Lighter model notebook computers come equipped for heavy duty

Personal Computers

June 17, 1996|By Stephen Manes

WHEN THE PLANE touches down at gate A1 and the connecting flight departs from gate D437, the typical notebook computer becomes a clanking ball and chain.

The two or three pounds you save by carrying a lighter model can spell the difference between mere crankiness and terminal depression.

Today's light computers come with fewer and fewer compromises, and the latest line of the International Business Machines Corp. looks like the best yet. The Thinkpad 560 models weigh a svelte 4.2 pounds and are not much bigger than a successful magazine. They offer performance that rivals desktop models, yet leave out almost nothing of importance. And they are being offered at inviting prices, a consideration that IBM has historically ignored.

I tested the cheapest model, the P100, which costs about $2,700. It comes with eight megabytes of memory, a 100-megahertz Pentium processor, an 810-megabyte hard drive and an 11.2-inch dual-scan screen with 800-by-600-pixel resolution. The P120, for about $3,750, offers a 120-megahertz processor and a 12.1-inch active-matrix screen. For about $450 more, the P133 will deliver a 133-megahertz processor and 1.08 gigabytes of storage when it arrives in July. The two costlier models can display more colors on their built-in screens and a resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels on external monitors, but those are their only other advantages.

These machines are very well equipped, right down to the microphone, sound functions and speaker. Serial, parallel, monitor and mouse ports are built in, along with two PC Card slots and an infrared transceiver. A detachable floppy disk drive comes with each unit.

A lithium-ion battery delivers about three hours per charge; additional batteries cost about $250. About all that is missing is the modem that IBM built into many earlier Thinkpads and a CD-ROM player, but PC Card versions of both are readily available.

The keyboard is one of the best I have ever used. It is quiet and responsive, with mostly full-size keys, IBM's excellent "eraserhead" Trackpoint pointing device, a commendably low profile and the company's first usable and comfortable palmrest.

The keyboard is not the only thing that IBM has improved. Some of its earlier machines, like its innovative "Butterfly" unit with the expanding keyboard, were finicky about setting the proper mode to charge their batteries. With the 560 models, all you have to do is plug the machine into the power adapter. The adapter is a slightly ungainly two-piece affair, but international travelers may find it useful, since changing the removable power cord converts it to foreign electrical standards.

The faster processors on the fancier models are not likely to produce noticeable performance improvements. But, although Windows 95 runs decently with eight megabytes of memory, eight more is always a better idea.

IBM offers an eight-megabyte memory upgrade for $369, prohibitive in an era when that much memory can be had for about $300 less. Special electronic packaging does add to the price, but third parties are already offering memory in this form for around $220.

The cheapest model's only major drawback is its dual-scan screen. Although acceptably bright, it often produces ghost images and makes the cursor disappear, and it is hopeless for fast-moving games and video. But if you are willing to overlook those failings on the road, you might consider connecting the machine to a monitor when you return home. Even with the optional $175 port replicator, it would be cheaper than the $1,050 premium for the P120 model's much better active-matrix screen.

There are a few engineering oddities. The infrared transceiver is built into the power switch on the left side of the unit rather than the back, so some contortions may be required to get it aligned with another device. The fashion crowd may be horrified to discover that the case is not quite as elegantly matte black as its predecessors.

And an IBM spokesman assured me that the ports on the back can be protected by a detachable rubber cover, but it was missing from my review machine and might well disappear on the road.

Since problems have often cropped up as manufacturers have tried to cram more and more into less and less space, it might be smart to keep track of the machine's one-year anniversary, when the warranty will expire, and to spring for a service contract at a price of less than $150 a year.

Machines like these can be very expensive to fix.

The hardware is fine; the software and manuals, as usual, leave much to be desired. The 560 models come with Windows 95, but not the recently updated version, nor the drivers that make the infrared port truly useful, nor any backup disks. The software that lets you manage the machine's devices and power management is graphical to the point of being incomprehensible. And the manuals, which try to cover DOS, Windows 3.1, Windows 95 and OS/2, end up being only one step this side of useless.

The 560 line breaks new ground in the light notebook market, but there are competitors, like Digital Equipment Corp.'s Hinote Ultra II, which was not available for review. And other companies are rumored to be readying light laptops. For the moment, though, the biggest problems with the Thinkpad 560 models may be finding one to buy and figuring out how to use it when the person in front of you in coach decides to tilt the seat back.

Stephen Manes is a columnist for the New York Times.

Pub Date: 6/17/96

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