If you're out on the road a lot, you want a notebook that won't give you a sore shoulder at the end of the day, but you may not want to give up all the features of a full-sized notebook. Can you have both?
Many of you may be thinking "not another notebook review" but the truth is, notebook vendors have a range of products they target at different markets and this time around we're looking at truly portable notebook PCs.
You may not really notice much difference between these market segments and the prices are no help; they all seem similarly priced. In notebooks aimed at power users, you pay more for a faster processor and bigger display. But in an ultralight notebook, you pay more for lighter weight, longer battery life, and a smaller footprint.
For almost as long as portable PCs have been around they have been touted as the death of desktop computing. Sixteen years ago we saw an 8086-based XT PC that was built into a Samsonite briefcase; it even had a seven or eight-inch CRT mono monitor crammed into it along with a single 360K 5Ã‚Â¼in floppy drive (dual was an option). Naturally they were not battery powered. At the time these sold much closer to their desktop siblings, from memory I think the price was about AU$13,000 with an XT desktop costing around $11,000, and that was in 1987. Anyhow, enough of the history tour and back to the subject at hand, the imminent death of desktop computing...only joking.
We have learned through contacts at a multinational computer retail chain that their notebook sales have reportedly been soaring over the last 12 to 18 months, while their desktop sales are not really growing. The primary purchasers of all these new cheaper notebooks are the SME market. People in this market are beginning to see the benefits that cheaper, more powerful, and feature-rich notebooks can provide.
Although notebooks are becoming quite similar in price to desktops, there is a hidden cost that many people don't necessarily consider. Notebooks are based solely on proprietary hardware designs and components; in two or three years of normal use the replacement/repair parts required may simply be too expensive to warrant an economical repair. But then again in this day and age of disposable goods what is a notebook or two between friends? Keeping this in mind, the warranty on parts is certainly something to consider before investing in something as proprietary as a notebook.
Weight loss program
The notebooks in this review fall into the ultralight category. Most sport smaller screens to accommodate the lighter weight and smaller physical footprints demanded by the people who need to use their PC on the go. The CPU and memory configurations are not up to those of a power-user notebook, but they are more than adequate to get the job required done effectively. These ultralight notebooks also generally don't support legacy devices such as parallel and serial ports.
An ultralight notebook fits this profile perfectly. Some notebooks reviewed here don't necessarily have the Intel mobile processor with more cache, or the mainboard with the Intel chipset and integrated Intel 802.1b network chip. Without these three ingredients, notebooks can't qualify for Intel's "Centrino" moniker, whatever that means, however the concept is still there.
News around the wire is that mobile notebook "on" battery life of 10 hours or more will soon be possible. This would make notebooks on par with PDAs and mobile phones--depending on your usage patterns you only need to charge these types of devices every couple of days.
AOpen Openbook 1555
The AOpen 1555 has been included in this test out of interest as a point of comparison between the ultra light notebooks on review and the next step up in a larger format system such as the AOpen. The AOpen bridges the gap between the likes of the Fujitsu at the bigger end of the ultralight scale and the fully blown "desktop replacement" notebooks.
This notebook has a slightly larger physical footprint than the Dell, but weighs 2.8kg, much more than the nearest unit in this review. Mind you the Dell has a 12.1in display while the AOpen has an amazing-looking 15in panel. This larger panel would account for the need to have such a large battery in the unit which therefore would mean a much heavier unit overall.
We hope that this can provide a decent comparison of price, features, and performance of the next step up, and seeing these devices side by side demonstrates what a big step it is. You could fit two Sony Vaios in the space occupied by a single AOpen 1555.
Fully loaded and quite customisable, albeit in a large format.
Its compromise on size makes it good value for money, but perhaps not quite right for this category of notebook.
2-year pickup warranty is quite good.
Apple PowerBook G4
Apple again has continued its sexy styling format with this notebook, everything including the keyboard has a brushed aluminium look. The weight is 2.1kg, which makes it the second heaviest notebook submitted for this review, but the footprint of this unit is the second smallest behind the Sony Vaio.
The TFT screen is 12.1in and there is a single slot-loading optical drive (DVD/CD-ROM) built into the unit. There are no floppy or removable media sots included, nor is there Wireless LAN (which is an optional extra), however there is a Bluetooth adaptor.
As with all things Apple, the construction quality and materials is excellent. The construction gives the unit a very rugged feel which is a good thing for portable electronic devices.
Certainly for the first-timer or average Apple user, this notebook would suit their purposes, and provide the extra style they may require to be "seen". But with some of the other notebooks featured in this review, the "wow" factor of the Apple has unfortunately been reduced.
One very good point to note for system administrators in charge of routinely configuring IT equipment via console ports, the Dell has a single nine-pin serial port. This may seem insignificant for many readers, but when we are asked about notebooks, the first question is always "That is all well and good, but does it have a serial port?"
