One for the road: Seven road warrior notebooks tested
If the concept of sitting at a desk for a whole day seems foreign to you, these road warrior notebooks are the combination of power and portability you're looking for.In this latest roundup of notebooks we looked at some of the finest portable computing power for road warriors.
If the concept of sitting at a desk for a whole day seems foreign to you, these road warrior notebooks are the combination of power and portability you're looking for.
In this latest roundup of notebooks we looked at some of the finest portable computing power for road warriors. They're all fast and light, feature large displays, and offer good battery life.
Sometimes you may find yourself with an ultralight notebook that lacks performance but is nice and light to cart around. On the other hand, you might find yourself using a desktop replacement notebook which may have all the power you need but is too heavy to constantly be taking it from place to place.
What we sometimes look for is a reasonably light notebook (2.5kg and under is what we classify as a good road warrior notebook) and that has the grunt of a fast desktop PC.
Most of the notebooks we tested for this feature would make good desktop replacement notebooks. Only die-hard power users would look elsewhere. These notebooks really look to offer an end user a good balance of speed, connectors, and weight.
Most of the notebooks featured 14in or smaller TFT displays. Once they get any bigger than this, the overall notebook becomes significantly larger and heavier. It's not so much the TFT making up the extra weight but rather the chassis of the notebook.
A 14in TFT is large enough that you could show a presentation to a small number of people. Then again, you could connect any notebook up to a monitor or projector if you were to have a larger audience present.
Most of the notebooks in this article feature all the basic connectors. The Apple and Toshiba notebooks didn't even feature any legacy connectors such as parallel or serial ports. This seems to be the way notebooks are currently heading, with more and more notebooks featuring additional USB ports. DVI didn't seem to be a very popular interface with these notebooks but almost all of them featured a 15-pin RGB out connector and/or an S-Video out connector.
Hard drive capacities varied from 20GB to 40GB which is ample for most users. Some of the notebooks we looked at had hard disks that spin at 5400RPM—up from the slow 4200RPM drives we have been used to for so long.
Graphics has usually been a dividing line between ultralight notebooks and high-end notebooks. As we mentioned previously, ultralight notebooks generally aren't speed demons. They lack in graphics, especially 3D graphics. That job is usually left to high-end notebooks. The notebooks we tested this time were an attempt to offer a solution somewhere in between.
Ultralight notebooks have their own market, specifically users who are concerned about weight or saving space. Someone who is after the latest and greatest, wants all the connectors on earth, and doesn't care about weight would go for a high-end desktop replacement notebook. In the middle are these road warriors, which can also pass as desktop replacement notebooks.
With that said these notebooks have their own place in the market—in fact they're the most popular type of notebook. It makes sense that there are many end users who want a large display and don't care too much about the weight of their notebook, but don't want to pay an arm and a leg. If these are your requirements, you would almost certainly go for one of the notebooks we tested here.
Bluetooth and 802.11b (Wi-Fi) wireless connectivity are mostly optional extras with these sorts of notebooks, but if you want the technology you can certainly have it. With Bluetooth you can link your notebook to devices such as mobile phones and PDAs. Wi-Fi technology on the other hand has also rapidly gained acceptance in many organisations as an alternative to a wired LAN.
However there are some security issues surrounding this protocol. All the notebooks also featured an integrated 56K modem and 10/100 Ethernet.
Intel's SpeedStep technology has been one of the reasons why we are seeing improved battery life.
On the other hand, faster processors, large screens, and an increased number of integrated devices has reduced battery life. Vendors have taken necessary steps to improve battery performance by using utilities that allow you to customise your notebook's power usage.
You can even set the CPU to work at slow speeds for certain tasks to save power. The LCD brightness can also be reduced to save power and turned off automatically if the notebook has been idle for even as little as a minute. The same sort of thing can be done with the hard drive.
