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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Speed is fun, but not all of us really need a high-performance laptop compute

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #282  March 21, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    Because I also write computer software and hardware reviews for another local publication (a more computer-oriented one), people loan me things from time to time, hoping that after I've played with them for a while, I'll say nice things in print about them. Sometimes it even happens that way.

    That's how I got to spend a couple of weeks with a new notebook recently. I don't own a portable computer, but I appreciate their allure. Without one, I'm often forced to walk around with a floppy disk in my pocket, trying to work on whatever machine is handy at home or at work.

    But it's always seemed to me that to go portable, you had to accept a couple of tradeoffs. One is cost: smaller costs significantly more. The other has been performance: portables have seemed to be stuck with a processor and hard drive that were a generation or two behind the current desktop standard. For people who are always on the go, a portable seemed a necessity, but for the rest of us, it seemed a nice thing to have, but not one that would replace the desktop machine.

    My recent plaything, however, was a no-compromise screamer. A Pentium-90, not a low-speed 486. It had eight megs of RAM standard, which can be upgraded to 40 megs. A 340-meg hard drive, expandable to 720 megs. A colour screen. Even a built-in sound card, stereo speakers, and a microphone.

    Perhaps, I thought, it's time for us to reclaim the large amount of space on our desks devoted to beige metal boxes. But after living with the portable for a couple of weeks, I had begun to have second thoughts. Not that the machine had problems-- it worked as advertised and ran all the software I could throw at it. I even loaded up three operating systems-- DOS plus Windows, OS/2 WARP, and a beta copy of Windows 95 --and found that all three installed and ran without a hitch (aside from causing me a repetitive strain disorder from switching all those floppies). It even allowed me to switch from one to the other at will. But there's a downside.

    Price is still a factor. The base configuration carries a list of $5,000, which would buy a lot of desktop machine. And expandability is limited. Yes, you can add PC Cards for modem, or SCSI CD-ROM, or network adapter (Macs now have built-in Ethernet, and so should these PCs). But there's room for only two PC Cards. And PC Cards are again more expensive than their desktop equivalents.

    (Of course, way back in 1985 or so, PC Magazine's Bill Machrone proposed a law of personal computing when he said, "The computer you want always costs $5,000." And that's U.S. dollars. Call it $7,000 Canadian, which is just enough to buy this notebook with the far-superior active-matrix screen.)

    And that's the other hitch: what would you be using your notebook for? Taking notes at a meeting? Word-processing wherever you are, whenever you have a few moments (therefore never getting any time off work)? Keeping track of appointments, customers, birthdays, and shopping lists? Getting your e-mail from wherever you happen to be?

    If that's the bulk of your computing on the go, is this more machine than you really need? Even with today's bloated Windows software, no word processor known requires a Pentium-90, or even performs much faster with one. The limiting factor is your typing speed, not your CPU.

    And even with a built-in colour monitor, you're not going to be doing fancy graphics on your laptop. Even the best portable screens can't perform anywhere near as well as the old cathode-ray tube on your desktop (and don't forget that $2,000 premium to upgrade this one to the brighter, faster 10-inch active-matrix display).

    And all the power eats up battery life. While the newer processors, like this 90-MHz Pentium running at 3.3 volts, require much less battery power than the slower, older generation, an hour and a half won't get you to Toronto on Air Canada. Better have room in the briefcase for a spare battery.

    Some people can justify this level of power in a portable. Walk into a boardroom, plug it into a large external monitor, and give that computer-based presentation without having to worry whether it will run on your host's computer.

    And some of us just need to have the fastest and the best that we can buy. Unfortunately, in the ever-changing world of high tech, you know that it's only going to be, say, three months before something faster comes out.

    But as for me (and, I suspect, for many of you), I may want a computer like this, but I simply can't justify it. Not now, anyway. It would feel too much like buying that $50,000 sports car just to tool around in the city at speeds under 60 kilometres-- an ego-boost, sure, but not something that's on the budget



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