In the past few months I've been looking at "notebook" computers, the 5- to 7-pound IBM-compatible computers that are the fastest-growing part of the personal computer market. It seems like everyone is making a notebook system these days, from Compaq and IBM to Epson, AT&T, Dell, AST, Sharp, Toshiba, TI and some unknown companies such as Librex and Astarte. Even the no-name mail-order firms are offering notebooks.
Unfortunately, not many of these notebooks are actually shipping yet. Fortunately, because so many have been announced, the prices are dropping constantly even before most of the systems hit the market.
The real pleasure in today's typical notebook is that it is powerful enough to be your "only" computer.
Though it weighs less than yesterday's 12- to 20-pound "laptops," today's notebook can have as much processor power, disk memory and chip memory as today's typical desktop. (The only place it falls short is in screen display, though you can hook up a standard display to most notebook computers.)
Nearly all notebook computers look alike. Everyone is using the "clamshell" design, where a flat box containing processor, memory, disk drives and battery is topped by a keyboard. Above that is a liquid crystal display panel that folds up, revealing the keyboard.
Differences appear in the feel of the keyboards, in the presence and position of special keys, in the processor and in the hard disk's speed and capacity. The displays also differ. Some support only CGA or EGA graphics, while others support VGA and even show various shades of gray. Finally, there are differences in the time it takes to use or charge the battery.
The Sharp PC-6220 (Sharp, (800) 237-4277, $3,999) has been a favorite with computer experts for many months. (The same machine is also available from Texas Instruments -- as the TravelMate 2000 -- and from CompuAdd -- as the Companion. The CompuAdd version costs only $2,495.) Weighing only 4.3 pounds, it still contains a full keyboard, full screen and hard disk. It doesn't have a floppy disk drive. Instead, you're supposed to move files to other computers with a cable and the LapLink software that's built in. Some analysts think this is OK. I don't. I want a floppy for quick backups and for taking my information to another system.
The other flaw in the PC-6220 is that it has only a 286 processor chip. That's not enough for the latest version of 1-2-3, Excel, PageMaker or Ventura Publisher.
The Everex Tempo LX (Everex, (800) 437-3837, $2,999) is one of the first 386SX-based notebooks to be more than a news announcement. It weighs 7 pounds (with the battery pack -- which many companies conveniently leave out of their weight specifications), though you should assume another couple pounds because you'll need to carry the AC adapter-charger, a few disks and perhaps a modem. The Tempo has a full-size keyboard that feels great to this touch-typist and a full screen that folds up from the keyboard (in the clamshell design) and is easy to read, but the entire system is 10 inches wide, 12 inches deep and 2 inches tall.
The Tempo comes with 640 kilobytes of memory, though you should try to get it with at least a megabyte more than that. The screen is compatible with the VGA standard and shows 16 shades of gray, plus there's a port on the back you can connect to a standard color monitor. There's a single high-density floppy disk drive and a fast 20-megabyte hard disk. DOS 4.01 is built in, and the Tempo will run any PC programs. I found it easy and comfortable to use.
If you're looking at portables, here's some advice without any "ifs" or "it depends" qualifications: First, look for something that weighs 5 to 7 pounds -- a "notebook" computer.
Second, don't buy a 286-based notebook computer. Stick with one that uses the newer, faster 386SX processor chip. Not only will your machine run much faster, it will be able to run all the latest software.
Phillip Robinson is an author of books and articles about computers and an editor for Virtual Information of Sausalito, Calif.