Some of the notebooks we tested can house two batteries. IBM, for example, claims its notebook can provide eight hours of battery life when equipped with an optional second battery.
Acer TravelMate 630/AOpen 1545
The Acer TravelMate and AOpen notebooks seem to have been put together in the same factory. They are cosmetically different but have the same connectors in the exactly the same places and feature almost the same running gear. The Acer features a Pentium 4 2.0GHz processor, while the AOpen features a P4 1.8GHz. Both are equipped with 256MB of RAM, a 40GB IBM hard disk drive, a 15in display, and a 32MB nVidia based graphics accelerator.
The Acer has a Smart Card reader where the AOpen doesn't, but the Acer only features a DVD-ROM drive, where the AOpen has a combo DVD/ CD-RW drive.
We found the Acer notebook a lot more aesthetically pleasing than the AOpen. The arrangement of keys on the Acer is a little different to what you may be used to—the whole keypad is slightly curved—but to its credit, it is quite comfortable to use. The AOpen on the other hand has a standard square keypad.
These two notebooks are quite heavy. One of the reasons is because of their large 15in displays. The Acer is a little lighter mainly because of its curved case, which doesn't occupy as much space. The Acer has a rubber Disk Anti Shock Protection (DASP) rubber mechanism, which the AOpen doesn't.
On the performance side of things there wasn't much between the two. The Acer should have been a lot faster because it had the faster processor, but in fact it was slower in some of the overall tests. The Acer didn't perform as well in Business Disk or High-End Disk. Its poor performance in these tests may have been due to the different IDE drivers and different firmware versions that were pre-installed.
In terms of battery performance they were almost identical, and they performed quite well in comparison to all the other notebooks. Only the Toshiba managed to run for longer.
Similar performance to the Acer, so better value.
Apple iBook G3 600
The iBook still manages to hang around even well after the release of the Titanium PowerBook. The iBook still however has more than enough grunt under the bonnet.
At the heart of the iBook is a 600MHz PowerPC G3 processor, 256MB of RAM, and a 20GB IBM hard disk drive. The iBook also has a 14.1in LCD display and a combo DVD/CD-RW drive. The display is nice and sharp, and very vivid at the same time. It has a built-in antenna and card slot for an optional 11Mbps Airport card (802.11b compliant).
However, we have a few complaints about the iBook. You can only expand the main memory to 640MB, and it only ships with 8MB of video memory. The iBook doesn't have any legacy ports.
We didn't benchmark the iBook simply because there aren't any comprehensive cross-platform benchmarks that can run on either a Mac or PC. We have used Photoshop bench in the past, but that only really measures the relative CPU performance in Photoshop.
The Dell Latitude C640 was one of the sexier looking notebooks. It's all charcoal black, even the keys, and Dell is great for those users who can't decide whether they prefer a track point or glide pad, because it offers both. IBM has also recently started doing this.
The Dell offers a good selection of connectors, but was also missing some. It doesn't have a FireWire port and only has a single USB port. However, it offers two PC card slots and a PS/2 port, which all the other notebook vendors have dumped.
The Dell has an integrated wireless-ready antenna and an option for an integrated TrueMobile wireless card. The Dell has a 14.1in display like many of the other notebooks, but unlike the other notebooks in this review, its graphics accelerator enables it to display higher resolutions than 1024 x 768.
In our tests, the Dell was the fastest notebook by far. Dell has packaged this notebook quite well by combining a fast 2.0GHz Pentium 4 processor, along with a 32MB ATI graphics accelerator, and 4200RPM Hitachi hard disk drive, which proved to be a winning combination.
IBM's T30 offers a good balance of performance and portability. It weighs 2.5kg and features a powerful 1.8GHz Pentium 4 processor. Inside you will find the same IBM hard disk drive that you will find in other notebooks, as well as the same graphics processor, DVD drive, and RAM.
