Latest in Laptops Offer New Ways to Travel in Style

I love my desktop computer, but sometimes I have to work from the road. I'm not alone: Dataquest estimates that 14.5 million executives, salespeople and other road warriors will buy laptops this year.

Finding a suitable laptop computer to take on the road is now pretty easy, though not necessarily all that affordable.

Leading PC vendors, including Compaq, Toshiba, IBM and Apple, make a wide range of systems, from lightweight machines such as the IBM ThinkPad 560, Toshiba Portege, Hewlett-Packard OmniBook 800 and Compaq 4100 to powerful desktop replacements such as Compaq's Presario 1080 or Apple's fabulous new 3400C.

The full-fledged multimedia machines typically come with built-in floppy and CD-ROM drives and can even be converted into a desktop machine via an optional expansion chassis that supports an external monitor, external keyboard, mouse and standard PC expansion slots.

Compaq's Presario 1080, for example, sports an Intel 166-MHz CPU with MMX. It's not quite as fast as the fastest desktop, but it's close. Its 12.1-inch active-matrix display is arguably easier on the eyes than a standard desktop monitor, and its 1.44-gigabyte hard drive, while not as big as what you typically get on high-end desktop machines, is still pretty beefy.

With the 33.6-kilobyte built-in modem, stereo speakers and full-motion MPEG video, you have a pretty impressive system. But the high-end model, at a suggested retail price of $4,499, is about twice the price of a similarly equipped desktop machine. And at 7.6 pounds, it's not something you want to carry around with you all day.

Still, everything you need--including the power supply and the floppy and CD-ROM drives--is built into the machine. There's nothing else to carry around except an electrical cord. The beauty of this design is that you don't have to worry about packing an external power supply or other peripherals. Just stuff the machine and the power cord in your bag and head out the door.

Before you faint from sticker shock, Compaq has lower-cost notebooks starting at $1,999. The entry-level Armada 1500, for example, comes with a 120-MHz Pentium CPU, 16 megabytes of RAM, a gigabyte hard drive, and internal CD-ROM floppy and a 33.6-Kbps modem. It has specifications similar to the Presario line, although its software is oriented more to consumers than business customers.

About the only thing I don't like about these machines is the pointing device. Compaq, like Apple and several other companies, uses an electronic touch pad. Some people love these devices--there are no moving parts, and I'm told that once you get used to them they're easy to use. I've never gotten used to them, but pointing devices, like keyboards, are a matter of personal preference. Of course, you can always plug in a mouse if you don't mind carrying one around.

Compaq's lighter-weight 4100 series lets you choose between the electronic track pad or an optional track ball. The 4100 has an interesting design. It can be quickly converted into several configurations, depending on what you need and how much weight you're willing to carry.

The standard configuration (6 pounds) has a built-in floppy and includes a handle that's also a battery. You can shed a pound by detaching the handle and replacing the floppy with an internal battery, or, if you want the full multimedia system, you can attach the CD unit to the bottom of the notebook. That also gives you enhanced stereo sound, a MIDI/game port and the ability to add a third battery.

But if you want the works, you'll need a strong back and a fat wallet. A full-blown, high-end system with an active-matrix display costs about $3,500 and weighs 8 pounds. However, the machines are sold in modules. For $1,299 you can start out with a basic unit with a 120-MHz CPU, 16 megabytes of RAM, a floppy and a gigabyte hard drive.

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If it weren't for one feature, I'd be in love with Hewlett-Packard's ultralight OmniBook 800 CT. It weighs less than 4 pounds and measures only 7-by-11-by-2 inches. Yet it's a no-compromise machine. My $3,200 review unit packs 16 megabytes of memory; a 1.3-gigabyte hard disk; a 133-MHz Pentium; and a 10.4-inch, active-matrix display that is crystal clear from virtually any viewing angle.

There is even an SCSI port that lets you plug in a CD-ROM drive, a zip drive or a tape backup unit without using one of the two PCMCI slots. The machine has an instant on-off button that, unlike the sleep mode on other machines, really is instantaneous.

The fatal flaw, once again, is the pointing device. It has a weird-looking mouse that's attached to the right side of the machine. It works like an ordinary mouse, but instead of dragging it across a table, it's suspended on a plastic stick that juts out on the side of the case.

I guess someone must like this thing; HP has built it into several OmniBook generations. Personally, I find it hard to use. For starters, it's on the right, which is a lousy place for us lefties. But it's also hard to use for precise pointing. If you want state-of-the art, HP this week announced a $4,500 version with a 166-MMX CPU and a two-gigabyte hard drive. Entry-level systems start at $2,415.

My favorite lightweight notebook remains the IBM ThinkPad 560. This machine, which has been on the market for more than a year, is two things I'm not--light and thin. At 4.1 pounds and 1.2 inches high, it's extremely easy to carry around. You can get up to a 2.1-gigabyte hard-disk drive and a generous 12.1-inch display.

The keyboard is full-size, and the TrackPoint pointing device, to my fingers, is easier to use than a track ball, touch pad or any other pointing device. Shaped like a pencil eraser, it sticks up between the G, H and B keys and lets you control the cursor by moving it with your fingers.

Prices start at $2,499 for one with a 2.1-gigabyte hard drive, 11.3-inch passive-matrix display, eight megabytes of memory and a 133-MHz Pentium CPU. The model with an active-matrix display costs $4,399.

The floppy-disk drive, unfortunately, is external, as is the power supply, creating a total carrying weight of just over 6 pounds. It has pretty good sound but doesn't come with a CD-ROM drive. External drives are available from IBM, Panasonic, Sony and other companies starting at about $299.

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Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at magid@latimes.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com

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