Take a load off – eight subnotebook computers – Hardware Review – includes summary and brief description of the new Compaq Contura Aero notebook computer – Evaluation
John R. Quain
DECISIONS, DECISIONS. CONVENTIONAL WISDOM DICtates that if you’re going to buy a subnotebook computer, you’ll have to determine what’s most important to you–the screen, the keyboard, or battery life–and accept that other things will probably disappoint. But don’t fret yet. The concessions may be less severe than you think.
To be accepted in the bantam-weight subnotebook category, a computer has to weigh about four pounds or less and fit in an area smaller than or equal to that of a sheet of letter-size paper–8.5 by 11 inches. You’ 11 find that the other attributes are a mixed bag. A couple of the subnotebooks discussed here boast color screens (Ambra and Toshiba), two have fullsize keyboards (Ambra and Hewlett-Packard), and a few can even go a full day away from your office–up to nine nours–on one battery charge.
Nevertheless, the eight DOS/Windows subnotebooks in this review are not all things to all people, so let’s dispense with a few illusions from the start. Subnotebooks are not appropriate replacements for a good ol’ desktop machine–but they can relieve the back problems a nine-pound notebook can cause. Scaling down from a notebook to a subnotebook requires some sacrifices, though Subnotebooks compete in processing power, but none have internal floppy drives and almost all have cramped keyboards. Most subnotebooks’ displays are also too small to stare at for more than a few hours. And the performance, while reasonable, can’t match what you can get for your desk for less.
What are subnotebooks good for, then? Even with such accessories as an AC power adapter, an extra battery, and an external floppy drive, all of these models can fit in a briefcase or large purse without necessitating another bag to stow your papers and reports. Subnotebooks are ideal for those occasions when you know you’ll be out of the office and might need your computer. A client may ask for the facts and figures you left at home. Or you may get stuck in the airport for three hours. In other words, a subnotebook can help you avoid making excuses.
Shopping for Subnotebooks When looking through these reviews, you’ll notice a general subnotebook profile. Most are based on a 25-MHz 4865L processor or better, have a 7.5-inch (measured diagonally) backlit screen, a keyboard that’s at least 90 percent of full size, an 80MB to 120MB hard drive, an integrated pointing device (no clamps or extra cables), and one Type II PCMCIA slot to accommodate a credit card-size fax/modem, memory card, or network adapter A single rechargeable battery on a subnotebook should last about four hours. (Deduct about 20 percent off the rated maximum battery life to judge how long it will last under typical use. If you plan on constantly running the external floppy drive and modem, cut the rated time by almost half.) A standard package should optimally include an external floppy drive and, including the AC power adapter, weigh in at around five pounds– and all this should cost under $2,000.
You should also note one crucial item generally absent from these machines: a fax/modem. If you’ll miss important e-mail without one, consider adding a 14.4K bps PCMCIA fax/modem, such as Megahertz’s PCMCIA Data/Fax Modem With XJack ($330,  272-6000,  527-8677).
Before you settle on one machine, try out a few. Visit a large retailer and compare models. Experiment with the pointing device. Eyeball the screen. Type a short letter. And don’t dismiss the weight differences among these subnotebooks. They’re all substantially heavier than a paperback book, so any ounces you can shave off now, you’ll appreciate later–especially after a few forced marches through O’ Hare airport.
Ambra Computer SN425C
At first glance, the Ambra SN425C looks like a bargain: a color subnotebook for less than $2,000. But don’t plan on doing sophisticated desktop publishing or detailed CAD (computer-aided design) on this machine Its passive-matrix color screen is fine for general-purpose Windows applications, but it lacks the sharpness of an active-matrix display.
Based on a power-conserving 25-MHz Intel 486SX-SL Enhanced microprocessor, the Ambra subnotebook comes with 4MB of memory and a 170MB hard drive. In most applications, the unit keeps up with the competition, although it won’t win may marathons. Ambra uses NiCad rechargeable batteries. which have largely been supplanted by longer-lived nickel metal – hydride rechargcables. Consequently, you’ll get only a couple of hours of charge out of this model compared with four hours or more on competing models.
Comparable in size to the IBM ThinkPad 500, the Ambra SN425C’s full-size keyboard partially compensates for the system’s limited battery life. The keys have quite a bit of travel and responsiveness, but if you have large hands. the wrist rest may be too narrow. Also, the arrangement of the trackball and left/right buttons located on the right vertical edge of the case makes it tricky to drag and drop. and many lefthanded users will be particularly annoyed.
