Notebook class of '99 earns high honors

You couldn't ask for much more from the notebook computer industry. Since the FCW Test Center's annual notebook roundup last August, vendors have improved nearly every aspect of their systems, from processor speeds and hard drive capacity to system weight and battery life - all while dropping the average price by about $900.

The 10 vendors that submitted notebooks for this year's review were Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Gateway Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Keydata International Inc., MetroBook Computer Corp., Micron Electronics Inc., NEC Computer Systems Division, Panasonic Personal Computer Co. and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. We invited IBM Corp. to participate, but it was unable to ship a ThinkPad to us in time for the deadline.

Last year's notebooks contained Intel Corp. Pentium II processors that clocked in at 233 MHz and 266 MHz and cost an average of $3,722 [Government Best Buys, Aug. 3, 1998]. This year's crop offers 366 MHz Pentium II-based machines that cost an average of $2,788.

Hard drives are larger, and designs are sleeker and lighter even though screens are bigger. All the systems feature 14.1-inch screens except the Dell, the Gateway and the Panasonic, which have 13.3-inch screens. With all components included, most of the systems weigh between seven and nine pounds. We also saw the longest-ever notebook battery life recorded in the FCW Test Center lab: nearly five and a half hours, set by Gateway's Solo 2500, the winner of our Best Buy Award.

Some of these notebooks contain built-in floppy and CD-ROM drives, and some have multibay capabilities that enable them to accept either or both of those drives as well as such modules as a second battery, a second hard drive or a DVD-ROM drive. Multibay capabilities vary, so check before you buy.

Most of the systems feature touchpads, although one has a trackpoint, and two even include both a touchpad and a trackpoint. Some modems are internal, leaving both PC Card slots free; some are external, in the form of PC Cards; and some vendors didn't include modems. All included modems are of the 56 kilobits/sec variety. Some of the systems offer full docking capabilities, while others feature only port replication capabilities.

The bottom line is that all these notebooks are good. We adjusted the scoring this year to reflect the more advanced technology and improved designs. Despite the raised bar, all the systems scored above a 7.0, qualifying them as recommended systems. Three systems scored above 8.0, setting them off as the best of the best: Gateway's Solo 2500, NEC's Versa LX and Compaq's Armada 1750.

Gateway's Solo 2500

Tolstoy perhaps could not have written War and Peace on the Solo 2500 without recharging the battery, but Gateway's battery life still was nothing less than amazing. It ran for an unbelievable 5 hours, 29 minutes and 53 seconds - a full two hours longer than the closest runner-up. In fact, we ran the battery test twice because we thought the result was a mistake.

Combine astounding battery life with the third-lowest price in this comparison - $2,375 - an excellent feature set and all-around high quality, and you get the Best Buy Award winner for our 1999 notebook roundup. Gateway earned a final score of 8.60.

Incidentally, a Gateway product also won last year's Pentium II notebook comparison and featured the longest battery life by a full hour.

The Solo 2500 lagged a little behind the pack in performance, scoring a 129 on the SYSmark/98 benchmark and landing in a tie for seventh place with the MetroBook.

Gateway's system design is very good. It features accessible components that are relatively easy to remove and replace. Ports are clearly marked, and the case construction is solid. A PC Card modem is included.

There is no multibay and therefore no support for a second battery, but considering the battery life of this notebook, we don't think you would need a second battery.

The Solo 2500's setup/ease of use is good. It includes a system restoration CD to be used in case the system crashes. The CD includes operating system restoration, hardware drivers, Intel's LANDesk Client Manager, McAfee Associates Inc.'s VirusScan and a full complement of online documentation. Additional online documentation and the latest drivers are available through Gateway's World Wide Web site.

Gateway offers three ways to monitor battery status: through a battery gauge icon on the Windows taskbar, via a battery gauge indicator in the LED display and via a pop-up battery status display.

