3 1/2 -POUND COMPUTER IS NO LIGHTWEIGHT Dell Computer Corp.'s 320SLi sets new standards for notebooks


Dell Computer Corp. unveiled a 3 1/2 -pound notebook computer recently, setting new standards for lightweight personal computing. The Dell 320SLi notebook, which the company said would be available in mid-July, is about half the weight of current notebooks of comparable power and features.

The price is light, too. For a suggested list price of $2,149, the Dell 320SLi comes with an Intel 386SL microprocessor, two megabytes of system memory, a 60-megabyte internal hard disk drive, a battery that Dell says is good for three to five hours of solid use, an astonishingly small external diskette drive, an internal slot for a modem about the size of a credit card, DOS and Windows operating system software and all the necessary cables.

The computer itself is a sleek, black case that has a texture similar to that of suede.

A model with an 80-megabyte hard drive will be $2,349, and one with a 120-megabyte hard drive will be $2,649.

System memory can be expanded to 10 megabytes but only with special Dell memory cards that cost more than standard memory chips.

"This is the first of the next wave of notebooks," said Richard A. Shaffer, editor and publisher of the Technologic Computer Letter, an industry newsletter.

"It's hard to get excited about notebook computers today," Mr. Shaffer explained. "You go into a store and there are 120 of them on the shelf, all of them alike. This one is clearly different. The difference won't last, of course. In six months everybody else will be there. But I'm very impressed at how Dell has moved out in front of the rest of the industry technically."

There has been speculation that Dell would introduce an even smaller computer, one that analysts already are calling sub-notebook size. But Dell officials gave no indication that such a machine was imminent.

"What we learned from talking to customers was that yes, we want smaller and lighter notebooks, but no, [we] don't want to compromise on the display or the keyboard," said John E. Biebelhausen, Dell's manager of portable systems marketing.

So, the width of the 320SLi had to be 11 inches to accommodate Dell's existing notebook keyboard, which is arguably the best among true notebook computers.

To maintain the big, 9.5-inch display (measured horizontally), the computer had to be at least 7.75 inches deep. To save size and weight, then, the 320SLi had to be thinner.

One key to the light weight of the Dell notebook is the screen. Many of the most popular notebooks today have liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) that are illuminated from the back or side, making the screen bright and highly readable even in dim light. The Dell screen is not, so it cannot be used in a dark room.

Despite the lack of backlighting, the 320SLi screen is impressive under normal lighting conditions because of its high contrast and large size.

Also, most LCD screens are encased in a metal frame. Dell and its technology partner, Sharp of Japan, fused the glass of the screen directly to the composite plastic case, eliminating 12 ounces of metal and shaving several millimeters off the thickness of the computer lid.

Another benefit is that backlighting accounts for about 40 percent of the power drain on a portable computer's battery, so going with a reflective screen means the 320SLi's battery can last longer on a charge.

The most common way to save space in a notebook is to jettison the internal floppy diskette drive, which some people view as cheating.

Sure, it makes the computer smaller, but then the user has to pack an external drive. Dell chose that route, too, but the external drive that comes standard with the 320SLi is the smallest I've seen.

It weighs 12 ounces, measures about 4 by 6 inches, and is a little over half an inch thick. It attaches easily to the machine's parallel port.

Other attachments, including the AC power adapter and the nickel-metal hydride battery, are similarly diminutive. The smallest component, though, is the "IC card" modem, with IC standing for integrated circuit. It fits in a new expansion slot on the side of the computer, which is officially called a PCMCIA 2.0 slot and is a new international standard for miniature cards.

The Intel Corp. already offers a credit-card sized, 2,400-baud modem for the PCMCIA slot, and it will not be long until fax-modem cards and even network adapters appear in the new IC card size.

But back to the keyboard.

Windows software, and even some DOS software, works best with a mouse pointing device instead of keyboard commands. The trouble with mice is that they need room to roam, and rubbing a mouse along the thigh of the person sitting next to you on the plane is usually not socially acceptable.

Dell has a special mouse port on the back of the machine, but it also has some new commands on the keyboard that allow the user to move the cursor in any direction, even diagonally, using the regular keys.

Dell calls it a "mouse ready" keyboard, and some people may find it more convenient than using a clip-on mouse.

Dell, which has its headquarters in Austin, Texas, can be reached at (800) 289-3355.

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