical support? Is there a fee for the service?
Cost: Is the product a good value? Is the technology mature enough to provide immediate benefits?
Overall ratings fall into the following purchasing-decision categories:
• 90-100 = Must Buy. Get it now.
• 80-89 = Good product. Worth a look.
• 70-79 = We have reservations.
• 60 and below = Leave it on the shelf.
Liz Levy has served on staff at both SBC and destinationSOHO.com.