A friend in the travel industry told me that air travel bounced back fairly quickly after the September 11 attacks, especially business travel. This rebound means that many of you will be taking your computing devices on the road in the coming year, so now might be a good time to examine the state of mobile technology

In my opinion, mobile computing is about compromise. You want to travel light, but you want to maximize computing efficiency. Note my use of the word efficiency rather than power. Most people don't need the latest and greatest microprocessor, especially if it's encased in a 10-pound desktop replacement.

In early 2002, the most efficient mobile-computing platform is the laptop. The smallest and lightest laptop category—the ultralights—eschew internal optical and floppy drives and use external devices or, in my favorite configuration, an expansion "slice" that houses the drives. Midsized models feature at least one internal, swappable optical drive; larger screens; and faster processors. And desktop-replacement models feature two internal optical drives (one swappable), much larger screens, higher resolutions, and much faster processors. The best choice depends on each user's situation and preferences, so I can't name an overall best approach.

From a technology standpoint, you'll want an Intel-compatible processor (700MHz or higher; ultralights always feature slower chips); 256MB of RAM; a combination DVD/CD-RW drive; two or more USB ports; integrated Wi-Fi (the 802.11b wireless standard), Ethernet networking, and modem; and Windows XP. XP is the perfect mobile OS because it has the most efficient and modern power-management features. By mid-2002, new laptops likely will feature technologies such as USB 2.0 or FireWire for high-speed external storage and either 802.11a or 802.11g, depending on which technology takes off, for high-speed wireless capabilities.

With these system requirements in mind, let's turn to the first laptop of the month for 2002: Compaq's Evo N400c. The Evo is an ultralight model that uses an expansion slice (dubbed the Mobile Expansion Unit—MEU) for optical drive, floppy drive, and port expansion and features a dual-battery configuration that makes the laptop particularly well-suited for frequent travel.

Aesthetically, Compaq modeled the Evo after the company's popular iPAQ product line, with black and silver accents. A bulge in the left side of the screen back hides a MultiPort expansion component—in this case, 802.11b-based wireless (Bluetooth is also available). But the bulge isn't unsightly or awkward to hold, and the device is less than 1" thick (not counting the wireless bulge) and weighs less than 4 pounds.

Like most other ultralights, the Evo includes a small, thin battery that you can remove from the bottom of the unit, but you can also add a second, barrel-like battery to the back of the unit. The second battery extends battery life from 2 hours to about 4 hours and increases the weight only slightly. And the second battery can swing under the device to lift the back of the laptop off the tabletop, exposing the rear ports and providing a little keyboard angle for more comfortable typing. That's a nice touch.

For such a small device, the Evo is bristling with ports. It includes two USB (finally!), Ethernet and modem, one PC card, sound and microphone, VGA out, TV out, parallel, and serial ports. The MEU adds more USB ports, stereo speakers, two PS/2 ports, some duplication of ports that are hidden when the Evo is docked, and two interchangeable multibay expansion areas for optical and floppy drives. The MEU weighs about 2.5 pounds.

The Evo N400c I reviewed features an 850MHz Pentium III processor, although a low-voltage 700MHz version is also available. The unit ships with a 1024 x 768-pixel 12" screen, 128MB to 512MB of RAM, a 20GB hard disk, and a choice of a touch pad or pointstick. My unit featured a DVD/CD-RW combination drive, a floppy drive, the preferred pointstick, and 128MB of RAM (I recommend more). Properly configured, the Evo N400c is the perfect combination of speed and power, and I highly recommend the machine to anyone who wants lightweight mobility and maximum computing efficiency. For frequent business travelers, this Compaq is a winner that can stand head-to-head with competitors such as the IBM ThinkPad A series and Gateway's Solo 3450.