Laptop Computers: A User Review

©1994 Lawrence I. Charters and Charles Kelly

Computer Digest, Vol. 9, no. 5, August 1994, pp. 8-10

You can talk hard drives, you can talk disk space, you can talk input devices. But for many mobile users, the best advice for selecting the right laptop might be found in the words of an old Bob Dylan classic, “How does it feel …”

Operating from that premise, Computer Digest invited an unlikey pair of guest reviewers to test out some laptop computers: Lawrence Charters, vice president of Washington Apple Pi; and Charles Kelly, vice president of the Capital PC Users’ Group, Va., and executive director of the Advanced Systems User Group in Annandale, Va. A PC guy and a Mac guy. Apples and Oranges. Night and day. In short, two men from entirely different universes with entirely different criteria for how a computer should “feel.” The test wasn’t exactly scientific; it was downright unscientific. But it certainly is more telling than Mr. Whipple squeezing the Charmin, and it was lots of fun, too.

The models reviewed were: IPC Technologies’ Austin Direct 486DX2-66 Color Notebook, the IBM ThinkPad 755C (with docking station), the Toshiba Satellite T1960CT and the Compaq Contura 4/25c. The review would not have been possible without the technical assistance of Erich Pfleeger, configuration manager at Techmatics Inc. of Fairfax, Va., who pretested our evaluation models and set up the test site.

Charters, the Mac loyalist, patiently suffered the trauma of what we put him through: a Macless test. Of course, we tried to get one of Apple’s new PowerBooks. But they are in such demand that an evaluation copy was out of the question and the one we bought for our own use still is just a number on a waiting list.

Definitely not practicing that thing about what to do when in Rome, Charters managed to work the Macintosh into the test, ranking it above all the other computers he tested, even though for our purposes it didn’t exist. Talk about brand loyalty!

Not surprisingly, Kelly, on the other hand, found merit in all the computers he tested. He even brought his wife’s Compaq Contura and asked to throw it into the mix. We deduced that his zeal could not have been a counter-Mac attack, as he recently issued a professional recommendation to a very large organization that it should standardize on the PowerPC.

These reviews are by no means meant to be product comparisons. For the most part, the machines fall into different categories that target different types of users. So any comparison would be unfair. However, these reviews do offer insight into the types of things veteran users consider when they evaluate the “feel” of a laptop. Coupled with the technical information we have supplied, the reader should have a pretty good idea of what to expect from these units. Enjoy!

Austin Direct Notebook 486DX2-66

IPC Technologies Inc., an Austin, Texas-based direct marketing company specializing in high-quality, low-cost personal computers in custom configurations, sent us their Austin Direct Notebook 486DX2-66 computer. Manufactured by IPC subsidiary Austin Direct, the notebook is available in active matrix, monochrome and dual scan.

It can be equipped with a 32-bit local bus video for the power windows user, and can provide plenty of storage with a choice of hard drives ranging from 130 MB to 340 MB. It features two type II or one type III PCMCIA slots for communications and future multimedia options.

The notebook is available with both 75 MHz and 100 MHz processors and includes an EPP/ECP Parallel Port, 16550 high-speed serial port, and external keyboard and VGA monitor ports. An optional docking station adds two l6-bit ISA slots, two serial slots, one parallel slot, one keyboard slot, and one VGA slot.
The system comes with an embedded 16mm trackball at the bottom of the keyboard area and a palm rest handle.

Prepackaged software includes DOS 6.2 and Windows 3.11. Also part of the package: a one-year parts and labor warranty, with a 72-hour turnaround for service.

Austin Direct 486DX2-66 Color Notebook
As Tested:
16MB RAM and a 340MB hard drive.
• 9-inch active matrix display screen
• 6.5 lbs
• M.S.R.P. $4058.00
• Additional sales information: 1-800-752-1577

What Lawrence thought:

  • The manual is curious. There is no address printed anywhere. Phone numbers, yes. Addresses, no. Probably printed in Joe’s garage.
  • Trackball is nicely ambidextrous, but too damn small.
  • TFT screen is easier to read than I would have expected, but the colors seem somewhat washed out for whatever reason. If you type quickly to the edge of the screen, it takes a while for the cursor to wrap, leaving you lost in cyberspace. When the cursor does finally wrap to the next line, sometimes the edge of the screen is not refreshed.
  • Floppy disk drive is dead center along front edge, which could make it inconvenient to use on an airplane but probably OK for most purposes.
  • The drive is reasonably big and fast when you are using it constantly, but even when plugged in, it seems to go to sleep too quickly, and take too long to get back up to speed.
  • They need to hire someone with some artistic ability to make their Windows wallpaper background. The default is the company logo, printed in a sick green.
  • The ports and interfaces are unremarkable, the case is utilitarian. A blue-collar notebook.

