Living with…an ultraportable

I’ve always liked the idea of being able to just pick up and go out into the wild unknown. Of course, being a geeky sort of editor, I want to take my PC with me. So for the past few weeks, I’ve been trying an experiment: I’ve turned off my desktop machines both at home and work, and have been using an ultraportable notebook instead.

My ultraportable notebook of choice for this experiment was the one that our resident notebook guru Carla Thornton picked as her favorite: the IBM Corp. X31. And on paper this svelte system certainly delivers: Weighing under four pounds, the system has a speedy 1.3GHz Intel Corp. Pentium-M processor (Intel has since updated the processor to 1.4 GHz), 512MB of memory, and integrated 802.11b wireless networking. In pretty much every respect, it either matches or exceeds the configuration that you would have expected from a state-of-the-art desktop system a year or two ago.

And, generally speaking, performance is not a problem. It has more then enough power to deal with basic tasks like sending e-mail and editing documents, and it even handles the large databases that we use to create the charts in the Top 100 at much the same speed as my normal desktop system. For most of the things I do every day, the X31 is more than adequate.

The notebook’s portability is a huge bonus: With a wireless network, at meetings I could access my e-mail or documents on a server while others were scrambling for the paper versions.

Subnote Shortcomings

But there are plenty of things the IBM X31 is not so good at. Video editing is one: Although the notebook could run Adobe Systems Inc.’s Premiere Pro, editing was slow and frustrating compared to the same process on a desktop system. It’s not so much a question of performance as bandwidth; the subnotebook’s hard drive and memory just aren’t fast enough to deal with the constant flow of data that video editing requires. The X31 is all right for very basic editing, but anything more than a simple cut took so long to render that it was practically impossible. The 20GB hard drive is also way too small: Editing anything but the shortest videos would require adding an extra hard drive.

Gaming is frustrating, too. Although the notebook has an integrated graphics accelerator chip (an ATI Mobility Radeon), it lacked the oomph to handle many modern 3D games, and it can’t be upgraded. Older games worked, but more recent first-person shooter releases such as the PC version of Halo ran on their lowest resolutions only — and even then they ran at a low frame rate and were barely playable.

A Pain in the Neck

The ergonomics of using the notebook was also a problem. After using it for a couple of hours on my lap, I started to get a headache and my wrists began to hurt — probably because I needed to bend my neck and hold my arms in an unnatural position. And although the built-in keyboard was fine (especially for someone with small hands like me) for short periods, I wouldn’t want to use it for more than an hour at a time.

Most notebooks are an ergonomic disaster waiting to happen: Anybody who uses the built-in screen and keyboard for extended periods is asking for trouble. I got around this drawback by plugging a monitor into the docking station and using a Microsoft Wireless keyboard and mouse on a proper desk; I would recommend a similar setup to anyone who will be using the notebook for long periods.

IBM’s US$199 docking station provides the standard desktop ports. And it’s a snap to unplug the system to take it home with you: Just press a button on the front, and it’s ready to go in a few seconds. IBM’s Access Connections software made the process of switching between different networks easy: It only took a few seconds to switch from a wired network to a wireless one.

Using an ultraportable notebook involves compromises. Although the performance of a modern subnotebook is enough for most uses, some types of software have upped the ante: These apps require more processing power than today’s ultraportables can comfortably deliver.

Of course, if you want to edit video or play games on the road, you could buy a larger notebook that is better designed for heavy-duty computing (such as those from Alienware). But I wouldn’t want to lug around a heavy notebook that runs for only an hour on battery power.

IBM’s X31 provides a lot in a small package, but I’m not ready to abandon my desktop just yet. If all I wanted was a machine for working with words, then the X31 would be fine. But I also want to work with video and sound, and the ultraportable hasn’t got enough power to do this. I was pleasantly surprised at how much it could do, but it couldn’t do enough to be my only computer.

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