The bottom line is that this notebook offers an excellent package for an excellent price, even if it may not be a speed demon in performance. You also won't get multibay capability, but not everyone needs that feature. Take a good look at this bargain buy when you shop around.

NEC's Versa LX

Our second-place finalist, with a score of 8.12, was NEC's Versa LX. It also came in second for battery life, with a time of 3:23:58. The NEC is priced a little higher than most systems in this review - at $3,063 - and turned in the top SYSmark/98 score of 144 (although several others were so close that the difference is not discernible).

The Versa LX's very good system design features a multibay that will accept a second hard drive, a battery, a CD-ROM drive or a DVD-ROM drive. The keyboard lifts up for easy access to memory. The hard drive also is fairly easy to remove and replace.

The system comes with a restoration CD and a CD that contains hardware drivers, Intel's LANDesk Client Manager, McAfee's VirusScan and PowerQuest Corp.'s PartitionMagic applications and utilities.

NEC offers two ways to monitor battery status: through a battery status icon on the Windows taskbar and via LEDs on the battery itself.

Even though the Versa LX finished second to the Gateway, it does offer a few things the Gateway does not. It's more expensive, but it features the multibay that the Gateway lacks, and the NEC's performance was slightly better. A modem is not included, so you'll need to buy one yourself.

Despite the slightly high price, the Versa LX still is a very good buy.

Compaq's Armada 1750

Compaq's Armada 1750, which came in third place with a final score of 8.04, has a reasonable price of $2,828 and turned in one of the faster SYSmark/98 scores at 143. It was on the heavier end of the group, weighing 8 pounds, 12.8 ounces, and battery life was a bit short at 2:41:59.

Compaq's very good system design includes a multibay that accepts a second hard drive, a battery or a floppy drive. Because the CD-ROM drive is built in and separate from the multibay, you can use a floppy and CD-ROM at the same time. The keyboard lifts up to provide easy access to memory. The hard drive also is fairly easy to remove and replace. This notebook also features an internal modem.

Setup/ease of use is good. The Armada 1750 includes an operating system rescue disk and pre-installed Compaq Diagnostics. The full set of online documentation is very good.

There are two ways to monitor battery status: with a battery status icon in the Windows taskbar and via a "battery low" audio warning.

The Armada 1750 is another high-quality, solid system in this roundup. Although the Compaq unit is a bit heavy and short on battery life, it is a reliable laptop backed by a well-known company.

MetroBook's LT Plus

This relative newcomer has made vast improvements since last year. In August 1998, we looked at two MetroBooks, neither of which broke the 7.0 threshold, although the MetroBook DTM received our Technical Excellence Award. The company must be serious about playing in the government market because its improvements have landed the MetroBook in fourth place in this year's roundup with a final score of 7.92. Most notably, MetroBook's support policy score jumped to good from poor since last year, and the technical support score went from satisfactory to excellent.

This system came with the lowest price in our comparison - $2,299 - and it is one of the lightest units, weighing 7 pounds,

8 ounces. Performance was a little slower than most, with a SYSmark/98 score of 129, but that is the same score the Gateway Solo 2500 received. The MetroBook LT Plus had the shortest battery life, at 2:20:28.

The MetroBook LT Plus' excellent system design includes an internal modem and a multibay that supports a DVD-ROM drive, an Iomega Corp. Zip drive, a second hard drive or an LS-120 SuperDisk drive. Unfortunately, it does not offer dual-battery support. Battery and hard drive replacement is easy.

Setup/ease of use is satisfactory. There is no quick-start guide or rescue disk. Lack of online documentation also hurt.

The MetroBook LT Plus features three ways to monitor battery status: through a battery status pop-up display on the desktop, via a "battery low" audio warning and via LEDs on the battery itself.

We applaud MetroBook's efforts to improve its product. In a year, it has gone from a straggler to a serious competitor in the government market. The larger vendors need to take notice of this small but feisty new player that beat five major companies in this roundup.