What Charles thought:

  • The beast of the pack-big hard drive and an ample memory. It’s also the smallest, most compact keyboard. It has a good feel but a bit of a task for large hands.
  • The floppy in the front, center area could be awkward.
  • Built-in front and center trackball is small, but quite usable. Felt fairly comfortable from start.
  • Standard posts behind panel in rear. Panel door fit and finish wasn’t too good.
  • Very snappy, well performing machine.
  • Case fit and finish not near quality of other three, but OK.
  • Good screen, good angle viewing, excellent contrast. I could live with this.
  • Overall, I was swayed by the hard disk size and memory plus the performance was the best of the lot. The keyboard was actually comfortable after a while, its compactness could be viewed as an asset-and I have large hands.

IBM ThinkPad 755C

As tested:
• Inte1486DX4-75MHz
• 4MB RAM and 540MB removable hard drive.
• 10.4 inch active matrix display screen
• 6.4 lbs
• M.S.R.P. $6,549
• Sales information: 1-800-426-2968

IBM sent us two of their latest ThinkPad computers, the 755C and the 360C. We reviewed the higher grade model, the 755C, which is faster and has more memory (and is priced about $2,000 more) than the 360C.

The 755C ThinkPad is a high-powered notebook computer for high-end users, according to an IBM press release. Complete with an integrated 16 bit stereo audio support with microphone and speaker, standard features also include a 10.4 inch color active matrix screen, a 50 MHz processor with 8KB internal cache (upgradeable to 75 MHz with 16KB internal cache), 4 MB RAM, a 540 MB custom removable hard drive, an external SVGA port, dual LCD/CRT for simultaneous viewing, and PCMCIA support for Type I or Type II devices or a Type III device. The computer also includes an enhanced parallel port, one serial port and a mouse/numeric keypad/keyboard port.

Embedded in the middle of the 755C’s full-size keyboard is a small “mouse” that is about one-fifth the size of a single key on the keyboard. Called the “TrackPoint II,” merely pressing on the solid-rubber device with your finger moves the cursor, eliminating the need for a full-sized mouse or trackball.

Preloaded software includes: IBM DOS 6.3 and Microsoft Windows 3.1, Prodigy and America Online, Microsoft Video for Windows Vl.l runtime, IBM ThinkPad 755 demo, SofNet FaxWorks V3.0, Lotus Organizer Vl.12, Lotus cc:Mail, e-mail for the Advantis Network, Lotus ScreenCam V 1.0, Triton CO/Sessions Host, OAG Flight Disk and Monologue for Windows.

The unit comes with a three-year international traveler’s parts and labor warranty, offered anywhere in the world where an IBM dealer could be found, said one IBM representative.

What Lawrence thought:

  • Have no idea what this new pointing device is called; it looks and feels sort of like a pencil eraser embedded in the keyboard between the g, h and b keys. After playing with it for a bit, I decided I like it much better than any of the other trackballs on any of the other notebooks. It still falls behind the trackpad of an Apple PowerBook 500 series or even a regular PowerBook trackball, but (except for the two-button arrangement required by Windows) it can be easily used by either left- or right-handed users.
  • The docking station, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. It adds a bunch of ports, including a SCSI port (unusual for a Windows notebook, though standard for a Mac PowerBook). It adds stereo speakers, which stick out from the base and resemble either elephant ears or, possibly, strange palm rests. (When I first saw them, I thought they were palm rests.) Given the size of the thing, it is disappointing that it doesn’t include Ethernet, LocalTalk, Token Ring and maybe a Nintendo interface as well. Despite the goodies it does have, the dock isn’t too attractive. It is heavy and awkward, and it raises the keyboard to an uncomfortable level. I’d like to try the ThinkPad without the dock sometime.
  • The keyboard is quite comfortable (best of the lot), the screen is nice and bright and easy to see, with good color saturation.
  • The hard disk drive is big and fast.
  • PC-DOS is slightly different than MS-DOS, which occasionally was confusing (such as switching directories). But as long as you stay in Windows (and the machine comes configured with that assumption), it is a pleasure to use-if you don’t happen to have a PowerBook, that is.

