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Look around any airport lounge, and it’s easy to spot the owners of 7-pound laptops. They’re the ones without a computer. Their laptops are so heavy they just had to leave them at home. Lightweight laptops, in the 3- to 5-pound weight class, have been around awhile. The trouble, traditionally, was that as the size shrank, so did the power — and the features. You lost the bulk, but you lost a lot of the bang, too. That’s changing. Today’s lightweight laptops aren’t just thinner and lighter than ever; they’re also more powerful. A new generation of low-power microprocessors, like Intel’s mobile Pentium III chips, provide blazing speed, but don’t require bulky cooling fans. One of the first things you’ll notice about the latest generation of thin notebooks — ultraportables, as they are called — is what you don’t notice: These PCs are practically silent. They come with a rich set of features, often including a big 30-megabyte (MB) hard disk; integrated wireless networking, so you can link to a wireless local area network (LAN); USB (universal serial bus) ports for connecting to peripheral devices; and even handy IEEE 1394 ports for super high-speed transfer of video and data. Even so, these strong, silent types require a compromise or two. To hit the magic 3- to 4-pound range — the weight where your computer feels more like a hardcover book and less like a Thanksgiving meal — manufacturers have dropped the optical drive from the package. This isn’t a problem if you’re simply going to work on documents, fetch e-mail or surf the Web. But if you want to watch a DVD, call up files from a CD or — gasp — install software, you’ll have to carry an external drive or a docking station. Both of those options add weight. Sometimes a lot of weight. One manufacturer, Fujitsu Ltd., keeps the optical drive as part of the chassis. But at just over 4 pounds, it’s the heaviest PC in our roundup. Sure, we know: What you wouldn’t have given for a 4-pound laptop on that last cross-country flight! Well, now you can have your cake and carry it too. DELL LATITUDE C400 Dell’s ultraportable is like that high school wrestling coach you never wanted to mess with. It’s small, but tough. The C400 looks as though it was built from spare tank parts. Yet it’s surprisingly light — just 3.6 pounds with its battery installed. And the unit measures barely an inch high. Dell laptops have never been known for their sleek appearance, but even with its armored shell — or perhaps because of it — this one is a looker. It also offers a lot to like: a crisp 12.1-inch screen and better-than-average battery life (using the DVD drive, the unit lasted one hour and 45 minutes; without it, the C400′s battery provided three hours and 10 minutes of power). It comes with both a touch pad and a pointing stick (other laptops give you one or the other) and zippy processor speeds of up to 1.2 GHz. The keyboard isn’t quite standard size, but it doesn’t feel cramped. And you can expand RAM to a full gigabyte (GB). Now for the drawbacks. Optical drives must be linked to the PC via a cable, so if you want to watch a DVD on the airplane, you’ll have to run a cable from the PC to the drive, which works fine if the guy next to you doesn’t mind if you use his seatback tray, too. The cable tends to come loose when you jostle the laptop. And while the optical drive weighs just a few ounces, it’s one more thing to lose on the road. Dell’s newest ultraportable — the X200 — replaces external drives with a thin docking station that fits under the PC, creating a package much like the Gateway 200. The C400 doesn’t come cheap, either. Our configuration — with 1.2 GHz Pentium III, 256 MB RAM, 30 GB disk, external CD-RW/DVD drive and wireless LAN card — sells for $2,800. Dropping to the 866-MHz central processing unit (CPU), though, will save you $300. It’s a smart move. Unless you’re designing suspension bridges from your hotel room, the slower chip will suit you fine. FUJITSU LIFEBOOK S Fujitsu scores points for cramming some big-laptop features into a light-laptop body. It has a 13.3-inch screen (all the other laptops here come with a 12.1-inch screen, except for the Sony, which reduces its display to just 10.4 inches) and a built-in DVD/CD-RW drive. The tradeoff is some added weight — the LifeBook S weighs 4.3 pounds — but the total is still less than the laptop/docking station approach of Gateway, Hewlett-Packard and IBM. The Fujitsu unit matches the Dell Latitude on battery life, features a full-size (if somewhat noisy) keyboard and offers an IEEE 1394 port. The price is nice, too: $2,199 for 256 MB RAM, 30 GB hard disk and external floppy disk drive. But the LifeBook also leaves a couple of things out, like an integrated wireless LAN card and parallel and serial ports. Its display is adequate, but not as bright as those on the Dell, IBM or Sony models, and the DVD player freezes on occasion. Some design decisions are baffling, like the absence of indicator lights. (To check whether the battery has fully charged, you need to unlatch the cover and check a panel above the keyboard.) Finally, the LifeBook’s 800 MHz processor is at the slower end of the spectrum, and memory can’t be expanded above 256 MB. With a few tweaks, this laptop could be a contender. But it’s not there yet. GATEWAY 200 The Gateway 200 is a slick-looking notebook that goes a long way toward redeeming the company for its ugly, boxy computers. (Redemption for those talking cow commercials will require something extra.) The PC weighs just 3 pounds — just a quarter-pound more than the Sony laptop, but with a bigger (12.1-inch) screen. It quickly became our favorite typing-in-bed notebook. Heck, it’s less stress on the lap than the average Tom Clancy novel. Of course, to drop to this weight, Gateway puts the optical drive in an external docking station, which also contains a floppy disk