Multimedia Notebooks: Which Should You Buy?

The newest multimedia notebooks feature something special under the hood: Intel Corp.'s new MMX technology. We clocked the speed of the latest 166 MHz Pentium MMX processors on video and office applications and found significant speedups.

If you need to take video, imaging or communications applications on the road, consider buying one of the new MMX notebooks just hitting the market. Our test center reviewed eight systems: CTX International Inc.'s EzBookDell Computer Corp.'s Latitude LMDigital Equipment Corp.'s HighNote VPGateway 2000 Inc.'s Solo 2200Micron Electronics Inc.'s TransPort XPENEC Computer Systems Division's Versa 6200MXTexas Instruments Inc.'s Extensa 660CDTToshiba America Information Systems Inc.'s Tecra 740CDTAll of these units use Intel Corp.'s new 166 MHz Pentium processor with MMX technology, except for the Digital system, which has a 150 MHz version. (Digital's 166 MHz version was not available in time for testing.)In fact, if you are a government user looking to buy a high-end Pentium notebook, chances are you will be forced to purchase MMX technology. That is because most of the vendors we talked to have bypassed the production of standard 166 MHz Pentium systems for new models incorporating MMX technology.

MMX technology was designed to speed up multimedia and communications applications. MMX chips incorporate 57 new instructions and twice the cache. In addition, MMX takes advantage of a technique called Single Instruction Multiple Data (SIMD), which enables the processor to perform one calculation on up to eight data elements simultaneously. This is a major step toward reducing the execution time in audio and video applications.

Our test center has reported that MMX chips are 10 to 30 percent faster on standard office applications and at least 40 percent faster on MMX-enabled applications. Most MMX-enabled applications are games. However, government buyers should look at MMX as investment protection. It is the standard toward which Intel and the rest of the software industry is moving. Furthermore, the technology will come in handy as agencies depend more on multimedia and communications applications.

Today's high-end multimedia notebooks not only offer faster processors, but they also pack loads of new features. Many come bundled with 10X CD-ROM drives, extra-large active-matrix screens and support for the new Zoomed Video (ZV) standard. Multiple PC Card slots are offered, as is a suite of software, including on-line, communications and graphics applications. Yet all these features are packed in a form factor that weighs as little as 8 pounds.

These systems are designed for the traveling government executive. Many of these notebooks have multipurpose, hot-swappable bays that can accommodate hard drives, CD-ROM drives, floppy drives or a second battery. As a result, users can bring systems on the road that are as powerful as their desktop PCs.

To evaluate these notebooks, we ran two benchmarks: Business Applications Performance Corp.'s SYSmark/32 for office applications and the Intel Media Benchmark for MMX-enabled video and graphics applications. We also weighed the units, measured their battery life and assembled a panel of users to rate screen, sound and keyboard quality in a series of "taste tests."

We considered how easy the notebooks were to set up, how well they were designed and how compatible they were with a range of operating systems. As always, we considered the documentation and support policies offered by vendors. We even placed anonymous calls to the vendors' technical support lines.Finally, we factored in the state and local government pricing.

All these notebooks fared well in our testing, so government buyers should feel comfortable buying any of them. Our choice for the best new MMX notebook was the Solo 2200 from Gateway 2000, which received a score of 7.80. It offers competitive performance and a keyboard and screen that were well-liked in our usability tests.

Close behind the Gateway was the Latitude LM from Dell, which was the fastest on MMX applications. In third place was the EzBook from CTX, which had one of the lowest prices in the comparison but was still a well-designed system. In fourth place was NEC's Versa 6200MX, which was higher priced than some of the others because of its 13.3-inch screen. The TransPort XPE from Micron, which came in fifth place, offers the fastest performance on standard office applications. Also tied for fifth place was TI's Extensa 660CDT, the low-priced leader now offered by Acer America Corp., which bought the TI notebook computer business in March. In sixth place was Toshiba's Tecra 740CDT, which bundles a unique set of videoconferencing hardware and software but was also the most expensive of the group. Finally, Digital's HighNote VP came in seventh place with a solid system scoring a respectable 6.86.

The Contenders

* CTX International Inc.'s EzBook, available on the GSA schedule. Score: 7.48* Dell Computer Corp.'s Latitude LM, available on the open market. Score: 7.69

* Digital Equipment Corp.'s HighNote VP, available at a special Education, State and Local Government price. Score: 6.86

* Gateway 2000 Inc.'s Solo, available on the State of Texas Catalog. Score: 7.80

* Micron Electronics Inc.'s TransPort XPE, available on the GSA schedule. Score: 7.35

* NEC Computer Systems Division's Versa 6200MX, available on the GSA schedule. Score: 7.40

* Texas Instruments Inc.'s Extensa 660CDT, available on the State of Texas Catalog through CompUSA. Score: 7.35

* Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.'s Tecra 740CDT, available on the GSA schedule. Score: 6.91

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