Replace Your Space

It <i>slices</i> away excess <i>dices</i> the bulkier competition: The desktop replacement notebook kicks your tower to the curb.
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the May 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Do you really need two computers, a desktop PC and a laptop? Lucky for you, not anymore: Powerful, new desktop replacement notebooks can now do the job of both, and come in especially handy for road warriors constantly shuffling their work in and out of the office.

Weighing in at 8 to 10 pounds (and designed to be more transportable than portable), the latest desktop replacement notebooks come with enough processing power and other appointments to easily function as your primary PC at the office. But when you're ready to hit the road, simply unplug it and take it with you-no more worries about whether you remembered to bring this file or that program.

If you're a frequent flier, you still might prefer one of the many 3- to 6-pound lightweights on the market; they're easier to schlep around to far-flung business meetings than their fully appointed counterparts. But keep in mind, those same features that add a few pounds to your desktop replacement notebook also let you compute in comfort at your workstation.

Extras include 15-inch liquid crystal displays, built-in CD-ROM and DVD-ROM drives, extra ports for connecting full-sized keyboards and mouses, and enough memory modules and storage space to handle even the largest databases. Docking stations, port replicators and mini peripheral connect interfaces (PCIs) provide true expandability and interchangeability, giving you access to standard desktop features.

Some models have Infrared Data Association (IRDA) ports for wireless exchange with other IRDA-equipped devices, such as printers and personal digital assistants. Sony has even added a lightning-quick digital interface port (called iLINK) to its F480 for fast and easy transfer of data, video and photos. We can also look forward to a new wireless technology called Bluetooth, which is scheduled to debut this month but probably won't make it into notebooks before year-end or early 2001. Bluetooth is a communication chip developed by Intel, Nokia, Ericsson, Toshiba and IBM for sending and receiving information over radio frequencies. The Bluetooth will let notebooks, PCs and other electronic devices "talk" more easily with one another.

In addition, several of the high-end portable models sport Intel's SpeedStep technology-a power-saving innovation that runs the CPU faster when plugged into an outlet than when relying on battery power. "SpeedStep slows down when you switch over to battery power, so you don't chew up the battery so quickly," explains John Grodem, NEC's mobile product manager.

Bring On The Benefits

A major advantage to using a space-saving replacement that mimics a desktop PC is the real estate recovered. Of course, the bevy of ports on typical desktop replacements means these peripherals can still be added by those who prefer jumbo monitors or dislike trackpads and other portable pointing devices.

Another benefit is upgradable RAM. For example, the memory in IBM's ThinkPad 390X LOU can be pumped up to 576MB. Be warned, though: Upgrades like this are more costly than on a desktop PC-576MB in the IBM will set you back an extra $1,490.

"For most users, 64MB is plenty, and 128MB is a safe number," adds Martin Reynolds, a research fellow for Dataquest.

The latest breed of replacement notebooks are powerful; the Pentium III microprocessors from Intel clock in at speeds as high as 500MHz-a good match for a desktop PC. They also come with hard drives that range from bountiful to huge-up to 25GB in some cases, although 6GB and 8GB drives are the norm.

If you're really more comfortable using a standard-sized keyboard and a regular mouse, look for a notebook with a docking station or port replicator bar that allows you to keep your office peripherals plugged in24/7 (meaning all you have to do to get going is plug in your portable). Another advantage to these devices is the availability of additional expansion slots and drive bays, which takes some of the weight out of desktop replacement portables. The NEC Versa LXi, for example, offers an optional $699 (street) motorized "full docking station" that can take up to four additional hard drives and regular networking cards. For a simpler way to get dockability for peripherals, get a USB port replicator that plugs in to a built-in USB port. It costs an average of $99 (street) for a non-network version, or $199 (street) for LAN capability that can connect to your office network.

While large, 15-inch displays remain one of the main reasons replacement notebooks are gaining popularity, you can save more money by buying a notebook with a smaller screen and plugging in a standard-sized monitor. A few smaller-screen models are listed on our chart, in addition to four 15-inch models. As for weight, if you only travel between home and office, this is hardly a concern if you consider that your office's files can be at your fingertips anywhere you take your computer.

Price Points

Yes, there is a downside to the desktop replacement notebook: the bottom line. Prices for these portables are a lot steeper than for lighter-weight notebooks, which can be bought for less than $1,000. Expect to pay double or triple that figure for desktop replacement notebooks-most are selling for around $2,500. "That's way down from 10 years ago, when they cost around $5,000," says Steve Andler, formerly of Fujitsu, who's found that small-business owners are often willing to invest in new technologies for the sake of efficiency and convenience despite a higher price tag.

