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Notebook For Weary Road Warriors

Last week I wrote about a $1,119 eMachines notebook PC that's an excellent choice for students and budget-conscious consumers looking for a full-featured, albeit somewhat weighty, machine.

The eMachines notebook is good but, for frequent travelers like me, the Toshiba Portege M100 is a lot better because it's two pounds lighter. Too bad it's twice the price.

Toshiba's 4.5-pound computer has everything I demand from a notebook PC, including DVD drive and a decent-sized screen and keyboard. Even though it's smaller and lighter than most other notebook PCs, it has the look and feel of a "big" notebook.

Like many new notebook PCs, the new Toshibas are equipped with a 1.2 gigahertz Intel Centrino processor, which means they're not only fast but also energy efficient. The machine passed my litmus test — letting me watch an entire DVD movie on a single battery charge.

It also comes standard with 802.11b "WiFi" wireless network adapter. In fact, I'm writing this column from the Palo Alto Café, where I'm connected to the Internet via the café's wireless network. Some notebook PCs, including the eMachines I reviewed last week, use the faster 802.11g adapters, but frankly, 802.11b is already five times faster than any Internet connection you're likely to find. Another nice touch is a slot for an SD memory card used in many digital cameras. There are other ways to transfer data from a digital camera to a PC, but this method is certainly convenient if your digital camera uses SD cards. There is also a "FireWire" port to connect a digital video camera and other high-speed external devices. It also has a USB 2.0 slot for high-speed external hard drives and other USB devices.

True, the M100 is not nearly as small or as light as some of the "sub-notebook" or "ultralight" computers on the market, but unlike those models, this one has no compromises. In order to shave size and weight off a computer, manufacturers do one of two things. Either they leave out the optical (CD or DVD) drive or they reduce the size of the keyboard and screen.

Whether a smaller keyboard and screen is a problem depends on your typing habits and your eyes. Hunt-and-peck typists probably won't care, but those of us who touch-type might find ourselves making more typos with these slightly smaller keyboards. The smaller screens used on most sub-notebooks may be lovely to look at, but if you want to go with the highest resolution, it means having to look at smaller type which can be a problem for lots of people.

Toshiba didn't comprise where it counts. The keyboard has the same size keys and spacing as a full-sized notebook computer. The 12.1-inch (measured diagonally) screen is far from the biggest (you can now get notebook computers with 17-inch screens), but it is big enough for most purposes. Frankly, I prefer it to larger screens because it fits better on the tray table in the coach cabin of a airplane.

I recently reviewed two excellent sub-notebooks that illustrate this point. The IBM ThinkPad X31 (www.pcanswer.com/laptops2003.htm) weighs only 3½ pounds and has a terrific keyboard and screen but lacks an internal CD or DVD drive. In the same article, I reviewed the Fujitsu P2000 (there is also a newer P5000) that comes with a combination DVD/CD-RW drive but the keyboard and screen are pretty small. The same is true with Sony's otherwise terrific VAIO PCG-TR1A. At 3.11 pounds with a built-in DVD/CD-RW drive, it has everything you need as long as you're willing to put up with the smaller keyboard and screen.

It's important to consider the pointing device when buying a notebook PC. The M100 has a "pointing stick" that you manipulate with your index fingers. Personally, I prefer that to the touchpad pointing device built into most notebook but not everyone agrees with me. A lot of people prefer touchpads.

The M100 starts at $2,199, but that's for a machine with 256 megabytes of memory and DVD-ROM drive that isn't capable of writing CDs. The version I prefer costs $2,399 and comes with a DVD/CDRW drive that can read both CDs and DVDs and write CDs. It also has 512 megabytes of memory and a 40-gigabyte hard drive. Toshiba also makes a $2,999 version with a 60-gigabyte hard drive and a DVD-RAM drive that can write DVDs as well as CDs. For many, that's overkill unless you plan to use your notebook to edit and record home videos.



A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

By Larry Magid

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