Considering the notebook market is less than three years old, it's no surprise that the technology is still evolving -- fast. Here's a rundown of the state of the technology today:
* Battery life. Batteries are one of the fastest-developing technologies in notebooks, so look for major advances.
Most notebooks use a garden-variety nickel cadmium battery and typically have a battery life of two to four hours. If you need more battery time, say for a long flight, you'll probably want to buy a second battery unit, available for about $100. Also make sure the notebook you select employs advanced techniques for saving battery life, like going into sleep mode when the keyboard isn't being used.
Besides advances in battery technology, new developments in software and other technologies are aimed at cutting the power notebook systems use. Lower-voltage parts, which are finding their way into notebooks, will decrease the drain on batteries. Intel recently announced a 3.3-volt version of its 386SL chip for portables that it says will let notebook makers offer five hours of battery life. Notebooks using the lower-voltage battery will start trickling out in the fall, an Intel spokesman said.
* Screen. Most have back-lighted monochrome displays based on liquid-crystal technology. Some companies, such as Dell Computer with its new 3 1/2 -pound notebook, are forfeiting back-lighting in their liquid-crystal displays. Be sure to consider carefully lighting conditions under which you'll be using your notebook.
Color displays are available, but a crisp, high-resolution model based on state-of-the-art active-matrix technology costs at least $2,000 more than monochrome. A color LCD that uses what's called "passive-matrix" technology can cost as little as $300 more than monochrome LCD but won't offer nearly the same performance.
* Storage. Most notebooks come equipped with a 40- , 60- or 80-megabyte drive, though 120-megabyte drives are available. Buy a large enough drive up front.
* Additional features. The Macintosh Powerbook comes with a built-in pointing device, but if you use Windows on a DOS-based system, you'll need a mouse or trackball. One built into the machine or that attaches to the side of the computer, such as Microsoft's clip-on Ballpoint Mouse or Logitech's Trackman Portable, is preferable to a traditional mouse because you may not always have the space to maneuver it.
In an attempt to add value to their machines, many notebook makers add an optional pen and pen-sensitive display, which can be used to enter data into software-based forms and for drawing. Though today the applications for pens are limited, eventually, observers say, such add-ons will be standard features.