Charge of the Light Brigade

Manufacturers keep extending the capabilities of portable computers. Now, if they could just extend the battery life of portable computers.
John GoffSeptember 1, 2002

Consider the following sentence:

“It’s been a long-time coming, but the latest wave of small machines finally delivers on the original premise of notebook computing: near-desktop performance with true portability.”

For anyone who stays current with the state of mobile computing, the statement would seem to be an accurate assessment of the latest crop of notebook machines. There’s just one catch: the sentence actually appeared in the very first notebook buyer’s guide CFO published — way back in the primordial ooze known as 1993.

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A lot’s changed since 1993. An entire economy — the new one — has come and gone. Cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) have become commonplace. Wilfred Brimley no longer gets much work.

A lot’s changed in the notebook computer world, too. Consider one of the machines we fawned over in our first buyer’s guide in 1993. That highly regarded machine, the Apple Macintosh PowerBook 180, featured a 33-MHz processor, four megabytes of RAM, an 80 megabyte hard drive, and a 10-inch monochrome screen. The PowerBook, which cost nearly $4,000, weighed in at a portly seven pounds.

In preparing this year’s notebook buyer’s guide, we regularly toted two — and occasionally three — evaluation machines in our backpack. Barring hydraulics, that would have been impossible back in 1993.

Six of the notebooks in the buyer’s guide weigh less than four pounds. That’s less than some PDAs we’ve seen. Notebooks have dropped so much weight, in fact, that notebook manufacturers don’t generally refer to their offerings as notebooks or laptops anymore. Technically speaking, a portable qualifies as a notebook if it weighs under six pounds. Ultralights, on the other hand, weigh under four pounds.

But these days, makers of portable computers tend to call anything under five pounds an ultralight. This isn’t just puffery, either.

Today’s notebooks are remarkably luggable — particularly compared with machines from three or four years ago. The footprints of portable computers have slimmed dramatically. The machines tend to be thin, with great weight distribution.

That’s Entertainment

What’s more, makers of portable computers have upped the performance ante substantially. All the machines in our buyer’s guide boast clock speeds of at least 750 megahertz, and a few top the 1 gigahertz mark.

All have 20 megabyte hard drives or larger — unimaginable in 1993. They also come stuffed with gobs of random access memory, anywhere from 128 to 356 megs. Almost all offer integrated wireless Ethernet, integrated wireless networking, and FireWire ports (ideal for camcorders and video editing).

Further, each one of the notebooks in our roundup is capable of playing DVDs or CDs (either on internal optical drives, through docking units, or via universal serial bus ports). That means you can watch movies or listen to music on these portables. To add to your viewing pleasure, the ten notebooks in our roundup boast big, beautiful color screens.

That’s good news. Over the years, we repeatedly criticized notebook makers for hawking portables with undersized displays.

For their part, the vendors countered that manufacturing thin-film transistor screens (a.k.a. TFT or active matrix) was an expensive proposition. They also pointed out that TFT screens were a real drain on a portable’s battery. In fact, we were told on more than one occasion that displays on portable computers would never exceed 8.5 inches.

But yields for making TFT screens have improved dramatically. With it, prices of active matrix screens — and notebooks employing those screens — have plummeted. Seven of the ultralights in the buyer’s guide feature 12.1 inch screens, and two boast 13.3 inch displays. Yet the lion’s share of the portables in our roundup cost less than $2,000. The well-designed Apple iBook costs under $1,500.

Decisions, Decisions

That’s truly remarkably. Over the past nine years, manufacturers of portables have dramatically raised the bar — and lowered the clearance — of their machines.

That steady march of progress is awfully good for buyers. But it also makes it awfully tough on reviewers — reviewers who must assess the merits of machines that will likely end up on “Antiques Roadshow” in a matter of months.

The parade-of-progress dilemma often gets driven home by our co-workers here at CFO. When looking to purchase a home computer, many of them come to us for advice on what to buy. Their top question: is now a good time to purchase a portable computer? Or will waiting bring an even better machine?

In computer world, waiting always brings a better machine. But like wine varietals, some notebook crops are better than others. Price has a lot to do with it, as do manufacturing trends.

Judging by the ten portables in this year’s roundup, those factors appear to be decidedly stacked in the buyer’s favor. Having reviewed portable machines for nearly a decade, we can honestly state that the ten offerings in this year’s buyer’s guide represent superb value (see “This Year’s Models“). We’re guessing that even the lowest-rated machine in the roundup would satisfy most users.

So are we building up to something here? Yes.

It’s been a long-time coming, but the latest wave of small machines finally delivers on the original premise of notebook computing: near-desktop performance with true portability.

This time, we’re sure of it.