What Charles thought:

  • It has a docking station attached that raises the computer too much, it makes it hard to use the keyboard.
  • The keyboard has an excellent feel. It uses an h-mouse-pencil-eraser like pointing device embedded in the keyboard. Takes some getting used to.
  • Speed of computer seems very good-loaded Lotus Organizer quickly.
  • Excellent screen-size and clarity. Looks to be 10.5 inches diagonally. Largest active matrix screen of the four.
  • Serial, parallel, and SCSI connections on rear of docking station.
  • Overall great computer, but the pointing device is very awkward for someone not used to it. It probably is an acquired taste.

Toshiba Satellite T1980CT

As tested:
• Intel 50MHz 486DX2 processor
• 4MB RAM with 200MB hard drive
• 8.25 inch active matrix color LCD
• 6.9 lbs
• M.S.R.P. $3,250
• Sales information: 1-800-999-4273

Toshiba Computer Systems sent us their new Satellite T1960CT notebook computer, part of the company’s recently introduced line of color notebooks. Aimed toward value conscious consumers not requiring docking station capability, the Satellite computer is priced slightly lower than the IPC or the IBM ThinkPad. The basic system includes a 50 MHz i486DX2 CPU with 8K internal cache, a 200 MB hard disk with an optional 320MB, 4MB of RAM expandable up to 20MB and a PCMCIA slot designed to hold Type I, II, and III industry standard cards, as well as larger 14.5mm Toshiba cards.

Rounding out the T1960CT features are a full-size, 82-key keyboard, the BallPoint mouse 2.0 with QuickPort, standard ports and a front-loading 3.5-inch, 1.44 MB floppy disk drive. All members of the T1960C Series come pre-installed with Windows 3.11, MS-DOS 6.21, Toshiba utilities and Hypertext on-line documentation. Available is a one-year limited warranty for parts and labor, including international coverage in 22 countries at no cost. An extended warranty can be purchased. In addition, Toshiba offers 24-hour, seven-days-per-week on-line technical assistance via a toll-free phone number, an electronic bulletin board service, and a CompuServe forum.

What Lawrence thought:

  • Nice screen, with good color saturation, though it is somewhat small.
  • There is decent speed, but a rotten right-hand-only trackball with a less than obvious way of clicking the button if you are a touch typist.
  • As delivered, has a pathetic collection of Windows fonts, just short of none at all.
  • Keyboard feels a bit loose, but is decent. One of the challenges with playing with several MS-DOS notebooks at once is “searching for the delete key.” Toshiba’s choice was not a good one: along the bottom edge. I also found myself accidentally resting my palm on the left-hand outer edge, which triggers the Alt key, which triggers strange, unexpected, unintended Windows commands.
  • Floppy drive is along the front edge, which would make it difficult to use in cramped quarters (like on a plane or on the Metro).
  • Has the standard array of interfaces. The port doors slide, rather than flop open, which is a nice touch; probably less chance of them getting broken.

What Charles thought:

  • Trackball is fixed, but at least no cord to flop around.
  • Keyboard had good response, a little mushy.
  • Screen somewhat small.
  • 486DX, clock speed unknown, feels like about 25-33 MHz.
  • No applications to load.
  • Overall, a nice unit, but the screen is smallish. Performance is adequate.

Compaq Contura 4/25c

As tested:
• 486SX/25 8MB RAM, 180 MB hard drive
• 9.5 inch monochrome screen
• 6.7 Ibs
• M.S.R.P. $2,300
• Sales information: 1-800- 345-1518

Reviewer Charles Kelly supplied last year’s Compaq Contura 4/25c for testing. The 6.7 Ib computer has a 25 MHz processor with 8 MB RAM and a 180 MB hard drive, a 9.5 inch monochrome VGA display and a full size keyboard. Also included are standard serial, parallel, mouse, keyboard and external keyboard ports. There are no PCMCIA slots.

