Ultralight notebooks

Product reviews: Heavyweight power in a featherweight package

It has long been one of the most difficult choices in selecting a notebook computer: Do you opt for portability or power and functionality?

Not too long ago, selecting a computer that weighed in at around 3 pounds meant choosing a solution that offered slow performance, a barely legible display, a small hard drive and an inordinately high price tag.

The times they are a changing. In surveying the field and testing the latest generation of ultralight notebooks, we have found that buying a lightweight device no longer requires users to settle for a system light on performance or options. For the most part, anyway.

Ultralight notebooks now offer faster, brighter displays, faster processors and larger hard drives. Most units also include Wi-Fi, which means you don't have to use up a PC Card slot for a wireless adapter.

What's more, all the units we tested come with USB 2.0 or FireWire ports, which can be used to attach external drives (such as CD or DVD). The ports offer high enough throughput that the ultralights are finally able to deliver performance in the same ballpark as heavier notebooks with integrated drives.

Finally, while computer makers are packing more power into smaller packages, they're also delivering them at steadily dropping prices.

For this comparison, we looked at devices from six market leaders: Dell Computer Corp., Fujitsu PC Corp., IBM Corp., Sharp Electronics Corp., Sony Corp. of America and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. Hewlett-Packard Co. and Panasonic are in the process of releasing new ultralight models that could not be tested in time for this comparison. We will review those models in the near future.

We found that each unit tested has something that makes it the best selection for certain users. Nevertheless, two ultralight computers stood out from the others as very attractive solutions for a broad range of users. Thanks to its high performance and security features, the IBM ThinkPad X31 is an excellent choice. And the Toshiba Portege 2010's excellent design and portability make it a top selection.

Dell Latitude X200

If security and diagnostic tools are not a special concern, the Dell Latitude X200 offers a lot of value for its price — $1,888.

The X200 is decidedly portable, weighing in at only 2.9 pounds and with a case easily small enough to slide into your briefcase. The X200's sharp 12.1-inch XGA display and its nearly full-size keyboard complement its attractive matte gray finish. The keyboard gives good tactile feedback, unlike other units that are too soft to the touch.

The X200 also offers two features that may seem minor to some users but that we greatly appreciate. First, the X200 has an easy to find — and use — latch for opening. Second, the ports and card slots are on the sides of the notebook, which means that you don't have to close or work around the display panel to make a connection. Bear in mind, however, that the two USB ports are USB 1.1, not the faster USB 2.0. Fortunately, it also comes with a high-speed FireWire port.

The major advantage of the Latitude X200 is that it is relatively inexpensive and highly configurable. You can get it with or without a DVD/CD-RW drive, though it comes bundled with an external CD drive. You can also buy the notebook with or without integrated Wi-Fi. In fact, the device's built-in antenna will automatically activate if either the mini-PC slot or the PC Card slot is used for a Wi-Fi adapter. The unit we tested employed the mini-PC Card, which meant the standard PC Card slot was still available.

Another neat feature of the X200 is the fact that it offers an external battery charge indicator on the battery itself. This enables users to check the charge without turning on the computer.

Finally, the X200 offers an optional docking station, which ships standard with a floppy disk drive and a choice of a CD-ROM, CD-RW or CD-RW/DVD drive. The docking station also offers a serial port, a parallel port, a VGA port, two USB connections, an Ethernet port and a keyboard port.

Fujitsu Lifebook P1120

We really took a shine to Fujitsu's Lifebook P1120, although it has limitations that will prevent some agencies and departments from giving it the nod.

For starters, weighing in at only 2.2 pounds and measuring only 1.36 inches by 6.2 inches by 9.1 inches, the P1120 is by far the smallest and lightest unit in this comparison. That means, of course, that it also has the smallest display. But the 8.9-inch XGA display is clear, sharp and capable of 1024 x 600 pixel resolution. Even more interesting, it is the only unit we tested that features a touch-screen option.

Also, despite its size, the P1120 offers a built-in V.90 modem, integrated Wi-Fi, two USB 2.0 ports, a PC Card slot and a 30G hard drive.

On the down side, we found the unit's somewhat mushy keyboard to be just a tad too small for easy typing if your hands are larger than average. We also found the performance of the unit — which employs an 800 MHz Transmeta Corp. Crusoe processor and a maximum of 256M of memory — to lag noticeably behind the other notebooks. The unit costs $1,199.

IBM ThinkPad X31

No, the ThinkPad X31 isn't the smallest or lightest notebook. And, yes, it carries the highest price tag — $2,369 — of any unit in this comparison. And, yes, the only built-in pointing device it offers is that red peg in the middle of the keyboard.

But the X31 is also extremely well-built and offers diagnostic and security tools that will make it attractive to many agencies and departments.

For starters, the X31 comes with both Symantec Corp. Norton Antivirus 2003 and PC-Doctor Inc.'s diagnostics program. But what really sets apart the X31 from the competition is its embedded security system.

This hardware/software solution provides greater security than software-only solutions for storing passwords, encryption keys, digital certificates and the like. The device can even work with an optional fingerprint reader, and it can encrypt selected files on the hard drive. What's more, users of Tivoli Systems Inc. Access Manager 3.8 will be pleased to find that the X31's Embedded Security System works with the program to deliver central management of security and access control.

Yes, the high price tag of the X31 seems even higher when you realize that it doesn't include a CD/DVD drive, which is an extra-cost option. Still, the price looks better when you take into account that the X31 sports a generous 40G hard drive, memory expandable to 1024M, an integrated Cisco Systems Inc. mini-PC wireless card, Bluetooth support and the best performance of any of the units we tested.

The X31 has the attractive looks and solid feel that will keep end users happy. Perhaps more importantly, it also has security and management capabilities that will keep information technology managers happy.