The screen is 12.1in and there is a noticable lack of a built-in optical drive, floppy, or a flash memory reader. There is inbuilt Bluetooth and wireless LAN, so data transfer can be made less painless.
It is a nice neat unit that could possibly have been shoehorned into a smaller footprint or have a larger display included.
Wireless LAN included, Bluetooth optional extra.
Nice array of ports and good upgrade paths.
Excellent price for a unit of this calibre.
Excellent 3-year warranty.
Fujitsu Lifebook 6120
The first thing that hits you when you open the Fujitsu LifeBook is the larger screen. At 13.3in, it's larger than the average 12.1in displays in the majority of the other ultralight notebooks in this review. The second thing you notice is the noise of the fan on startup; it's very loud, but it drops shortly afterwards. If this is any indication of what to expect over the life of the unit, we suggest Fujitsu should have a look at the notebook's cooling system.
The LifeBook weighs a smidge under 2kg, which is fair enough considering the features Fujitsu has packed into it. There is a removable DVD/CD-RW optical drive. As well as a terrific range of built-in ports, the Fujitsu ships with a port replicator that adds to the list. The replicator is small enough to carry around with you if it's required on the job.
The notebook has no flash memory card device or Bluetooth, however the inclusion of an optical drive and a wireless LAN make up for this.
The Fujitsu is a good hybrid unit falling somewhere in between the ultra-portable units such as the Toshiba and Sony and the full-scale notebooks such as the AOpen. This in-between status could work either way for Fujitsu, however Fujitsu may be on a winner, particularly for those who can't make the leap from a traditional full-size notebook to a real ultralight unit.
Good upgrade paths, port replicator is very handy.
Very expensive compared to the competition.
1-year warranty nothing to write home about; extended option available.
IBM ThinkPad X31
IBM certainly loves the blacker-than-black look. This is the third-lightest notebook behind Toshiba and Sony, at a tad under 1.8kg. It still packs in connectivity onboard with a good range of ports. The 12.1in screen looks rather nice.
A benefit of the IBM is the built-in wireless LAN and CompactFlash memory slot. A drawback is the lack of an internal optical drive.
Overall the IBM is a well-constructed notebook sporting the Intel Centrino badge. We feel the built-in WLAN and CF card reader are prerequisites these days, and the inclusion of a normal parallel port could also be seen as a bonus by some prospective clients.
Some months, certain equipment passes over the test bench and falls into the must-have basket. And even though this job has many positive sides, a test engineer's job is not a shortcut to riches, which turns some must-haves into must-haves-provided-I-can-convince-the-wife, especially when you're talking about a $4000 notebook.
If we had not seen this notebook working, or used it as much as we have, we would have called it too good to be true. It is the smallest by far of all the notebooks tested in this review, and the second lightest weighing in at a mere 1.5kg.
It has a 10.4in widescreen-format display, which has a small adjustable digital camera mounted above it. This camera can be used for still shots, a live Web cam, or to record basic video clips. It has a Memory Stick socket and built-in Wireless LAN. Combine this with the inbuilt DVD/CD-RW drive, and the only thing really missing is Bluetooth.
Overall--if I haven't already made myself very clear--if you are in the market for a truly versatile ultralight notebook that does not compromise on features or weight/size, then you would be very hard pressed to pass the feature-packed Sony Vaio PCG-TR1, providing you can get used to the widescreen format and the funny font face on the keys.
Despite its anorexic looks, it still has a good range of connectors and even a PC Card slot, but of course no optical drive. At least with this unit, you can see the benefit of removing the optical drive in the final size of the unit.
The screen is 12.1in and the notebook has both wireless LAN and a Secure Digital (SD) card slot. The absence of a bluetooth adaptor is a bit of a shame, but I guess you can't have everything.
All up, the Toshiba is a very well-refined and ultralight performer. The bonus in this package besides the thin size and low weight of the unit is the second battery. No other notebook in this review shipped with a two-battery solution.
Some of you may be questioning the robustness of a design such as this, and surprisingly the quality and strength of the construction is very good, particularly in the traditional weak spots such as the screen hinges and keyboard bezel.
Sony's Vaio PCG-TR1 may not be the best performer--but performance is not what this review is about. It's small and light, but has some great features such as the internal DVD/CDRW drive and manages quite an impressive battery life.
There was a broad range of notebooks submitted for this review and we had our work cut out for us looking at them all. Each have its own benefits and therefore suit specific markets. As with a lot of the technology we have looked at in the Test Lab lately, devices are becoming much more focused on specific target markets and clients (which is a good thing). So ultimately, it is best to use this review as a guide and really evaluate each unit for your own particular purposes.