Lowest-priced Pentium notebook has a lot in its favor at $1,999

THE NUMBER IS clearly meant to catch the eye. It does. $1,999 is the lowest price I have seen for a name-brand Pentium-based notebook computer, a product that barely existed a year ago. The low end of the portable market has suddenly become downright attractive.

For not quite $2,000, the Toshiba Satellite 100CS comes with Windows 95 (or, if you prefer, Windows 3.11), a 75-megahertz Pentium processor and eight megabytes of memory, enough to run most programs if you do not try to run too many at once. A 3 1/2 -inch floppy drive is built in; so are two PC Card slots and a hard drive that meets my minimum standard of 500 megabytes. The keyboard has a slightly quirky layout, but a responsive lightness and a comfortable palm rest helped me adapt quickly.


Although the notebook world seems to be moving toward trackpads, this machine uses a pointing stick that's not quite as precise as those on IBM Thinkpads. A removable nickel-metal hydride battery (extras cost a whopping $230 each) offers the usual 2 1/2 to 3 hours of useful life.

The Toshiba unit even includes a rare feature pioneered by Compaq in far more expensive machines: a built-in AC power adapter. It adds weight, but means you do not have to remember to tuck an outboard power brick into your suitcase.


Annoyances include an occasional thunk from the hard drive and the usual laptop profusion of icons and odd modes of turning the machine on and off. But this capable unit raises a simple question: Why pay more?

One answer: "To get less." This bulky unit tips the scales at about 6 3/8 pounds, not outrageous as full-size models go, but pumping plastic and silicon is no easier on the muscles than pumping iron. Smaller, lighter machines tend to offer a bit less performance at much higher prices. But note that IBM's elegant Butterfly Thinkpad models, once fearsomely expensive, are being phased out and offered at steep discounts.

The screen is another savings center. The Satellite 100CS uses a 10.4-inch dual-scan model with a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels; today's fanciest notebooks come with active-matrix screens as big as 12.1 inches with resolutions of 800 by 600. Greater resolution lets you see more data on your screen at once, which is nice, but since a laptop computer's screen is typically closer to one's eyes than a standard monitor, size is less important.

Compared with active-matrix models, dual-scan screens tend to be dimmer and produce a slight smearing of the image, but the one on this Toshiba model seems especially bright. Dual-scan screens are also harder to read from off-center, but that can be an advantage: your airplane seatmate will have a harder time stealing your secret plans or your solitaire strategy.

What is missing from the Satellite 100CS? In a word, multimedia. If you make presentations with your laptop, a bigger active-matrix screen will let more people crowd around it. Slightly pricier machines offer built-in audio, along with an optional CD-ROM drive that can swap with the floppy. This machine has neither.

But you can upgrade. One-pound portable CD-ROM players that connect through the PC Card slot (and play CD music disks on their own) start at about $300. Those that also offer computer audio can cost a couple of hundred dollars more. Even a soundless CD-ROM drive is worth considering for that most laborious of chores: installing software.

If you are considering a machine like this one, ask the vendor to install the application software. Or try to find the 105CS, identical to the 100CS in every way but this: It comes preloaded with Microsoft Works, Money, Schedule Plus and Golf.

Conforming with current fashion, there is no modem in this machine, but PC Card versions are widely available at about $100 for a 14.4-kilobit model or $250 for 28.8 kilobits.


A few goodies, like the infrared transceiver that is becoming standard on fancier machines, have also been left out. Unlike many Pentium portables, this one lacks a cooling fan; the machine is quieter, but does get warm, which could conceivably reduce the life of its components. Toshiba offers a one-year warranty.

Standard serial, parallel, video and mouse connectors are on the back.

An optional docking station (about $330) includes all those connectors and more PC Card slots besides. The dock works straightforwardly enough, but it is easy to see why the concept has never caught on.

If you use it with your laptop keyboard and a standard monitor, you must raise the monitor to clear the laptop's screen. If you use it with an outboard keyboard and mouse, the mated unit becomes an awkward appendage in a hydra-like tangle of cables.

And Windows 95 does not quite make the computer and its dock "plug and play." Mating or unmating them when the machine is running can lead to the operating system becoming temporarily confused or even stuck.

In these times of increasingly powerful computers, you may also want to look at the 486-based units that are going the way of the dodo and are being offered at extremely attractive prices.


Portable machines still command a premium over their desktop counterparts, but the difference is increasingly small. And if you buy a multimedia-impaired machine, consider this: You will never find the kids using it to stun, maim and kill this month's enemy or your ears.

Stephen Manes is a columnist for the New York Times.