Computer downsizing: convenient, but costly


September 19, 1994|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

I remember being thrilled years ago by the first laptop computer I ever used. It was a Zenith, and it weighed only 17 pounds, which was about half as much as the first generation of so-called transportables.

The Zenith had an 8086 processor, 640K of memory and two floppy drives, and it would run for almost two hours on its batteries.

If the light wasn't too bright, you could see the screen pretty well, too.

Of course, my enchantment dissipated the day I found myself with five minutes to get from one end of the Cleveland airport to the other.

Suddenly, that 17 pounds seemed like a millstone.

Today, as the Metroliner bounces and sways its way from New York to Baltimore, I'm writing on a Gateway 2000 Handbook.

It has an 80486 processor, eight megabytes of memory and a 170-megabyte hard drive. With the case closed, it's six inches wide, 10 inches long, 1 1/2 inches inches high and weighs three pounds.

The Incredible Shrinking Computer has come a long way. In fact, there's virtually nothing you can do on a desktop machine today that you can't do with a laptop -- if you're willing to spend enough money and haul around enough accessories.

Besides basic word processing and spreadsheet work, you can hang a CD-ROM drive and sound device on a laptop for multimedia presentations, or add a card that lets you tap into the network at your home office. With a "docking station," you can even turn your laptop into a full-fledged desktop monster.

As a result, portable computers account for 20 to 25 percent of sales today. If you do a lot of traveling and your other computing needs don't mandate a desktop machine, a portable may be all you need. But think about it carefully, because there are still major trade-offs.

More expensive

Like most big, complicated gadgets jammed into tiny packages, laptop computers are more expensive than their full-size counterparts. They start at about $1,400 for low-end monochrome models with 80486SX processors, 4 megabytes of memory and marginal 120-megabyte disk drives, and can run well over $5,000 for high-end color models with high-speed 80486DX or even Pentium processors and disk drives of 340 megabytes or more.

Advances in processor, disk drive and memory technology have made it possible to add speed, RAM and permanent storage for only slightly more than they would cost on desktop machines. As usual, more is better, particularly more memory.

Within a given power range, the important things that distinguish one laptop from another are their screens and keyboards. They're the parts of the computer that you deal with every day, and they're so critical that you shouldn't buy a laptop without giving it a thorough tryout.

All laptops have liquid crystal display (LCD) screens. If you don't think they're really liquid, brush your finger lightly across the screen of a laptop while it's running, and you'll see the impression it makes. LCDs are fragile and outrageously expensive to replace -- often more than half the cost of the computer. Unfortunately, the LCD is the component that's most likely to break.

With a few exceptions, laptop manufacturers use backlighting to illuminate their screens. A few manufacturers eliminate backlighting to save weight and prolong battery life. Be careful of these; they can be hard to read in dim light.

Monochrome screen technology is generally good, with displays that are readable under most lighting conditions. Color LCDs are iffier and a lot more expensive, adding $600 to $2,000 to the cost of a laptop. There are two kinds of color displays, passive matrix and active matrix. Passive matrix screens generally are paler and don't have the vibrancy of regular color monitors. Active matrix screens are much better, but they cost a fortune.

No matter how sharp they are, laptop displays are much smaller than standard monitors, and text will be harder to read. That's why many people who use only a laptop also buy a standard monitor for use at home. If this is important to you, make sure your laptop has an external monitor port; not all of them do.

The keyboard is another comfort issue. A standard desktop keyboard is 18 inches wide; a laptop keyboard has to fit into a 10- or 11-inch form factor. Obviously, something has to give. How the manufacturer decides to compromise can make a big difference. Some give you separate Page Up, Page Down, Home and End keys (important for word processing), while others double these up on the cursor keys, making you hold down a function key to get to the top or bottom of a page. Some manufacturers shrink the cursor keys; others shrink the function keys. Some move the backspace and delete keys to odd places. This is another good reason to give a laptop a workout before you buy it. Find one with a keyboard that makes you feel at home.

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