Pricier 'notebook' will use added features to compete


April 01, 1991|By Charles Lunan | Charles Lunan,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- International Business Machines Corp. unveiled a long-awaited laptop computer last week that it hopes will establish it in the fastest-growing segment of the personal computer business.

The computer's design was coordinated from IBM'5,000-employee personal computer lab here. If IBM can deliver its $5,995 PS/2 L40 SX quickly enough from its Raleigh, N.C., factory, it could gain an important lead on rival Compaq Computer Corp. of Houston.

IBM must succeed in the burgeoning laptop market if it is to maintain growth in its $9.6 billion personal computer business. Most market analysts agree desktop computer sales will drop off in the early 1990s as portable computers take off.

At 7.7 pounds, the new laptop weighed in heavier than most hot-selling notebook computers but comes with a full-size keyboard that IBM thinks executives will find irresistible.

IBM increased the dimensions and weight of the machine to accommodate users who complained about competitors' smaller models that crowd too many functions onto a smaller keyboard.

"We listened to what bugged them about other laptops and designed those things out," said James Cannavino, general manager of IBM's personal computer and workstation computer lines.

The machine also breaks ground with internal memory, the amount of data a computer can access and display on a screen simultaneously. The L40 SX can be equipped with up to 18 megabytes of random access memory, compared with just 8 MB offered in most laptops.

Memory requirements are increasing with the popularity of software such as Microsoft's Windows, which lets people operate a computer by pointing to graphic symbols, or icons, on a computer screen rather than typing in arcane character-based commands. Windows makes computers easier to use, but consumes at least 2 megabytes of memory in the process.

IBM's use of a Conner Peripherals' 60 MB hard drive could herald a showdown with Compaq, which has been having trouble getting enough of the drives for its own recently announced laptop.

"The question is who is at the head of the line for Conner's disk drives," said Bill Lempesis, market research analyst with Dataquest. "So far it's been Compaq."

Although widely heralded as a solid re-entry into the laptop market after two previous failures, the L40 SX is only a first step for IBM, Mr. Lempesis said.

"They are competing with a lot of other manufacturers with broader product line," Mr. Lempesis said. "They definitely need to broaden their product line."

The heart of the PS/2 Model L40 SX is a competitive microprocessor running at 20 megahertz. The L40 comes with 2 megabytes of memory (expandable to 18 megabytes), an internal 60 megabyte hard drive for ample data storage and a 1.44-megabyte 3.5-inch floppy disk drive. Opening the 2.1-inch high, 12.8-inch-wide and 10.7-inch deep unit reveals the L40's VGA 10-inch diagonal screen and full-size 101 keys board.

The screen is capable of high-quality black and white graphics and can display up to 32 shades of gray. Serial, parallel and VGA color ports allow you to attach most any peripheral device such as a printer or color screen.

Also included are an external numeric keypad and AC adapter. Its real leather carrying case with lots of pockets is a nice touch.

Options include "Trackpoint," a combination mouse and trackball pointing device ($159), Quick charger ($249), which provides a 2.5-hour recharge, and a car battery adapter ($249).

Most notable of the options is the combination built-in 2400 BPS data and a 9600 BPS fax modem ($659) that allows you to communicate with other computers and send faxes.

Other than some configuration software, the L40 comes with no operating system. You decide whether you want to buy DOS, Windows or whatever.

The best innovation is the L40's "suspend-resume" mode. This allows you to interrupt whatever you are doing by merely closing the computer. An audible beep assures you that all is well and the power is off. When you are ready to resume, open the L40 and after about 20 seconds, your work reappears.

The suspend mode also allows you to change the rechargeable battery without loss of data.

The L40 has 10 indicators that display vital system functions. The largest one shows how much battery life remains and whether the AC adapter is attached.

The "power management" feature allows the L40 to automatically power down sections that are not in use, such as its modem and ports, and slow down the processor speed to conserve the battery. With the flick of a switch, you can override this feature.

In the IBM tradition, the L40 is more pricey than its competitors at a suggested list price of $5,995. But if you like the new features and want the IBM name and 12-month warranty on your laptop, then this is the way to go.

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