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SHRINKING LAPTOPS


November 1, 1999
By Pulp & Paper Canada

Powerful microcomputers are available in a wide range of sizes, from floor standing towers to the currently popular “palm” devices. We discussed the Palm Pilot in the February issue, and it is still t…

Powerful microcomputers are available in a wide range of sizes, from floor standing towers to the currently popular “palm” devices. We discussed the Palm Pilot in the February issue, and it is still the smallest computing device with sufficient power to be useful for most people.

Today, a high proportion of computer sales for business use is laptops. The old rule of thumb that laptops cost twice to three times the cost of an equivalent desktop computer still applies. For most users, it is no longer necessary to sacrifice significant features to have the portability of a laptop. However, if you want the smallest and most portable, you have to give up some features and pay well above the minimum price.

The current crop of laptop computers varies from machines the size of my Dell Inspiron 7000, to my wife’s Toshiba Protg 3110. The principal statistics are summarized in the table. Some of the other manufacturers have competitive machines, but not all have such extremes. Which is best? That depends on what your priorities are. This month we will discuss our experience, and offer some suggestions on which features are appropriate for specific purposes.

One of the reasons that the Toshiba is so small is that it has neither floppy disc drive nor CD built in, whereas the Dell has both drives permanently installed, and the CD drive also plays DVD’s. Except for the modem, all accessories for the Toshiba are separate boxes. Some can be plugged directly into the computer, while if you want to use the full complement, you plug into a “network adapter”. This is a separate box about 180 mm x 50 mm x 20 mm that connects to the computer by a cable about 30 cm long. This makes for a rats nest on the desk, and it would be much more convenient if the connecting cable was a couple of feet longer. When using the computer with a full size keyboard and separate monitor, it is easy to have the mess tucked out of the way, but not when using the laptop itself.

The only on-board accessory in the Toshiba is the modem, which is practical since it is the only accessory normally needed on the road. This allows printing by sending documents to a nearby FAX machine, such as in a hotel or client’s office.

If all the accessories are carried, the weight approaches the Dell and connecting the whole lot together when jumping from plane to airport lounge and to another plane is a nuisance. Of course, you can work while traveling and just hook up the accessories when needed, perhaps in a hotel room.

The Toshiba is smaller than a normal full-page notepad, and about twice as thick. Being so small, it slips into a briefcase or a larger purse quite easily, and we find that the difference between carrying it and the Dell is much more than the dimensions would suggest.

The smaller keyboard in the Toshiba is rather tricky to use, and is almost unusable by a man with very large hands. However, it suits someone with smaller hands quite well.

The tiny 260-mm (10 in.) screen in the Toshiba is adequate for word processing and E-mail, but rather frustrating for large spreadsheets. One very good feature of the Dell is the 380-mm (15 in.) high-resolution screen.

WHAT TO BUY?

Since I use the computer while traveling mostly for writing notes and reports, without a lot of spreadsheet work, I would buy the small machine in preference to the large one. I would use it in the office with a full-size keyboard and monitor. If I normally did significant work on the road, such as AutoCAD, large spreadsheets, process simulation etc, then I would prefer the larger machine, primarily because of its excellent screen.

In almost all cases, I think it is worth buying a modern split keyboard (Microsoft “Natural” or equal) with a numeric keypad, and a mouse, to use with a laptop when at home base.

DVD VS. CD DRIVE

DV discs look just like a CD, but have about 25 times the capacity. I bought the combined CD/DVD drive for the Dell, mostly because I expected that software would appear on DVD. This would be particularly useful for reference software like encyclopedias, maps etc that are too large to fit on one CD. However, that has not (yet???) happened. DVD’s have been available for a couple of years, but have not become popular, so it is quite possible that they never will, and another technology will leapfrog over them to provide capacity beyond the extremely widely popular CD’s.

The extra cost of a DVD drive is about $250, when initially purchasing the computer. It is relatively expensive to change the drive in a laptop after original purchase, so this is a point to consider, although DVD is of limited use now.

I can buy or rent full-length movies that will play on the DVD, but a computer is an expensive entertainment toy. Some of the DVD movies are supplied with several language versions on the same disc, and have the option of showing sub-titles in one language while voice is in another. This is quite a good way of improving skills in a language that you speak, but not fluently. I find it helpful to see and hear words in Spanish simultaneously, and can see English subtitles while hearing Spanish if I wish.

Toshiba 3110Dell Inspiron 7000
Dimensionsmm Depth x W x thickness220 x 260 x 19267 x 327 x 64
WeightKg1.34.1
RamMb (our computer/max available)64/128128/512
Hard discGb6.310 (25 available)
Screen sizemm diagonal260380
Screen resolutionPixels800 x 6001024 x 768
Maximum resolution for external screenPixels1280 x 10241600 x 1200
Width of keyboardmm245290
Slots for PC card12


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