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THE CUTTING EDGE: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Traveling Light With Sub-Notebook Machines

Waikoloa Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii is an unlikely place to write a computer column, but when you’re writing about sub-notebook computers, no place is off-limits. Thanks to a borrowed Hewlett-Packard 600CT sub-notebook PC, I get to work while my wife and kids bask in the sun. Is this progress?

The OmniBook is an excellent traveling companion. At only 3.8 pounds (11.11 by 7.28 by 1.6 inches), it’s the smallest and lightest full-feature color sub-notebook on the market. I can carry it around all day and hardly notice it’s there.

Like all sub-notebook PCs, the floppy disk drive is external. The high-end version has a 9.5-inch active matrix display that is crisper and brighter than less expensive passive duo-scan color screens, but costs about $500 more.

The OmniBook has audio output and input, and with an external CD-ROM drive, you have a very lightweight multimedia PC. Unlike most sub-notebooks, the keyboard has the same key spacing as a full-size notebook.

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HP offers an innovative pointing device that works like an ordinary mouse, but instead of being dragged across a table, it’s suspended by a popsicle-stick-shaped plastic connector that slides into the right side of the case. I hated it at first but it’s growing on me, even though I’m left-handed.

Last week I was in New York on business, which is a better spot than Hawaii to try out the fastest and most powerful sub-notebook on the market. The 4.2-pound Gateway 2000 Liberty DX/4 100 is a power user’s dream. The model I tested, which sells for a whopping $4,499, has a very fast 100-megahertz 486 CPU, a 720-megabyte hard drive and comes with 24 megabytes of RAM--more than enough to run Windows 95.

This high-end version also comes with two batteries, a leather case and an infrared device that plugs into your desktop PC so you can exchange files without having to run wires between the machines. A cheaper system, with 8 megabytes of RAM and a 340-megabyte hard drive, costs $2,999. All models have 256 kilobytes of high-speed cache memory for faster performance.

A 10.4-inch (diagonal) passive matrix color screen gives plenty of viewing room. At 4.2 pounds, it’s only slightly heavier than the HP OmniBook, but you get more power per pound and per dollar. The only thing I don’t like about the Liberty is the position of the pointing device. It’s a stick in the upper right right corner of the keyboard that you move with your pinkie. I find it hard to use.

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If you want a sub-notebook with a world-class keyboard, your only option is the innovative ThinkPad 701C from IBM. Its “butterfly” keyboard expands when you open the lid, giving you an 11-inch keyboard in a 9.7-by-7.9-by-1.7-inch machine. There are some other impressive features: It has built-in sound and you can get it with a 540-megabyte hard disk. Performance was OK but not stellar.

What bothers me most is that the parallel port, serial port and other ports are on a separate unit that you have to plug into the back of the machine. It’s bad enough that you have to carry around an external floppy drive on all of these machines--who wants yet another device to keep track of?

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Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at magid@latimes.com.


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