But what makes the T30 so different to the other notebooks is how IBM packages it all together. The titanium composite in the top and bottom covers keeps the notebook robust and light at the same time. Like most of the other notebooks, the T30 offers Wi-Fi, but it also has a dual antenna system built into the display for increased signal strength.
IBM is also pioneering the use of an embedded security subsystem, that is designed to protect your data and prevent unauthorised users from accessing your notebook.
The T30 also has a ThinkLight—a small light that illuminates the keyboard—which is a great feature that gives you the flexibility to keep working in low-light conditions. Other nice design features include the differently-coloured function keys, and the flexibility of using a track-point or glide pad.
The T30 has an easy-open cover that can be unlatched and opened with just one hand. Another feature is the airbag—on the base of the T30 is a small air cushion the size of a 5-cent coin. This would take most of the impact if the notebook was ever dropped (provided it fell straight down, of course).
On the performance side, the IBM was second fastest overall. The Dell was only notebook that was faster—probably because it featured a faster processor. Battery life was a bit disappointing; the IBM could only manage to run our Battery Mark test for 2 hours and 21 minutes. However, this is really a worst case scenario, and in real life we would expect it to last longer.
When we think Vaio, we usually associate the words slim-line, light, and elegant. This Vaio is quite the opposite. It weighs a bit over 3kg, which we consider on the heavy side. It's also quite thick and it looks like a clone notebook: plain, square, and quite boring. It features all the standard connectors as well as an integrated floppy disk drive.
Another thing that grabbed our attention was the processor; the Sony featured an AMD Athlon XP 1400+ processor. It wasn't able to match the 1.8GHz Pentium 4-based notebooks, but this may have largely been due to its
graphics processor, which was a little under-powered.
The Sony comes with a combo DVD/CD-RW drive, which would have added some considerable cost to the notebook. Surprisingly, it retails for only $2899, making it the least expensive notebook we reviewed. With that said you get what you pay for, and this Sony certainly loses in the quality and portability stakes. Battery life wasn't the best either; it only managed to run our Battery Mark test for 139 minutes.
The Toshiba Portege 4010 is an ultra light portable notebook, and as such we can't directly compare this notebook to the other notebooks since it belongs in a different class. If you don't mind using a small screen and performance isn't as much of an issue as weight, you should have a look at this notebook.
The Toshiba only weighs 1.9kg. Of course, in order to keep a notebook under 2kg you have to make the display small. The Toshiba only has a 12.1in TFT, which would be a little impractical to do a presentation from. The Toshiba is equipped with a Pentium III 933MHz processor with 256MB of RAM and a 30GB IBM HDD.
The Toshiba was the slowest in every single test, though it could not by any means be described as “sluggish”. In terms of running the latest operating systems and office applications, it's actually quite fast.
The Toshiba isn't short of features or connectors despite its size and weight. It features a Slim SelectBay that houses a DVD-ROM drive. This drive can be interchanged with a second hard disk drive, second battery, or a combo DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive.
The Toshiba also features a modem, 10/100 Ethernet, Wi-Fi and two PC Card slots as well as a Secure Digital media slot and a host of other standard ports.
One area where this notebook really wins out is in battery performance. We were able to run this notebook for over three and a half hours. As well as the smaller screen, the Pentium III processor appears to be less power-hungry than the Pentium 4.
• Display quality including evenness of illumination, clarity, colours, and resolutions supported.
• Audio including the audio chip used and sound quality, volume level, speaker/s location, I/O, and ease of use.
• Keypad including key size, spacing, layout, travel, feedback, support, and colour differentiation.
• Pointing device including location, button size, travel and feedback, additional features, and functionality.
• Workmanship and design including ergonomics, robustness, and durability.
• System expandability including the number of I/O ports, upgradability of CPU, memory, and hard drive.
We also rated each of the notebooks in the areas of interoperability, futureproofing, return on investment and service.
