How We Tested 300 MHz Pentium II notebooks

Notebook vendors recently introduced a host of models that feature revved-up 300 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium II processors. But buyers face the same trade-offs with these machines as with past models. Lower-priced notebooks often are bulkier but offer more extras and longer battery life, while ultra-slim units with the latest peripherals can cost thousands of dollars more.

Agencies planning to upgrade to 300 MHz Pentium II notebooks need to decide what they care about most: affordability or innovation.

The seven notebooks we tested fell into the same two camps. On one side are notebooks from Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Dunn/IDP Computer Corp. and Gateway Inc. that are larger and more affordable. On the other side are lightweight, slim machines from Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. that cost more but have shorter battery life.

One agency that has chosen larger, more affordable notebooks is the Agriculture Department. The agency has about 500 Gateway Solo 2500s assigned to field employees, said Peter Kuhmerker, division director of the USDA's Field Automation and Information Management Division. Field employees travel to plants to inspect meat and poultry and then enter data into electronic forms stored on the notebooks. They also use the notebooks for computer-based training, word processing and e-mail. Although the USDA has been buying notebooks with 266 MHz processors, Kuhmerker said the agency plans to upgrade to 300 MHz processors in the near future.

Like the USDA, the FCW Test Center favored affordability. Our notebook comparison also emphasized performance and vendor support. Nonetheless, we found that all the systems we tested were of high quality. The only notebook that didn't earn a 7.0 or better on our scale of 1 to 10 was the HP model, which suffered a blow with its unacceptable technical support score.

This comparison marks the debut of two new benchmarks, SYSmark/98 1.0 and SYSmark/98 For Battery Life 1.0, both from Business Applications Performance Corp. Both benchmarks run scripts of popular applications and, therefore, can accurately predict how systems will perform in real office environments.

The Gateway Solo 2500LS won our comparison, thanks to the longest battery life, lots of extras and a middle-of-the-road price. It earned a final score of 7.97.

Compaq's Armada 7400 finished second, with the fastest performance of the machines tested and a score of 7.50.

Dell's Latitude CPi D300XT finished third with a 7.49 score, based on good battery life and the second-lowest price.

Toshiba's slim, well-equipped Tecra 8000 finished in fourth place with an overall score of 7.47.

Federal contractor Dunn/IDP's 7.45 score and fifth-place finish were earned on the strength of the Extensa 712TE having a very low price and being a good all-around notebook.

IBM and HP made two of the smallest, lightest, thinnest notebooks in the test, but their scores were handicapped by short battery life and high prices. IBM's ThinkPad 600E scored 7.01, and HP's OmniBook 4150 had a score of 6.44.

***

Gateway Solo 2500LS

Gateway's Solo 2500LS is hefty but well-equipped. Its huge battery ran for four hours and 30 minutes -- more than an hour longer than the second-place finisher. It completed 3.87 loops of the battery benchmark workload, earning a BattMark score of 191.74.

The Solo's SYSmark/98 score of 113 puts it squarely in the middle of the field in terms of benchmark performance. It scored 106 for the Office Productivity segment of the test and 123 for the Content Creation portion. and low-density optical and magnetic media without cal Our user panel rated the 13.3-inch display very good, but our test unit's screen contained an area that distorted when the notebook was jostled. It wasn't a serious problem, but if it were our machine, we would ask Gateway to replace the display. Also, there is no contrast control for the display on the keyboard.

The keyboard, touchpad pointing device and audio quality were rated good. We liked the way Gateway spells out the purpose of the "function" aspect of its keys rather than using inscrutable symbols.

This Solo earned a good score for system design, with a hefty weight and the thickest case of any machine in the test. And instead of a row of hard-to-read LEDs, it uses an LCD panel to display system status.

The many peripherals provided with this Solo led to an excellent rating for features. Gateway stuffs a DVD-ROM drive and an LS-120 super floppy drive in the Solo's case, providing support for high- and low-density optical and magnetic media without calling for the user to swap drives or attach external devices. With these features and the included Koss Corp. headphones, buyers could watch the "Titanic" DVD during cross-country flights.

