Portable technology is creating an increasingly flexible idea of where an office can be. Whether a blessing or a curse, the wireless office is here to stay--and smart business owners are taking advantage of the evolution. Many are buying notebooks as second computers for use on business trips or sales calls, but with increasing speeds and expandability, these ultra-efficient notebooks can actually replace desktop computers altogether.
Today's notebooks have all sorts of new features and functions. Most offer variants of wireless connection using infrared and radio frequency technology, allowing users to access the Internet or a network, even at distances of up to 200 feet from a phone jack. Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports, which support devices such as digital cameras, printers and monitors, are also becoming a standard feature. The dual-scan monitor displays found in many notebooks have improved, but active-matrix monitors are still superior. The brighter, crisper images they allow, wider viewing angles and rapidly refreshing screens make the several hundred extra dollars they typically cost a worthwhile investment.
The following machines--targeted to homebased and small-business owners--are a cross section of the high and low ends of features and pricing. Just remember, you should put your money on speed and upgradeability, because riding in the slow lane will only allow you to watch others pass you by.
Model: Toshiba Satellite Pro 480CDT
Phone: (800) 334-3445
Features: 233 MHz Pentium MMX processor, 32MB RAM, 2.02GB hard drive, 12.1-inch active-matrixdisplay, CD-ROM drive, Microsoft Windows 95 software package
Weight: 6.9 pounds
Warranty: three years, parts; one year, labor
The Satellite Pro series ranks consistently high with experts. This high-end model is a speedy machine with tons of software, including several Web services, Mediamatics Arcade Pak, Run-Time Video for Windows and Syncro Multimedia Connect.
Satellite Pro is targeted at graphic artists, small-business owners, and corporate sales and marketing professionals, which explains its emphasis on multimedia capabilities. It boasts several ports, including fast infrared for file transfer and network connectivity, and USB for connecting to peripherals such as scanners, printers and video cameras. And how refreshing to know Toshiba offers flexible financing and leasing options along with comprehensive service, support and warranty programs.
Model: NEC Versa 2765MT
Phone: (888) 8-NEC-NOW
Features: 166 MHz Pentium MMX processor, 16MB RAM, 2.1GB hard drive, 12.1-inch active-matrix display, 16X max variable CD-ROM, Microsoft Office software package
Weight: 7.5 pounds
Warranty: one year, parts and labor; free year of UltraCare enhanced warranty service program upon registration
The Versa is packed with Microsoft Office software, including the latest versions of Excel, Publisher, Outlook and Small Business Financial Manager. NEC is also the first to integrate Expedia Streets into its Versas. Handy on the road, the program enables you to find addresses on more than 6 million miles of U.S. roads and in 150,000 cities and small towns.
Quicklink Message Center III software, included with the 2765, provides for full telephony functions, including fax/data transmission and reception, speaker phone, answering machine and integrated voice mail. The included modem is a great investment; it can be continually upgraded by downloading new software to keep up with 56KBps standards.
Model: Macintosh PowerBook 1400cs
Phone: (800) 776-2333
Features: 166 MHz, 16MB RAM, 2GB hard drive, 11.3-inch active-matrix display, removable cover, 8X CD-ROM, Mac OS 8 software
Warranty: one year, limited, parts and labor
Weak engineering in the previous 5300 series left some doubt as to whether to take the 1400 models seriously. But these notebooks prove their creators are learning from past mistakes. The 1400 is the first PowerBook that offers a full 5.5-inch front-loading storage device bay. This can be used to accommodate a floppy, optical, Zip or even a full-sized 6X CD-ROM drive. The series also comes with built-in infrared technology to allow wireless file sharing with similarly equipped systems. The PC world still doesn't want to recognize Mac users, but the 1400 brings the two worlds together with Easy Open translators for reading and writing PC-formatted floppy disks and files.
Model: Dell Inspiron 3000 M166ST
Phone: (800) 388-8542
Features: 166 MHz Pentium MMX processor, 16MB RAM, 2.1GB hard drive, 12.1-inch active-matrix display, 20X CD-ROM, Microsoft Office 97 Small Business Edition software
Weight: 6.4 pounds
Warranty: one year
Upgradeable to 4.0GB and 144MB of memory, the Inspiron is equipped with integrated 16-bit Soundblaster-Pro-compatible audio and 3-D adjustable stereo sound, great for multimedia presentations. MS Office 97 Small Business Edition software, which includes the Windows 95 package, offers everything you need for combining word processing, spreadsheet, scheduling, publishing, financial reporting and Internet capabilities. An unusual standby feature allows users to select the amount of time the computer runs idle before it goes into Suspend mode.
Model: Sharp Electronics PC-M200
Phone: (800) BE-SHARP
Features: 200 MHz Pentium MMX processor, 32MB RAM, 3.0GB hard drive, 13.3-inch active-matrix display, external CD-ROM drive, Microsoft Windows 95 software package
Weight: 8.2 pounds (including CD-ROM and floppy drive installed)
Warranty: three years, parts and labor
The M Series comes on strong for users who need to deliver high-quality multimedia and graphics presentations. With high resolution (1024-by-768 dpi), Sharp boasts a screen 40 percent to 100 percent brighter than current active-matrix displays. That means easier viewing outdoors, where screens tend to get washed out by sunlight--great for road warriors.
Sharp's QuadBay design enables dual-battery support; using two batteries at once allows simultaneous use of the CD-ROM and floppy disk drives, or the CD-ROM and an Iomega Zip drive. The price may seem a bit steep and the weight a little hefty for a notebook, but with such high speeds and so many extras, you may decide the M Series is a wise buy.
Model: IBM ThinkPad 560E
Phone: (800) 772-2227
Features: 166 MHz MMX Pentium processor, 16MB RAM, 2.1GB hard drive, 12.1-inch active-matrixdisplay, Lotus SmartSuite software package, optional CD-ROM external drive
Weight: 4.1 pounds
Warranty: one year, limited
The thin, lightweight 560E has taken significant strides past IBM's previous 560 model, with nearly double the hard-drive and memory capacity, making this a zippy little machine. One thing that hasn't increased is the price. But if you want IBM's portable 20X/8X CD-ROM drive, plan on shelling out an extra $459 to $575.
The 560E comes with Lotus' SmartSuite software, including WordPro word processing, Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, Freelance Graphics, Approach database and Organizer scheduler programs. Other optional goodies include a Cordless Computer Connection ($199) that allows you to surf the Web or send and receive e-mail, faxes and voice mail from as far as 200 feet from a phone jack.