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New generation of gadgets enhances laptop performance

Add-ons raise laptop capabilities and performance to desk-top level

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002
First published in Business in Vancouver,  Issue #648 March 26- April 1, 2002: GearGuide column 
 

Laptops are typically at least a few months behind desktops in offering the latest high-tech amenities. The gap is quickly closing, thanks to recent product offerings that promise faster processing, more storage and better music. 

More Notebook

Ottawa-based notebook manufacturer, Eurocom (www.eurocom.ca) has long had a tradition of Eurocom Monte Cristo 8170 sports an industry-first P4 CPUgiving users more in their notebook computers: faster processors, more ports and better sound, with generations of portable computers that aimed to be true desktop replacements. Last year, the company introduced the first notebook running faster than 1 GHz. Now that that speed is relatively commonplace, the company once again takes the medal, this time for the first notebook sporting Intel's top-of-the-line Pentium 4 processor. Eurocom's Monte Cristo 8170s offer a 1.6 GHz Pentium 4 CPU for $2,299, with speed ramping up to 2.2 GHz (and price ramping up by another $900). Memory can be upgraded to a full gigabyte, while USB, Firewire, modem, and network card are all built in. DVD, CD-RW, or combo DVD/CD-RW drives are optionally available. 

With the recent release of Intel's Mobile P4 CPU, other companies are starting to release Pentium 4-powered notebooks, but the Canadians got there first. 

More drive space

Unlike desktop computers, notebooks offer no room inside for a second hard drive. USB connections, built into virtually all desktop and notebook computers these days, would be a convenient way to get around this limitation, but the USB standard is just too darn slow. 

All current Mac and high-end PC notebooks, such as the Eurocom 8170, sport Firewire connectors (officially known as IEEE 1394), which are 40 times faster than USB. While Firewire can be added inexpensively onto PC desktop models, many PC manufacturers are betting on the recently released USB 2.0, to boost speeds to Firewire levels. 

EZQuest (www.ezq.com) doesn't care if you want to use Firewire or USB 2.0; they've released EZQuest Cobra 120 GB Firewire hard drivetheir  high-capacity Cobra external hard drives in both flavours. Models range from 40 GB to a roomy $600 120 GB version. Performance is plenty fast too: it was almost twice as fast as the drive built into my late-model notebook. The Firewire model that I tested was immediately usable plugged into my Mac. My Windows XP PC recognized the drive, but needed to be reformatted before I could use it. This process is clearly spelled out by EZQuest's documentation. 

These big drives won't fit in your shirt pocket, however. They're about the size of a brick (a stylish silver brick, mind you), and require external power. But if you need a lot more drive space, for working with digital video for example, it's the way to go. 

Better music 

People are listening to more music on their computers. Once again, notebook users are at a disadvantage. The built-in speakers are tiny and pretty tinny, and even if you plug in better external speakers or headphones, few notebooks include quality sound cards. Desktop users can pop in a new sound card such as Creative Labs' new Audigy models, but notebook users lacked that option. 

New from Creative (www.creativelabs.com) is the Sound Blaster Extigy ($249), a high-end sound card in a box. Using plain old USB, it easily connects to any notebook or desktop computer (PC only), with clever software that replaces the existing sound card whenever the Extigy is connected, but puts things back to normal when the Extigy isn't present. (All computer software should be so well-behaved!) 

Plug a set of speakers into the Extigy and you've immediately got noticeably better sound. It supports 2, 4, or 5.1 analog or digital speaker setups and can translate standard stereo to 5.1 surround sound. There's MIDI in and out along with lots of other ports and a remote control. It can even be used without a computer to improve the sound of DVD and MP3 players and other home entertainment devices. 



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan