There is no doubt that notebooks have evolved considerably over the past few years. Not only in terms of their performance - which has generally followed that of desktop PCs, albeit a few steps behind - but in terms of their fundamental design. Notebooks used to be seen as secondary computers, offering fairly limited functions but allowing users to leave the office for a few hours and take some of their work with them. As a consequence, notebooks were relatively small devices with limited functionality.
Those days, however, appear to have gone forever. With budgets now more carefully enforced and computers required for a large proportion of the workforce in many organisations, the luxury of providing two computers for one person can no longer be justified. So notebook computers have become the primary machine for many users, doubling as a desktop work-horse and a mobile computing companion. In this sector of the market, notebook PCs are powerful, durable and feature-rich devices, which in turn means that they are also quite large and heavy.
Because of the change of use, today's notebooks resemble their predecessors in principle only. They have keyboards, screens and hard drives, but that's just about where the similarities end. The notebook PCs we've looked at in this comparative review, aimed at the bulk-purchase corporate market, all have large hard drives, screens that are at least 12.1in diagonally (approximately equivalent to a 14in monitor) and powerful 266MHz processors.
32MB of memory is the minimum specification, and many can be upgraded to over 100MB with ease. CD-ROM drives are integral features, as are - in most cases - floppy drives and long-life Lithium Ion batteries. USB ports, infra-red sockets, sound controllers and 32-bit PC Card slots are ubiquitous. In fact, there's little that a desktop PC can do that these machines can't. As with any seemingly perfect solution, however, there are hidden pitfalls which should be considered before any buying decision is made.
Unlike many corporate desktop PCs, notebook computers very rarely have any form of built-in communications technology. Some, such as Compaq's Armada 1700, have the option of an internal modem should you wish to pay extra for it, but that is an exception to the rule: neither modems, nor network adapters, are provided as built-in components. This is hardly surprising, given that today's mobile users can choose from a wide range of PC Card devices, some of which combine fax, data, GSM, Ethernet and ISDN connectivity on a single card. Considering the rapid changes taking place in the communications industry, the lack of built-in modems or NICs is probably a good thing, but IT managers should budget for the necessary PC Cards. They should also be aware that automated software upgrades or audits over a network are considerably more difficult with notebook computers compared with desktop PCs.
If a particular notebook PC is likely to be used predominantly in an office environment, then it is important that it should be equipped with an external mouse and keyboard, for the sake of the user's physical health.
Most notebooks come with a single PS/2 adapter for either a keyboard or mouse, but in many cases a docking station will be preferable, as this allows for the notebook to be neatly and quickly connected and disconnected whenever necessary. External monitors are also preferable to most notebook LCD panels, and should be included in any prospective budget.
If, on the other hand, the user is likely to spend much of their time on the road, then the physical notebook ergonomics become more important.
Size and weight can be critical here, as can the wrist-rest area, which must be sufficient to allow comfortable typing without risk of repetitive strain injury. Some notebooks are now supplied with guides to health and safety, and these are recommended reads for both managers and users.
One particular aspect of ergonomics that is a fiercely subjective one concerns the type of pointing device fitted to the notebook. The trackball, which was arguably the most ergonomic and usable solution for mobile users, is all but obsolete, consigned to the bin because of its tendency to pick up dirt and grime. In its place can be found either the trackpoint or the glidepad/trackpad. The former is a small vertical stick coated with an abrasive material. When pushed in various directions by the user's index finger, strain gauges translate the pressure into movement of the mouse pointer on screen. The glidepad/trackpad is a pressure-sensitive square pad that allows the user to select and drag screen objects by moving their finger across it.
The bugbear of notebook computer users since the dawn of time has been upgradeability. Desktop PCs have usually had upgradeable hard drives, processors, memory modules and so on, not to mention the possibility of adding new peripherals and changing the monitor. On the notebook front, things have improved recently, but there is still a long way to go.
The hard drives in most notebooks can be upgraded fairly easily using just a screwdriver. The 2.5in form factor is not quite universally used, but in this sector of the market virtually all notebook manufacturers use this size of drive, since it makes stock control and design modification easier. Memory, too, is becoming standardised, although nowhere near to the extent that desktop PC users enjoy. SODIMMs are most frequently used to add additional memory, with most notebooks offering either one or two upgrade sockets.
In general, screens cannot be upgraded. There are one or two notable exceptions, but for most users the only way to increase their visual desktop area is to use an external monitor. In some cases, graphics adapter memory can be increased, but again this is the exception rather than the rule; 2MB is 'standard' throughout most of the notebook industry.
Intel's MMO packaging for its mobile notebook processors was initially thought to be a way for end-users to upgrade their notebooks to the newest Pentium II processor. That's not really what it was designed for, though, with the real intent being to provide notebook manufacturers with a fast way to implement new processors. So, just because you buy a notebook with an MMO processor doesn't mean that you'll be able to upgrade it when necessary.
Check with the manufacturer.
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