For most users, desktops are better than laptops

IF YOU PICK A SMALLER PC, YOU MAY SEE DIMINISHING RETURNS

January 06, 1992|By PETER H. LEWIS

People shopping for their first computer should realize that sometimes computers get carried away, especially the new notebook models. As notebook PCs get more powerful and less expensive, some people are choosing a lightweight portable as their one and only computer.

In most cases, though, the sacrifices required are substantial. The smaller the computer, the more sacrifices must be made in power, convenience and dollars. Unless portability itself is a top requirement, the first-time buyer is probably going to be happier with a desktop system.

In an effort to warn people who are easily seduced by the prospect of carrying a computer between home and beach, here are just some of the reasons to give heavy thought to a desktop machine.

Portable computers cost more than comparably equipped desktop models. The best portable computer we have seen, in the sense of matching the power and performance of our $5,000 desktop computer, is a $10,000 Compaq Computer Corp. suitcase model that weighs 17 pounds.

The same price ratio seems to hold at other levels of performance as well, suggesting that portability doubles the cost of a given system.

Portables' display screens are almost always smaller and harder to read, and monochrome (black and white) displays are the rule. Color screens are still scarce and expensive.

Adding a hard disk drive and a diskette drive not only adds weight but also shortens battery life. Eliminating the drives, however, makes it a real pain to save your work, load new programs or transfer files to another computer.

The keyboards of the best portables are equivalent to the keyboards of the worst desktop systems. Adding a mouse or a trackball is in most cases a kludge (pronounced klooj), a popular word employed frequently by veteran computer users to criticize poor design.

Even at 7 or 8 pounds, a common weight for notebook PCs if one does not count the added weight of manuals, cables and other accouterments, a notebook will seem to weigh a ton at the end of a long trip. (We have also noticed the phenomenon that the weight seems to double as soon as the battery dies.)

dTC And finally, bad things tend to happen to good computers that are small enough to leave on a train seat, tuck into a beach bag or set on the hood of the car while fumbling for the keys.

That said, notebook computers are among the most popular models in computer stores. According to researchers who study such things, most notebook and laptop computers are sold as second computers to people who already have a desktop computer, but more and more people say it is their primary machine.

Also, the newer notebooks come closer than ever before to matching the power and features of common desktop systems. Notebooks that include a 386SX microprocessor, VGA-level graphics, several megabytes of system memory and a 40- or 60-megabyte hard disk drive are common today. A few years ago, desktop PC's did not have that much power.

If you think you can live with the limitations of a small portable system, consider looking for a model that has the necessary plugs to attach a desktop color VGA monitor and a full-size, 101-key keyboard. Not all portables have these so-called external video (or RGB) and keyboard ports, but they should. Apple Computer Inc.'s new PowerBook notebooks lack those ports, and adding them through an adapter costs several hundred dollars. Ouch.

The keyboard and the screen are the parts of a computer that the user comes in contact with most often. In reality, some people can go days or weeks without touching the main processing unit of their desktop systems, except for the power switch, so it might not make any significant difference whether the processing unit itself is big or small.

A 40-, 60- or even 80-megabyte hard-disk drive is important if you plan to run Windows 3.0 and Windows-based applications. The 20-megabyte drives offered on some notebooks are inadequate.

So which little computers are the best?

Despite some problems I had with what Apple said was an early production model, and despite the lack of an external video jack, the Macintosh PowerBook 170 would still be on my short list.

Its design and communications features are superior, at least for now, to most DOS-based notebooks, and the display is sharp and bright.

There are several excellent notebooks on the DOS side. Unless the portable is to be used exclusively for word processing, which does not require a lot of power, it makes sense to shop for a portable with a 386SX or more advanced microprocessor.

There are many good 286-based notebooks available at attractive prices, but the 286 chip will not be able to run newer business applications.

Among the 386SX machines, a comparison shopping spree should start with the Toshiba 2200SX, a 5.5-pound notebook that has gained many admirers, and include the Dell 320N+, the Compaq 386s/20, the expensive but elegant AT&T Safari, and, for those willing to give up a diskette drive in exchange for a 4.2-pound featherweight, the Texas Instruments TravelMate 2000. As a primary computer, though, the TM2000 may require too many compromises.

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