This Solo also features a composite video-out port, which allows for showing presentations on large-screen TVs or for exporting video from the DVD drive. Gateway's machine was the only one in the test with two USB ports instead of one -- a nice plus. This Solo, like all of the other machines tested, features a pair of Type II PC Card slots. But it ships with both slots occupied, so if users want to add a card, they must remove either the 3Com Corp. 56 kilobits/sec modem or the Zoomed Video DVD card.

Gateway loads this Solo with much of the software a user would need. Microsoft Corp.'s Microsoft Office Small Business Edition, which includes Excel, Outlook, Publisher, Word and Small Business Financial Manager, covers most productivity needs. Microsoft Streets 98 mapping software and the Bookshelf 98 reference also are included. To ease file sharing and remote communication, Traveling Software's LapLink 7.5 is included, and McAfee Associates Inc.'s VirusScan is included to promote safe computing.

The Solo 2500LS is reasonably priced for the package. Its sticker price is $3,322, but you get peripherals and application software not offered by the competition. Overall, it's an excellent value.

***

Compaq Armada 7400

If all-out speed is what you seek, look no further than Compaq's Armada 7400, which topped our SYSmark/98 benchmark with a score of 119 -- 11 percent faster than the slowest machine in the test. The Armada scored 116 in the Office Productivity category, which put it head and shoulders above the other notebooks tested. Its Content Creation score of 123 was second only to the Toshiba unit and tied with the Gateway notebook.

The Compaq notebook ran for more than two hours and 49 minutes and finished 2.25 loops of the battery benchmark during that time, earning a BattMark score of 116.53.

Our user panel found the 13.3-inch display, the keyboard and the trackpoint device to be good. The notebook's keyboard does a good job of mimicking larger models, including having the arrow keys in a separate island in an inverted T arrangement as they are on a desktop keyboard. The dedicated volume control buttons are not embedded as function keys, so they are easy to find and use. The audio quality, which earned a very good score, elicited favorable comments from users.

This Armada earned a very good score for system design, thanks to a compact design and a multibay that accepts a CD-ROM drive, a floppy drive or an LS-120 super disk. It also has a magnesium case around the display and a magnesium chassis for the system. Industry research has shown that broken displays are a leading cause of notebook failure, and the magnesium armor makes the Armada's price seem cheap when compared with buying a replacement display for a less-expensive notebook.

This Armada also earned a very good score for features, with support for an external floppy drive when the CD-ROM is installed, a built-in modem and a dedicated button for suspending the computer. Having a dedicated button is much simpler and less prone to accidents than suspending a system by pressing the power button a certain way or by using the function capacity of keys on the keyboard.

Compaq, like IBM, uses a three-pronged grounded plug for its AC power cord. Frequent travelers will discover to their dismay that this type of plug may mean working in the bathroom because that is often the only location of grounded outlets in some hotel rooms.

Compaq could improve its satisfactory score for setup and ease of use by abandoning its strategy of forcing users to complete the installation of Windows when they first turn on the machine. The installation takes about half an hour and is usually the last thing a buyer wants to do upon firing up a new computer.

Compaq provides a tutorial on using the Armada and includes a helpful utility called the Compaq Information Center, which provides details on the system's status.

The $4,164 price is a bit high, but the machine is fast, and it comes with excellent technical support and extras such as the magnesium case.

***

Dell Latitude CPi D300XT

Dell's products typically provide solid price/performance and come with good documentation and support. The Latitude CPi D300XT is no exception, and it finished with a 7.49 score. Its weight and dimensions place it in the middle of the pack in terms of size. It is well-featured but not as loaded as other notebooks we reviewed.

The Latitude has a gray matte finish and a sizable wrist rest in front of the keyboard. One member of our user panel found the wrist rest too large, but none of the others minded. The notebook scored a good rating for its keyboard, display quality and touchpad pointing device.

