Laptops offer choice at affordable prices

Personal computers

October 28, 1991|By Michael J. Himowitz | Michael J. Himowitz,Evening Sun Staff

In the computing world, smaller is always better.

At the recent Comdex exhibition in Las Vegas (the Super Bowl of TTC computer shows), most of the excitement was generated by machines small enough to fit in a briefcase but powerful enough to rival all but industrial-strength desktop computers.

The techno-freaks' attention focused on a new generation of "pentop" computers that let users "write" on the screen with an electronic stylus instead of pounding a keyboard.

But the real news may be the sheer number of standard notebook-sized computers on display.

Until recently, these small laptop machines were the province of itinerant journalists and yupscale businessmen who enjoyed showing fellow travelers that they could spend a couple of grand to crunch numbers between cocktails and the in-flight movie.

But improved technology and economies of scale have brought these marvels down to near-desktop prices, and users are finding reasons to buy them whether they travel or not.

Virtually every computer maker is in the act today. In fact, the October issue of Computer Shopper magazine lists 731 different laptop machines. At least a dozen have been introduced since the magazine went to press.

Even Apple, a longtime no-show in the laptop market, has finally seen the light. Actually, Apple introduced a laptop a couple of years ago. But it was so overweight and overpriced that even the Mac's notoriously faithful users stayed away in droves.

Now Apple has come up with three lightweight Macs-to-go priced from $2,300 to $5,000. They'll undoubtedly satisfy Macintosh users who want to take their show on the road.

The most popular portables today are the size of 8 1/2 -by-11-inch notebooks and weigh 6 to 8 pounds. With backlit, liquid crystal displays (LCDs) that flip up like clamshells and miniaturized hard drives, they can run on rechargeable batteries for two to four hours.

At the low end, in the $1,000 to $1,500 range, you can buy the equivalent of an original IBM XT with a 20-megabyte hard disk that's fine for basic word processing, spreadsheets and communications.

Where the air is rare ($5,000 to $10,000), you can find laptops that use Intel's high-end 80386 and 80486 processors, with remarkably good color LCD screens and hard drives as large as 100 megabytes.

The machines causing the most excitement are somewhere in the middle, using low-power-consumption 386SX or 386SL processors and high-resolution monochrome screens. They have enough horsepower to run graphics-based software such as Microsoft Windows, but at $2,000 to $3,000, they're relatively affordable.

The new crop of laptops has spawned a new set of accessories. For example, you can buy trackball or joystick-like devices that let you move a graphic cursor around the screen without the desktop space a mouse requires.

Four-pound, ink jet printers that run on batteries and produce solid, businesslike documents are available for $400 to $500. To tap into your company's computer network at the home office or in the field, you can buy Ethernet adapters that plug into the laptop's printer port.

While laptop computer users once had to sacrifice power for portability, the new machines are good enough to be the only computer many people need. Most will drive a standard VGA monitor, which means you can have a full-size screen at home without the expense of two full systems.

Even if you don't travel, there are good reasons to consider a laptop. The first is space. A laptop doesn't use much. And you can stuff it in a drawer when you're through with it. This makes it an ideal computer for college students, whose dorm rooms are notoriously short on desktop real estate.

Even around the house, a laptop goes where you go. A colleague who bought a laptop is delighted because she can write where she's most comfortable, propped up on her sofa with a couple of pillows.

Laptops have their drawbacks. First, they're still more expensive than desktop machines. For example, you can pick up a decent 386SX desktop with a color monitor for about $1,500. But a comparable laptop with a monochrome LCD display will cost at least $2,000. Add $400 to that if you want a full-sized monitor in your home or office.

Second, laptops are more expensive to upgrade and repair. IBM-compatible desktop machines use many interchangeable parts, so there's price competition among manufacturers of disk drives, modems, monitors and memory chips.

But laptops are generally proprietary designs. You're probably stuck with the original manufacturer if you need a new disk drive, more memory or a replacement screen.

As a result, if you buy a laptop, it's a good idea to get a little more memory or a bigger hard drive than you think you'll need because it's a lot cheaper than upgrading later.

Since the biggest compromises in small computers are the keyboard and screen, make sure you get the most comfortable machine for you.

Some screens look great in dim light but wash out under office fluorescents. Others are crisp in bright light but difficult to read in the semidarkness of an airplane. Some display superb text but fall short with graphics software. So try out the machine under the conditions you'll face most often.

Likewise, keyboards vary widely in layout and tactile feel. Some manufacturers (particularly Toshiba), do a much better job providing the comfort of a full-size keyboard in a small package.

If you do a lot of word processing, look for one with separate Home, End, Page Up and Page Down keys, since you'll use these frequently. Some laptops make you hold down a function key and press some other key to get these keystrokes, which I despise.

And if you travel, buy an extra battery pack or two. You don't want the computer to run out of gas before the plane does.

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