Dell's Latitude CPi A366XT

The Latitude CPi A366XT, which finished in fifth place with a final score of 7.87, is the lightest of the bunch at 7 pounds, 5.2 ounces. At $2,932, its price is a little on the high side. Its SYSmark/98 score of 140 puts it among the faster systems for performance. Battery life was good, at 3:03:35.

The Latitude CPi's light weight helped it earn an excellent score for system design. In addition, it offers multibay support with dual-battery capability and easy battery and hard drive replacement. A panel on the bottom of the unit snaps off and provides easy access to the memory modules. A PC Card modem is included. The only downside to its design is that you can't use the floppy and CD-ROM drives at the same time.

Dell earned a satisfactory score for setup/ease of use. No rescue disk was included, but when we called Dell to inquire about this, we were told of a program called Zigzag that resides on the hard disk. This program is supposed to let you restore the original factory-installed configuration yourself, with the help of a technician on the phone. However, we would never have known about this program if we had not called Dell. It is not documented anywhere, and we question the usefulness of a tool that users would not even know about. We would have preferred a rescue disk. A quick-start guide also would have improved Dell's score. The latest drivers are available from Dell's Web site.

There are three ways to monitor battery status on the Latitude CPi: through the battery status icon on the Windows taskbar, via a "battery low" audio warning and via LEDs on the battery.

With the Latitude CPi you get a lightweight, quality system.

Panasonic's Toughbook 71

Panasonic landed in sixth place, with a final score of 7.78. The price of $3,143 is one of the highest in our review, but this notebook stands out with its ruggedized features. The price buys you a magnesium-alloy case and gel-mounted hard drive, so it can withstand more jostling than other notebooks. A built-in handle for easy portability also is included.

The Toughbook 71's performance and battery life were nothing to sneeze at. The SYS/mark 98 score of 142 put it among the faster performers, and it had the third-longest battery life, lasting 3:14:29. At

8 pounds, 9.9 ounces, it is one of the heavier systems, but considering the ruggedization and built-in handle, we were impressed that the Toughbook 71 still weighed in less than three other nonruggedized notebooks we reviewed.

The ruggedized features, of course, earned the Panasonic an excellent system design score. The wrist rest easily snaps open to provide complete access to the hard drive and battery. A PC Card modem is included.

The only downside is that the CD-ROM and floppy drives can't be used at the same time.

Setup/ease of use was satisfactory. Panasonic includes a system restoration CD and a first-aid disk-maker icon. A detailed reference manual comes pre-installed on the system, but utilities, drivers and tools are available only on Panasonic's Web site.

There are two ways to monitor battery status: with the battery gauge icon on the Windows taskbar and with the battery gauge indicator in the LED display.

Panasonic has once again proven that ruggedization need not detract from performance and other features. Its price is somewhat hefty, but the features it buys might be worth it in the long run if you need a notebook that can take some rough handling. Paying a little more might be good insurance against the "oops factor."

HP's OmniBook 4150

The OmniBook 4150 took seventh place with a final score of 7.66. Its price of $3,149 is a bit hefty and is almost identical to the Panasonic price. But this is one of the lighter units in our review, weighing 7 pounds, 11 ounces, and battery life was a decent 2:53:21. Performance was good, with a SYSmark/98 score of 139.

The HP's system design is very good. It has a multibay that accepts a second hard drive or battery. The floppy and CD-ROM drives use the same bay, so you can't use both simultaneously. The hard drive is difficult to access and remove: You must first remove the battery and then take out numerous screws. This notebook was one of two in our review to feature both a trackpoint and a touchpad. It also supports port replication and full docking capabilities. A modem is not included.

The HP's setup/ease of use is good. The OmniBook 4150 comes with a system restoration CD that contains operating system restoration files, hardware drivers, utilities and a full complement of online documentation. Additional online documentation and the latest drivers are available through HP's Web site.