This Latitude's battery lasted three hours and 17 minutes -- slightly longer that a couple of the competitors. It completed 2.87 loops of the battery benchmark for a BattMark score of 142.10. This is one of only two machines tested that was Advanced Configuration and Power Interface-compliant, allowing the test to run automatically (without manually suspending and waking up the machine).

This Latitude didn't fare as well in the SYSmark/98 performance test, where it produced a 111 score. That score is at the lower end of the field, but the difference from best to worst is small enough that users would have a hard time noticing. Dell scored a slightly low 104 on the Office Productivity portion of the test, but a respectable 120 for Content Creation boosted the overall score.

Setup and ease of use is usually an area where Dell fares very well, but this time it earned a good because the company hasn't included extra features, such as a tutorial that runs automatically the first time the machine is turned on.

The Dell machine was rated very good for features. It has a USB port, infrared port and PC Card slots, and it plugs into a docking station. It also has a flexible front bay that accepts either a floppy drive, a CD-ROM drive or a second battery for extra-long use. However, it lacks a built-in modem or network adapter.

The Latitude's $2,959 price on the General Services Administration schedule is the second-lowest in the test and contributed much to its high overall score. Other machines may top this notebook in certain areas, but this system is still a good value.

***

Toshiba Tecra 8000

Toshiba's notebook computers have long been popular with federal customers, and the Tecra 8000 continues the company's tradition of excellence. Toshiba's notebook scored the second-fastest performance. But at $4,215, its price is at the high end of the range tested, giving this Tecra a 7.47 final score.

This Tecra's 112 score for Office Productivity was second only to the Compaq's score, and its 124 for Content Creation topped all other machines in the test. Its overall SYSmark/98 score was 117. This Tecra ran slightly more than three hours on battery power, finishing 2.62 loops of our battery benchmark test for a 130.59 BattMark score. Like the Dell, the Toshiba's ACPI-compliant design worked automatically with the battery test software.

Our user panel rated the Tecra's 14.1-inch display, keyboard, trackpoint pointing device and speakers as good. The large display contributes to the Tecra's higher-than-average price, but it is nice to have so much viewing space. One complaint about the keyboard is Toshiba's location of the delete key at the bottom right. (Users had a similar problem with the Dunn product.) The key travel seemed slightly shorter on the Tecra than on the others, which some testers preferred. A nice feature on the Tecra is a volume control knob, which is the fastest and easiest way to adjust the sound level.

This Tecra earned a very good score for system design because of its slim size, light weight, flexible device bay and 8G hard drive. It also earned a very good score for features, thanks to its 14.1-inch display, built-in modem and composite video-out port, which is used during presentations to display data on a TV screen. The Tecra's screen is one of only two in our comparison capable of displaying true color; the IBM ThinkPad is the other. If accurate color reproduction is important, keep that in mind. An optional DVD-ROM drive is available but was not tested.

Setup and ease of use rated good, thanks to Toshiba's good quick-start guide, emergency-boot floppy disk and configuration CD-ROM provided.

The Tecra 8000 is higher-priced than most of the machines we tested, but it is compact and has many useful features. If you do a lot of presentations, you'll like this system.

***

Dunn/IDP Extensa 712TE

Dunn's supply arrangement with Acer has borne immediate fruit, with the Extensa 712TE proving to be a nice notebook at an affordable price. The Extensa, which earned a 7.45 overall score, gives users the features they need at a price they can afford, even if it doesn't break new ground technologically.

At $2,595, Dunn's Extensa has the lowest price of any machine tested and is almost $2,000 less than the most expensive machine in this comparison. However, it also recorded the slowest performance, with a 107 SYSmark/98 overall score. It scored only 97 on the Office Productivity portion of the test and had a solid 122 on the Content Creation portion. The slow performance can be attributed to running Windows 98 for our tests, but the Dunn system ships with Windows 95. Using Windows 95, the Extensa's score was solidly in the middle range, with a 112. Content Creation stayed at 122, but the Office Productivity score was much higher -- 105 -- with the Extensa running Windows 95.

