A close look at notebook prices

Building a great notebook is tough enough. Building a great notebook and keeping costs down is doubly challenging.

Fujitsu PC Corp. has come up with several ways to cut costs: Use an Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) Athlon 4 processor instead of the more popular Intel Corp. Pentium 4, go with a basic design and shave off a bell here and a whistle there.

The results are striking when comparing Fujitsu's latest desktop replacement notebook, the Lifebook A Series, with a competing model from Toshiba America Information Systems Inc., the Tecra 9100. The Fujitsu, at $1,499, costs more than $1,300 less than the $2,865 Toshiba.

We're not sure why the price gap is that large. Granted, the Toshiba comes with some features the Fujitsu lacks, has a more modern design and is 1 pound lighter. But the Fujitsu has a couple of features not found on the Toshiba, such as a floppy disk drive.

One significant difference between the two systems is the warranty: The Lifebook A Series comes with a one-year warranty; the Tecra 9100 comes with a standard three-year plan. However, Fujitsu customers can purchase a three-year warranty for $180, which still leaves a price gap of nearly $1,200.

Fujitsu's warranty, whether for one year or three, includes around-the-clock technical support and access to a support Web site. In addition, the notebook comes with a Web-based diagnostic tool called the Fujitsu Service Assistant. You can use the assistant for self-diagnosis or you can type a note to an analyst, who can perform remote diagnostics via modem. For repairs, customers can send the notebook to Fujitsu's Central Repair Depot.

Toshiba's warranty comes with around-the-clock technical support as well and online support that includes a CompuServe Interactive Services Inc. Online Forum, an electronic bulletin board and Web support. Toshiba's Notebook Depot repair program allows customers to ship a notebook to its depot and have it repaired and sent back anywhere in the United States within 48 hours after receipt.

Much of the meat of both notebooks is identical. Both the Lifebook A Series and the Tecra 9100 feature the following: 40G hard drive, 256M of memory expandable to 1G, a DVD/CD-RW combination drive, integrated 802.11b wireless capability, a 14.1-inch XGA thin-film transistor display, VIA Technologies Inc. ProSavage4 KN133 graphics and Microsoft Corp. Windows XP Professional.

Although the mobile AMD Athlon 4 processor in the Fujitsu runs at 1.2 GHz, compared with the 1.8 GHz mobile Pentium 4 in the Toshiba, users are unlikely to notice a difference. Users also won't notice the difference between the two processor brands: Federal Computer Week's testing of previous versions of Athlon processors has shown them to perform comparably to Pentium processors — even exceeding Pentiums in some areas (see "Intel and AMD square off" [FCW.com, March 12, 2001]). AMD also has a notebook power-management technology called AMD PowerNow that functions like Intel's SpeedStep.

The most significant design differences involve the number of spindles, the media bay options and the pointing device. The Fujitsu features a three-spindle design with a floppy drive and a media bay that you can order with the DVD/CD-RW combination drive or a CD-ROM drive. The Toshiba offers a weight-saving two-spindle design, with one bay that can house a DVD/CD-RW combination drive, DVD-ROM, CD-ROM, CD-R/RW, second hard drive or second battery.

The navigation devices may be the deal-maker for some folks. The Lifebook A Series features a touchpad with a rocker scroll button while the Tecra 9100 has a pointing stick and two scroll buttons that are user-programmable.

If you buy the Tecra 9100, you'll get integrated Bluetooth, an external volume knob and an integrated Secure Digital media slot — the first one we've seen on a notebook. SD cards are stamp-sized flash memory cards that are often used with handheld computers, digital cameras and other digital devices.

The Lifebook A Series, on the other hand, has a wireless local-area network indicator light on the top edge of the lid, a feature airlines are asking for so flight attendants can monitor the use of wireless devices. The Fujitsu also comes with four user-programmable application launch buttons, compared with the Toshiba, which has one dedicated launch button plus the two programmable scroll buttons.

True to Toshiba's claim that a two-spindle design saves weight, the Tecra 9100, at 5 pounds 9 ounces, is about 1 pound lighter than the Lifebook A Series even though their dimensions are indistinguishable beyond a half-inch width difference (the Toshiba is smaller).

Both notebooks come preloaded with Adobe Systems Inc. Acrobat Reader 5.0, MSN Explorer, Internet Explorer 6.0 and Microsoft Outlook Express. The Lifebook A Series also comes with McAfee.com Corp. VirusScan, and the Tecra 9100 includes Bluetooth software and utilities.

Of course, both notebooks come with the standard set of ports: parallel, serial, VGA, two USB, FireWire, PS/2 connector for keyboard/mouse, modem, LAN and infrared. The only difference here is in the LAN ports: Toshiba uses Intel's Ethernet and Fujitsu uses Realtek Semiconductor Corp. Both are 10/100Base-TX.

Toshiba offers one extra port, an RCS video out port for connecting the notebook to a TV. It also has a nice port cover, something the Fujitsu does not have. Both notebooks have Type I/II/III PC Card slots and headphone and microphone jacks.

The bottom line is that these are both good notebooks and they come with the same core feature set, but one will make a much bigger dent in your agency's budget. Buyers need to decide whether the Toshiba's design and the handful of features not on the Fujitsu are worth nearly $1,200.

REPORT CARD

Lifebook A Series

Grade: A

Fujitsu PC Corp.

(877) 372-3473

www.fujitsupc.com

The Lifebook is available on the General Services Administration schedule for $1,499. This is a good notebook with a bargain basement price. It easily competes with more expensive models. The notebook runs Microsoft Corp. Windows 98, 2000 Professional or XP Professional.

***

Tecra 9100

Score: A-

Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.

(800) 867-4422

www.toshiba.com

The Tecra is available on the General Services Administration schedule for $2,865.

This notebook is eye-catching and comes with an unusual feature — a Secure Digital card slot. But we're not sure its extra features warrant a price so much higher than the Lifebook A Series notebook. The notebook runs Microsoft Corp. Windows 2000 or XP Professional.

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