There are three ways to monitor battery status: through the battery gauge icon on the Windows taskbar, via a "low battery" audio warning and via LEDs on the battery itself.

The OmniBook 4150 is a good notebook overall. You'll get good performance and battery life out of this system. It's also nice to have a choice of mouse type and docking options. The only real downsides are the slightly high price and the lack of a modem.

Micron's TransPort Trek 2

Micron's TransPort Trek 2, which earned a score of 7.54 for eighth place, tied with Compaq to earn one of the fastest performance scores, with a SYSmark/98 score of 143. Battery life was on the short side, at 2:35:29, and the $2,875 price is in the middle of the pack. It is the second-heaviest system we reviewed, weighing 8 pounds, 14.1 ounces.

The TransPort Trek 2's system design is very good. The multibay accepts a second hard drive but not a battery. It was the only notebook that featured a DVD-ROM drive.

Micron's biggest system design distinction, however, is the ease of hard drive removal. Simply release two tabs, and the whole thing slides out.

However, the case design could use some work. The component covers are flimsy, and the battery cover was easy to snap off inadvertently. No modem is included. The system features a trackpoint and touchpad.

The TransPort Trek 2's setup/ease of use was good. A Micron Customer Resource Center CD includes hardware driv-ers and an online user's manual. An operating system rescue disk and a Norton AntiVirus CD also are part of the package. The latest drivers are available from the Micron Web site.

Micron offers three ways to monitor battery status: through the battery status icon on the Windows taskbar, via a "battery low" audio warning and with LEDs on the battery itself.

The standouts of the TransPort Trek 2 include the extremely simple hard drive removal and the inclusion of a DVD-ROM drive. The choice of mouse device is nice, and performance was very good. However, remember that you'll have to buy your own modem.

Toshiba's Satellite 4080XCDT

Toshiba came in ninth with a final score of 7.20. Battery life was good, at 3:03:12, and so was performance, with a SYSmark/98 score of 137. This unit is on the lighter side, weighing 7 pounds, 11.1 ounces. Its price of $2,872 puts it in the middle of the pack.

The Toshiba's system design is very good. The notebook lacks a multibay, but it has an easily accessible hard drive and memory, an internal modem, solid case construction and is relatively lightweight. The pointing device is a trackpoint. Aesthetically concerned users will be happy to know that Toshiba finally has ditched that awful beige-putty color and introduced a hip blue-gray, similar to the HP OmniBook's color.

Setup/ease of use is good. The included system restoration CD contains operating system restoration files, hardware drivers, applications, utilities and excellent documentation.

There are two ways to monitor battery status: with battery status LEDs and via a "battery low" audio warning.

This is a good system with solid performance and battery life. It's also on the lighter side of the notebooks we saw. The biggest drawback is the absence of a multibay.

Keydata's Keynote 7600

Keydata finished in 10th place, receiving a final score of 7.17. It is the heaviest unit in our roundup and the only one to break the nine-pound mark at 9 pounds, 4.2 ounces. Battery life was good, lasting 3:07:09. The Keynote 7600 suffered in performance, turning in a slow SYSmark/98 score of 100. However, the price of $2,345 was the second-lowest in the review.

The Keydata's system design is good. It features a multibay that accepts an extra hard drive or battery. The wrist rest lifts up for easy access to the hard drive and memory. But the floppy drive, the CD-ROM drive and the battery require screw removal to swap them out. That could cause an inconvenience for a mobile user who didn't pack a screwdriver. The modem setup is interesting: Although the modem is internal, it uses a PC Card connection instead of the typical RJ-11 cable. Both of the regular PC Card slots remain free. Setup/ease of use is fairly basic, earning the Keynote 7600 a satisfactory score. Norton Anti-Virus is pre-installed and also comes on a CD.

There are three ways to monitor battery status: through the battery status icon on the Windows taskbar, via a "battery low" audio warning and with LEDs on the battery itself.