Lasting three hours and 12 minutes on battery power, the Extensa scored 134.04 on the BattMark benchmark after completing 2.62 loops of the test. That is the same amount of work as the Toshiba accomplished, but the Extensa lasted about 10 minutes longer.

Our user panel scored the Extensa's keyboard and touchpad as good, but some found the wrist rest to be too deep for their liking. Users also complained because the delete key is at the bottom rather than the top of the keyboard. The active-matrix color display was rated good, but so were some of the others we tested.

The speakers were good and offered a welcome respite from the tinny audio of most other notebooks.

Dunn scored a satisfactory for setup and ease of use, with a great quick-start guide, a recovery CD and Intel's LANDesk Client Manager software. But there's no tutorial on system functions. The Notebook Manager utility is a helpful application for easily managing the machine's configuration.

The Extensa's features are very good, with a 6.4G hard drive, multibay support for different drives, and a floppy drive and a CD-ROM drive both built in. It also includes a built-in modem, which was lacking in some of the more expensive units tested. An infrared port, USB port and a pair of PC Card slots round out the equipment list.

The Extensa 712TE isn't the most svelte or the most technologically advanced notebook in this comparison, but it is well-equipped and has a long-lasting battery at a price no one else could touch.

***

IBM ThinkPad 600E

IBM has a well-deserved reputation for innovation in its sleek ThinkPad line of notebook computers, and IBM packs a lot of features into the smallest, lightest machine in our test. The ThinkPad 600E earned an overall score of 7.01.

The ThinkPad 600E measures an inch and a half thick, weighs less than 6 pounds and is as small or smaller than its competitors in other dimensions. But your wallet will be lighter too after buying this ThinkPad, which costs $4,554 -- the most of any machine tested.

The ThinkPad 600E delivers solid, middle-of-the-pack performance, but it had the shortest-lived battery of the lot. It scored 114 on the SYSmark/98 benchmark, with a 109 rating for Office Productivity and 122 for Content Creation. On the battery test, the ThinkPad scored a BattMark rating of only 77.80, completing 1.50 loops of the benchmark. Total battery life was less than two hours. To ensure that this low battery rating was no fluke, we reran the test and had virtually the same results.

Our user panel gave this ThinkPad's display, keyboard and trackpoint pointing device a good rating. The pointer seems the best of its type, which is appropriate because it is an IBM innovation. The keyboard layout is good, with the arrow keys separated from the others and arrayed in the inverted T pattern used on desktop machines. A sliding brightness controller for the display is easy to use.

The compact size may have contributed to the low sound quality of this ThinkPad's speakers, which were rated just satisfactory by our user panel.

IBM earned a very good score for system design because of its small size but big specifications, such as memory expandable to 288M. This ThinkPad also was rated very good for features, thanks to the built-in DVD-ROM drive, multibay for swapping peripherals and the ability to display true color images on the screen. In addition, IBM bundles useful software such as IntelliSync file transfer software and Lotus Development Corp. SmartSuite office productivity software.

Setup and ease of use was rated good, in part because SmartSuite was not pre-installed on the hard drive. IBM does not include a quick-start guide or a tutorial but does have a ThinkPad configuration utility that makes it easy to manage the PC's assets.

Like Compaq, IBM uses a grounded three-pronged plug that could leave users scrambling to find an appropriate outlet.

An idiosyncrasy of this ThinkPad is that often, after it has been disconnected from AC power and closed, the screen has a green tint upon opening. Only rebooting will return the colors to normal when this happens.

The ThinkPad 600E is pricey but compact and stylish. If you need a small, full-powered notebook with a DVD-ROM drive, this notebook should be on your list of candidates.

