Laptops: The Princes and the Paupers

Spend a little. Spend a lot. Sometimes you don't have any leeway for how much you can afford to pay for your laptops. But whether this year's budget has room for the latest portable power tool or a merely serviceable model, you have plenty of options.

The gap between prices on the high and low ends of the laptop spectrum is growing ever wider. Inexpensive notebooks with all the power you need for on-the-road chores start at less than $1,500, while ruggedized portables for hard use and high-end multimedia systems with huge hard drives, docking stations, and gigantic screens can run $5,000 or more. It's all a matter of what you need to do and how much you want to spend.

Want a full-featured notebook computer for around $1,400? You can get one -- if you're willing to accept some trade-offs. Laptops in this price range don't include DVD-ROM drives, huge screens or the fastest processors. And they usually aren't the slimmest, lightest models around, either. But if all you need is a solid system for cruising the Web, sending e-mail and writing reports -- one that doesn't need to fit in your hip pocket -- any of these portables can do the job.

For $3,500 or more, you can get a system with all the toys, including the latest Pentium III mobile chip, loads of RAM, a hard drive of 10G bytes or more, a 15-in. active-matrix screen, 3-D graphics acceleration, built-in Ethernet, docking station and more. This device can do everything your desktop system can, plus you can tuck it under your arm and carry it home or out on the road.

Once you enter superexpensive territory, you have other options as well. This category includes Tadpole-RDI Inc.'s Ultrabook -- a SPARC-based Unix workstation in notebook form. Money can even buy laptop security for the overly clumsy. Itronix X-C 6250 Pro is built to take abuse. It's ruggedized and waterproofed, so you can drop it, step on it or even leave it out in the rain without worrying. But it will cost you -- $4,995 for a base model.

Computerworld gathered three portable systems with street prices ranging from $1,400 to $4,995 to see what it could really get for the money.

TravelMate 512T

Acer America Corp.

www.acer.com

$1,400

If you're on a serious budget, you won't be able to buy the thinnest, lightest or most powerful laptop on the market. But you will be able to buy a modest system -- such as the Acer TravelMate 512T -- that comes with just about everything you could need built-in.

The 512T gets its horsepower from a 366-MHz Celeron processor -- not exactly cutting edge, but more than sufficient for most business tasks like word processing and Web cruising. The 32M bytes of RAM is a bit more of a concern, as it will slow you down when running multiple applications, but it does keep this system's price low. The same is true for the system's 12.1-in. active-matrix display. It's plenty big for most work.

Acer rounds out the system with a 4.1G-byte hard drive, a 24-speed CD-ROM, a V.90 modem and a floppy disk drive, giving you all the tools necessary for getting work done at home or on the road. And you can find it all for less than $1,400.

Solo 9300cx

Gateway Inc.

www.gw2k.com

$3,999

Gateway's Solo 9300cx is one of the first systems to use Intel Corp.'s new generation of Mobile Pentium III processors, so it's not surprising that it's a pricey machine. But your money buys you a lot of processing muscle.

The 9300cx packs in a 500-MHz Pentium III processor, 128M bytes of RAM, a huge 18G-byte hard drive, a bright 15-in. active-matrix display, a high-speed graphics adapter with 8M bytes of RAM and a DVD-ROM drive into a box that weighs just less than 8 lb.

Although it's less than 1.7-in. thick, the 9300cx isn't a midget. The case measures almost 13 in. wide and just over 10 in. deep, making it a tight fit for a briefcase. But all that size provides plenty of room for the 9300cx's comfortable keyboard.

Toss in a SuperDrive 120M-byte floppy disk drive, a V.90 modem, an IEEE 1394 (FireWire) digital video connector and a port replicator (which includes ports for importing and exporting video and playing digital audio), and you have a complete portable system that just might outperform your old desktop.

X-C 6250 Pro

Itronix Corp.

www.itronix.com

$4,995 (volume pricing available)

If your field crew tends to leave a trail of dead laptops in its wake, maybe you should give them Itronix X-C 6250 Pros.

This system was designed for abuse, with rubber bumpers protecting the impact-resistant case, waterproof covers over all the ports and a comfortable, heavy-duty handle. It can run in temperatures ranging from 4 below to 140 above zero. And it survived several 3-ft. drops onto our office floor -- while up and running -- without a hiccup or dent. The small but serviceable keyboard even glows in the dark, making it possible to compute in the middle of a power-killing monsoon. If you don't want to use the keyboard, you can control things with the touch screen instead.

You don't get the latest processors for your money: Our test unit had a 266-MHz Cyrix CPU. And at 7 lb., the system is heavy for its compact 10.5-by-7.5-by-3-in. size. But sometimes reliability is more critical than performance and weight. If that's your situation, the X-C 6250 Pro is more than suited to the job.

What to Expect:

Supercheap ($1,500 and less)

Screen: Smaller active-matrix (sometimes called thin film transistor or passive display)

Processor: 333-MHz or similar Intel Celeron or Advanced Micro Devices Inc. K6-2 CPU

Memory: 32M bytes is most common; some models have 64M bytes as a standard

Graphics: Basic 2M bytes of integrated graphics

Drives: 4G-byte or similar hard drive, CD-ROM and floppy drives

Weight: 7 to 8 lb. on average

Standard features: V.90 modem, lithium ion battery

Superexpensive ($3,500 plus)

Screen: Large (up to 15.1-in.) active-matrix display

Processor: 500-MHz Intel Mobile Pentium III processor

Memory: 64M to 128M bytes

Graphics: 3-D accelerator with 8M bytes of RAM

Drives: 10G-byte or larger hard drive, DVD-ROM drive, floppy drive (possibly 120M-byte Superfloppy)

Weight: Varies by notebook style, from less than 3 lb. to more than 8 Standard features: V.90 modem, 10/100M-bit Ethernet adapter, DVD movie acceleration

Extras: Docking station, extra-rugged case, wireless connectivity, Unix workstation

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Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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