Leo's Notebook-- the lion roars

by Alan Zisman (c) 1996. First published in Computer Player, June 1996

A nice example of a notebook that could function as a desktop-replacement is the Leo DesignNote 3500.

The model that I worked with was a Pentium-90 featuring an 800 meg hard drive, and a quad-speed CD-ROM drive, that was swappable with the floppy drive (at least once I found the release switch on the bottom of the unit). According to the distributor, Faronics, by the time you read this, it will be shipping with a Pentium 120 and a 1.3 gig hard drive, for the same $5195 price.

There?s a standard-sized, bright active matrix screen, that supports 24-bit colour, and 800 x 600 resolution (though not at the same time!) You can save some money by getting this model with a double-scan, passive matrix screen? you?ll have a duller picture, that?s slower to update?less usable for multimedia or games, but some people prefer these?if you often work in public places like airline terminals, passers-by have a harder time viewing your work. Either of these screen options feature approximately 10.5? diagonal screens? you may have seen notebooks from IBM and other companies with larger-sized screens?these add quite a bit to the cost of production of these units, and are not widely available on lower-priced clones at this time.

A 16-bit sound card is built in, with tiny speakers in the upper corners of the screen and a tiny built-in microphone; the sound quality is okay, but a nice feature is that there are microphone and line in and out jacks on the back, allowing you to plug it into external sound equipment.

The parallel port can be set to run as a bidirectional or ECP (enhanced) port, useful for communicating with the new generation of parallel port add-in devices like Connectix?s QuickCam camera, scanner, Zip drives, and more. The serial port uses a 16550 chip? needed for efficient high-speed communications. Like most notebooks, there?s an external VGA port? unlike some models, this one lets you use both the built-in monitor, and an external one at the same time. An infrared port on the back will enable this notebook to communicate with the growing range of IRMA infrared devices?wireless printing, for example. The external PS/2 port can be used for either an external keyboard or mouse? plug in a keyboard, and presumably, you could type on both that keyboard and the built-in one at the same time?though I can?t imagine why anyone would want to! Plugging in a mouse disables the built-in GlidePad.

The GlidePad is the built-in tracking device. It?s an (approximately) 2? by 1.5? rectangle (19 mm) centered on the wrist-rest below the keyboard? an easy to use location. Moving a finger on the pad moves the mouse cursor. A firm finger tap equals a clicking the left mouse button. (There are also a pair of buttons that may be easier to use). I found it easier to use than the other notebook alternatives?trackballs or pointing sticks, but less precise than using a real mouse.

The keys are almost the size of a real, desktop keyboard, and the broad wrist-rest makes for relatively comfortable typing. The key locations are nearly standard?something that is not always true on portable models.

There?s an LCD Status Bar below the screen, featuring somewhat peculiar icons? an ?N? on a padlock when the NumLock is turned on, for example. A drippy water-tap for power-saving mode. On the side, there?s room for two Type II PC Cards, or a single, thicker Type III card. I found it difficult, at first, to properly insert my PC Card modem, but liked how, once inserted, the card was entirely within the case?this seemed safer than models where the card sticks out several inches, and means that I can leave the card in when transporting the notebook.

The rechargeable NiMH battery allows for about 1.6 hours of use on a full charge; a second battery can be added for longer life, replacing the CD-ROM/floppy drive. Inevitably, trying to run your CD-ROM from the battery will shorten battery life (as will leaving your PC Cards plugged in when you don?t need them!)

Power management features can be selected from the CMOS setup, and include a suspend feature? if selected, the system will automatically shut down to a low-power mode, that when resumed, will restore your screen the way you left it. Alternatively, you can set the system to save the contents of ram to your hard disk and then shut itself down. When you power-up again, all will be restored the way you left it.

Performance is generally good? unlike most portables, it is seems about the same as desktop models with the same CPU?it sports a 256 kb L2 hardware ram cache, a feature often left out of notebooks becauseof expense and battery drain. The model comes standard with 8 megs of ram, and can be upgraded to a total of 40 megs?my evaluation unit had 16 megs onboard. Documentation is more readable than with many competitors? models, though it didn?t clearly explain how to swap the floppy and CD-ROM drives.

In an attractive, medium-grey case, this portable is well-worth comparing to the more expensive, better-known name-brand models.

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