***

Hewlett-Packard OmniBook 4150

The OmniBook 4150 finished last in this comparison with a final score of 6.44 -- an unfortunate result for a machine that packs excellent engineering into a small package.

The $4,299 price handicapped this OmniBook against many less-expensive competitors, but the real reason it came in last place was its poor technical support. FCW Test Center's policy is to allow up to 15 minutes on hold for vendors to answer technical support calls. HP's technical support line kept us on hold for half an hour before we spoke to a person. Because HP's support line is not toll-free, we racked up hefty long-distance charges during that half-hour. Worse, upon reaching a technician, that person incorrectly answered a simple technical question.

HP has scored acceptably on technical support in past comparisons, so perhaps the company is having some problems right now. Nevertheless, the company needs to provide a toll-free support line and some idea of how long the expected wait will be. Shorter wait times and better-trained technicians would be nice too.

The OmniBook 4150 scored an 87.32 BattMark rating after completing 1.75 loops of the battery benchmark before running out of juice after a little more than two hours. It scored a middling 112 on the SYSmark/98 performance benchmark, with a 105 on Office Productivity and a 122 for Content Creation.

Our user panel liked the HP's 14-inch display, rating it very good. The keyboard, pointing device and sound quality all earned a good score. HP avoids debates over whether a touchpad or a trackpoint-style pointing device is better by including both on the OmniBook. This is particularly nice for notebooks that are shared among a group of users.

HP scored very good ratings for system design and features, which are impressive. The low weight, multibay support for multiple devices and a second battery are nice, but for this OmniBook's price, a modem ought to be built-in.

Despite a disappointing overall score, the OmniBook 4150 is an impressive notebook with many strong features, such as one of the best displays tested. If you can get a better price than the company quoted us, and if you don't plan to count on HP for technical support, it still would be a good choice.

***

Micron TransPort Trek2 AGP

Micron Electronics Inc.'s newest notebook arrived too late for our main comparison, but we did have time to take a quick look at it. Our tests revealed a good computer, but one that lacks star power.

Micron's TransPort Trek2 AGP was slower than the other 300 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium II notebooks, earning a SYSmark/98 score of 106. In the Office Productivity category, the Micron's score was 96, and it had a 120 in Content Creation.

It landed in the middle of the pack in battery performance, running a little more than two and a half hours and scoring a 108.68 on the BattMark benchmark. However, its battery life is weak compared with machines of similar heft and girth.

The system weighed in at 8 pounds, making it heavier than the systems in the review. Gateway Inc.'s Solo 2500LS, however, justified its weight by having the longest battery life. The Micron's dimensions are large, but not as big as some of the other machines tested.

On the plus side, Micron's General Services Administration schedule price of $3,068 for the configuration we tested is low compared with its peers. The price is especially low given that the TransPort Trek2 has a 14.1-inch display. In fact, Micron's offering is more than $1,000 less expensive than other notebooks equipped with such a large display.

We ran into a few problems with Micron's notebook during our testing. The W key became dislodged and resisted all efforts to stick it back in place even though the technical support folks thought it should press right back on.

We also discovered that the handy CD-ROM of drivers that Micron provided with the TransPort Trek2 included the wrong video driver for this AGP graphics-equipped model. The correct driver was not available for download from the company's World Wide Web site, and Micron's technical support personnel did not seem to be familiar with the AGP model yet.

The TransPort Trek2 boasts some appealing specifications, such as having the removable CD-ROM and floppy disk drives installed at the same time. It features a pair of USB ports, whereas most of the other notebooks we reviewed have only a single port. And, among the reviewed units, it has the only Super-Video port, which lets users display presentations using the superior-quality S-Video instead of the composite video supported by a couple of the other notebooks.

A large wrist rest makes the keyboard comfortable to use, and the touchpad pointing device works well and doesn't have the excessive sensitivity of some touchpads.

Micron bundles Microsoft Corp.'s Office Small Business Edition with the TransPort Trek2 AGP, which is convenient if your agency doesn't have a contract for productivity software.