The Ambra machine is one of the few subnotebooks, however, that can be pressed into service on a desktop. Ambra’s optional port replicator ($249) a bar with builtin ports for external monitor, keyboard, and mouse–plugs into the back of the notebook and eliminates the hassle of having to plug in each item every lime you return to your desk; just pop the subnotebook back on the replicator and you’re up and running. The company also offers a QuickDock bundle, which includes a 14-inch, 0.28mm dot pitch monitor, a full-size keyboard, and the port replicator, for $417.
Ambra sells directly through the mail– so don’t expect discounts–and includes DOS 6.2 and Windows 3.1. An external 3.5-inch floppy drive costs an additional $99. If you’re looking for a real bargain, you can save $400 on this model by choosing a monochrome display.
Gateway 2000 HandBook
Too many compromises account for the paucity of stars for Gateway 2000’s HandBook 4865X-25. At $1,495 direct, it is $300 to $400 less than many comparably outfitted subnotebooks, but its compressed monochrome screen, ungainly pointing device, and cramped keyboard demonstrate that it is possible to make a subnotebook too small.
Equipped with 4MB of RAM and an 80MB hard drive, the 25-MHz 486SX-based portable generally matches the performance of other models using the SX chip. Gateway includes DOS 6.2, Windows 3.1, and Interlink data transfer software, but an external floppy drive costs an additional $99.
In size and stature, the HandBook 486 is most similar to the Zeos Contenda. Even though the HandBook is nearly a pound lighter than the Contenda, Gateway doesn’t do as good a job at fitting everything into the HandBook’s 1.6-by-9.75-by-5.9-inch (HWD) frame. My primary complaint is its poor screen. DOS text appears squashed, and Windows graphics look as if they’ve been put in a vise.
Another HandBook shortcoming is its reduced-size keyboard. Touch-typing can feel like you’re sitting on a crowded bus with no elbow room, and the pointing device–a small blue button located just above your right pinky when your hands are in the typing position–is rigid and difficult at best.
Under regular use, the unit’s battery lasted from 2.5 to nearly 3 hours. Power consumption can be curtailed by standby and suspend settings. In the former, you choose the amount of idle time before the screen blanks and the hard drive spins down. After about 15 minutes, the HandBook drops into suspend–its version of being turned off. In suspend, your data should remain in memory for about a week before the battery drains completely.
Rating: *** 1/2
No other subnotebook takes more chances and relies on more technical innovations than Hewlett-Packard’s OmniBook 425. In many instances you’ll find the company’s strategy pays off one version of the OmniBook can run on standard AA batteries. It is the lightest subnotebook here yet offers a full-size keyboard with a soft but solid feel. Nothing’s perfect, however, and the OmniBook, based on Texas Instruments’s 25-MHz 486SLC/e processor with 2MB of RAM, has its share of flaws.
The main problem with the OmniBook 425 is its large but lackluster monochrome screen. In an effort to keep the system trim and to extend battery life, HP chose not to use backlighting, which illuminates the screen so you can work even in dark rooms. Instead, you’ll have to limit yourself to working only where there’s light, and you’ll find yourself squinting on occasion.
Its limited storage capacity is the other major gripe you may have with the OmniBook. It comes in two configurations, a 43MB hard-disk version for $1,795 (list) and a 10MB flash memory card model, with no hard disk, that costs $2,500. The main advantage of the flash card, which sits in the PCMCIA slot and uses static RAM chips instead of a bulkier and more powerhungry hard drive to hold data, is that you can use four standard AA alkaline batteries with it. (Additional flash cards cost $600.)
To alleviate the storage shortage, the OmniBook includes DOS 5.0, Windows 3.1, Word for Windows 2.0, and Excel 4.0 on an internal ROM (read-only memory) card. Still, even the 43MB hard drive can limit you, so this particular version of DOS 5.0 includes DoubleSpace, a disk-compression utility. It can increase the usable capacity of the drive to about 80MB or to about 20MB on the flash card. (DoubleSpace has been known to cause data problems; this has occurred only on unusual configurations, however, that shouldn’t be encountered on the OmniBook.)
