--Alan Zisman

Notebook computers can do more than ever
but the prices for high-end models are startling

For many of us, a desktop computer is just a boring business tool, but there's something about a notebook computer that makes us drool.

Of course, they're often useful business tools as well, especially if you take your work home for the evening or weekend or want to be productive (and play games) while waiting for a plane.

But notebooks retain a gee-whiz factor, at a time when standard, beige desktop computers have become rather commonplace. Perhaps it's just a matter of price: at a time when you can get a low-end but maybe good-enough desktop machine for under a grand, note-book prices start at a couple of times that, and go up to more than $8,000.

Recently, Hewlett-Packard loaned me one of its new models for a couple of weeks. The HP Omnibook 3100 is the equivalent of a pretty solid entry-level desktop. It features a reasonably powerful Pentium-MMX processor running at 266 MHz, a 13.3-inch active matrix screen that displays thousands of colours at a full 1023x768 resolution, 32 megs of RAM and a four-gig hard drive. Other features include a 24x CD-ROM drive, up to six hours of battery life (well, only with an optional second battery), Windows 95 or NT (with a coupon for an upgrade to Windows 98) and an optional, $648 docking station which allows for easy plug-in to desktop monitors and other peripherals.

A nice unit. But it's hard for me to find much to distinguish one company's output from another's.

I was, however, made somewhat breathless when I learned the price. HP is offering a notebook for $5,066 -- three or four times more than a similarly outfitted desktop.

You can get notebooks for less -- several models are now available at around $2,000 -- but in this case, most of the extra money buys you that reasonably large active matrix screen.

Passive matrix screens (also known as DSTN or "dual-scan supertwisted nematic" screens) used on the lower-priced models are okay, but once you've worked on an active matrix screen (a.k.a. TFT or "thin-film transistor"), you're not going to want anything less.

The question is: can you justify the price to yourself or your company accountant?

At the top of HP's line is the Omnibook 4100, which features a higher-end Pentium II processor and 14-inch screen for $5,614. The 2100 model line ranges from slower 200 or 233 MHz MMX processors to a 266-MHz Pentium II (about 15 per cent faster than the humbler MMX 266). Prices vary from $2,450 to $5,850 depending on options.

It's been a while since Apple Computer's PowerBook Macintoshes were competitive with PC notebooks, but the company's new G3 models are strongly in the running. On the basis of on-paper specifications, the top-end 292-MHz model is simply the fastest notebook available. And regardless of speed rating, the G3 PowerPC processor used in these models is, in many measures, more powerful than a Pentium II or other CPUs used in PC models.

The various PowerBook models come with pretty much the same range of features as the equivalent PCs -- processor speeds from 233 to 292 MHz, DSTN or TFT screens ranging in size from 12 to 14 inches, similar amounts of RAM and drive space, CD-ROM and so forth.

But the PowerBooks also include SCSI, Ethernet network adapters and built-in modems, options that need to be added onto most PC models (including HP's) through optional PC cards.

However, there are a few things to watch out for. The lowest-end 233-MHz model lacks any secondary (L2) cache, which significantly slows its performance. As for the higher-end models, they are in short supply. And at about seven pounds, the PowerBooks are a pound or two heavier than many equivalent PC models.

Still, with most models in the $3,300 to $5,500 range (the top-end model is a stratospheric $7,600 or so), most G3 PowerBooks cost about the same as HP's PC model, and arguably provide more power and features -- even enough power to run a customized PC application under an emulation program such as Virtual PC, if absolutely necessary.

PC or Mac, these notebooks are the BMW-equivalents in the computing world. They offer sporty, eye-turning performance -- but be prepared to pay a premium for the privilege.

PricewaterhouseCoopers Vancouver is presenting the first-ever B.C. Technology Industry Conference, October 14 at the Wall Centre Garden Hotel. The theme is Pillars of Growth for B.C. and Beyond. For more information, contact Sandi Northey at 682-4711.*

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