Sharp Actius UM32

We were impressed with the clean lines of the Actius UM32. Only three-quarters of an inch thick and less than 3 pounds, the UM32 is barely noticeable when carried in a briefcase.

The unit's clean magnesium case also offers a Spartan look, with no unnecessary frills cluttering your workspace. The generously sized, retractable keyboard offers good tactile feedback. Our only complaint was that the small shift key on the right resulted in many typos, although users will no doubt adjust to this quirk.

The unit's touch pad is easy to use, however we would have preferred some tactile way to differentiate between the two buttons under the pad.

Like the Dell Latitude X200, the Actius UM32 sports its ports and card slots on the sides, making them more accessible. Curiously, some, but not all, of the ports have rubber covers of the type often found on ruggedized notebooks. And, like the ThinkPad X31, the UM32 also offers a Compact Flash card slot in addition to a PC Card slot.

Surprising for a notebook with a price tag of $1,999, the UM32 comes standard with a 40G hard drive, integrated Wi-Fi and an external CD drive.

The UM32 offers a lot of value, but agencies and departments considering the notebook should keep in mind three limitations. First, the UM32 can accommodate a maximum of only 512M of system memory. Secondly, the standard battery is rated for only about two hours of use. A 7.2-hour battery, however, is available for $349. Finally, the UM32 comes with only a one-year warranty.

Sony Vaio PCG-V505AX

The Vaio does a pretty good job of keeping itself relatively small and light while delivering most of the functionality of a desktop replacement notebook. Tipping the scales at 4.34 pounds, the Vaio may not really fit the ultralight category. At the same time, however, the PCG-V505AX is also the only notebook we tested that offers an integrated CD drive.

We also found the Vaio to be solidly constructed, and it offers one of the best keyboards of the bunch. The rubberized keys offer good touch, are full-sized and have large, easy-to-read letters. The touch pad is, likewise, easy to use and the buttons under the pad are easy to differentiate. Indeed, apart from the unit's size and weight, our only quibble with its construction is that the sliding latch for opening the display is a little too recessed and hard to feel.

One of the best features of the Vaio is its expandability. The unit we received came with a generous 40G hard drive, but you can also move up to a 60G drive. And if you need more storage space, you can employ a Memory Stick, inserting it in the provided slot on the right side of the notebook. Likewise, but the unit we tested came with 512M of system memory, you can expand that to 1024M.

We were also pleased to find that the Vaio offers two USB 2.0 ports and a FireWire port.

The model Sony sent us lacked integrated Wi-Fi, however you can, of course, use the provided PC Card slot for a wireless adapter. If you want integrated Wi-Fi, you'll want to buy the PCG-V505AC, which will cost nearly $300 more in the same configuration as the unit we tested.

Those looking for good portability in what amounts to a replacement desktop will want to take a look at the Vaio PCG-V505 series. The PCG-V505AX costs $1,900.

Toshiba Portege 2010

Style isn't everything, but it does count for a lot. And the Portege 2010 offers it in abundance. In fact, if we had to select a single ultralight notebook to work on — and if security and manageability were not concerns — the Portege 2010 would be our choice. That's why the unit shares the top spot in this comparison with the ThinkPad X31.

It's true that the Portege 2010 lacks many features found in the ThinkPad X31. It certainly doesn't have the X31's built-in security capabilities, nor does it offer the bundled diagnostic tools found in the X31.

What's more, the Portege 2010 turned in only middle-of-the-road numbers in our performance benchmarks — which is not surprising, because it employs an 866 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium III-M processor. However we did not find it noticeably slower than the X31 in practice.

And there are a couple of other potential limitations. First, the system maxes out with only 512M of system memory. Second, it runs for only about two hours on the standard battery, but users can push that to around seven hours with the relatively slim extended battery.

What not only saves the Portege 2010 but even pushes it to the head of the pack is the unit's elegant design. The slim silver case is highly portable as well as attractive, and we liked the feel of the unit's keyboard better than that of any other notebook we tested. The sharp 12.1-inch XGA display is nicely set off by the matte black finish of the notebook's interior. And the touchpad was easy to use.

We also liked the selection of extras Toshiba provides with the Portege 2010, including an infrared port, a Secure Digital slot and spanworks Inc. software for sharing files and resources on the network.

While adding USB 2.0 ports — instead of the previous model's USB 1.1 ports — and an additional 256M of system memory, Toshiba has knocked more than $200 off the Portege's list price of $1,919, making the unit a strong value.

REPORT CARDS

Latitude X200

Dell Computer Corp.
(800) 694-3355
www.dell.com

Overall grade: B+

Portability ***

Diagnostics *

Security *

Performance ***

Overall design ****

Value ***


Lifebook P1120

Fujitsu PC Corp.
(877) 372-3473
www.fujitsupc.com

Overall grade: B+

Portability *****

Diagnostics *

Security *

Performance **

Overall design ****

Value ****


ThinkPad X31

IBM Corp.
(800) 333-6705
www.ibm.com

Overall grade: A

Portability **

Diagnostics ****

Security *****

Performance *****

Overall design ****

Value ***


Actius UM32

Sharp Electronics Corp.
(800) 237-4277
www.sharpusa.com

Overall grade: B

Portability ***

Diagnostics *

Security *

Performance ***

Overall design ***

Value ****


Vaio PCG-V505AX

Sony Corp. of America
(877) 865-7669
www.sony.com

Overall grade: B

Portability *

Diagnostics *

Security *

Performance ****

Overall design ***

Value ***


Portege 2010

Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.
(800) 867-4422
www.toshiba.com

Overall grade: A

Portability ***

Diagnostics *

Security *

Performance ***

Overall design *****

Value ***

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