More Notebook Computers for Bargain Hunters

The chips get cheaper, as do the hard drives and the memory. Yet somehow, computer prices stay the same.

They're better, of course, and bigger and faster. But rarely cheaper. Yesterday's $3,500 model doesn't fall in price; it gets upgraded.

Nowhere is this truer than in notebook computing. A top-line manufacturer brings out a model, drops the price a little after a few months, then goes on to make the next generation.

Getting a really inexpensive notebook has usually meant buying it from the ''discontinued'' shelf or from a second-tier manufacturer.

Fortunately, this is changing. Major manufacturers are jumping into the budget-notebook business. For less than $2,000, you can buy a reliable machine from some of the biggest in the business.

For the past several weeks, I've been using an IBM ThinkPad 365CS. It sells for $1,999. And while it's not the speediest machine around, it has all the necessary elements to make it a solid workhorse.

For example, a key feature of notebooks is the screen size. Budget buyers of the past always had to put up with tiny, cramped displays that very quickly became uncomfortable to look at. The ThinkPad comes with a significantly larger 10.4-inch screen.

True, the display uses dual-scan technology, which isn't as bright as active-matrix screens. But it's roughly $500 cheaper. The ThinkPad also comes with a respectably sized 500-megabyte hard drive.

Buying such trailing-edge computer technology is usually risky. Tomorrow's software is never too kind to today's hardware. And the ThinkPad's 486 chip (a DX4 running at 75 megahertz) is drifting dangerously close to the low end of microprocessor technology.

But in notebooks, this often isn't as crucial as it might seem.

Think how most people use a notebook. They're not doing three-dimensional graphics or calculating heavy-duty mathematical equations. They're writing a letter or touching up a spreadsheet. Less speedy chips handle those tasks quite well.

Notebook technology has evolved to the point that even the slightly outmoded technology is good enough for most users. For the same $1,999 that IBM charges, Dell sells a Latitude LX 4100T with a screen that's just as big, a 486 chip that runs slightly faster, and a hard drive that's slightly smaller (420 megabytes). A small bonus: Its screen is active-matrix.

Toshiba is another premier manufacturer hitting the budget line. Its T2130 boasts a 10.4-inch, dual-scan color display and a 500-megabyte hard drive. One mail-order house is selling it for $1,580.

These brand-name budget notebooks are viable alternatives to the high-priced stuff. But they are compromise computers. If you're a high-powered computer user, buy a high-powered machine.

For example, all three of these models use nickel-metal hydride batteries. These will last a respectable two to three hours even after many recharges. But they can't match the five hours and more of power offered by newer lithium-ion batteries. Another concern is that the machines come equipped with a standard 8 megabytes of random-access memory, which is passable for users of the Windows 3.1 operating system, but not for those running Windows 95.

Also, be aware that computer companies charge outrageous prices for spare parts once a model is discontinued. Someone charged me $86 for a plug-in trackball and $169 for a replacement battery on a discontinued Toshiba. So my advice is to buy 16 megabytes of RAM and a second (and maybe even a third) battery at the outset. And don't break anything.

If you manage all that, your budget notebook should bring you to the brink of the 21st century without pushing you to the edge of bankruptcy.

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