Notebooks just get better and better
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1995. First
published in Our Computer Player, April 1995
D&A Computer Ltd.
510-3771 Jacombs Road,
Richmond, BC V6v 2M5
price: $5,085- $7,450
Used to be that portable computers were always a
generation or so behind
desktops... in order to get a machine that you could carry around, you
were forced to put up with a slower and less powerful cpu, and less ram
and hard drive space.
Up until recently, this meant that portables could run
Windows or OS/2--
but grudgingly, as they were often sold with 2 megs or ram, and hard
smaller than 100 meg. Many programs feature special installation
for portable users-- in this cases meaning stripping the program to its
bare bones, so it will fit on the hard drive.
I suppose it is no less politically correct to treat
as second class citizens as any other group-- in any event,
have been making great strides to make this class of computers equal to
their larger equivalents.
As an example, there's the Sceptre SounDX, available
from Richmond distributors
For starters, its cpu is a Pentium-90. That's right--
not just a Pentium,
but a fast Pentium, the equal of any you'd find on a desktop machine.
possible because Intel switched production of the latest generation of
486s and Pentium from 5 volt chips to 3.3 volt chips. Lower voltage
less power required, making it possible to use with batteries. And it
means less heat is generated, so no fan is required. The bottom of the
machine does get warm-- I worked with it on my lap, but it never got
(By the way-- this Pentium does NOT make the infamous math error-- it
passed PC Magazine's Pentium bug test).
None of those 120 meg hard drives you can still find
on some models.
You get a range of options, all run off a fast PCI-IDE controller, from
a base 340 meg drive, through 540 and 720 meg models.
And the machine ships with a base of 8 megs of ram.
You can add up to
two additional 16 meg memory modules, for a total of 40 megs. There's
a built in 16-bit Sound-Blaster compatible sound card, with two tiny
The keyboard and pointer are quite usable... designed
similarly to the
original Apple Powerbooks, with nearly full-sized keys behind a shelf
rest your wrist. Dead center, there's a trackball (larger than some
marble-sized units, though not as large as Apple's). A small panel
below the screen shows battery status, drive status, key-lock, and so
The 8-meg ram, 340-meg hard drive base model I had to
test ran all the
software I could throw at it.
As a test, I installed both OS/2 WARP and Windows 95
onto the hard drive.
(It came with MS DOS 6.22 and Windows for Workgroups 3.11 already
Both installed without any problems, and correctly identified the video
and sound cards. Though OS/2 only provided 16 colour drivers for it
set itself up in 256 colours.
It was a lot of fun, in fact, to be able to boot to my
choice of these
three operating systems. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it on a long
terem basis however... The three together took nearly half of the 320
drive (5.7 megs for DOS, 17 megs for WFWG, 42 meg for WIN95 plus a 20
swapfile, 62 megs for OS/2... send e-mail if you want more information
on how these co-existed).
TIME TO WAKE UP
In many ways, this would be my dream machine... lots
of power, all in
a 7 pound, very portable package.
Like every dream, however, there comes a time to wake
up. There are
still a few ways that this portable isn't the equal of a (similarly
-- as a portable, you're a slave to your battery.
Battery life ranges
from 1.5 to 2.5 hours on a full charge, depending on options installed
on the machine, and use. There are all the current power-saving
the screen blanks automatically, the hard drive and cpu will power-down
if not in use. Still, you couldn't use it for the full length of a
to Toronto. It'll recharge in a couple of hours if the machine is
off, or eight hours while you're using the computer.
-- the test version I was using had a 10.3" passive
matrix colour screen.
This is large for a portable's screen-- some models I've seen have
as small as 7-and-a-fraction inches. The colour and response on this
screen were quite good, for a passive matrix. But they were still,
nowhere near as nice as on a desktop's CRT screen-- colours were much
deep, with some saturated greens, for example, appearing as pale
It was easy to move the cursor faster than the screen, losing it for a
few seconds. And bright rectangles, such as white dialogue boxes,
shadows in all four dimensions.
There's an active matrix screen available with far
Unfortunately, this reduces battery life, and costs an added $1900.
So don't expect to use this (or any portable) for
working with colour
graphics. And don't try to view video clips on the passive-matrix
The screen is simply to slow. You can, if you choose, plug a standard
monitor in when you're at home or in the office, and get full range
from the built-in, 1 meg PCI accelerated Chips and Technology video
(You can also plug in a full-sized keyboard and mouse, or purchase a
docking station to turn this into a desktop-equivalent).
-- the added cost of the active matrix screen may have
been a hint...
you still pay a price penalty for powerful portable computing. The base
model (Pentium 90, 8 megs ram, 340 meg hard drive, passive-matrix
lists for $5,085. The largest, 720 meg hard drive pushes this up to
Peripherals, too, cost more than the desktop equivalents... an
4 meg ram module lists for $300 (and no, you can't simply use off-the
SIMMs-- one of my big grumbles about this and other portables). Because
the SounDX includes 2 Type 2 PCMCIA slots, you can add any of a wide
of industry-standard PC Cards (the new name for the somewhat
PCMCIA Cards). That makes it easy to add modems, networking, SCSI, even
hard drives or memory cards. But again, in all cases, these are quite a
bit more expensive than the larger desktop versions.
Despite these drawbacks, I'd be quite happy to get to
carry this portable
around full-time. The combination of a powerful cpu, with ample ram and
hard drive space, along with a usable colour screen and the bonus of
sound make this notebook-sized machine the best replacement for a big
that I've had the opportunity to use.