Micron Electronics Inc.(888) 742-4342www.micronpc.com

Price and Availability: The Micron TransPort Trek2 AGP is available direct from Micron on the GSA schedule for $3,068, equipped with a 300 MHz processor, 64M of RAM and a 14.1-inch display. The base price is $1,822.

Remarks: Micron's notebook is too heavy and slow to stand out from a light and speedy group of notebooks. Its battery life is only average. The price is low for a notebook with a 14.1-inch display, however, and it features the only Super-Video port of the machines tested.

Final Score: Good

-- Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va. He can be reached at dcarney@fcw.com.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

How We Tested 300 MHz Pentium II notebooks

We evaluated 300 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium II notebooks using tests designed to show their usability, performance and feature differences. We used SYSmark/98 Version 1.0 for Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 98 from the Business Applications Performance Corp. to evaluate performance.

BAPCO is a consortium of hardware and software manufacturers and testing facilities at magazines, including the FCW Test Center.

SYSmark/98's tests were designed to emulate tasks that users run in real-world business environments.

**

Performance

We scored speed mathematically based on the benchmark results. The fastest system received the maximum number of points possible: 150 for SYSmark/98. All other units received a percentage of the maximum points based on their slower performance. Higher numbers indicate better performance.

The SYSmark/98 benchmark test measures performance of 14 business applications performing tasks such as office productivity, Internet content creation and speech recognition while running under Windows 98. These applications are divided into two categories -- Office Productivity and Content Creation -- each with its own score.

The applications used for Office Productivity are Caere Corp. OmniPage Pro 8.0; Corel Corp.'s CorelDraw 8.0 and Paradox 8.0; Dragon Systems Inc.'s Naturally Speaking 2.02; Microsoft Corp.'s Word 97, PowerPoint 97 and Excel 97; and Netscape Communications Corp.'s Communicator 4.05 Standard Edition.

The Content Creation applications are Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop 4.01 and Premiere 4.2; Avid Technology Inc.'s Elastic Reality; Macromedia Inc.'s Extreme 3D 2.0, MetaCreations Corp.'s Bryce 2.0 and Xing Technology Corp.'s XingMPEG Encoder 2.1.

More information on BAPCO and its benchmarks can be found at www.bapco.com.

**

Battery Life

To measure battery life, we used SYSmark/98 For Battery Life 1.0. The applications this test runs are Microsoft's Access 97, Excel 97, Flight Simulator 98, Outlook 97, PowerPoint 97 and Word 97, and Netscape's Navigator 4.05 Standard Edition.

SYSmark/98 For Battery Life not only determines the time it takes for a battery to run out, but it also measures the amount of work done in that time. It produces three scores: the number of times the machine runs the loop of test applications, the length of time it runs and a score measuring its overall efficiency, the Battmark. The Battmark is a score of how many times the system could run the benchmark using a standard amount of energy. It is comparable to a gas mileage rating, while the other scores might indicate miles per tank and total driving time per tank.

The system that came up with the largest Battmark number received all the points possible -- 75. All other units received a percentage of the maximum points based on their lower Battmark scores. After the first set of scripts are completed, the notebook is allowed to go into deep sleep, and after 20 minutes, the notebook is awakened and the scripted programs are allowed to run until the notebook's battery dies. Computers that are Advanced Configuration and Power Interface-compliant sleep and wake automatically, and noncompliant machines must be manually put to sleep and awakened after 20 minutes.

**

User Tests

We assembled a panel of 10 notebook users to evaluate screen quality, audio quality and keyboard/mouse usability under a blind test. The users performed the same tests on each notebook and awarded scores between 0 and 7, with 7 being the best. The scores for each category were added and averaged to come up with a numeric score that was translated into a word score. The word scores were translated into a percentage of the 25 points assigned to each category.

