From the October 1998 issue of Startups

Not long ago, portable computers were considered woefully inadequate for the demands of mobile business owners. A cramped keyboard, dim screen, underpowered processor and Lilliputian hard drive made the "ultraportable" computer a conglomeration of undesirable compromises.

All that has changed over the past few months, as vendors have pumped up the specs on ultraportables and brought respectability to the class. In most cases, you'll still have to make slight compromises, but you'll find a surprising number of features packed into today's ultraportable computers, including ample processing power, data storage galore, full-sized keyboards and big, bright screens.

Small Sacrifices

Compared to full-sized notebooks, ultraportables offer slightly smaller screens (12.1 inches is the average measurement) and processors that may not be on the cutting edge of processor technology but are certainly sufficient. Ultraportables also require you to give up the ability to run a floppy disk and CD-ROM simultaneously. Some ultraportable models allow you to swap the floppy and CD-ROM at your convenience, while others give you the option of toting an external floppy or CD-ROM drive. All in all, the sacrifices are minor.

Ultraportable computers are so powerful these days, they can easily double as desktop machines, particularly when coupled with an optional docking station. These "mother ship" units stay on your desk and can include a CD-ROM drive, a floppy drive, and all the ports and expansion bays you need to transform these shrunken treasures into desk jockeys. When it's time to hit the road, simply undock your machine and take off with a lightweight computer.

There's one more thing to love about ultraportables: their lower prices. A year ago, computer users paid a premium for the compact design. Now, as ultraportables make their way into the mainstream, some prices have plummeted to less than $3,000 while others are flirting with the $2,000 mark.

But beware--all ultraportable notebooks are not created equal, and there's a world of difference between machines at the light end of the spectrum and those at the heavy end. So consider these factors and choose wisely:

*Size and weight. Who would have thought a few years ago that you could purchase a computer that was smaller and lighter than the average hardcover book? The two smallest machines in the ultraportable category, the Hitachi VisionBook Traveler and the Toshiba Libretto 100CT, both weigh less than 3 pounds and are often referred to as "microminis." They occupy a small niche within the ultraportable category.

The size of these microminis? About 9 inches wide, 6 inches deep and 11¦2 inches high. These compact PCs won't fit in your back pocket, but you'll hardly notice them in your briefcase.

Sometimes, however, small is too small. The biggest compromise you'll make for the size of these microminis is in the dimensions of the display: 7.1 inches and 8.4 inches for the Libretto and the VisionBook Traveler, respectively.

And there's yet another significant micromini trade-off: a smaller--some say too small--keyboard. Sized more for kids than adults, the keyboards on microminis are fine for typing e-mail or browsing the Web, but you wouldn't want to write your autobiography on one. Considering these drawbacks, microminis are probably best for users who want a communication device they can grab before dashing out the door.

If, however, you're looking for a notebook that's up to almost any computing task, you should consider a slightly larger and heavier ultraportable notebook, such as the 2.9-pound Sony VAIO 505G, the 4.4-pound Micron GoBook, the 4.9-pound IBM ThinkPad 600 (51U), the 5.2-pound Compaq Armada 4220T or the 5.2-pound NEC Versa 5080. As opposed to microminis, these ultraportables are built using the theory that a computer should only be as small as a full-sized keyboard will allow. Hence, you get enough space to let your fingers easily do the walking.

Aside from an extra pound or two, these machines are slightly larger than microminis--about 11 inches deep and 8 inches wide. Remarkably, the thickness of ultraportables is about the same as microminis or, in the case of the Sony VAIO, even thinner. The VAIO is the first computer from a major vendor to break the 1-inch thickness barrier, measuring a scant .9 inches thick. That includes a nearly full-sized keyboard, a 2.1GB hard drive and a 10.4-inch diagonal display.

  • Processing power, RAM and disk space. 1998 is the year processing power finally caught up with the demands of most users.

Of course, if you're making multimedia presentations or doing some serious number-crunching, you'll want a faster processor. But the 166 MHz Pentium chip--the bottom-of-the-line processor these days--should be enough to keep your computer running smoothly.

Nevertheless, most vendors give you a choice of processor speed, and if you can afford it, spring for a 200 MHz, 266 MHz or even a Pentium II processor, particularly if you want your notebook computer to double as your desktop machine. If nothing else, the added power will delay the obsolescence of your new computer.

When it comes to RAM, follow this simple rule: More is better. Look for a machine with at least 32MB RAM and the option to install more. Most ultraportables are designed to accommodate far more RAM than you'll ever need, but if you think you'll want to add RAM later, find out how much each 16MB or 32MB memory module costs. Prices vary widely.

How large should a hard drive be? That depends on three factors: the number of programs you use, the amount of data you create, and how much Web material you like to hoard. Ultraportable vendors usually let buyers choose the size of the hard drive--but not always: Sony's VAIO only comes with a 2.1GB hard drive. Likewise, the microminis are designed around one hard-drive size.

Today, you can find optional hard drives as large as 8GB. If you've owned computers in the past, you know that hard drives fill up far faster than you anticipate, so even if 4GB seems like the size of Texas to you now, it may be worth the extra $200 or so in the long run.

  • Display. Traditionally, due to poor contrast and small size, the screen has been the most disappointing feature of portable computers. Although every vendor describes its screens as "vibrant," "sharp" or "colorful," that's not always the case.

If you can afford to, stay away from low-priced single-scan passive-matrix color displays, sometimes referred to as super-twisted nematic (STN) LCDs. The preferred option is an active-matrix screen, the brightest available. One step down, but still adequate, is a dual-scan passive matrix.

Screen sizes for ultraportables range from 10.4 inches to 13.3 inches. The NEC Versa and the IBM ThinkPad boast the biggest screens of the bunch. And the bigger the better, especially for spreadsheet work and Web browsing.

Resolution--the number of pixels on the screen--is another factor that determines screen quality: The entry-level resolution is 800 x 600, but you'll find the 1,024 x 768 resolution option on some models that offer larger screens.

  • Expandability. This is perhaps the most overlooked feature of all computers. Most ultraportables include ports so you can connect an external monitor, a keyboard and, of course, a printer. And many are packaged with an external floppy drive or CD-ROM drive so that you can enjoy both.

That may be enough for you, but better still are such models as the Micron GoBook and the NEC Versa that come with modular bays (a one-size-fits-all opening that lets you decide which device you want to bring along) a floppy drive, a CD-ROM drive or a second battery. If the computer has "hot swapping," you can swap devices in and out without turning off the computer.

Now that notebook computers compete in performance with desktop computers, it doesn't always make sense to own two computers--not when you can buy a docking station or port replicator and expand the capabilities of a notebook to make it your one and only machine. Find out whether a docking station or port replicator is available, and make sure its features meet your needs.

  • Battery life. Notebook computers have improved over the past few years in all areas except one: battery life. For some reason, battery makers have had a hard time breaking the three-hour barrier. If battery life is important to you, you have a few options. The Hitachi VisionBook, for example, lets you plug in two batteries simultaneously. The Micron GoBook does one better with an optional battery module that extends battery life to 11 hours before recharging--that is, of course, if you want to work that hard.

There's plenty more information to consider before you buy (price and support, for example). Whatever you decide, remember that any computer can look great on paper. If possible, try before you buy. "Somewhere on the road" is no place to realize you've purchased the wrong machine.