Our biggest concern with the Keynote 7600 is its slow performance. It also could use improvements in system design: Make it lighter and get rid of those screws. Documentation also was very basic. With improvements in those areas, perhaps Keydata could storm onto the scene next year, the way MetroBook did this year.

Conclusion

Government buyers have a plethora of good systems from which to choose. The notebooks we reviewed were similar in many ways. Aspects that differed the most were price, battery life and features such as modems and drive bays. Check for the presence of a multibay, which adds versatility and can double battery life. But not all multibays are created equal: Some do not accept a second battery. Also remember that some notebooks support full docking capabilities, while others support only port replication.

How we tested 366 MHz Pentium II notebooks

We evaluated 366 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 Business Applications Performance Corp. to evaluate performance. BAPCO is a consortium of hardware and software manufacturers as well as magazine testing facilities, including the FCW Test Center. SYSmark/98's tests are 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: 175 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 the 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, each with its own score: Office Productivity and Content Creation.

The applications used for Office Productivity are Caere Corp.'s OmniPage Pro 8.0; Corel Corp.'s CorelDraw 8.0 and Paradox 8.0; Dragon Systems Inc.'s Naturally Speaking 2.02; Microsoft's Word 97, PowerPoint 97 and Excel 97; and Netscape Communications Corp.'s Netscape 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 ElasticReality, 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 are Microsoft's Access 97, Excel 97, Flight Simulator 98, Outlook 97, PowerPoint 97 and Word 97 as well as 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 also 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. This efficiency score, the BattMark, is a score of how many times the system could run the benchmark using a standard amount of energy.

The system that came up with the largest BattMark number received all 100 points possible. All other units received a percentage of the maximum points based on their lower BattMark scores. After the first set of scripts is completed, the notebook is allowed to go into deep sleep. After 20 minutes the notebook is reawakened, and the scripted programs are allowed to run until the notebook's battery dies. Computers that are Advanced Configuration and Peripheral Interface-compliant sleep and wake automatically; noncompliant machines must be manually put to sleep and awakened after 20 minutes.

User Tests

We used a panel of 10 notebook users to evaluate screen quality, audio quality and keyboard/input device 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 disks 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, the latest mouse technology, speakers and microphones. 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. 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 25 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 all 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 200 possible points. All other systems received a percentage of the total points.

PRODUCTS TESTED

Compaq Computer Corp. Armada 1750 Available on the open market. Score: 8.04

Dell Computer Corp. Latitude CPi A366XT Available on the GSA schedule. Score: 7.87

Gateway Inc. Solo 2500 Available on the GSA schedule. Score: 8.60

Hewlett-Packard Co. OmniBook 4150 Available on the GSA schedule. Score: 7.66

Keydata International Inc. Keynote 7600 Available on the GSA schedule. Score: 7.17

MetroBook Computer Corp. MetroBook LT Plus Available on the GSA schedule. Score: 7.92

Micron Electronics Inc. TransPort Trek 2 Available on the GSA schedule. Score: 7.54

NEC Computer Systems Division Versa LX Available on the GSA schedule. Score: 8.12

Panasonic Personal Computer Co. Toughbook 71 Available on the GSA schedule. Score: 7.78

Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. Satellite 4080XCDT Available on the GSA schedule. Score: 7.20

AT A GLANCE

366 MHz Notebooks

Pricing: Prices range from $2,299 to $3,149.

What's Selling: Pentium IIs with at least 13.3-inch screens, 6.4G hard drives, integrated CD-ROM and floppy drives, and multibays that allow for dual-battery operation.

What to Specify: Remember the trade-off between screen size and battery life: Larger screens absorb more power. Not all multibays support dual batteries, so check this feature before you buy. Be alert to the choice between internal vs. PC Card modems. Some notebooks now feature both a floppy drive and CD-ROM drive in the same module, which could be positive or negative, depending on your needs.

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