Portable computing is so good now, it's hard to imagine it getting better, but it will. In the meantime, the latest in executive portables from Dell, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Toshiba includes combinations of power and good looks in small packages. They have the "wow" factor: To see one is to want one.
Frankly, I'm at a loss for superlatives to describe the clever ways their makers squeeze heavyweight computing into these ultralight forms. Stripped of their optical drives and second batteries, none quite reach 4 pounds, and Toshiba's 2.4-pound Portege R100 floats down onto your lap.
How do they do it? The starting point is Intel's Pentium M-especially the new Low and Ultra Low Voltage versions, whose SpeedStep saves battery life by throttling back power usage. Every downsized component is power-managed, resulting in machines that run longer, cooler and quieter, without seam-busting fans and heat sinks.
Granted, portable computing involves trade-offs. Ultralights don't have the processing power and 14- to 15-inch displays of thin-and-lights. If you create documents and spreadsheets on the road or make on-screen presentations, you may want more of a view than the typical ultralight's 12.1-inch XGA display offers.
But if you're the average traveling executive whose moments outside meetings are spent analyzing others' work, crunching numbers and moving mountains of messages, you don't need maximum gigahertz. Double Data Rate SDRAM, a mega-byte of cache and a 400MHz system bus make ultralights quick and responsive.
These ultralights aren't much heavier than a Pocket PC; some, such as Toshiba's R100 or Dell's X300, aren't much thicker. But they deliver a level of computing comfort handhelds can't, giving you full-fledged Windows applications, typable keyboards and wireless connectivity at a fast-growing number of airports, hotels and retail Wi-Fi hot spots.
Small Boxes, Big
Who stands to gain the most from going mobile? You. A recent study by research firm Gartner Inc. shows that gains in efficiency and productivity let an executive recover the cost of operating a portable in about a week. After that, a portable can generate another $57,000 per year in increased productivity.
And the Gartner study measured only destination productivity, not the added benefits that come from wireless connectivity. How do you put a price on being able to wirelessly download a forgotten business presentation at some distant Kinko's or get a critical e-mail along with your Starbucks half-caf?
These portables come with Intel's Pro Wireless 2100 802.11b module, as well as built-in Ethernet, 56K modems and every other connectivity option. For example, you can add 802.11a connectivity to the standard .11b and .11g radios in Dell's X300 for only another $69.
All deliver a full day of computing with thin and inexpensive battery slices that tilt the back of the portable up to a comfortable typing angle. I got the full complement of battery life advertised by their makers (see "Featherweights," at left) with continuous computer use and nearly full display backlighting.
Optical and floppy drives travel with these machines as needed. They shuttle in and out of multipurpose bays or port replicating slices, or ride along in cable-connected sidecars.
Ultralights also offer stylish designs. Toshiba's Portege and Dell's X300 are barely more than silver slivers, while Fujitsu's Life-Book P5000 is thicker but more compact. Black is the other com-mon case theme, and touch pads are the rule, though IBM still relies on its eraser-head pointer. HP's nc4000 gives you the best of both.
Jump or Wait?
Hard to believe, but there's better to come. Stacks of Halloween candy are already piling up at supermarkets, which means we're getting close to Intel's annual holiday chip rollout. Be-fore the holidays end, we'll be seeing new 90-nanometer Pentium M versions, code-named "Dothan." Further miniaturization of each Dothan chip element will mean portables that use less electricity and run cooler and longer on the same size battery. If you crave the latest and greatest, you might want to wait.
On the other hand, the bleeding edge isn't always the most economical place to shop. Dothan may deliver more of everything, but before those chips arrive, current Pentium M versions will undergo considerable price-cutting, making this generation of executive portables an even better value.
Considering how quickly they pay for themselves, it might even make sense to buy one now and trade up later.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor. Write to him at email@example.com..