Notebook vendors weigh in

Product reviews: Spring lineup of notebook computers ranges from featherweight to middleweight

This is the season for a flood of new notebooks from major vendors. We begin our coverage with a look at three: desktop replacements from Gateway Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., and HP's Omnibook 510 ultralight notebook.

From what we've already seen this year, whether you're looking to replace your desktop computer or value portability, you can expect significantly lighter, smaller and faster devices than were available previously. And many units are now shipping with fast DVD drives, faster video, integrated wireless capabilities and built-in FireWire ports.

We are quickly approaching the point at which the primary rationales for buying a desktop computer instead of a notebook are expandability and lower cost. Performance and functionality are no longer issues.

HP Omnibook 510: A Traveling Professional's Best Friend

Our favorite ultralight just got better.

Users of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Omnibook 500 will feel right at home with the new Omnibook 510. In fact, many users might not even notice a difference at first. The 510 offers the same slender design and weighs only 3.65 pounds in its lightest configuration. (Even with the docking station, the unit weighs only a little more than 5 pounds.)

What's more, the cleanly designed gray-on-gray case with rubberized wrist rest and keyboard is largely unchanged. The only differences we noted right away were a slightly taller pointing stick and the optional wireless switch and indicator on the top of the display panel. The display — a sharp 12.1-inch XGA thin-film transistor (TFT) panel — is also unchanged.

As with the Omnibook 500, we found the 510 offers a solid feel and a nice touch. We prefer connecting a mouse to the unit when it's in its docking station, but otherwise we found the pointing stick to be highly usable. Selections are made using a three-button array located just below the space bar.

So what's new in the 510 besides the optional integrated 802.11 wireless capability? In a word, performance.

While the Omnibook 500 performs quite well, the Omnibook 510 has been goosed with a 1.13 GHz Intel Corp. Pentium III processor. (You can also opt for a less expensive 1 GHz or 933 MHz processor.) What's more, graphics are now driven by Intel's 830MG controller and up to 32M of video memory. As a result, we found the Omnibook 510 to be a speedy performer, allowing us even to view and edit video without a hiccup.

Of course, the Omnibook 500 achieves its lightweight portability by discarding some things you'd expect in a desktop-replacement notebook, such as floppy and CD drives. You can, however, connect these as external devices. You can also buy the $245 docking station for use when not traveling. It includes two swappable bays that can accommodate a floppy drive, an Iomega Corp. Zip drive, a CD-ROM drive, a CD-RW drive or a DVD drive. Alternatively, you can use the drive bays to pack in either a second battery or another hard drive.

What separates the Omnibook 510's docking station from the others is that the unit can accommodate either a second battery or an external hard drive of up to 30G.

You'll also find the usual array of input/output options on the back of the docking bay, including serial, parallel, VGA, mouse, keyboard, Ethernet, S-Video and two USB ports. Notably lacking is a FireWire port.

Finally, HP has rectified the only significant drawback we found in the Omnibook 500, which was its one-year warranty. The Omnibook 510 comes with a three-year warranty.

We did note that the 510 cannot stretch the battery life as far as the 500 does. Although we found the 500 to perform for an average of about 3 hours on a rechargeable lithium battery, with the 510, the battery lasted only a little longer than 2.5 hours.

Yes, the Omnibook 510 carries a premium price tag, with the configuration we tested having an estimated street price of $3,294. But for that investment, you'll get not only a solidly built ultralight computer that's a pleasure to use, you'll also get top-notch software. First, you can choose from Microsoft Corp. Windows XP Professional, Windows 2000 and Windows 98 as your operating system. In addition, HP has included its TopTools system diagnostics suite, antivirus software and even a software firewall.

HP Omnibook xt6050: Desktop Punch in a Thin Package

Carrying the Omnibook xt6050, one of HP's latest notebook offerings, is deceivingly easy. Weighing in at not quite 5.5 pounds (with the battery installed) and with its slim, 1.4-inch profile, it's hard to believe this system boasts desktop-level performance and functionality.

The Omnibook xt6050 is the newest addition to HP's "essential" line of notebooks targeted at customers who want portability, expandability and strong performance.

And HP delivers, with the highest-end configuration featuring a 1.13 GHz Intel Pentium III Processor-M, with up to 1G of memory and 30G of storage. Our review unit came with a 1.06 GHz processor, 256M of memory and a 20G hard drive. For value-conscious customers, the system is also available with 1.06 GHz and 1.13 GHz Mobile Intel Celeron processors.

Graphics are supplied by Intel's value-oriented integrated graphics chipset, the Intel 830MG with universal video memory, and displayed on a 14.1-inch XGA TFT screen that looks bright and feels roomy.

The system comes with several nice extras, including a touchpad on/off button, mute button and, taking a cue from ruggedized notebook design, a Mylar seal under the keyboard to resist spills. The touchpad features a rocker switch for easy scrolling, and four user- programmable shortcut keys provide one-touch access to the Web, e-mail or any other program you choose.

We were impressed with the flexibility of the hot-swappable, front-loading drive bay. Our unit came with a DVD-ROM, but the bay also accepts a CD-ROM, CD-RW, combo DVD-ROM/CD-RW, second hard drive, 250M Zip drive, LS-240 super disk drive or floppy drive. This is the only drive bay, though, so if you prefer three spindles, this system is not for you.

Another nice feature is the warm-swappable battery, which allows you to swap out the battery while the notebook is in suspend mode without losing data.

Ports include serial, parallel, VGA, PS/2 mouse/keyboard, two USB, RJ-11 modem, RJ-45 LAN, infrared, and headphone and microphone jacks. There is also a Kensington Technology Group lock and a reset button conveniently located on the side of the unit. An audio-in jack is not included, due to customer feedback indicating that people don't use it.

