Latest in Portables Allows Users to Leave Desktops Behind

Computers for the Rest of Us

Buying a notebook computer is like walking a tightrope. You want the fastest, fiercest machine out there! But wait. How much will that shorten the battery life? You love those big screens. But with it comes extra bulk.

That's the problem with on-the-go computing: You always have to compromise. Fortunately, new technology is minimizing those trade-offs. So much so that many users are giving up desktop computers altogether for these mobile wonders.

Already, half of the notebook buyers at Dell Computer Corp. say they're buying a notebook to replace a desktop. The actual number who do is probably higher than that, says Tim Peters, Dell's marketing director for portables in North and South America. And everyone is doing it - even home-computer users.

"They're saying: 'Kids, here's the desktop. You play with this. I'm going to get a notebook," says Jason Glover, marketing communications manager for mobile products at Gateway 2000.

My tests with several bargain models suggest you can safely do the same as long as you're aware of the notebook's remaining limitations. These are mostly little annoyances - like not being able to use a CD-ROM and an internal floppy-disk drive at the same time.

The biggest change afoot in notebooks is a new computer chip. Several manufacturers of IBM-compatible notebooks are starting to ship models based on it. Since the chip uses Intel's latest and smallest circuitry (not yet available on any desktop), notebooks are reaching desktop speeds of 200 and 233 megahertz while still getting reasonable battery life.

Sure, they cost $4,000 and up. But if the alternative means getting two machines - a new desktop and a low-end notebook computer - you'll likely save some dollars upgrading to a single machine. Or you can go the budget route.

For the past several months, I've been trying lower-cost models from Dell, Gateway, and Toshiba. All have the features necessary for a desktop replacement: big 12.1-inch screens and CD-ROM drives. The Gateway Solo 2200 was particularly feature-rich for its price - lots of memory and a speedy CD-ROM. PC Magazine gave the machine an Editor's Choice award in its August rating of notebook computers.

But my unit had trouble starting up the CD-ROM while on battery power and the flap covering the PC-Card was so flimsy it came off. Gateway has since replaced the 2200 with the 2300 series, which starts at $2,000.

The Dell machine - a $3,200 Latitude XPi - didn't add bells and whistles but it was better built. Last week, the company began shipping its Inspiron 3000 series, which uses the new chip at the high end, but also includes lower-priced units starting at $3,000 and aimed at home and small-office computer users.

Toshiba's Satellite 225CDS beat Gateway's engineering, matched its $2,000 price, but used a slower 133-MHz chip. On balance, it was my favorite for its thoughtful details (like a button-protector to keep the machine from accidentally turning on).

When shopping for a notebook, remember to figure in extras, such as an external floppy disk drive. (The internal drive typically slides into the same spot as the CD-ROM drive, so they can't be used at the same time.) Also consider a port replicator or docking station if you'll be using the notebook at a desk all day. They allow you to quickly connect to such things as an office network, a regular monitor, and full-size keyboard.

Of course, the extras can be costly on top of the hefty premium you're already paying for a notebook over a desktop. Price is the ultimate compromise of portable computing.

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