Interoperability: We looked at the variety of connectors available. Return on Investment: We looked at the overall cost and performance of the notebook. Futureproofing: We examined the expansion potential of each notebook, including the maximum RAM capacity, and whether the notebook had provisions for a second battery. Service: We looked at the duration of the warranty for parts and labour.
Business Winstone 2002 V1.0
Business Winstone is a system-level, application-based benchmark that measures a notebook's overall performance when running Windows-based 32-bit applications. Business Winstone runs through a series of scripted activities and uses the time a notebook takes to complete those activities to produce its performance scores.
The list of ten business productivity applications includes five Microsoft Office 2000 applications (Access, Excel, FrontPage, PowerPoint, and Word), Microsoft Project 98, an e-mail application (Lotus Notes R5), a compression program (NicoMak WinZip), an anti-virus program (Norton AntiVirus), and a Web browser (Netscape Communicator). Business Winstone continues to focus on the hot spots in its applications—the points that most stress PC performance, and PC users.
Content Creation Winstone 2002 V1.0.1
Content Creation Winstone is a system-level, application-based benchmark that measures a notebook's overall performance when running Windows-based 32-bit content creation applications, including Adobe Photoshop 5.5, Adobe Premiere 5.1, Macromedia Director 8.0, Macromedia Dreamweaver 3.0, Netscape Navigator 4.73, and Sonic Foundry Sound Forge 4.5.
Content Creation Winstone 2001 keeps multiple applications open at once and switches among those applications. Content Creation Winstone 2001 is a single large test that runs the above applications through a series of scripted activities and returns a single score. Those activities focus on what we call “hot spots,” periods of activity that make your PC really work—the times where you're likely to see an hourglass or a progress bar.
WinBench 99 V2.0
WinBench 99 is a subsystem-level benchmark that measures the performance of a notebook's graphics, disk, and video subsystems in a Windows environment.
WinBench 99 returns the following main results that provide an overview of a notebook's graphics, disk, and processor performance:
• Business Graphics WinMark 99
• Business Disk WinMark 99
• High-End Graphics WinMark 99 and
• High-End Disk WinMark 99
Business Winstone 2001 BatteryMark 1.0.1
BatteryMark measures battery life on notebook computers running Windows 2000 or Windows XP.
Notebooks: What to look for
CPU speed: Mobile Pentium 4 CPUs run up to 2.2GHz. The fastest mobile AMD Athlon XP processor available now is the 2000+ (which runs at somewhat less than 2GHz, but which AMD claims is the equivalent of a Pentium 4 running at 2GHz).
There are also less-expensive Celeron- and Duron-based notebooks, which may be worth having a look at.
• Displays: 14.1in seems to be the standard size display for these road warrior notebooks. Check that the display is well protected and not flimsy. A native resolution of 1024 x 768 is fairly standard as well.
• Weight and portability: Desktop replacement notebooks are quite heavy but are packed with features like CD/ DVD-ROM drives.
• Connectors: Check to see what connectors the notebook has. What connectors are important to you? Do you need lots of USB ports for peripherals, a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port, or an S-Video output?
• Networking: a 10/100 Ethernet jack is standard, but many notebooks also come with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi wireless networking. Make sure these are available if you think you'll need them.
Cost effective laptop deployment
Once seen mainly as perks for senior executives, laptops are replacing desktop systems with increasing frequency. Most often, the reason is to produce productivity gains. The more time an employee has access to a PC, the more time he or she can work offsite. In some cases, a laptop is a necessity for specific employees—such as sales and company VPs—who spend a lot of time on the road.
Although potential productivity boosts make the business case for increasing laptop adoption, it isn't a cheap decision, and some tech professionals believe that potential productivity isn't always a good justification for wide deployment. The key to making sure laptops are deployed properly is developing a plan outlining user needs and requirements.
Luxury or necessity?