Featured on this model is EasyCursor, an integrated cursor key mouse that allows the customer to move the cursor using the up, down, left and right cursor keys. While it comes with an external trackball, the EasyCursor provides users with an alternative for quick access into an application.

The Contura also includes a wide range of internal communications options such as the Enhanced 9600-bps Data + Fax Modem, which delivers high-speed data plus send/receive fax transmissions. The internal Enhanced Option Slot also supports a broad variety of communications technologies, including cellular and wireless LAN adaptors.

Another feature of the Contura is “Hibernation,” which allows users to save data and applications to the hard drive, shut off power and return to exactly the same place any time later. Each Contura is preinstalled with MS-DOS 5.0 as published by Compaq, Microsoft Windows 3.1 and the EZ Help Online Library so customers can begin work right out of the box. There is a three-year international parts and labor warranty.

What Lawrence thought:

  • Case seems nice and solid. Keys don’t depress much; it feels like you are typing on a rubber pad.
  • Trackball is right-hand only. While you can mount it on the left side, if you do, when you roll up, the cursor rolls down.
  • Screen refresh is quite good, and the colors seem nice and bright.
  • Ports are fairly standard for a Windows laptop.
  • Because this is a privately-owned machine, it has a richer selection of TrueType fonts than you would normally find, and the icons are wonderful. Not exactly the sort of thing Compaq would ever ship with a machine, however.

What Charles thought:

  • Special note: Probably somewhat biased as this is my wife’s computer that I brought with me to take notes on, but it ended up being tested with the others. I do covet the other active matrix machines, however.
  • Keyboard somewhat compressed. Not as good a feel as others, but OK.
  • Loads programs well. May have advantage because of 8 MB RAM, which typically runs Windows better.
  • Attached trackball with cord. Must open back panel to plug-in mouse, consequently panel door prone to breakage.
  • Only passive matrix color screen tested. A good passive screen, however. Not as bright as the active screens and a little blurry from sharp angle. Good trade-off for the dollars.
  • Sleep/suspend mode readily available on top panel just over keyboard.
  • Floppy on right side, just under part of trackball.
  • Overall, good machine. Good price/performance ratio, helped by passive screen. Good work machine.

Laptop Likability Rankings (in order of preference)

Lawrence:

  1. PowerBook 540c (which we didn’t actually have to play with).
  2. IBM ThinkPad. Only one with an ambidextrous pointing device. Also, big, beautiful screen and good keyboard. The machine boots directly into a multi-media presentation that seems somewhat lame compared to a Macintosh QuickTime movie. Just the same, the presentation gives you the feeling that the machine is doing its best to be friendly and helpful and non-threatening.
  3. Compaq Contura. Seems solidly built; a no-nonsense notebook.
  4. Toshiba T1960CT. Looks solidly built (may be the best made of the bunch lookswise), but it lacks some of the bells and whistles.
  5. Austin Direct. The generic case, generic documentation, and basically generic machine weren’t particularly exciting. The screen was surprisingly good considering that it was not an active-matrix color screen.

Charles:

  1. IBM ThinkPad. I didn’t like the feel of the docking station, which elevated the keyboard twice as high as comfortable. I didn’t really like the pointing device – I never got used to it. I was impressed by the overall quality, fit and finish, the large active screen, and the great performance.
  2. Austin Direct. This was a close second. A real performance screamer, I like performance. 16 MB memory and a big hard drive. Smallish keyboard wasn’t overly uncomfortable for touch typing.
  3. Compaq Contura. Great price/performance tradeoff. If you do presentations, the passive matrix screen is unnoticeable. Screen was the dimmest of the four. Not my dream machine, but very, very serviceable. Well made and solid.
  4. Toshiba Satellite. Seemed to be the slowest of the group. It definitely had the smallest screen (I wouldn’t buy a notebook with a screen this small to run Windows on). If the price was an absolute giveaway, I might reconsider, but then again I probably wouldn’t. Toshiba has several models that are light years ahead of this particular model.

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