(02/20/2001) – You can never be too rich or too thin, the saying goes. That same observation can be applied to notebook computers as well. Recently, I’ve been using two systems that exemplify those two ends of the notebook packaging spectrum. One is rich – a big, do-everything desktop replacement that’s remarkably inexpensive, by traditional laptop standards. The other is thin -a light, 1-in.-thick ultraportable that’s aimed at the road warrior who’s willing to trade some features or flexibility to lose significant weight.
Obviously, these two machines don’t compete with each other. They’re designed to meet different users’ needs, and each does a very good job within its specific niche.
– Toshiba America Information Systems Inc., Irvine, Calif.
– Starts at an estimated CDN$1,949
The big bruiser here is Toshiba’s Satellite 2805, and it is big. With a 14-in. screen, plus both DVD and floppy-disk drives, it checks in at 7.3 lb. Yet its price (after a couple of recent drops) is just $2,699. The unit I tested, Model S301, has a 650-MHz Pentium III CPU, 128MB of RAM and a 10GB hard drive. Toshiba has announced a refresh of this model, with a 700-MHz processor and 10GB hard drive. A 650-MHz Celeron-processor-equipped model with 64MB of RAM, a 6GB hard drive and a DVD drive is available for $1,949.
The Satellite 2805 has everything built into one box, and it makes a great and economical desktop replacement. With its included 56K bit/sec. modem and Ethernet port, it’s ready for business. The keyboard is good, the screen’s large and bright, and you can get it with a 15-in. display for a few hundred dollars more. The built-in floppy drive – something that’s becoming increasingly rare – is quite convenient for minor backups, “sneakernet” transfers and installing the occasional bit of software or a hardware driver that comes on a floppy disk.
The sound on the Toshiba is remarkably good. Credit for that goes to the inclusion of two good stereo speakers and a subwoofer (though it feels strange to use that term for any speaker small enough to fit in a laptop). In fact, when this model was under development, the designers discovered that the subwoofer delivered enough bass energy to cause vibration problems with the internal hard drive. They fixed that problem, of course, but the computer does provide good-sounding bass that’s all out of proportion to the unit’s size.
Not that you can forget that size, which is considerable. This is the biggest (though not the heaviest) laptop I’ve ever dealt with. The optional 15-in. screen doesn’t visually overpower the rest of the unit (as with some other big-screen laptops), because everything here is on a massive scale. This unit won’t even fit into many laptop carrying cases. But its size allows for a full-size keyboard and three built-in drives. It dwarfs my Dell Latitude, which I’ve always considered large. You don’t want to carry this one very far, but once you’re settled down and working on it, it’s a nice system.
– Hewlett-Packard Co.
– Starts at $3,042
The lightweight lad here is HP’s new Omnibook 500, which I’d describe as HP’s counterpart to the IBM ThinkPad X20 [Technology Hands On, Oct. 16]. With a 12-in., 1,024- by 768-pixel Extended Graphics Array (XGA) screen, it’s just 1 in. thick, weighs only 3.5 lb. and starts at $3,042 with a Celeron 500-MHz CPU and a 7.5GB hard drive.
Included in the package is a 2-lb. multimedia base that holds both floppy and extra-cost optical drives. The notebook clips securely onto this base, making a total package that still weighs less than most notebooks on the market. The two-piece design lets you pack the base in your checked luggage when you’re traveling, so you need only carry the lightweight Omnibook.
In many ways, the Omnibook 500 incorporates the best features from its competitors (including Toshiba’s Portege 3480CT) while eliminating their weaknesses. Like the ThinkPad, it has a good keyboard, a 12-in. screen and a versatile multimedia base. But even in its cheapest model, the Omnibook’s screen is somewhat brighter and has full XGA resolution; the Celeron-based ThinkPad gives you only Super VGA (800 by 600 pixels).
Unlike the Portege 3480CT, the Omnibook’s multimedia base is really usable. (The Toshiba’s holds only an extra battery, with no drives at all). And the 12-in. screen certainly beats the Portege’s 10.4-in. display. The Toshiba’s floppy and optical drives hang off the system on special cables.
I didn’t like the latch that secures the HP’s display; I found it unnecessarily hard to open.
Finally, I really like the Omnibook’s use of a light-gray color on the case and keyboard. I’m tired of black and charcoal-gray laptops; for me, HP’s lighter color scheme is more pleasant to use, especially if I’m in an environment with subdued lighting.
It should be clear that I really like the Omnibook; it’s the class of notebook that I find most appealing, combining full features with light weight. The only real drawback is a “small” 12-in. screen. In fact, I remember reviewing in 1996 (but not for Computerworld) the first notebook computer to use a 12-in. screen, and it seemed simply enormous at the time. Now, a 12-in. screen is considered small. Well, small is beautiful, too.
Prices listed are in Cdn currency.