One way that IT leaders can establish a policy to determine who truly requires a laptop is by creating an overview committee. Earl Roethke, a manager with the Energy Management and Information System Division of Siemens PT&D in the US, serves on his division's IT steering committee. The committee is reviewing a working policy in which employees receive laptops based on annual travel time. Those who travel at least 30 days are given a laptop, while those who travel less can check out a laptop from a pool of older models.
Controlling support costs
While a company policy can dictate who gets a laptop and help determine appropriate models and capabilities, keeping the machines in good working order is another deployment issue for IT. It's no light burden, as laptops and notebooks suffer more wear and tear than desktops.
Good equipment planning can lessen the impact of inevitable failures. Standardising on one line of laptops is one way to reduce downtime and repair costs. The practice lets IT keep spare shells—laptops without drives, batteries, or memory—on hand, as well as PC cards and other parts that can be swapped out for quick repairs. Experts also recommend installing programs such as Symantec's pcAnywhere, which can help IT diagnose and fix software problems when users are working from a remote site. Several support techs suggested enlisting the aid of drive-imaging software as well to speed configuration of multiple laptops (see Search and Deploy on page 78 for a review of drive imaging and deployment software).
Some IT leaders recommend that the deployment policy include information about laptop repair and user requirements. While the majority of typical support problems are solved by internal IT, some issues resulting from improper storage or protection of the unit could be deemed the user's responsibility. The policy should draw clear lines of delineation between what is considered the internal support team's territory and what the user will be held liable for.
Another economical laptop deployment approach is to use models that aren't loaded with unnecessary features. Yet that doesn't mean cutting short the expected lifespan of the computer. According to industry research, large enterprises are planning to keep notebooks slightly longer than in recent years, and the systems may be required to support new technologies, such as wireless 802.11b down the road.
Due to their inherent mobility, laptops aren't a very secure enterprise tool, which only adds to their overall expense. According to the US CSI/FBI 2002 Computer Crime and Security Survey, 64 percent of organisations polled reported some type of crime involving laptop computers, of which theft and viral infection were named the top two occurrences.
A low-cost way to reduce risk is by educating employees about how to properly safeguard laptops.
Security options range from low-tech cable locks to services that trace stolen laptops. IT leaders can also buy insurance policies, and employ encryption software to protect sensitive company data.
Planning is key
There's no argument that laptops are expensive to buy and maintain, but with proper planning, thorough investigation of user needs, and user education, IT leaders can reduce ownership costs and avoid costly repairs down the road.
This company wants to equip its sales staff with notebooks to take with them on sales calls to clients. Sales staff have been complaining about the weight of all the gear they have to carry around with them. Approximate budget: $5000 per notebook. Requires: Eleven notebooks with at least 14in screen, 256MB memory, at least 30GB hard drive, Windows XP Professional pre-installed. Concerns: Weight is the primary concern, because sales staff are out on the road a lot. Staff will be using the notebooks for sales presentations without a projector, so screen size is important, and the style of the notebooks is also a consideration. Best Solution: IBM ThinkPad T30 2366-41M.
It wasn't very difficult to pick a winner this time around. The IBM ThinkPad T30 meets all the above requirements and offers an excellent balance of speed and portability. It was the most robust notebook we looked at. It may be a little on the expensive side, but if you want a good-quality notebook you have to pay for it. The Dell also deserves a worthy mention for being quite inexpensive and fast.
IBM ThinkPad T30 2366-41M
IBM is the Volvo of the notebook world—boxy and pricey, but strong and a safe choice. IBM has really picked up the ball in terms of notebook innovation, and the it's the little differences between this notebook and its competitors—such as the ThinkLight and the embedded security system—that really set it ahead. It's robust yet lightweight, portable, and powerful.
In the Labs' testing for Technology & Business, they are in direct contact with the clients supplying products. Their findings are their own—only the specifications of the products to be tested are provided by the magazine. For more information on RMIT, please contact the Lab Manager, Steven Turvey, at firstname.lastname@example.org.