HP adds value to the package by including several software tools and extras. The notebook comes loaded with HP's Web-based device-management software, HP TopTools 5.5 and HP e-DiagTools, a diagnostics package. Two system recovery CDs are bundled with the unit as well.

The online help and support center is useful and thorough, but we were disappointed with the hard-copy start-up guide because it features diagrams and instructions for a completely different chassis, probably an older model. We hope HP plans to update this guide soon.

At $1,773 on the General Services Administration schedule, the Omnibook xt6050 is a good value. You get a lot of performance in a thin, light package. Extra features such as the Mylar-sealed keyboard and touchpad on/off button are nice additions.

Gateway Notebook: Large and in Charge

This notebook is big news. Literally. The Gateway Inc. 600, part of a new product line and replacing the Solo 9550, is the largest notebook we've seen. But that's a good thing when you consider the primary reason: an outrageously spacious 15.7-inch SXGA TFT active matrix display. (However, this size will not be available until May 15. Until then, the system is only available with a 15-inch screen.)

The other reason for the 600's size is its functionality. This is a desktop- replacement notebook in the truest sense. In fact, we wish we had this system on our desks instead of our own PCs: It looks much cooler, and it blows away our desktop PCs in terms of processing power, graphics power, hard drive size, memory, and a host of bells and whistles.

This notebook stands to make many desktop PC users jealous with its 1.7 GHz Mobile Intel Pentium 4 Processor-M, Intel 845MP chipset, 40G hard drive and 512M of memory. And the system is built for graphics, coming with a 256-bit 3-D and 2-D ATI Technologies Inc. Mobility Radeon 7500 graphics accelerator with 64M of video memory. It also comes with a National TV Standards Committee/ Phase Alternating Line video out port and an IEEE 1394 (FireWire) port that supports both video and audio capture.

Gateway doesn't skimp on audio features either. In addition to standard microphone, headphone and audio-in jacks, the system includes an S/PDIF digital audio out port for use with an S/PDIF digital audio receiver. It also features 3-D sound support and 64-channel wave table synthesis for sound creation.

Audio control buttons for the optical drive (volume, fast forward, reverse, play/pause, stop) are on the front of the unit for easy access when the notebook cover is closed.

Flexibility is another hallmark of the Gateway 600. It comes with two modular bays, one on each side of the unit. The left bay accepts a CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, CD-RW, DVD/ CD-RW or a second hard drive. The right bay accepts all of the above in addition to a floppy drive, second battery or weight saver.

Gateway offers two communications options with this notebook. You can use the integrated 56 kilobits/sec modem that supports "wake on ring" (a PC's ability to awaken from a low-power state when the phone rings), or for wireless communications, you can buy an optional 802.11b MiniPCI card.

For networking, the Gateway 600 features an integrated Intel PRO/100 VE network connection that supports "wake on LAN" and "boot from LAN," giving systems administrators the ability to access the notebook remotely from the local-area network, even if the notebook is turned off.

As we mentioned, this system is big, but it's not especially thick. It measures 13.9 inches by 11.4 inches by 1.8 inches. This allows for a full-size keyboard, of course, and a huge wrist rest area. The obvious trade-off is the weight: This box weighs a little more than 8.5 pounds. But again, it's not designed for road warriors who are constantly traveling. Speaking of travel, the battery is rated at three hours to 3.5 hours of life.

The touchpad features a rocker scroll button, and four user-programmable shortcut keys are located above the keyboard. The system has slots for one Type III or two Type II PC Cards. Other ports include VGA, parallel, serial, PS/2 and two USB. There is also a docking connector for Gateway's optional port replicator.

We should also mention the new styling. The Gateway 600 is sleek and silver, and all the edges are rounded for an almost aerodynamic look. We give it a thumbs-up!

Gateway's PC Doctor for Microsoft Windows, a diagnostics program, is pre-loaded, and a system recovery CD ships with the system. The help and support center is thorough and impressive, including a feature that restores the system settings to how they were at an earlier point in time. It also includes video tutorials, a nice feature we haven't seen on other notebooks.

For security, the system comes with a power-on password option, a hard drive password option and a Kensington Technology Group lock.

In short, we loved this notebook. It looks great, has an incredibly large display and is packed with power and features galore. Of course, with a list price of $2,699, you'll pay for these assets, but power users might find it worth the investment. Because of its large size and weight, this notebook is probably best for the occasional traveler or someone who wants to be mobile around the office.

REPORT CARDS

HP Omnibook 510

Score: A

Hewlett-Packard Co.

(800) 752-0900

www.hp.com/notebooks

The 510 is available on General Services Administration schedules. Estimated street pricing begins at $2,854. The unit we tested has an estimated street price of $3,294.

The Omnibook 510 packs an incredible amount of functionality into a surprisingly light and slender unit. This ultralight, ultrathin notebook is our computer of choice for traveling. And the well-designed docking station makes it effective back in the office.

***

HP Omnibook xt6050

Score: B+

Hewlett-Packard Co.
(800) 752-0900
www.hp.com/notebooks

The configuration of the Omnibook xt6050 we tested is available on the General Services Administration schedule for $1,773.

This notebook delivers desktop-level performance in a thin, streamlined package at a reasonable price.

***

Gateway 600

Score: A

Gateway Inc.
(800) 216-2940
www.gateway.com

The Gateway 600 is available on the General Services Administration schedule for $2,699.

The Gateway 600 is a true desktop replacement, perfect for power users because of its large screen, robust features and plenty of bells and whistles.

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