Laptop of the Month and Windows XP's Release

This month's laptop is the Toshiba Satellite Pro 4600, a desktop-replacement unit with integrated wireless capabilities that represents a sea change in the way PC makers think about portable machines. At its most basic, the 4600 is a hulking update to the venerable Pentium II-based Satellite Pro I wrote about a few years ago, and it's astonishing how little has changed in the machine's basic layout. On the other hand, it's exciting to note what has changed, beyond obvious improvements to processor speed and RAM.

The Toshiba arrived slightly under spec, sporting a Pentium III 900 processor with 128MB of RAM and, ugh, Windows 98 SE, but I needed the computer quickly and couldn't wait for a 1GHz, Windows 2000-based model. So I upgraded the machine immediately to a Win2K/Windows XP dual-boot system and bumped the RAM to 256MB, which I think is a more acceptable minimum today. (RAM prices are super cheap these days. You can get a 256MB DIMM for a laptop for less than $100.) Toshiba's default Windows installation is as awful as ever, with dozens of desktop icons, lots of weird utilities, and ugly desktop wallpaper that still makes me shudder. But I'll spare the company any embarrassment on this particular topic because the laptop is a solid box with some surprisingly sophisticated touches.

The first new touch is the machine's integrated 802.11b-based wireless-networking support contained in a hidden panel in the laptop lid. Before I had even wiped Win98 from the computer, I noticed that the machine was mysteriously online, even though I hadn't plugged in an Ethernet cable. The Toshiba had auto-detected and connected to my home-based wireless network. I was impressed. And when I installed XP on the box, the OS performed similarly, correctly negotiating wireless networking. XP will even auto-detect the fastest available network, so when you're connected via Ethernet and wireless simultaneously, XP will choose the wire-based networking over the slower wireless.

This integration is where the Toshiba points to the future. With more and more PC makers switching to integrated networking, modem, and now Bluetooth and 802.11b technology, laptops have less need for costly and battery-draining PC-card add-ons. In the case of a desktop-replacement model such as the Toshiba, that integration means two free PC card slots, possibly for something such as FireWire, but smaller laptops could use this integration to forego PC cards altogether and save space and weight.

As a desktop replacement, the Toshiba is a champ. It has a beautiful keyboard, arrayed in the same odd style as my old Toshiba, with the INS and DEL keys on the bottom, and the pointing stick I prefer. Toshiba supplies two additional buttons for document scrolling, as does IBM. These buttons are useful on a Web site or long Word document, and they work just fine, although I always find myself wishing for the Back and Forward buttons I use routinely on my desktop-based mouse.

The Toshiba's price is also impressive. You can get a version with integrated wireless, Ethernet, and modem for as little as $2200—not bad for a full-featured desktop-replacement machine. As always, I recommend an extra battery and power cord: The Toshiba averaged a little more than 2 hours of use on one battery, but less than 90 minutes when you're watching a DVD. Its gorgeous 15" screen practically begs to be used as a mobile-movie display, and the Toshiba features the most impressive speakers I've seen in any laptop; you can watch a movie without headphones and still need to turn down the sound.

Windows XP Goes Gold
On Friday, Microsoft declared Windows XP build 2600 the "gold master" or final version of the product, releasing XP to manufacturing in a launch party on the company's lawn. Executives Bill Gates and Jim Allchin gave representatives from the top six PC makers commemorative Windows XP CD-ROMs protected in gold-colored metal suitcases. The representatives then boarded two helicopters that ferried them across campus where they could ostensibly get the code back to their home bases as quickly as possible.

Regardless of the pomp, the release to manufacturing (RTM) milestone is huge: PC makers will spend the next few weeks testing XP on their latest hardware and then offer the product for sale on new PCs beginning in late September. Manufacturers expect to have these PCs to customers in early October. And XP will be widely available in retail outlets beginning October 25. (Note to MSDN members: I'm told you'll have download access to XP beginning September 21).

Incidentally, I have a theory about the XP build number 2600. The real build number was 2545, but Microsoft bumped the number to 2600 for RTM, causing some people to speculate about the change. Officially, Microsoft says that 2600 is easier for users to remember, but I can't imagine why users even need to know this information. Some people have wondered whether the number is an allusion to 2600 Magazine, the so-called Hacker Quarterly, and how XP is less vulnerable to hackers. I can't imagine that Microsoft would be that stupid. But I have a guess as well: I believe the build number is related to the old Atari 2600 game system, which was a best-seller in its day and claimed a spot in millions of homes around the United States. I suspect that Microsoft has similar goals for XP, thus the version number.

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