In addition to being the lightest portable reviewed, the OmniBook is also the longest-lasting subnotebook. In informal tests. the flash memory version went well over seven hours without a break, easily surpassing the IBM ThinkPad 500.
One additional highlight of the OmniBook is its flying mouse. At the touch of a button. the miniature mouse slides out of the right side, tethered to the PC by a flexible plastic strip. About the size of a cigarette lighter, the two-button mouse behaves pretty much like the standard desktop variety except that it has no ball underneath. The mouse conveys the cursor’s position via the connecting cable, which is rigid enough to allow you to maneuver it even when no tabletop is available.
To pass information into and out of the OmniBook, there’s a serial port, parallel port, and an infrared bidirectional port for cordless transmission of data between the OmniBook and HP Vectra desktops or any other machine with an infrared port. You can get an infared hookup for your PC from Extended Systems ($149,  3227575,  235-7576). You may also want an external floppy drive from Pacific Rim ($199,  782-1013,  722-7461).
IBM ThinkPad 500
Rating: *** 1/2
The ThinkPad 500 makes few compromises, delivering excellent performance and evincing rigorous design standards. The only less than divine aspects of the ThinkPad could be its reduced-size keyboard (no match for the spaciousness of the OmniBook) and a controversial practicemakes-perfect, eraserstyle pointing device, called the TrackPoint II.
The ThinkPad uses an IBM 4868LC2 chip that operates at two speeds, 50 MHz internally and 25 MHz externally. Consequently, it outperforms all the 25-MHz-only machines in this review. You won’t notice blazingly fast speed, but the clock-doubled chip makes most applications snappier. Performance is complemented by a rather crisp monochrome screen.
In addition to performance, you’ll appreciate the ThinkPad’s solid construction and thoughtful touches, which can mean a lot when you’re 3,000 miles from home. For example, a sturdy sliding door covers the rearpanel ports rather than the more common flip-down door, which tends to break off after only a few weeks of traveling.
Those who like the feel of a desktop keyboard may feel at home with the ThinkPad. Its keyboard delivers plenty of audible clicks and comfortable travel, despite its reduced size. The TrackPoint pointing device is an eraser-like button in the center of the keyboard. Wiggling it with a forefinger causes the cursor to move. Many people swear by it, but I found the buttons, located on the vertical edge of the case, difficult to reach. Dragging and dropping maneuvers can become tremendous feats of dexterity. On the other hand, the TrackPoint doesn’t force lefties to reach across the keyboard.
In its initial release, the ThinkPad 500 used a sealed-lead-acid battery. Unfortunat61y, after repeated use, these batteries failed to hold a proper charge. IBM has since resolved the problem by turning to more conventional nickel metal-hydride batteries. With nearly constant use, battery life should be almost five hours.
For about $1,800 on the street, the ThinkPad comes with 4MB of RAM, an 85MB hard drive, an external floppy drive, IBM DOS 6.1, and Prodigy software. Windows or OS/2 is usually extra, and a PCMCIA 9,600 bps fax/modem will set you back $499 (list).
Packard Bell Diplomat
Rating: *** 1/2
Comparison shoppers will discover that Packard Bell’s Diplomat 170M has more practical features and software than its competition–at a slightly higher price ($2,000). Meanwhile, fashion-conscious buyers will find the Diplomat has a rather stylish exterior.
The Diplomat boasts an ample backlit monochrome screen with excellent contrast and little streaking, two PCMCIA slots (versus the usual one), and a 170MB hard drive. The Diplomat also comes with 4MB of RAM and a 25-MHz Intel 486SL processor, which includes a math coprocessor. Points deducted for the Diplomat’s slightly bulky external floppy drive are reinstated when you notice that the drive neatly retracts its own connecting cable.
The system also comes loaded with software. Current versions of DOS and Windows are standard, as are Microsoft Works (word processor, spreadsheet, and database combo), Microsoft Money (a personal finance package), and a suite of eight Windows games.
Ergonomics have not been overlooked, either. A detachable trackball and the wrist rest fit snugly along the bottom of the keyboard. The trackball itself is a little off-center, so it sits perfectly between your two thumbs when typing. Unfortunately, the Diplomat has a reduced-size keyboard that takes some getting used to.
On the other hand, you can carry the Diplomat pretty far on one battery. Its nickel metal-hydride rechargeable lasts over four hours under heavy to moderate use. To conserve power, a standby mode slows the processor and shuts down the video and hard-drive systems when the machine is idle. Rest mode shuts down everything except the memory subsystem, so you don’t lose your work.
