CD-ROM Laptops: Time to Upgrade Is Approaching

So many good things are coming out on CD-ROMs, it's hard to leave them behind. National phone books. A full encyclopedia. I want them all when I hit the road.

Until now, that was nearly impossible. Portable computers with CD-ROM drives built in were very expensive. And stand-alone drives that plugged into the computer were slow and bulky.

No longer. Nearly every major manufacturer of notebook computers is coming out with CD-ROM equipped models. External drives have also become much faster and more useful, thanks to PC Card slots. So is it time to make the move to portable CD-ROM computing?

For the past several weeks, I've been experimenting with a CD-ROM-equipped Toshiba laptop to answer that question. Of course, the answer depends on how you use your portable computer.

I'm a heavy user of CD-ROMs. So when Toshiba sent me a Satellite Pro 400 CS with a CD-ROM upgrade, I could hardly wait to try it out.

Granted, such information usually isn't vital during business trips. It usually serves as background, handy only on those long trips when the outlines of the project are not entirely clear. Still, there are times when having the right disk eases life on the road.

Even if you don't travel with your portable machine, the reasons to get a CD-ROM are growing. As programs get larger, software developers are getting tired of sending out all those floppy disks. They're switching to CD-ROMs.

Already, some nine out of 10 desktop computers are sold with CD-ROM drives, says Mike Wagner, director of customer marketing for Toshiba America Information Systems. By the end of next year, the company expects that 60 percent of all portable computers will include the drives as well.

So the technology is coming. ''You will see it become quite popular,'' says Robert Abraham, vice president of Freeman Associates, a Santa Barbara, Calif., management-consultant firm. The question for many users is when to make the switch.

At the moment, CD-ROM-equipped laptops are expensive. The Toshiba I used is a high-end machine, selling for $4,300 or more. Toshiba and several of its competitors are introducing CD-ROMs on portable computers for less than $3,000. Still, it's a hefty price tag. For example, IBM's mid-level ThinkPad 755 costs some $600 more if it includes a CD-ROM.

One reason for the high price tag is that portable CD-ROM drives have to be more rugged than their desktop counterparts. They have to resist vibration so they can keep tracking the disk even when they're being moved. They also have to be light - two areas where Toshiba did an excellent job.

But prices will surely fall. And by then, manufacturers may have figured out how to deal with some of the drawbacks of portable CD-ROM computing. One is battery drain. Toshiba figures users will get 15 percent less time on a battery charge when the CD-ROM drive is plugged in.

I routinely got less than three hours of use on a single battery charge. Surprisingly, I also missed my floppy disk when the CD-ROM was plugged in. (The Toshiba lets you interchange a floppy disk drive and a CD-ROM drive, but you can't use both at once.) I found I used the two about equally.

Another way to board the CD-ROM bandwagon is to add a portable external CD-ROM drive. For $299, Panasonic sells a unit that plugs into the computer's PC Card slot. The credit-card sized slot turns out to be faster than the old kind of external drive, which tended to be slow and bulky to boot.

My next portable computer will have a CD-ROM, but I'll wait awhile for the technology to improve.

* Don't you wait. Send comments via Internet ( or to America Online (LBELSIE).

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