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Compare & Contrast

Laptops: Slimmer, Faster, No Compromises

by Anthony Paonita

BUYING A laptop computer used to mean paying more for much less. Portables were slower, less convenient and more expensive versions of their full-size siblings.

But the general slide in computer prices, coupled with road warriors' demands for more speed and portability, has given us a new generation of capable and light machines. Many of them even could qualify as desktop replacements, saving you the hassle of remembering which file is on which computer.

Ultimately, buying the right laptop depends on what you need. Some lawyers want the whole deal -- something to run simulations done in CAD programs; others just want to hook into office e-mail while on the road.

Here's how to decide how much of a portable computer you need:

Do you need a laptop?

The first -- and most fundamental -- question is: "Do you need a laptop?"

What tasks do you expect to do with your portable? Do you want to carry around your work and hook up with the Internet away from your office? Do you take work home (and you don't have a home computer?) Do you travel?

Many professionals convince themselves that they need a full-fledged portable computer when all they really need is a way to keep track of appointments, contacts and jot the occasional note or to-do list. In other words, they don't need a computer so much as a computer adjunct. For them, a PDA, or personal digital assistant would be enough, especially if it can backup data to a grownup computer.

Microsoft has been trying to sell its stripped-down Windows software, Windows CE, and some manufacturers offer small devices using that operating system. But CE has met a cool reception and many users (and some computer makers) have decided that it's too much for a PDA. Microsoft implicitly conceded defeat by announcing that it's retiring the "CE" moniker early next year.

The acknowledged king of super-portables, or palm PDAs is the Palm, made by 3Com and a couple of licensees. It comes in three basic flavors from plain (the IIIe) to baroque (the Web-enabled VII) and does exactly what you'd expect a PDA to do: keep appointments, contacts, notes, to-do lists and the like. It uses an easy-to-master handwriting interface, but keyboards and other accessories are available. The operating system is Palm's own OS. While you're looking, check out the expandable Handspring Visor, a cousin of the Palm, designed by its original inventors (

Small is Beautiful

There's a sort of reverse status in the alternate universe of laptops. Unlike desktop users, for whom massive towers and monitors denote status and authority, mobile types go gaga over featherweights. Your carry-on is enough to haul from Gate 2 to 22, isn't it? Plus, smaller laptops tend to use exotic materials, so they're more interesting to look at.

Problem is, light and small always used to mean under-configured and nearly useless. But Sony with its VAIO ultra-light systems has made a fetish out of thin, using magnesium alloys and cool industrial design, incorporating the Windows operating system.

The rest, including Dell Computer Corp. and IBM, have followed suit. All of these can be ordered online, either from a reseller, or in Dell's case, directly from a Web site that makes it almost frighteningly easy to spend large sums of money, typically around $3000, with just a few mouse clicks.

What specifically do you want? Look for a fast Celeron or Pentium III processor, a hard disk of at least 3 gigabytes, a modem and enough software to keep you productive, such as an Internet suite and a word processor. I've tried typing on the smaller Sonys and they've got decent, if somewhat cramped, keyboards.

What don't you want? In a word, heft. We're talking under four pounds here, something that won't send you to the health club massage therapist after a day of airport hopping. Don't count on a zillion expansion bays and ports or a large screen, all of which add unwanted weight.

Live From Planet Apple

Apple, as always, goes its own way, temporarily opting out of the superlightweight wars. But again, it's pointing the way in design, both in terms of looks and capability.

Extending its consumer/professional division to its portable line, Apple offers both a sober, if sleek desktop substitute, the PowerBook G3, and a wacky colorful model, the iBook.

The iBook, however, was not designed for the target audience of this publication. Its garish turquoise or tangerine hues might be a bit much for the typical lawyer. Besides its colorful ways, the iBook is also trapezoidal in shape, with a built-in handle. Its rubberized composite material betrays the fact that it was designed with the rough-and-tumble world of a school kid in mind.

The iBook's battery life is remarkable; while short of the claimed six hours, five or so is entirely possible, more than double the battery life of most laptops.

