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ISSUE 511: The high tech office- Aug 10 1999


Hot-selling portable PCs offer wide range of features

Portable computers are hot -- in more ways than one. Easy to pick up and carry, they're also easy to steal (watch out in the airport security lineups and never leave one in plain view in your car). They're also hot sellers, with an ever-increasing share of the otherwise flattening computer market.

As a result, there's a growing range of portable choices and, if you're looking for one, a growing possibility of confusion. Try and define your needs, as well as your budget, and keep in mind that all portables involve some compromises. Be sure to try out the keyboards, pointing devices and screens to see if you can work comfortably with them. Here are some of the choices:

PC companions

This new product category offers light weight and low price -- small machines such as Hewlett Packard's Jornada 820. The Jornada weighs in at around a kilo or so, has a long battery life and is priced well below $2,000.

The catch is that PC companions run Microsoft's scaled-down Windows CE, not a more-standard Win-
dows 95/98 or NT and, as a result, can't run standard software. As the name suggests, they're designed as a companion for the desktop PC where you do most of your work. The systems let you keep up with e-mail and do some limited word processing and other work on the run using built-in software.

Mini notebooks

These computers are the same size as the PC companions, but run on a more standard operating system, which allows for the use of a wider range of software. Expect to pay about double for the increased flexibility, while getting about half the battery life.

With both PC companions and mini notebooks be sure to try out these smaller-than-average machines to be certain you can use the slightly scaled-down keyboards.

Lightweight notebooks

These computers feature larger screens and keyboards than the minis. They achieve their size and weight advantage by making the floppy and CD drives external units. The total weight of the notebook is around two kilograms. Most of the major manufacturers have products in this class in the $3,000 to $4,000 range.

Mainstream notebooks

These computers offer the most models, ranging in price from just under $2,000 to around $4,000, and weighing in around three kilograms or so. The lowest-priced models include a duller-looking passive matrix screen. These screens will show ghosts and are difficult to use for game playing or multimedia. But we don't do that at work, do we?

By the time the price goes up to $2,400 or so, most feature better 12-inch active matrix screens. At that price, there are a reasonable number of choices, including Apple's just-announced iBook (not available until September), which combines a fast processor, exceptional battery life and a rugged case (if you're prepared to tote around an orange or blue computer). Personally, I'd budget a bit to upgrade all of these models from the standard 32 megs of RAM to a more usable 64 megs.

Higher-priced models offer larger screen sizes and include both CD-ROM and floppy disk drives at the same time.

Desktop replacements

These systems hold down the top end, in features, weight and price. They typically weigh in at 3.5 kilograms or more and can be a bit of a burden if you're frequently running through airport terminals. But as the name suggests, they promise enough power and features to let you get rid of that office desktop and use one as your only computer. Look for 14- to 15-inch screens, a powerful processor, a large hard drive, lots of RAM and perhaps a DVD rather than a CD-ROM drive. Prices are in the $4,000 to $5,000 range. Apple's newest PowerBook G3 models have lost a few pounds and gained in battery life, making them nice options in this range. *

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