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PC World

Top 10 notebook PCs

January 29, 1999
Web posted at: 3:20 p.m. EST (2020 GMT)

by Carla Thornton

(IDG) -- For the fourth month in a row, Dell's Latitude CPi D300XT reigns atop the power notebook chart. It's not the first time a Dell system has enjoyed a long run as a Best Buy, even though the company's notebooks are no more cutting-edge than those from other vendors. High scores in reliability and service -- two categories our readers value greatly -- help keep Dell on top.

To be sure, we occasionally hear from a reader who's hopping mad about a Dell support fumble. But in our surveys, the latest of which polled more than 6800 PC World readers, Dell consistently ranks among the vendors with the largest percentage of satisfied customers. For the Latitude line, the company offers one of the best support packages, including a three-year warranty on parts. Notebooks in Dell's Inspiron line, which also appear regularly on our charts, are backed for three years on labor, too. Only Gateway comes close to matching Dell's record.

On the budget chart we have a new Best Buy, a lightweight Pentium II-266 from Unicent. The only one of nine new notebooks tested this month to earn a spot on our list, the $1899 Voyager 1212 is an outstanding performer for the price.

AGP goes portable

A year after becoming standard equipment in Pentium II desktops, the Accelerated Graphics Port--a bus designed to improve computer graphics -- is beginning to appear on some high-end notebooks. Does AGP make a difference? In our informal tests, notebooks equipped with AGP rendered both 2D and AGP-optimized 3D graphics, such as bar and pie charts used in presentations, much more smoothly than laptops that transferred graphics data through the older PCI bus. Programs launched faster, and 3D graphics lost the jerky, pixelated appearance familiar to users of PCI-based notebooks. But the improvements aren't due to the bus alone: AGP-equipped notebooks usually come packed with lots of video RAM, faster processors, and bigger hard drives. Though many AGP portables are too expensive at the moment to gain widespread acceptance, they'll eventually become the standard. And so will good-looking 3D applications on the go.

But not all advances are as welcome. For example, we're sorry to say good-bye to energy-efficient Pentium MMX mobile chips; they'll be replaced very soon by a new generation of power-hungry Intel CPUs. Intel claims most notebook users are willing to sacrifice battery life for power. What do you think?

Top power notebooks

  1. Dell Latitude CPI D300XT
  2. Gateway Solo 2500LS
  3. WinBook XL2
  4. Dell Inspiron 7000 D300GT
  5. Toshiba Tecra 8000

Top budget notebooks

  1. Unicent Voyager 1212
  2. Gateway Solo 2500SE
  3. Gateway Solo 3100SE
  4. Micron GoBook 2 266
  5. AMS Tech Roadster 15CTA

Near misses

Eight of the notebooks we tested this month failed to make our charts. Three are highlighted below; the other five are listed in the "Beyond the Top 10" links below.

This month's chart missers ranged from a jumbo corporate model from Compaq to a new version of a thin IBM ThinkPad. Of these, a Pentium MMX-233 from Progen came closest to earning a spot, narrowly missing our budget chart.

Progen's $1499 Venture M233 reminds us of a pair of sensible shoes: not flashy, but affordable and comfortable. The boxy, black, 8.3-pound notebook comes with just about everything built in -- a floppy drive, a CD-ROM drive, and a 56-kbps modem. The entire notebook, including the firm keyboard and the smooth touchpad, feels well built. At this price, you don't get a big hard drive (just 2GB), but you do get a spacious 13.3-inch active-matrix screen. The Venture M233 has a middle-of-the-road battery life of about 3 hours and a modest PC WorldBench 98 score of 112, which is nevertheless higher than most similarly configured notebooks.

The notebook's audio features, documentation, and support plan are nothing to write home about -- phone calls aren't answered on weekends -- but they'll do in a notebook this cheap. If nothing on our budget chart grabs your attention, take a close look at this inexpensive option.

Flexible Fujitsu

No other notebook -- not even one from NEC's trailblazing Versa line -- offers as many mix-and-match drive and battery options as Fujitsu's LifeBook E350. If you can afford these extras, you can configure this attractive 8.2-pound desktop replacement in dozens of ways, depending on your computing needs. Unfortunately, Fujitsu's spotty record on support and notebook reliability prevents us from recommending its portables for now.

We're also not crazy about the LifeBook's ErgoTrac -- a big round button that takes the place of a touchpad -- because we suspect that some users will find it hard to master. And the E350's mouse buttons are hard plastic slivers that our thumbs missed nearly every time.

On the positive side, we found the E350 easy to type on, once we got used to the slightly rounded wrist rest (which at first gave our hands the sensation of being pushed away). The LifeBook's brightness slider, one of its better features, beats the pants off standard hot-key combinations for screen adjustments. We also loved its LED status indicator. Located at the top of the keyboard, it reports on notebook activities with easy-to-see flashing letters.

The LifeBook accommodates a wide range of devices thanks to the two multipurpose bays on its front. The left bay accepts the floppy drive; the right bay takes a DVD-ROM drive, LS-120 drive, Zip drive, or second hard drive (all sold at extra cost). Either bay will hold the CD-ROM drive or a battery, an unusually flexible arrangement. According to Fujitsu, all the options can be hot-swapped and shared across the E series of notebooks.

We haven't tested any similarly configured notebooks, but the E350's PC WorldBench 98 score of 146 is about what we'd expect from a PII-300 equipped with Windows 95 and only 32MB of RAM.

A useful "Getting Started" foldout guide labels parts of the notebook, lists the utilities, and provides tips on how to optimize battery life. The thorough user guide includes a glossary, a big troubleshooting section, and lots of helpful illustrations.

Horsepower in hand

Yeee-haw! AMS Tech's Rodéo 1010CT is a frisky little filly whose long-lived battery will let you ride the range half the day before heading back to the ranch. She's a mite homely, with a gray, boxy finish, and she's not built to take lots of extra accessories. You'll have to scrape by with less documentation and shorter support hours than those big-city companies offer, too -- that's why the Rodéo doesn't make our chart. But those are the only burrs under our saddle. For a Pentium II-300 with a DVD-ROM drive and an active-matrix screen, $2495 is pretty durn good. The Rodéo's basic design includes fixed DVD-ROM and floppy drives, so you can't swap in other options. The Rodéo's touchpad and keyboard worked just fine, but we noticed that the keys have a loose, springy sound and feel to them, giving us a slight case of the yips about its durability. Screen resolution is limited to 800 by 600, but that's not a problem unless you have a hankerin' for every last millimeter of desktop or spreadsheet.

The Rodéo's stereo speakers, which are located near the notebook's hinges, deliver that sheriff's star sound -- slightly tinny. We cottoned to AMS Tech's unique solution for adjusting audio, though. Instead of a dial, three function keys -- for turning the sound up, down, and off -- make controlling volume from the keyboard as easy as falling off a horse.

Beyond the top 10

Power notebooks:

  • Compaq Prosignia 160
  • Gateway Solo 5150LS
  • IBM ThinkPad 560Z

Budget notebooks:

  • Progen Venture
  • Toshiba Satellite 4015CDS

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