Notebooks just get better and better

by Alan Zisman (c) 1995. First published in Our Computer Player, April 1995

Sceptre SounDX

D&A Computer Ltd.
510-3771 Jacombs Road,
Richmond, BC V6v 2M5
604-244-7796 fax

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 drives smaller than 100 meg. Many programs feature special installation options 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 portable users as second class citizens as any other group-- in any event, manufacturers 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 D&A Computer.

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. That's possible because Intel switched production of the latest generation of 486s and Pentium from 5 volt chips to 3.3 volt chips. Lower voltage means less power required, making it possible to use with batteries. And it also 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 uncomfortable. (By the way-- this Pentium does NOT make the infamous math error-- it easily 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 even a built in 16-bit Sound-Blaster compatible sound card, with two tiny speakers.

The keyboard and pointer are quite usable... designed similarly to the original Apple Powerbooks, with nearly full-sized keys behind a shelf to 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 forth.


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 installed). Both installed without any problems, and correctly identified the video and sound cards. Though OS/2 only provided 16 colour drivers for it Win95 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 meg drive (5.7 megs for DOS, 17 megs for WFWG, 42 meg for WIN95 plus a 20 meg swapfile, 62 megs for OS/2... send e-mail if you want more information on how these co-existed).


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 equiped) desktop machine.

-- 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 options; 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 flight to Toronto. It'll recharge in a couple of hours if the machine is turned 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 screen as small as 7-and-a-fraction inches. The colour and response on this double-scanned screen were quite good, for a passive matrix. But they were still, inevitably nowhere near as nice as on a desktop's CRT screen-- colours were much less deep, with some saturated greens, for example, appearing as pale turquoise. 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, produced shadows in all four dimensions.

There's an active matrix screen available with far superior colour. 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 model. The screen is simply to slow. You can, if you choose, plug a standard SVGA monitor in when you're at home or in the office, and get full range video from the built-in, 1 meg PCI accelerated Chips and Technology video card. (You can also plug in a full-sized keyboard and mouse, or purchase a $700 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 screen) lists for $5,085. The largest, 720 meg hard drive pushes this up to $5,650. Peripherals, too, cost more than the desktop equivalents... an additional 4 meg ram module lists for $300 (and no, you can't simply use off-the shelf 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 range of industry-standard PC Cards (the new name for the somewhat unfortunately-named 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 built-in sound make this notebook-sized machine the best replacement for a big computer that I've had the opportunity to use.

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