Life on a Laptop with Windows NT

Joel Sloss scouts NT's advance into laptop territory, chronicling the hazards and pleasures on the way.

Joel Sloss

April 30, 1996

7 Min Read
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I'm not sure just how many people out there are running Windows NT onlaptops, although I've met a few brave souls (and Microsoft even ran its NT 4.0Preview Tour on a Compaq LTE 5200). But I am sure about the trouble I hadgetting set up to do it. I think you'll appreciate learning what I learned, soyou can avoid the problems I had in such areas as hardware brand compatibility,video drivers, and power management.

Somebody Help Me!
The first fact you need to know is that Microsoft's Hardware CompatibilityList (HCL) is essential--and even this aid is no guarantee of success. NT willwork with most major name-brand systems, such as NEC, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard(HP), IBM, AST, and several clones, but not without some difficulty. Under NT3.51, certain functions still do not work well on portables. These functionsinclude power management (to preserve battery life, as opposed to the UPSmanager) and PC Card (formerly PCMCIA) drivers--you'd better not remove orinsert a card while the system is running. And the installation process is farfrom clean.

To illustrate, let me relate my experience with an NEC Versa M/75 (75-MHz80486DX4, 16MB of RAM, 340MB hard drive). Getting it fully functional with NTtook about a week, back in August 1995. At that time, I was unable to get arelease version of NT Workstation 3.51 on floppy disks, which left the obviousquestion of how to get it into my portable.

This question proved to be a major stumbling block. I had beta versions ofNT 3.5 and NT 3.51 on floppy, but they were incompatible with the NEC hardware.So, the PC Card drivers didn't let the network card function.

A functioning network card was important because the full release of NT3.51 was on CD on a networked server: Only if the network card worked could Iaccess the CD. So, after about five different installations of NT and fiddlingwith every conceivable setting to make it work, I finally realized that a CD-ROMdrive plugged into the portable might work. I hunted down a DOS-driven CD-ROMdrive, installed its software, and was able to do a winnt.exe/b to boot and loaddirectly from the CD.

Amazingly enough, the attempt worked. With the full-release versions of PCCard (formerly PCMCIA) drivers, the network card and modem (a 3Com EtherLink IIIand a Megahertz 28.8 XJack) finally worked, too.

Then came the problem of video drivers. Because this NEC had a true-colorTFT display (16.8 million colors), obtaining proper drivers was a problem.Ultimately, I got them from NEC's bulletin board, but I had to install NT againbecause something got clobbered. This problem might also apply to other systems(such as AST for its Ascentia 910N) if the manufacturer has not delivered NTdrivers for their displays. I learned that the only solution for the AST is touse the standard VGA display driver, which gives a resolution of only 640*480 or800*600 pixels at 16 colors, no matter how much video RAM the laptop has.

Even after I finally got my system to work, day-to-day operation was not bugfree, either. The motherboard burned out, taking my modem and network card withit. NEC took about two weeks to fix it. And, the system would periodically erasemy COM port settings so that the modem wouldn't work, and Remote Access Service(RAS) couldn't do anything. (Hardware failures before the final burnout may havecontributed to this glitch.) This recurrent problem wouldn't have been soannoying, but the solution was never the same twice. I had to go throughdifferent gyrations and dances each time, deleting COM settings, recreatingthem, reinstalling RAS and the modem drivers, and so forth. Fortunately, theproblems stopped when I replaced the main board.

Some things work surprisingly well on my NEC, though. The video is great(now that I have the right software). Power-management functions appear to befully operational up to the level of the system's BIOS (the same is not true onAST portables), allowing for a sleep mode, screen blanking, and spin up/down ofthe internal hard disk. NEC doesn't support more advanced features such as CPUstandby, but some manufacturers, such as Canon with its PN-100 PowerPC-basednotebook, have designed power management into their systems. These systemsinclude full support for sleep and hibernation modes and disk spin-down.

The upshot of running NT on the NEC system is that I'm in big trouble ifsomething happens to my hard drive. I don't think even a full backup would helpthe reinstall. And, on top of everything, NEC tech support was almost no help atall (with the exception of telling me where to find the correct video drivers,and even that was like pulling teeth). NEC says, "Yes, NT works onour portables, but we won't support it. Ask Microsoft."

Systems Without Power
Laptops are the primary system for everyone in the Windows NTMagazine Lab. So, we've had many other interesting experiences runningNT on mobile computers.

Most manufacturers support power management at the hardware/BIOS level (foruse under DOS or Windows 3.11). Some, such as Canon, even support powermanagement through software under NT, and a few (such as NEC) support it byaccident.

However, you'll probably want to disable power management on any othersystem, because each system has its own problems with power management. TheAscentia 910N suffers from spinning down the internal hard drive and turning offthe floppy if you enable power management in CMOS. This situation can cause avariety of annoying results: If your main drive spins down while NT is running,the kernel can no longer access the system volume (because it doesn't know howto turn the volume back on), and your computer will crash. Likewise, if thefloppy gets turned off, NT will not find it again without a reboot.

Power management creates interesting startup woes on the AST. A brief lulloccurs between running the OS Loader and bringing up the logon screen (while NTis going out to autodetect your hardware). During this lull, the hard drive cango into sleep mode and spin down. If you are running from battery, the systemwill display a blue-screen and tell you the system drive is not ready. Anotherwoe is that booting from battery disables the floppy drive, unless you have theAC power supply plugged into the unit. You don't even have to attach it to thewall! (Interestingly, the NEC, for all its other problems, does not suffer fromthese maladies.)

A further word of warning: When you consider purchasing a laptop, thinkabout the battery it comes with. My NEC (like an old Volvo I used to own) is afine system when it works. But it is one of the worst power eaters I have seenyet. Even with its limited power- management abilities, I can get only 45minutes to an hour of up time running NT (the full-color active-matrix displayis partly to blame). My NEC's NiMH battery pack should allow two to four hoursof runtime. In the lab, other portables (such as the ASTs) have Lithium-Ionbatteries and get four to five hours of runtime, without power management. TheCanon PN100 runs for about two hours on a NiMH battery.

All Is Well That Ends Well
I've tested a variety of portables under NT. Some work well, and some don't.Price is a factor of ease of operation: The more expensive the box, the betterit works. The best systems I've used are also the most expensive: The CanonPN-100 is an excellent system for NT, and so are others from TadpoleTechnologies and Compaq. But some success stories feature the reasonably pricedunits: TwinHead Pentium-based portables work well, except that their Lithium-Ionbatteries give only an hour to an hour and a half of runtime. Runtime slips toonly 25 minutes if you have an active-matrix display.

You can count on pointing devices to work, fortunately. Among the systemsI've tested, IsoPoint devices, trackballs, and touchpads all function properly.

The only other warnings I can give are about Cyrix-based computers, whichare not on the HCL and don't work at all with NT. These laptops include theEpson ActionNote. Also, beware of Texas Instruments machines. They have batterylife like my NEC's.

You can run NT on portables. Once you're up and running, NT will work wellfor you. This combination gives you power and flexibility in the field thatother operating systems just can't offer, and enhancements continue to flow fromMicrosoft. So, happy mobile computing!

Windows NT for Laptops

System Requirements: 16MB of RAM, 340MB Hard Drive, 80486DX2/50 or betterMicrosoft * 206-882-8080

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