The Cutting Edge / COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Rolls-Royce of Notebook PCs Does Work of Three Machines

Most of the time when I travel, I carry around an inexpensive sub-notebook PC like the CompaqContura Aero 4/25. Starting at under $1,000, this little PC is just fine for taking notes, checking my e-mail or writing short articles. Like coach airline seats, inexpensive motels and subcompact rental cars, it's a bit cramped--but good enough for a short trip.

On my last trip, however, I went first class. I didn't sit in the front section of the airplane or rent a luxury car but I carried a full featured multimedia notebook PC--the Toshiba T2150CDT.

The difference was remarkable. Instead of having to peer into a somewhat fuzzy passive matrix display, I enjoyed a 64-color, active matrix screen that's arguably easier on the eyes than my desktop monitor at home. Rather than having to pick and choose which programs and data files to load on the machine, I copied nearly everything to the machine's 500-megabyte hard disk. And I didn't have to leave my CD-ROMs behind. The Toshiba T2150CDT is, in more ways than one, the Rolls Royce of notebook computers.

At an estimated street price of $4,899, it's a bit upscale for most budgets. Still, it may be a worthwhile investment for anyone doing presentations that require a CD-ROM drive and a sound system. Besides, with a portable machine this powerful, you not only get a system for the road but one that you can use at home and at the office. Perhaps you can convince your boss that it's a good deal because it takes the place of three machines.

The machine, which has an Intel 75 megahertz DX/4 CPU, isn't quite as fast as today's top-of-the-line desktop Pentium PCs, but it's pretty close. Because it has two PCMCIA expansion slots, I was able to take along both an internal modem and an Ethernet adapter, which enabled me to connect to a local area network.

It also has ports for an external monitor, keyboard, mouse and printer. Like most notebook PC companies, Toshiba offers an optional "port replicator" ($265) which lets you connect and disconnect all those devices in a single motion. If you need access to floppy disks, you will need to carry an 11-ounce external floppy disk drive because the space usually used for an internal floppy drive is the CD-ROM drive.

According to the scale at my local grocery store, the machine weighs seven pounds, four ounces. Add in the floppy drive and you have a "traveling" weight of just over eight pounds. That's a bit heavy as notebook PCs go but, unlike most portable machines, there is no power supply to carry. Instead, there's just a standard cord that plugs into any outlet--even the ungrounded two-prong ones that you'll still find at many hotels.

You may not need an audio system on the road, but if you do, you'll love this unit. It has built-in speakers and a microphone, along with jacks for external sound input and output. There's a volume control knob, and you can also plug in standard headphones.

Instead of a trackball, the machine has a pointing device that looks like a pencil eraser that sticks up between the G, H and B keys. You position the cursor by nudging the device with a finger and "click" by pressing a button with your thumb. It's nearly identical to the "TrackPoint" device used on IBM ThinkPad machines.

The machine comes with DOS 6.2, Windows for Workgroups (3.11) and a very nice piece of software, called MagiCD, that automatically recognizes your CD-ROM discs. The first time you insert a CD, it asks you to "register" its name. From then on, it recognizes the CD and runs it automatically. It even plays audio CDs at a volume that's about adequate for a small hotel room.

As an experiment, I used the Toshiba to test out my "preview" edition of Microsoft's Windows 95 operating system, which is scheduled to be released officially in August. It wouldn't work at first, but Toshiba supplied me with an upgrade to its read-only memory that makes it compatible with Windows 95.

When running the software, the Toshiba takes on some of the nicer characteristics of the Apple Macintosh, including the ability to shut itself off via software. Select Windows' "shut down the computer" option and the Toshiba turns itself off. A "suspend" command puts the Toshiba into an energy-saving "sleep mode." Windows 95's "plug and play" feature also worked: I plugged in a credit card-sized modem and network adapter while the machine was running and, in both cases, the cards identified and virtually installed themselves.

Toshiba, of course, isn't the only company with high-end notebook PCs. But there are only a few with built-in CD-ROM drives and other features that make them true multimedia machines. IBM, whose ThinkPad line of portable PCs has helped put the company back on track, offers the glitzy but pricey ($7,000 and up) ThinkPad 755CD. There's a space under the keyboard where you insert either the CD-ROM drive or the floppy drive (you can only use one at a time). It comes with a 540-megabyte hard drive or an optional 810 MB drive. There's also a built-in data fax modem freeing up both PCMCIA slots for other devices.

Not that it would be cost-justified, but I'd love to take along one of these machines for the next long family car trip. The kids would be so wrapped up in their favorite games that they'd forget to ask "are we there yet" every 15 minutes. No way. My wife, bless her, is one of those old-fashioned parents who prefer having the kids look out the window.

Computer File welcomes your comments. Write to Lawrence J. Magid, Computer File, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or message on the Internet or KPVN58A on Prodigy.

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