IBM, H-P Are Closing In on the Holy Grail of Portable Computers

LAWRENCE J. MAGID is a Silicon Valley-based computer analyst and writer

Computer users are always chasing a Holy Grail. It has to weigh less than 4 pounds, be slim, trim and fast, have plenty of storage and memory, a good screen and keyboard and an easy-to-use pointing device.

In other words, the perfect portable computer. I haven't found it yet, but two new sub-notebooks--the Hewlett Packard OmniBook 300 and the IBM ThinkPad 500--represent giant steps toward my tiny dream machine.

At less than 2.9 pounds and, in inches, a slim 6.4 by 11.1 by 1.4, the new HP is compact enough to carry around all day. Instead of a hard disk, the unit I tested came with a 10-megabyte "flash memory" card that keeps its memory even without power. Ten MB isn't much storage, but, thanks to compression software, it can hold about 20 megabytes. What's more, the storage is for data only. DOS, Windows, Microsoft Word and Excel don't take up any disk space because they're on a read-only memory card.

You can also purchase the machine with a 40-megabyte hard disk instead of the flash memory.

Fortunately for touch typists, the keys on the keyboard are the same size and distance apart as those on a desktop machine, which is more than I can say for the new IBM. HP offers an innovative pointing device that looks and works like an ordinary mouse, but instead of being dragged across a table, it's suspended by a plastic stick that slides into the case.

The bundled software is great if you like Word and Excel. If not, you shouldn't buy this machine, because there isn't a lot of room for extra software.

You'll still need a desktop system. It doesn't come with a floppy drive, nor is there one available. You transfer data between the OmniBook and a desktop PC via a supplied cable and software.

The HP offers impressive battery life. The flash memory version runs for nine hours on a charge. You can also use four standard AA batteries.

There are, depending on the model, one or two available PCMCIA slots for credit-card-size modems, network adapters and other peripherals. There is no way to connect an external monitor or keyboard.

The 20-megahertz 386 central processing unit is adequate, but the machine is a lot slower than the IBM, which comes with a 50-megahertz 486. The OmniBook is OK for working with short documents or spreadsheets, but it was annoyingly slow when I tried to edit a 200-page document.

The screen gets mixed reviews. At 9 inches (diagonal), it's large enough, but it doesn't have backlight, a problem under low lighting conditions. Like me, it works much better on the beach.

I can understand leaving out the internal floppy drive to save weight, but HP should include, or at least offer, an external floppy. The cable works fine, but there are times when a floppy is better.

The 40-megabyte hard disk version costs $1,995. The flash memory version costs $2,335.

IBM took a different approach when it designed the ThinkPad 500. It also has its limitations, but for most applications, I prefer it to the OmniBook.

At 3.9 pounds (including battery), it's about a pound heavier. At 10.1 by 7.2 by 1.6 inches, it's about an inch narrower and an inch longer.

But it packs an awful lot of power. It comes with a 50-megahertz 486 CPU and a very fast hard disk (making it faster than most desktop units), 4 megabytes of RAM (expandable to 12) and an 85- or 170-megabyte hard disk. An external floppy drive is included.

Unfortunately, the machine doesn't come with Windows--just IBM DOS 5.02 and Prodigy. I upgraded my test unit with MS-DOS 6.0 and Windows, but had to supply my own software.

The back-lit display, at 7.4 inches, is on the small side, but it is easy to read. There is a PCMCIA slot and a connector for an external color VGA monitor, but there is no way to plug in an external keyboard.

The keyboard is 10% smaller than normal. It's otherwise well designed, so I found myself making relatively few typos. But I have small hands; a colleague with big paws found it unacceptable. I would like to see IBM make a similar model that's an inch wider with a standard keyboard and a plug for an external keyboard.

Instead of a mouse or track ball, all IBM ThinkPad units have an innovative device that looks like a pencil eraser sticking up between the G, H and B keys. I found it very easy to get used to and better than either a Track Ball or HP's suspended mouse. And, because it's in the middle, it doesn't discriminate against us left-handers.

Despite the small keyboard, I was impressed with the IBM ThinkPad 500. While the OmniBook is lighter and smaller, the IBM offers a lot more punch for $1,999 with an 85-megabyte hard disk or $2,499 for 170 megabytes.

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