drive. As with other docking stations, you can swap out these drives and install a wide range of devices, like DVD or DVD/CD-RW drives. Happily, this is a light docking station. When the PC is attached, the total weight is still less than 6 pounds. By itself, the PC offers a wealth of nice features, like integrated wireless LAN compatibility, two USB ports and an IEEE 1394 port (the docking station adds two more USB and another 1394 port). Memory is expandable to 640 MB, and the price is particularly attractive: $1,999 for a system with a 933 MHz mobile Pentium III, 256 MB RAM, 20 GB hard disk, floppy disk drive and CD-RW drive. Like the Dell, the Gateway features a slightly smaller-than-standard keyboard that is nonetheless easy to use. Its screen, while good, is not quite as vibrant as the Dell, IBM or Sony models, and battery life — at least on our preproduction unit — was disappointing (barely 2 1/2 hours without using the DVD/CD-RW drive). But for the price — and size — this model is hard to dislike. HP OMNIBOOK 510 Pity poor Hewlett-Packard. The company releases a perfectly decent lightweight laptop, only to have the PC that most resembles it — the new Gateway 200 — top it in just about every way. Like the Gateway model, the Omnibook 510 uses a docking station to house its optical and floppy drives, meaning that when you don’t need to access CDs, DVDs or floppies, you can pop out the PC and stuff it into a briefcase. Only this PC weighs more than the Gateway (3.65 pounds versus 3 pounds), has a less impressive keyboard and screen and lacks certain extras, like an IEEE 1394 port (though it does have an integrated wireless LAN card). Battery life was disappointing (just two hours without accessing the CD/DVD drive), and the docking station (complete with Polk Audio speakers and — fortunately — room for two additional batteries) was bulky, bringing the total weight of the system up to a hefty 7.2 pounds. The Omnibook may break your bank along with your back. It’s one of the more powerful notebooks in the roundup (CPU speeds start at 1 GHz, and memory can be expanded to a full gigabyte). But it’s also among the priciest: $2,840 to a whopping $3,294, depending on configuration. If only it were a little smaller and a little cheaper. OK — a lot cheaper. IBM THINKPAD X23 By now it’s no surprise that a Thinkpad would turn in a first-rate performance. Thinkpads just have a way of doing that, and the new X23 is no exception. Then again, for the price, you should expect nothing short of perfection. Our loaded X23 — with an 866 MHz mobile Pentium III CPU, 30 GB hard disk, combination DVD/CD-RW drive, floppy drive (both drives are housed in the unit’s docking station) and wireless LAN card — runs just under $3,000. But those megabucks bring some nifty features, like a stellar screen (particularly good for DVD playback) and a terrific standard-size keyboard. Battery life is exceptional — we ran the DVD player for 2 1/2 hours, far longer than any other laptop could manage. The Thinkpad resembles a battleship: The titanium-clad case looks as though it could deflect a cruise missile. Still, the Thinkpad won’t weigh you down (sans docking station, the X23 comes in at a relatively svelte 3.5 pounds). An onboard security chip and software system encrypts information — nice if you’re working on confidential matters or moonlighting for the National Security Agency. Like any IBM computer, this one won’t win any beauty contests: The basic black Thinkpad ’98 look still reigns. And for such a pricey machine, we’d expect a few more extras, like an IEEE 1394 port and perhaps a trackpad to go with the pointing stick. But those are minor quibbles. You can’t go wrong with this notebook — provided the boss is paying. SONY SRX77 Forget testing Sony’s diminutive new laptop; after five minutes of using it, we wanted to buy one. At just 2.76 pounds, this unit weighs less than a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Unfortunately, it’s 700 times more expensive. Forget price: The brand-new SRX77 pushes the ultraportable envelope, reducing the screen and keyboard as far as they can go yet still work (provided you have fairly small hands and pretty decent vision). The 10.4-inch screen is spectacularly bright and sharp, and the PC features all sorts of bells and whistles, like integrated wireless LAN compatibility, an IEEE 1394 port and an impressive array of software. Battery life is quite good, too, if less than the five hours Sony claims. With the screen brightness turned up (the default setting on batteries was too dark), we squeezed out three hours and 35 minutes of power. Oh, yeah, and the silver-and-black unit just looks cool. Then we started using the Sony for a while. And while we’re still big fans, we’ve come back to earth. After steady use, the Sony’s tiny size becomes too tiny, especially compared to the Gateway and Dell units. And while the Sony’s external CD drive is smartly designed, it’s still a separate part that must be lugged around. As with the Dell, it is awkward to access CDs and DVDs using the external drive. Sony’s external drives are also outrageously expensive. While a CD drive is included in the base $1,570 price (specifications: Pentium 800 MHz CPU, 256 MB RAM and a 20 GB hard disk), a CD-RW drive runs a staggering $500 extra. Even an extra battery costs $300, more than double the going rate. While other manufacturers toss in a floppy drive, Sony charges $80 for a USB floppy drive. As you’re writing out the checks, just keep thinking: It looks so cool. No doubt, this is one nifty gadget, particularly to use over a wireless LAN or to work on documents anytime, anywhere. It’s the only laptop you can put in a purse. It’s light, it’s small, but it’s not for everyone. Alan Cohen is a free-lance writer based in New York. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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