Hands on: In search of the perfect notebook PC

You know the story: The tortoise challenges the fleet-footed Achilles to a race and claims he will win if Achilles gives him a small head start. The tortoise then proves to Achilles that he must concede to losing the race because although he might cut the distance between himself and the tortoise by half very quickly, he could never quite catch up.

Zeno of Elea's paradox reflects how I feel about developments in laptop computer technologies. Vendors keep pushing them in an attempt to give us everything in a notebook PC. But it seems as if the more the distance is closed, the more irksome the remaining shortcomings become.

This came to mind most recently for me as I put the new IBM ThinkPad X41 through its paces. The X41 is a very slick ultralight notebook PC. In fact, of all the ultralights I've tested, it's the one I want to take on the road with me.

Less than an inch thick and measuring just slightly more than 8 by 10 inches, the X41 slips easily into a small briefcase. And even with the extended-life battery, the X41 barely tips the scales at slightly more than 3 pounds.

As light and trim as the X41 is, the device doesn't sacrifice much in the way of comfort and durability. The case is solid, and the keyboard sports full-size keys that offer great action. And there's even a little light built into the top of the display panel that shines on the keyboard so you don't have to hunt and peck in the dark.

The X41's low-voltage 1.5 GHz Pentium M processor delivers better-than-average performance. Although the unit requires a fan to keep cool, I found the X41 to be very quiet. The fan rarely kicks on under normal conditions and is barely noticeable when it does.

I'm also impressed with the measures IBM has taken to provide security for the X41. Not only does the notebook feature an internal security chip that encrypts data and controls access, the X41 offers a built-in fingerprint scanner. What's more, the scanner works reliably and quickly.

So what's missing? What keeps the X41 from being the best of all notebooks?

Here's my wish list for the perfect notebook. And I'll stick to the doable; I'm not asking for a 14-inch screen in a unit that weighs less than half a pound.

First, although battery life has improved in the past several years, it's still not good enough. The X41 ran a little more than five hours on a full charge, which is pretty good. But I won't be happy until I can work with a laptop for an entire day before putting it to bed to recharge overnight.

That goal may soon be within reach. Efforts on two fronts — more efficient materials for batteries and techniques for conserving power — may double effective battery life within a couple of years.

Also, I'm not partial to the ThinkPad's small joystick mouse. In my view, it's for emergency use only. Why not build in Bluetooth capability so one could use a wireless mouse without having to plug an adapter into a USB port?

Finally, the perfect notebook should cost less than $1,000. The X41 I tested comes in slightly higher — $2,138 on the General Services Administration schedule. As even Zeno knew, you get what you pay for.


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