If this flat-gray model looks familiar, it’s because it was originally introduced by Zenith Data Systems and is now sold under the Packard Bell moniker as well.
Toshiba Portege T3400CT
Rating : ***
Toshiba’s Portege is the exception to the subnotebook four-pound rule. The heaviest system in this roundup, it tips the scales at 4.4 pounds. If you must use color graphics on the road, you may feel that this, the first subnotebook with an active-matrix color screen, is worth the extra weight. On the other hand, the initial infatuation may quickly fade when you notice the price premium this system commands–around $3,500 through dealers.
Rugged and carefully constructed, the Portege boasts a 7.8-inch active-matrix color screen, a 33-MHz Intel 4865X processor, and a 120MB hard drive. Included with the system is an external 3.5-inch floppy drive, DOS 6.2, Windows 3.1, and Traveling Software’s CornreWorks for Windows, an integrated communications and file-transfer program. To use CommWorks to its fullest advantage, however, you’ll need to add a fax/modem.
There’s no doubt about the quality of the Portege’s display. Digitized color photographs and graphics look sharp and brilliant. But most mundane computing chores do not benefit from the impressive display. I even found it difficult to distinguish the borders between individual cells in an Excel spreadsheet.
Besides active-matrix color, the Portege boasts additional leading edge technology. Its power resource, for example, is a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. It’s rated to last a maximum of eight hours on a single charge–an impressive feat given that the power consumption of most color screens usually limits that time to around two hours. Without resting, the Toshiba easily made it to nearly five hours in informal tests.
In designing the Portege, Toshiba also managed to combine the best elements from a variety of models. For example, if you like the IBM TrackPoint II, you’ll love Toshiba’s AccuPoint. It goes one better than IBM by positioning the click buttons within thumbs’ reach on a comfortable wrist rest. Although the keyboard isn’t full size, it’s still responsive yet firm.
To complete the package, Toshiba provides a three-year warranty. Of course, at these prices, you should expect the best. If your budget can’t carry the color Portege, Toshiba also offers a monochrome version, available through dealers for about $2,200.
Let’s get small seems to be the credo Zeos followed in designing its Contenda. It’s about the same price and size as Gateway 2000’s HandBook but weighs about a pound more (3.9 lbs.). What you get for that pound is a superior display.
With DOS 6.2 and Windows for WorkGroups 3.1, the Contenda costs $1,695. The basic model is based on a 25-MHz Intel 486SL (so you have the built-in math coprocessor), with 4MB of RAM and an 80MB hard drive. (A $1,395 model is available without any software.) The Contenda’s screen is arguably the best monochrome display of the bunch with good contrast and brightness and virtually none of the streaking effects that plague many LCD screens.
On the downside, the Contenda doesn’t pack quite the punch of the other models. Performance wasn’t up to the speed of the Packard Bell, for example, and battery life is only about three hours under typical use. Furthermore, the Contenda lacks a PCMCIA slot, which means you have to rely on Zeos to provide a fax/modem. The company offers just one communications option at the moment, an inexpensive but underpowered 2,400/ 9,600 bps fax/modem for $49. Zeos also offers several software and accessory bundles; h la carte upgrades include $195 for the 120MB hard drive, $99 for an external floppy drive, and $198 for an additional 4MB of RAM.
The Contenda may appeal to those looking for the most compact Windows machine, but touch-typists won’t be happy. The mushy key response and downward angle of the space bar on the Contenda proved challenging. Moreover, the cursor keys are lined up together, rather than in the more intuitive inverted T style.
The mouse substitute on this model is a tiny trackball embedded in the upper right comer above the keyboard. Not a very elegant solution, but it’s effective and simple to use. Many, no doubt, will say the same about the machine itself.
Though not available in time for a full. scale review, Compaq’s eagerly anticipated Contura Aero should be in stores by the time you read this. A prototype of the Aero we saw looked impressive: a 4.2-pound 33-MHz 4865X model with a 7.8 STN passive-matrix color display and 250MB hard drive that’s expected to sell for under $2,500 ($1,399 for a monochrome version). The Aero boasts an optional docking station (under $100) that doubles as a battery recharger. The Aero’ s price and performance combination ought to pressure others to drop their prices even further.
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