Compaq Armada 4100 has good feel and annoyances


AT ABOUT 6 POUNDS, computers in the new Compaq Armada 4100 notebook line give up nothing in speed and usability to clunkier traditional laptops. But their clever dress does not quite conceal the waistline of machines that can weigh 2 pounds more than their anorexic competitors.

The design innovation here is a lithium-ion battery that rests in a swing-out handle, slimming down the rest of the unit a bit. Also built in are a floppy disk drive, a touchpad pointing device, stereo speakers and an integrated microphone. At $2,600, the cheapest model, the 4100, includes a 100-megahertz Pentium processor and an 810-megabyte hard drive, but only 8 megabytes of memory and an 11.3-inch screen subject to the usual smearing and disappearing-cursor problems of its passive-matrix brethren. At $4,600, the most expensive model, the 4130T, has a superior and slightly bigger active-matrix screen, 16 megabytes of RAM, a 133-megahertz processor, and a gigabyte hard drive. Compaq asks about $230 for 8 megabytes of add-in memory, $450 for 16.

Options abound. You can replace the floppy drive with an extra battery (about $200), then reconnect the drive to the parallel port with an optional cable (about $40). You can swap the touchpad for a trackball (about $50). You can mate the computer with a 2 1/4 -pound base (about $400) that includes a 4X CD-ROM drive and a bay for a third battery.

The keyboard has a good feel, full-size typing keys and nice big ones for moving the cursor, but the Ctrl and Alt keys are undersize and the palm rest is somewhat shorter than optimal.

Just dropping your thumb idly onto the Armada's touchpad while your hands are on the palm rest can send the cursor scurrying almost anywhere. Unless you are much happier with touchpads than I am, replacing this one with the modular trackball will be well worth the extra cost.

The handle that houses the battery balances the system nicely even when the optional base is attached and folds up to cover the exposed serial, parallel, infrared, mouse/keyboard and video ports on the back when they are not in use.

The speakers are tiny and tinny. The somewhat bigger ones on the CD-ROM base do a better job, but no one would consider them high-fidelity. Fortunately, jacks for outboard sound devices are supplied on the main unit. As usual, despite early claims for Windows 95's "plug and play" capabilities, so-called "hot" or even "warm" docking is impossible. You must turn the machine off before you mate it to or detach it from the base. Either process requires care to avoid damaging one unit or the other.

Although the machine has a standard connector to let you use a TV set (with either the American NTSC or European PAL standard) as a display, it was not worth bothering with. Both the units that I tried delivered fuzzy pictures that rolled vertically. An external computer monitor worked fine, but the scanty manuals made adjustments baffling.

I did not test an extra battery pack, but each one should add a bit less than a pound of weight and about the same life as the one in the handle, about two and a half to three hours.

With three batteries, one of these machines could manage a transcontinental work session with ease and might make it across the Atlantic, but more traditional units could perform that feat with spare batteries. Armadas offer the usual complement of battery-saving modes, including a useful "hibernate" mode that saves your place without wasting power. But unlike most machines, an Armada will not put itself into a power-saving mode automatically when you close the lid.

The two-piece AC power supply is perhaps the greatest annoyance. Its three-prong plug will be frustrating in hotels with older wiring, and the cord from the power supply "brick" to the computer is too short, so as you use the machine in your lap with AC power, the brick often keeps tugging at it. The power supply adds about a pound to the machine's traveling weight.

Unlike some stingier competitors, the Armada 4100 machines come with a three-year limited warranty. Like virtually all of them, it offers Windows 95 backup disks only as an extra-cost option.

And, as often happens with new laptops, the Armada line has been advertised widely even though machines are not yet widely available. That should change very soon, and then we will learn whether these modular but hardly svelte machines will sink or swim.

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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