Powerful computers offer options for frequent travelers

Notebook computers are essential second PCs for businesspeople who travel frequently. However, as notebooks become more powerful, more people use them as primary PCs. Windows 2000's (Win2K's) improved support for mobile systems makes desktop-replacement notebooks attractive for users who need all their data and applications with them when they travel or who simply need to conserve desk space.

Desktop-replacement notebooks feature comfortable ergonomics, good performance, and a variety of optional hardware. These notebooks also provide the capacity and functionality of desktop systems. In the desktop-replacement class, size and weight are secondary considerations; desktop-replacement notebooks tend to be larger and heavier than mainstream notebooks.

The IBM ThinkPad 390X 2626L2U and the Dell Latitude CPx H500GT were among the first models that manufacturers equipped with Win2K. Each model includes a Pentium III processor, a 12GB hard disk, a 14.1" Extended Graphics Array (XGA) Thin Film Transistor (TFT) screen, a full-size keyboard, a slot for one Type III or two Type II PC Cards, multimedia capabilities, a lithium ion battery, and a modular bay that can accept optional accessories. However, the machines have different personalities that can affect your purchase decision.

IBM ThinkPad 390X 2626L2U
If you've ever used an IBM ThinkPad, you'll feel comfortable with the ThinkPad 390X. With its traditional black textured case, nearly ideal keyboard layout, and red pointing stick, the ThinkPad 390X appears almost identical to other ThinkPad models. When I opened the computer's case, I noticed that its large wrist rests surround the centrally located mouse buttons. IBM provides a third button below the other two buttons that you can use in conjunction with the pointing stick to scroll through documents and Web pages. The keyboard was comfortable to use, but IBM reversed the Fn key and left Ctrl key positions, creating a minor inconvenience. The ThinkPad also lacks a Windows key.

The ThinkPad 390X that I tested had a 450MHz Pentium III processor, 128MB of SDRAM (expandable to 512MB), and a 14.1" TFT display. (IBM also offers the ThinkPad 390 with a 15" display and a 500MHz Pentium III processor, but Win2K isn't available on that model.) The display was bright, evenly lit, and had vivid colors; if you're running business applications, you'll find it a pleasure to use. Even though I used the system's True Color mode, I noticed slight color banding in screen areas that transitioned between light shades of blue and gray. The color banding seemed to be an artifact of the flat-panel display; I didn't see the banding when I connected the notebook to a 17" CRT. Users running business applications won't notice the banding, but users editing images might.

IBM bases the ThinkPad 390X's graphics subsystem on a NeoMagic MagicMedia 256AV AGP graphics accelerator with 2.5MB of graphics memory. This combination supports True Color mode at 1024 x 768 pixels on the internal LCD display, and I achieved an 85Hz vertical refresh rate when I used an external CRT. I could select a maximum resolution of 1280 x 1024 pixels on the external display, but the display's palette had only 256 colors at that resolution.

For the ThinkPad 390X, IBM uses a modular chassis design with one bay for optional components. IBM integrates the notebook's 24X variable-speed CD-ROM drive and 3.5" disk drive into one module. Although this integration feature will please users who prefer to have both drives within the system's case, it adds to the ThinkPad 390X's 8.5-pound weight (which includes the AC adapter). IBM offers an optional 4X variable-speed DVD and disk drive module, with Moving Pictures Experts Group-2 (MPEG-2) decoding software, for an additional $389. The modular bay can also hold an optional second battery or an additional 6.4GB or 10GB hard disk.

The CD-ROM and disk drives are in front of the PC Card slots and the unit's internal V.90 modem port. The volume control and headphone, line-in, and microphone jacks are below the PC Card slots. On the computer's left edge, I found one USB port, an S-video jack to let you connect to a television or a video projector, and an infrared communications port. The rear panel provides serial, parallel, external monitor, and power ports, as well as a port for an external keyboard and mouse.

The battery cartridge also fits into the left side of the computer. Charging the battery while the computer's power was off took approximately 2.5 hours, and the battery lasted a commendable 3 hours in my battery rundown test.

A pair of integral Altec Lansing speakers reside below the LCD panel, and a built-in microphone is near the upper right corner of the display. Audio output was more than adequate, and fidelity was about average for a notebook. Unfortunately, I could access the CD-ROM drive's controls only through the Win2K user interface (UI), so I had to turn on the notebook to listen to CDs.

The ThinkPad 390X offers a variety of expansion options, including an external expansion bay that supports IBM's 100MB Iomega Zip drive, a SuperDisk LS-120 drive, and 6.4GB and 10GB external hard disk options. The company also offers two port replicators, one of which has an integrated 10/100 Ethernet port with Wake-on-LAN capability. The notebook comes bundled with Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition, an OEM version of Symantec's Norton AntiVirus, Puma Technology's Intellisync 97, and Ring Central Fax. IBM sells the ThinkPad 390X with a 1-year limited warranty that includes pickup and delivery of the defective computer. Additional extended warranty service is available for the second through the fifth years.

Users who prefer to have 3.5" disk and CD-ROM drives accessible within the computer's case will like the ThinkPad 390X. The system's ergonomics are very good, but users who like to work on external displays at high resolutions and high color depths might find the 390X's 2.5MB of graphics RAM a bit stingy. Also stingy is the ThinkPad 390X's 1-year warranty.