But it's significant for another reason that's almost invisible: wireless Internet and network access. An optional "AirPort" station and card make the iBook the first totally wireless network computer. An iBook user can wander 150 feet from the base station and hook into the Internet (via a normal phone, DSL or cable modem) or an office network, at speeds comparable to regular Ethernet. Watch for similar products from other computer makers and networking specialists soon.

Wannabe Desktops

For most Mac-using lawyers, and there are some of you out there, you'll want the PowerBook G3, with its hot G3 processor, large hard drive, external monitor and USB keyboard ports and big, clear 14.1" active LCD display, perfect for showing that demonstrative evidence. And as computing becomes more Internet-centric, don't be surprised if more and more lawyers embrace the Mac.

The top model also comes with a DVD player, which could come in handy showing that incident scenario animation from your firm's litigation support team. Fast Ethernet support is also standard, so you can hook up quickly to an office network and go online or print out a brief.

Demerits? Really, none, except that the illuminated Apple logo on the case is a bit too flashy for those trying to be discreet. But hey! It can make a nice night light in hotels.

There aren't many hot deals around for those, but ordering direct from Apple is, like the Dell experience, painless, easy and almost fun, if a bit simpler because there aren't as many models from which to choose.

Windows users have more choices in what can finally be seen as a perfectly acceptable desktop computer substitute. The new models from IBM, Toshiba, Dell and, of course, Sony all come with sizzling Pentium III processors and the ability to dock to a larger monitor, external keyboards and other devices for when you have to stay put. DVD drives, external drive ports and Ethernet cards also are becoming the norm for this group. And their built-in 14-inch or 15-inch LCD screens don't leave you with a feeling of deprivation, especially when you watch a movie on your next flight. Most of these are not featherweights.

Solid Citizens

The mainstream manufacturers all have value-conscious, middle-of-the road products that do many things well, if without the panache of the desktop replacements or the take-me-anywhere quality of superlights. These laptops, such as Toshiba's Satellite series and IBM's ThinkPad i480 series, come with upper range Intel Celeron processors (or similar) and big enough screens and hard drives to keep you from feeling too much like a second-class citizen.

All are compromises in some way. But if you truly need a laptop and don't see it as your only computer, you could do worse. Just don't cheap out and get the slowest processor available; you'll soon outgrow the machine.

The whole idea with the newer, better crop of portables is "hardly any compromise necessary." And if you have to compromise just a bit, it might as well be with something so thin and so light that its cool design and exotic materials make hefting around your computer as easy as carrying around the latest issue of Law Technology News.

Portable Computing, From Pdas To Desktop Replacements
2 MB RAM, clear case/colors special low-priced, basic edition of venerable and most popular PDA. $180 Circle no. 302
PALM VII 2 MB RAM, Wireless Internet through company's PalmNet service $500. Circle no. 303
MS Windows CE, 16 MB RAM, color display, 2.5 lbs, popular Windows CE device. Circle no. 304
Lightweight Laptops
3.5 lbs., Pentium II mobile at 400 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 8.1 GB hard drive, IEEE 394 (Firewire), video port. $3000 Circle no. 305
2.9 lbs, Mobile Celeron at 366 MHz, 64 MB RAM, 6.4 GB hard drive. $2000 Circle no. 306
Desktop Replacements
5.9 lbs., Power PC G3 at 400 MHz, 14.1" screen, 64 MB RAM, 6 GB hard drive, DVD-ROM. $3499 Circle no. 307
8.5 lbs., Pentium III Mobile at 500 MHz, 15" screen, 128 MB RAM, 12 GB hard drive, DVD-ROM. $3700 Circle no. 308
Solid Corporate Citizens
6.4 lbs., Celeron or Mobile Pentium III, 14.1" screen, 64-96 MB RAM, 4.8-6 GB hard drive. $2200-2900 Circle no. 309
7 lbs., Celeron 466 MHz, 14.1" screen, 64 MB RAM, 6 GB hard drive, DVD-ROM. $2300 Circle no. 310

Anthony Paonita is director of desktop publishing of American Lawyer Media, and is based in New York City.

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