Laptops for the Long Haul

The biggest problem with laptop computers has always been too-short battery life. Sure, it has improved over the years, and you could always carry an extra (heavy and expensive) battery, but having enough power to last through a coast-to-coast flight — or even a single DVD movie — has been the exception. Finally, however, laptop makers are taking that problem seriously, and the first products of a new generation will run a lot longer than their predecessors.

In April, Intel Corp. announced the Pentium M processor, the first designed from the beginning for laptops. Featuring a more highly pipelined architecture that allows more efficient computing at lower clock speeds, the new CPU's design gives top priority to reducing power requirements in order to extend battery life. The whole technology package, which includes built-in wireless networking, is called Centrino (see "What's in a Name?" QuickLink 39398).

I tried out four of the new Centrino laptops: the IBM ThinkPad T40, the Dell Latitude D600, the Toshiba Tecra M1 and the Fujitsu LifeBook P5000. (At the time I began this review, Hewlett-Packard Co. didn't offer any full Centrino models.)

ThinkPad T40
ThinkPad T40
The ThinkPad, Latitude and Tecra are mainstream notebooks, direct competitors for the enterprise laptop market. All are solid, sturdy machines with 14.1-in. displays, full-size keyboards, big hard drives and plenty of RAM. They use the same accessories as other machines in their families, such as docking stations and removable drives, and all are committed to the predictable life cycles and continuing compatibility.

The LifeBook is quite different; it's a subnotebook that emphasizes portability with its 10.6-in. wide-format screen in a small, 3.8 lb. package that includes a built-in optical drive — something none of its competitors, such as Sharp Corp.'s Actius MM10 and all Tablet PCs, can offer.


Tecra M1
Tecra M1
I don't normally run benchmarks or other instrumented tests, but this time I wanted to see just how the new Pentium M processors performed. I chose the MobileMark 2002 suite from Business Applications Performance Corp. in Burlingame, Calif., to get useful comparative data on battery life and overall performance.

In addition to the four machines listed above, I tested a Toshiba Tecra 9100, which is the pre-Centrino predecessor of the Tecra M1 using a 2.2-GHz Pentium 4 Mobile (P4M), so I could compare the new Pentium M's performance with its slower older brothers.

The benchmark runs a script that invokes actions in a variety of Windows-based applications, including Microsoft Office XP, Adobe Photoshop 7.0, McAfee Antivirus and WinZip. Prior to running this benchmark, I disabled power-saving options and turned on the wireless networking feature. Thus, I was testing under worst-case conditions; in normal use, you can expect somewhat longer battery life.

Latitude D600
Latitude D600
Good news: The new CPUs really do deliver better battery life. The LifeBook P5000 has the smallest battery. Even so, its nearly three-and-a-half-hour battery life was notably better than that of the Fujitsu model I reviewed two years ago [see story, QuickLink 24271]. I also ran the benchmark with the Wi-Fi switched off, adding 35 minutes of battery life.

The ThinkPad T40 ran for just under four hours with its standard, six-cell battery. With a nine-cell high-capacity battery, which sticks out an extra inch from the back, the ThinkPad delivered almost six hours.

The heavyweight Tecra M1 ran for over five hours on its standard battery. The Latitude came in at a little over three hours — good compared with its predecessors, but not up to snuff in this group. In comparison, Toshiba's Tecra 9100, with its P4M processor, gave up the ghost in less than two hours running the benchmark.

LifeBook P5000
LifeBook P5000
Based on the benchmarked performance results, the new computing architecture works well, but the results among the new machines were closer together than I expected. The 1.5-GHz Pentium M in the ThinkPad performed at a level equivalent to a 2.62-GHz P4M, as did the Tecra's 1.7-GHz CPU. The Latitude's 1.6-GHz CPU turned in a slightly higher performance number. The LifeBook's 900-MHz CPU computed as fast as a 2-GHz P4M.

I encountered some problems getting the benchmark to run on the Dell and Toshiba notebooks; the ultimate solution was to obtain a second sample of each, and both of those ran fine. However, even the units that wouldn't run the benchmark seemed to perform fine in normal use.

However, there is one compatibility issue: Some early Centrino users have reported problems in using virtual private network software from Nortel Networks Ltd., though a work-around is available. [For details, see QuickLink 38802.]


Today's laptops represent many generations of development and design refinement. By now, most features are pretty well worked out, especially in the mainstream corporate models.

The IBM, Dell and Toshiba all come with both a touch pad and a pointing stick for cursor control. Most people seem to like one of these devices and hate the other, so having the choice is a real plus. And all three have excellent full-size keyboards with good touch.

Removing the optical drives is easier than in earlier laptops. Just push in a tab on the front of the drive, and a handle for pulling out the drive module pops out.

Overall, the ThinkPad and Latitude are excellent machines, relatively small and light despite having 14-in. displays. The Tecra has slightly better sound and other amenities (including a hardware volume control that's accessible when the machine is closed, a "presentation" button that simplifies using the machine with an external projector or monitor, and a slot for secure digital memory cards), but it's a full pound heavier than the other two. It also has an ambient light sensor that regulates brightness to further extend battery life.

Fujitsu's laptop is in a class by itself. Compared with the earlier P2000, whose keyboard was taken from the LifeBook B series, the P5000 keyboard has noticeably improved. The keyboard is still on the small side, but the Enter and Shift keys have been enlarged and moved to where I expect to find them. Interestingly, this is the only notebook I can recall on which there's no latch for the display lid, but this wasn't a problem when carrying or using the machine. The small, wide-format (1,280-by-768-pixel) display is bright and very sharp.


I like all of these machines, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend any of them. Because each of the units I reviewed is configured slightly differently, I priced a "standard" configuration for each that includes 512MB of RAM, a 1.6-GHz processor, a 40MB hard drive, an SXGA+ display and a combination DVD-ROM/CDRW optical drive. The Dell is the best value — if you can live with its shorter battery life. In my standard configuration, the ThinkPad is more expensive, but cheaper configurations are available.

Overall, for my own use, I'd pick the lightweight and 1-in.-thin ThinkPad — even if I were spending my own money. The Toshiba was nice but is just too heavy. The Fujitsu LifeBook is designed primarily for portability and wouldn't be my choice for daily use.

Kay is a Computerworld contributing writer in Worcester, Mass. Contact him at


Benchmark Results, BAPCo Mobile Mark 2002

Performance ratingng Real clock speed, GHz Effective clock speed*ock speed* Battery life rating, min.
Dell 164 1.6 2.62 174
Fujitsu 125 0.9 2.04 201
IBM 161 1.5 2.62 351
IBM (small battery) 161 1.5 2.62 235
Toshiba M1 161 1.7 2.62 303
Toshiba 9100 135 2.2 2.2 113

*Calculated from performance rating as compared to Toshiba 9100 @ 2.2 GHz according to formula (perf rating/135)*2.2

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