Megahertz, schmegahertz: Today's portables have enough computing power to satisfy all but the most obsessive needs for speed. The latest round of laptops from popular labels like Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Toshiba focus on portable priorities. They're all about usability, reliability and security--factors of growing importance to computing on the road or down the hall.
The processor/chipset combo is still the core enabler of laptop features. But Intel's newest Centrino package, Sonoma, delivers only a slight bump in raw processing power. More really wasn't needed, explains Matt Mazzantini, HP's worldwide notebook market manager. Even ultraportables have run most office applications crisply since Pentium M processors joined Centrino in 2003.
Cranking up a processor affects cooling, battery life, size and noise--important issues to those carrying laptops between meetings all day, says Jay Parker, Dell's worldwide director of Latitude marketing. Sonoma's faster memory, faster data paths, better graphics and wireless radios improve performance where it counts. They support wireless web browsing, e-mail, presentations and phone calls taking place on laptops that, by the way, no longer function as "second systems."
"Well over 90 percent of our Latitude notebooks are used as the buyer's primary computer," says Parker. Even ultraportable owners wanting larger displays are opting for docking stations over desktops--and doing so with the IT manager's blessing--now that both laptop prices and operating costs are comparable to those of desktops.
"For $1,100 to $1,200, you can get a fully equipped thin-and-light or a desktop with an LCD," says Jim McGregor, principal analyst for Scottsdale, Arizona-based market research firm In-Stat. "More people are choosing mobility."
So what does a notebook need if it's going to carry desktop workloads?
Hierarchy of Needs
First, you want it to be cool enough to get you across the country without burned knees or a melted tray table. It should also see you through days of nonstop meetings and those short trips made while your AC adapter sits on the kitchen table.
If you spend hours streaming audio and video using power-burning Wi-Fi cards, Ethernet network interface cards and Bluetooth, keeping cool can be a challenge. Some Sonoma components save power, like its 1.8-volt DDR2 memory, and battery-makers keep improving on lithium-ion cells. But overall, Sonoma is hungrier than past Centrino versions, says McGregor, so you'll want to pay more attention to power management.
Vendors serve two types of users: businesspeople who need about five hours of intermittent computing around campus, and true road warriors who might have to go eight hours before encountering a wall outlet. That eight-hour target probably requires a second battery slice under the notebook or in a multipurpose bay, and about a quarter of all Dell laptops ship that way, says Parker. But it shouldn't be hard to get five hours from a Sonoma thin-and-light. I got four and a half hours from a Dell Latitude D610 ($1,384, all prices street) running full bore, using up every volt I could!
You can do better using your laptop's power-management utilities to create situational usage profiles for the processor, display, NIC and hard drive. You can even control the fan in an IBM ThinkPad T43 ($1,499). Single-key toggles let you hop among profiles, and some laptops have sensors that automatically turn off unused NICs and adjust LCD brightness to ambient lighting conditions in case you forget.
Of course, more off-site computing increases the opportunities for your machine to be lost or stolen. Losing hardware is a hassle, but losing data can be catastrophic, so there's new emphasis on securing and recovering data.
Integrated smart-card and fingerprint readers are becoming common, and the new Trusted Platform Module on the motherboard requires password and/or smart-card authentication at startup. It can encrypt hard-drive data and lock certain files to a particular system, regulate access to network resources, and encrypt your passwords to provide a single sign-on. HP locks your hard drive, too, so even if removed, it can't be accessed by strangers. Dell and others offer utilities that secretly phone home if a stolen portable connects to the internet.
Another way to protect data is to toughen up portables that inevitably get banged around more than desktops. Stiffened cases, better hinges, sealed keyboards and strategically placed shock absorbers help protect hard drives and other sensitive innards during a tumble off a desk or in the event of a spilled double latte. They also reduce gradual drive corruption from the many small shocks and vibrations caused by constant moving, jostling and not-so-soft desktop landings. Today's portables also include tools so you can recover your data even if your OS is corrupted by viruses or physical damage.
If you want to invest in a new laptop, the HP Compaq Notebook 6220 ($1,399) and the Toshiba Tecra M3-S331 ($1,799) are good choices.
The modern thin-and-light may not be quite as powerful and convenient as a stationary desktop. But we're getting close--very close.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.