Portable computers vary considerably but share several failings


THE MOST personal thing remaining in the world of personal computing is the portable computer. With "desktop" machines so bland that we typically hide them under the desk, choosing a favorite screen saver or cartoon assistant is about as personal as things get. That makes the notebook machine the last bastion of individuality. Screens, keyboards, pointing devices and the size, shape and color of the machines themselves march to the beat of a different tinny speaker.

Major manufacturers offer full-fledged Windows models with the features most people need for $1,500 to $1,700. A typically cheap model today has a 166-megahertz Pentium MMX processor, at least 16 megabytes of random access memory, a 2-gigabyte hard drive, a 12.1-inch screen with 800-by-600 pixel resolution, sound capabilities, built-in speakers, a fast CD-ROM player and a "56K" modem.

I tried the Toshiba Satellite 305CDS, at about $1,700; the IBM Thinkpad 310ED, about $1,600; and the Fujitsu Lifebook 765Dx, about $1,500. I also took a quick look at a pre-release copy of the Hitachi Visionbook Plus 5000, about $1,700.

Weight: These machines weigh in at just under seven pounds (IBM and Hitachi) to seven and three-quarters (Fujitsu), not counting add-on drives and AC power supplies.

Memory: The IBM model comes with 32 megabytes of RAM. Since the others have just 16, which slows them down, plan on upgrades for no more than $70.

Screens: The "dual-scan" screens used on these units may be their greatest drawback. Each is different, but all have uneven illumination, narrow viewing angle, ghost images and disappearing cursors. The Toshiba looked best, but its lower edge was annoyingly dim. IBM's screen, unlike the others, is backed up by one megabyte of video memory instead of two, and can't display as many colors.

Controls: When you need to adjust brightness or sound, you want a dial like the one on the Toshiba. IBM makes you hold down a function key and bang repeatedly on an arrow key.

Modems: All these units come with K56flex modems either built in (Hitachi, Fujitsu) or on a PC card that comes with the unit.

Convenience: Only the Toshiba had a CD-ROM player and floppy disk drive that occupy the unit simultaneously. The others force you to swap the CD and floppy drives or connect the floppy through a cable. The Fujitsu and Hitachi units can connect to docking stations; the others cannot.

Keyboards: I found Toshiba's easiest to adapt to, in part because it does not try to cram in IBM's duplicate Control and Alt keys or the Windows keys that Fujitsu and Hitachi include.

Pointing devices: I demand the central pointing sticks found on IBM and Toshiba models. Others prefer the touchpads found almost everywhere else; Hitachi's has unpleasantly skinny buttons. Fujitsu has the bizarre Ergotrac, a springy, imprecise pointing nubbin that forces you to move your fingers off the keyboard's home row.

All come with audio jacks, built-in stereo speakers and software for music CDs. But the tiny speakers sound awful, and headphones revealed the IBM and Hitachi sound systems' inherent noisiness. Serial, monitor, parallel and infrared ports are standard, as well as one for an external mouse or keyboard, two PC Card slots and, on all but the IBM, a single Universal Serial Bus port.

Thanks to the wan screens, none of these machines was delightful. I liked the Toshiba best until it utterly failed to launch Windows on one occasion and announced a "resume failure" on another.

A spokeswoman said this show-stopping software problem was fixed in later models and could be solved in older ones by downloading a driver posted on the Web. But it is not easy to get to the Web when your machine has died.

Shoppers may do better to hunt for bargains among slightly older models that have been or are about to be discontinued. For a minor sacrifice in speed or hard disk capacity, you may get a much better active-matrix screen at a good price. Costlier Pentium II units reportedly arriving next month may drive prices down on current units or their successors.

And Windows 98 is officially due to arrive June 25. If you have an aversion to upgrading software, you may want to wait until a machine with the new operating system arrives. Even better, to avoid inevitable problems, wait a little longer.

Pub Date: 3/30/98

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