Upgrades, of course, will add to your total. If you're on a limited budget, you might have to make some trade-offs: How bad do you want that 15-inch LCD? How fast a processor do you need? You may want to consider one that automatically comes with some extras: Toshiba's SatellitePro 4280ZDVD, for example, includes a 6X DVD-ROM drive in its $2,899 price (street).

Tips Of The Trade

Choosing the right desktop replacement notebook for your business means taking several issues into consideration, including the following:

  • Determine your most critical needs: What level of speed do you require? A midrange speed is usually sufficient for most small-business users. Also, how important is screen size? Those who frequently read spreadsheets or detailed graphics might require a 15-inch screen; however, if your key application is e-mail, you can save money and go with a smaller screen.
  • Warranties range from one to three years, but they don't usually cover damage resulting from travel or lending the computer out. So if you take your notebook on the road a lot or share it with others, you might consider getting screen insurance, which costs about $199 per year.
  • Buyer's remorse? If you're not sure you'll like the product, choose one with a 30-day return guarantee. Who knows? You may have overestimated your needs or don't like the preinstalled trackpad or pointing device on your new computer.
  • Find out the level of docking you require for the number of peripherals you want to connect.
  • If you buy from companies that custom-configure their machines, don't forget to add shipping and handling charges. Gateway, for one, slaps on an extra $99 for desktop PCs (or an extra $49 for portables).
  • Not all 2000 models come equipped with Microsoft Windows 2000, so if you want this latest version, check the operating system.
  • Most computers today come with a 56Kbps modem, but you may want to consider future needs: Toshiba's V.90/K56Flex modems are ready to upgrade to higher speeds down the pike.
  • If you're a road warrior, how much battery power is enough? If you're normally away from AC outlets, choose a machine with a dual-capacity battery that doubles battery power. Sony's F480 replacement notebook with optional dual-capacity pack gives you six hours rather than three.
  • Do you store huge graphics files or entire business files on your hard drive? If you don't use a network backup or Internet storage arrangement, you'll need to buy the biggest hard drive you can afford because it's easy to run out of storage space.
  • Retail stores can't carry all the models we like to see, touch and try out, so do some research online, visit vendor sites for detailed specs, and visit online chat rooms for feedback on what others are saying about the product you're interested in purchasing.

Shopping List


PowerBook G3
(800) 538-9696
14.1 inches
12GB (up to 18GB) CD-ROM/DVD expansion
1 year 10 hours
(2 batteries)
Card slots, video/USB ports, audio jacks, 56Kbps modem, speakers, microphone, trackpad, keyboard lock,
10/100BASE-T Ethernet
Prosignia 190
(800) 345-1518
Pentium III 500MHz
14.1 inches
128MB; expandable to 256MB
12GB (up to 36GB) CD-ROM/DVD drive
Diskette drive

3 years
3 hours

Card slots, TV-out port, 56Kbps modem, zoom video support, IRDA compliant, one-touch Internet button$2,699
Inspiron 7500
(800) 388-8542
Pentium III 650MHz
15 inches
128MB; expandable to 512MB
25GB (up to 75GB) CD-ROM/DVD drive
Diskette drive
3 years
4 hours
Card slots, TV-out/USB/PCI ports, 56Kbps modem, optional replicator with 10/100BASE-T Ethernet, trackpad$4,023

LifeBook E series

Pentium III 650MHz
14.1 inches 128MB
12GB CD-ROM/DVD drive Diskette drive1 year
3 hours
Card slots, audio jacks, 56Kbps modem or 10/100BASE-T Ethernet, hot-swap bay, video pointing device, wireless mouse, security panel$3,499
ThinkPad 390X LOU
(800) 426-7255
Pentium III 450MHz
14.1 inches
64MB; expandable to 512MB
12GB CD-ROM drive
Diskette drive
1 year 3.7 hoursCard slots, video/serial/parallel/USB ports, audio jacks, 56Kbps modem, microphone, speakers, IRDA compliant$2,599
Versa LXi
(888) 632-8701
Pentium III 500MHz
15 inches
64MB; expandable to 256MB
12GB CD-ROM drive
Diskette drive
3 years
3 hours
Card slots, serial/parallel/USB/docking ports, Mini-PCI LAN modem, lock slot, touchpad$3,499
(888) 315-SONY
Pentium III 600MHz
15 inches
64MB; expandable to 256MB
12GB DVD-ROM drive
Diskette drive
1 year
3 hours
SpeedStep, digital video editing, iLINK port$3,299
SatellitePro 4280ZDVD
Pentium III 500MHz
15 inches
64MB; expandable to 320MB
6GB DVD-ROM drive
Diskette drive
1 year 6 hours (w/optional extra battery)Card slots, 56Kbps modem, serial/parallel/USB ports, multimedia Yamaha audio system, Windows 2000 Professional, pointing stick$2,899

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