**

Setup/Ease of Use

Issues that determined this score included whether a product had bundled or pre-installed applications, clearly labeled computer ports, an online system tutorial, online system documentation and whether disks were included with the system. We also looked for a quick-start guide, helpful setup utilities and whether a system came network-ready. We used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 50 points assigned to this category.

**

Features

Key areas examined in the features section included multimedia, video, networking and special peripherals. Systems with the largest installed hard disk, RAM, cache and video memory scored higher in our review. We also gave extra points for faster CD-ROM drives and DVD-ROM drives, speakers, microphones and the latest mouse technology. We scored video graphics engine specifications, fast local-area network adapters (100 megabits/sec) and high-speed modems. Bundled peripherals such as Iomega Corp. Zip drives and PC Card sockets were awarded additional points. We used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 100 points assigned to this category.

**

System Design/Expandability

To score this area, we weighted expansion features that add value to a system, such as maximum memory, maximum external cache and maximum video memory. We also looked at features built into the notebook such as sound and full or partial MPEG video support. We also looked at whether the notebook supported CD-ROM capabilities and had removable components such as hard drives, CD-ROMs and floppy drives. We looked at externally supported features of the notebook, such as full docking capabilities and PC Card support. We also looked at the quality of the case construction and awarded scores based on a set criterion. We used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 50 points assigned to this category.

**

Compatibility

We scored compatibility on two fronts. First, we ran our benchmark suite, and if we had problems with drivers, we lowered the score one point. Then we added the number of operating systems certified by each company on each computer. We used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 50 points assigned to this category.

**

Documentation

At a minimum, documentation had to tell us how to set up and use the system and had to include accurate diagrams to illustrate the text. Comprehensive, well-organized and well-written manuals received higher scores. We also looked at online documentation. We lowered the score if the manual was poorly organized, lacked a table of contents and index, did not include information on installing options or contained factual errors in the text. Certain criteria automatically triggered lower scores. For example, a missing system manual was unacceptable, and a system missing a software manual earned a poor score. Again, we used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 50 points assigned to this category.

**

Technical Support

We based technical support scores on the quality of service we received during several anonymous support calls. Busy signals, voice-mail-only service and excessive resolution times resulted in lower scores. We assigned word scores that were translated into percentages of the 75 points assigned to this category.

**

Support Policies

A one-year warranty covering parts, labor and unlimited technical support from the vendor earned a satisfactory score. We awarded bonus points for unconditional money-back guarantees, on-site service included in the purchase price, extended support hours, bulletin board support and a toll-free number. We subtracted points for no technical support, a limited support period and dealer-only support. We then assigned word scores that were translated into percentages of the 100 points assigned to this category.

**

Price

The lowest-priced unit received the total possible points -- 150. All other systems received a percentage of the total points.

PRODUCTS TESTED

Compaq Computer Corp.Armada 7400

Available on the GSA schedule.

Score: 7.25

Dell Computer Corp.Latitude CPi D300XT

Available on the GSA schedule.

Score: 7.26

Dunn/IDP Computer Corp.Extensa 712TE

Available on the GSA schedule.

Score: 7.22

Gateway Inc.Solo 2500LS

Available on the GSA schedule.

Score: 7.73

Hewlett-Packard Co.OmniBook 4150

Available on the GSA schedule.

Score: 6.21

IBM Corp.ThinkPad 600E

Available on the NASA Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement II contract through Government Technology Services Inc. and the GSA schedule.

Score: 6.77

Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.Tecra 8000

Available on the GSA schedule.

Score: 7.23

MORE INFO

300 MHZ Pentium II Notebooks

Pricing: Prices range from $2,595 to $4,554.

What's Selling: Pentium IIs with at least a 13.3-inch display, a 6.4G hard drive, an integrated CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive, and multibays that allow use of optional peripherals.

Where to Find Bargains: The best deals are on the GSA schedule.

What to Specify: Consider whether compact size and light weight are more important than built-in features. Also decide whether price is more important than performance, size or battery life because at least one of those will suffer with a lower-priced machine.

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