IBM ThinkPad 390X 2626L2U
Contact: IBM * 800-426-7255 extension 4751
Web: http://www.ibm.com/pc/us/thinkpad
Price: $2499
Decision Summary: Pros: Comfortable keyboard; bright display; easily accessible 3.5" and CD-ROM drives; internal modem that frees PC Card slots for other uses; wide choice of accessories
Cons: No touch-pad pointing device; insufficient graphics memory to support 1280 x 1024 pixel resolution at high-color and True Color modes on external displays; short warranty

Dell Latitude CPx H500GT
The IBM ThinkPad 390X's combination 3.5" disk drive and CD-ROM module will attract mainstream users who work primarily at their desks, but the Dell Latitude CPx H500GT will appeal to power users who spend significant time on the road. The Latitude CPx's swappable bay can support a 24X variable-speed CD-ROM drive module, a 3.5" disk drive module, or one of several optional modules internally. However, if you want access to the 3.5" disk and CD-ROM drives, you must swap them in the modular bay or attach the floppy drive externally through the parallel port. Although this feature is inconvenient, it can make the Latitude CPx a lighter travel partner if you need to use only one of the modules.

The test unit arrived with a pointing stick and a touch pad, a 12GB EIDE hard disk, and 128MB of SDRAM. If you work with large files and many applications, you'll appreciate the Latitude CPx's 512MB maximum memory capacity and 18GB hard disk option. The Latitude CPx's 8MB of graphics memory is essential if you work at high resolutions and high color depths on large external displays (although at resolutions above 1280 * 1024 pixels, the Latitude CPx has a 60Hz refresh rate). A 500MHz Pentium III processor helped raise the Latitude CPx's performance scores on the BAPCo SYSmark 2000 application-based benchmark above the ThinkPad 390X's scores.

The Latitude CPx's 14.1" TFT screen was a pleasure to use. The screen provided a bright, evenly lit image with saturated colors and no detectable artifacts. The keyboard layout was perfect; the left Ctrl key was in the typical position, and a Windows key was to the left of the Alt key. The keyboard was comfortable but didn't provide as much tactile feedback as IBM's keyboard. Dell provides two pairs of mouse buttons; one pair lies between the touch pad and the spacebar, and another pair resides below the touch pad. The touch pad and pointing stick were responsive and easy to manipulate. Cursors on some touch-pad-equipped notebooks tend to wander during fast typing sessions, but the Dell's cursor didn't. However, the Dell's thermostat-controlled fan generated more noise than I expected from a notebook.

The Dell's side-mounted speakers provided more sound volume than the ThinkPad 390X's speakers, and the computers' sound fidelity was similar. Latitude CPx owners, like ThinkPad 390X owners, will need to turn on the notebook to play CDs.

I charged the Dell's battery in 1 hour and 6 minutes, which was considerably faster than the time necessary to charge the IBM's battery. But the Latitude CPx's battery, which ran for 2 hours and 35 minutes, didn't last as long as the IBM's battery in my rundown test. However, most users will probably experience longer battery life with either notebook than I did because my test didn't pause long enough for each notebook's power-management features to take over.

The Dell's microphone, headphone, and line-in jacks are on the right side of the computer's gray textured case. An S-video jack is also on the right side. The rear panel hosts an external monitor jack; a parallel port; a serial port; external keyboard and mouse, USB, and power connectors; an infrared communication port; and the fan. The PC Card slots and battery compartment are on the notebook's left side. The unit I tested came with an optional Xircom RealPort CardBus Ethernet 10/100+Modem 56 combination modem and LAN adapter on a Type III PC Card. If you already have a network card, you can choose Psion's 56Kbps Gold Card Global or 3Com's 56Kbps Winmodem PC Card modems and save $100 or $150, respectively.

The swappable bay is on the unit's front, and Dell offers a variety of optional modules, including a second battery; an 18GB second hard disk; a CD-Rewritable (CD-RW) drive, SuperDisk LS-120, and DVD drives. The 6X DVD drive option adds $299 to the price. You can connect the floppy drive to the parallel port using the supplied cable, freeing the swappable bay for the CD-ROM drive or an optional module. A port replicator and a docking station are also available. Dell provides a 3-year onsite parts and labor warranty.

Dell's Latitude CPx features good performance and ergonomics, large maximum memory and disk storage capacities, and a flexible graphics subsystem. People who like a choice in UIs will appreciate the Latitude's pointing-stick and touch-pad interfaces.

The Choice Is Yours
Your preferences, budget, and travel requirements will determine your choice between the IBM ThinkPad 390X and the Dell Latitude CPx. If you need built-in 3.5" disk and CD-ROM drives, or if you crave the excellent tactile quality that IBM keyboards are known for—or if you simply have a tight budget—then the ThinkPad 390X is the better choice. But if you need an extremely large hard disk, a choice of pointing devices, the ability to work at a resolution of 1280 * 1024 pixels at high color depths on an external display, or a lighter machine, you'll prefer the Latitude CPx.

Neither the Dell nor the IBM is as heavy as other desktop-replacement notebooks I've seen (the IBM weighs 8.5 pounds and the Dell weighs 7.7 pounds), but they don't have 15" screens or dual-swappable bays, as some other desktop replacements do. However, if you plan to take a notebook PC on a business trip, then you might welcome fewer pounds of computer as a tradeoff.

Dell Latitude CPx H500GT
Contact: Dell * 800-388-8542
Web: http://www.dell.com
Price: $2913
Decision Summary: Pros: Excellent keyboard layout; bright display; useful touch-pad and pointing-stick interfaces; good performance; large maximum disk storage capacity; wide assortment of accessories; support for 1280 x 1024 pixel resolution at True Color on external displays
Cons: Inconvenient simultaneous access to CD-ROM and 3.5" disk drives; noisy fan