Bargain notebooks are up for most tasks; Reviews: A $999 laptop might be adequate, but an additional $200 or so will buy a lot more.


Notebook computers have suddenly become much more affordable.

Three of the biggest notebook makers - Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and Toshi- ba - cracked the $1,000 barrier this spring with their first-ever models priced at $999. Across the board, prices are down $200 to $300.

This is great news for home users and the self-employed, who typically don't need the bells and whistles found on the $2,000-plus notebooks aimed at status-conscious corporate buyers.

I've just finished looking at two of these bargain notebooks, one from Compaq and one from HP, and both get passing grades - they'll get the job done.

But the "sweet spot" in the market, where buyers will get the most bang for the buck, is one step up the ladder in the $1,200 to $1,600 range.

Until now, I've generally advised readers against buying notebooks. Portable computers were expensive, underpowered relative to desktop PCs and easily damaged or stolen.

Breakage and theft remain a concern, although they can be greatly minimized with a little common sense and caution, but I'm willing to reverse myself on the issues of price and performance.

Notebooks are also becoming more of a "must have" product as electronic mail and Web access become central to our lives. There are many reasons now to make a Net connection when we're away from the house or the school computer lab or the office.

This year's price cuts grow out of lower cost for parts - LCD screens, the biggest expense in making a laptop, are cheaper this year; also, random-access memory (RAM) is down - as well as low-overhead sales tactics, such as offering products online only.

Still, the major manufacturers had to stretch to get below $1,000:

HP ( started the minitrend April 17 by announcing its Pavilion N3215 at $999. But HP built only a limited amount to make sure it wouldn't get stuck with inventory, and the model is already scarce.

The N3215 has decent specs: a 12.1-inch passive-matrix screen, an AMD K6 processor running at 475 MHz, 32 MB of RAM, a 4.8 GB hard drive, a 24X CD-ROM drive, a built-in floppy drive and the Microsoft Works productivity suite.

Toshiba ( com) followed suit last month by rolling out a $200 "end-of-life" markdown on its Satellite 1605CDS to reach $999, as the company prepares to introduce new models this month.

The specs almost mirror the HP model: 12.1-inch passive-matrix screen, AMD K6 processor at 450 MHz, 32 MB of RAM, 4.3 GB hard drive, 24X CD-ROM and Lotus SmartSuite for productivity.

Compaq ( athome) hit $999 on May 18 with the Presario 1200 XL-450, but is selling the model only from its Web site and "build-to-order" kiosks in retail locations. To hold down inventory expense, the company isn't putting the model on store shelves.

The specs are no surprise: 12.1-inch passive-matrix display, 450 MHz AMD K6 processor, 32 MB of RAM, 5 GB hard drive, 24X CD-ROM and both Microsoft Word and Microsoft Works for productivity.

All three models run Windows 98 Second Edition, offer built-in floppy drives and 56K modems, and weigh a few ounces more than 7 pounds.

I borrowed two models - the HP Pavilion N3215 and the Compaq Presario 1200 XL-106, which sells for $100 more than the XL-450 and differs only in having a 13-inch passive-matrix screen and a 475 MHz K6 processor.

I compared them to my personal notebook - a Compaq Presario 1800 XL-500 that I purchased in March from a mail-order company for $2,479, plus shipping. This is a much higher-octane machine, with a 15-inch active-matrix screen, 500 MHz Pentium III processor, 64 MB of RAM, 6 GB hard drive and 6X DVD-ROM drive. I won't pretend to have some high-flown justification for spending so much. To be honest, I wanted to watch DVD movies on a big screen; for every other computing task I perform on the road, I could have met my needs for at least $800 less.

The only significant difference between the two budget notebooks and my $2,500 screamer was the display - active-matrix screens are much brighter and sharper than passive-matrix. But the performance on what I call "low-impact" computing tasks - checking e-mail, browsing Web pages, writing with a word processor - was just about identical.

I devised a quickie torture test by simultaneously launching four tasks on each of the machines - the Eudora e-mail program, Internet Explorer, the Windows CD player with a music disc playing and the Imaging for Windows photo-editing software included in Windows 98. I then opened the same picture on each machine, using Imaging for Windows, and saved the picture as a high-resolution TIFF file.

My Presario made the TIFF conversion in one second. The bargain Compaq and HP notebooks took two seconds. Not much of a sacrifice for saving $1,500.

Still, I'd only recommend the $999 models to those on a starvation budget. As I said above, it's worth spending another few hundred dollars to hit the sweet spot.

What'll you get for $1,200 to $1,600 is a 12-inch active-matrix screen - your eyes will thank you - and 64 MB of RAM, eliminating the slight sluggishness of 32 MB models.

The next step up, into the $1,800 to $2,000 range, will get you a DVD-ROM drive, often with a 13- or 14-inch active-matrix screen. Fifteen-inch screens can be obtained in the $2,500 range and above.

So I'll conclude with the most overused phrase in real estate: "Now is the time to buy."

Laptop prices and configurations are constantly changing; the major manufacturers introduce new models three to four times a year. There's no guarantee prices won't go back up in a few months if the cost of parts moves up.

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