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    Notebook tech talk confusing, but it's a good time to buy

    by  (c) 2003 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #704 April 22-28, 2003 High Tech Office column

    At this past January's MacWorld conference, Apple's Steve Jobs called 2003 "the year of the notebooks."

    While computer sales overall have remained stagnant, notebook sales have increased for each of the past four years, last year accounting for 23.5 per cent of the worldwide market (some 30 million notebooks).

    At MacWorld, Apple released a pair of new Powerbook notebooks. Costing $5,299, the 17-inch screen model is both bigger and more expensive than most of us can justify, but the $2,899 12-inch model is an attractive alternative.

    While looking like a silver-plated version of the $1,599 white iBook, the aluminum-bodied 12-inch Powerbook manages to be a little smaller and lighter than the already svelte iBook.

    Like the iBook, the 12-inch Powerbook is built around a small but crisp and usable 12-inch screen and sports a full complement of connectors, making its lack of a PC Card expansion slot less noticeable. To justify its higher price, the new Powerbook replaces the iBook's G3 processor with a more powerful G4 model. The Powerbook has a more solid keyboard and includes support for multiple monitors and Bluetooth wireless connections (to some cell phones, printers, and other devices), along with what Apple calls "Airport Extreme," the new faster 802.11g wireless networking standard. (It requires a $150 add-on card.)

    Like the iBook, it gets warm right where your left-palm would rest, though it never got uncomfortably hot in my tests. The more powerful G4 CPU cuts battery life. Expect to be able to use the Powerbook unplugged for about two hours before having to find an AC outlet. And using one of these models means making a full-time commitment to Apple's OS X operating system. Unlike last year's Macs, the new Powerbooks don't offer the choice of booting to Apple's classic OS.

    It's also a good time to be shopping for a PC notebook. In March, Intel released its first CPU designed from the ground up for mobile computing. The Pentium M was designed for maximum efficiency to improve battery life. Models from a variety of manufacturers boost battery life in the four- to five-hour range between charges. Replacing the CD drive with an optional second battery some can run as long as nine hours on unplugged.

    But be prepared for some work making sense of the ads.

    It's easy to confuse the Pentium M with the less efficient (but still on the market) Pentium 3M and 4M CPUs.

    And if you look at ads for the new models, you may notice they often neglect to mention the processor speed. New Pentium M notebooks run at speeds of 1.4 to 1.6 GHz, while last-generation Pentium 4M models appear faster, running at speeds over two GHz. Independent tests suggest that a new-style Pentium M running at 1.6 GHz outperforms a 2.4-GHz Pentium 4M. As Intel's competitors have been pointing out for some time, a computer chip's speed isn't as important as how much it can actually do.

    You'll also see ads for notebooks mentioning Centrino. Not a new atomic particle, these models combine a Pentium M processor with Intel-built circuitry for WiFi wireless networking. Intel is working with wireless providers, including Vancouver-based Fatport, to increase the number of public wireless "hot spots."

    The good news is that Centrino owners won't need to buy a $100 to $150 wireless networking adapter; it's all built-in. The bad news is that Centrino currently only supports the slower 802.11b standard, not the faster 802.11a or 11g standards.

    If you manage to decipher the ads, it's a good time to buy a notebook.

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