Notebook or Desktop Replacement: Which Is Right for You?

Recently, I've been looking at notebook computers quite a bit. From friends with kids heading off to college and business associates asking for advice about standardizing and revamping their office computer systems, I've heard a lot of opinions about what makes a good notebook computer.

One factor people used to look at first—weight—doesn't seem to be much of a concern anymore. For truly lightweight tasks, serious business types are moving to wireless alternatives, such as the RIM BlackBerry, and therefore, aren't as interested in a super-light subnotebook-style computer. These users want a full-featured unit. That being said, quite a difference in market definition still exists between run-of-the-mill notebook computers and full desktop-replacement units.

To get a feel for the current notebook market, I've been using two very different notebooks for the past few months: a Compaq Armada M700 and an NEC Versa LXi. The Armada is a typical travelers' companion notebook: good feature set, not too heavy, adequate keyboard, and decent accessories. The NEC is a full-featured desktop replacement.

Although I'm not overly concerned with speeds and feeds, I was initially concerned that processor differences would be noticeable; the M700 has a 700MHz Pentium III processor, and the LXi has an 850MHz Pentium III processor. But in day-to-day knowledge-worker type tasks running Windows XP/Windows 2000 and Office XP/Office 2000, I noticed no real performance difference that affected my work.

The LXi feels much more solid than the M700, but the LXi is also much heavier and thicker. The LXi also has twice as much video memory as the M700 has, letting me run an external monitor at higher resolution and greater color depth. And games functioned somewhat better on the LXi, probably because of the better video and faster CPU. In a somewhat curious twist, the LXi (which I'm less likely to carry around all the time) has better protection for all of the ports (NIC, modem, USB) that now come standard with notebooks; the M700 leaves these ports open to the world. Both units have built-in keyboards that are about equal for typing ease.

If I owned only one computer, which type would it be? Well, after several months of traveling with both machines and using both machines at my desk, I would choose the LXi desktop–replacement system. The lighter M700 is a hands-down winner in an airplane's tight confines, but in all other cases, the LXi provides better access to ports, and somewhat better functionality overall. I do, however, prefer the M700's pointing stick to the LXi's touchpad.

The choice was a tossup for most of my comparison, but it finally boiled down to an unexpected issue: The LXi offers better thermal management. After sitting for several days without being turned off, the M700 had a few very hot areas on the case and the table below it. The LXi never reached more than warm.

Of course, I don't use one computer for all my needs, so I didn't have to decide between a desktop-replacement system and a notebook dedicated to traveling. But if you plan to give your users notebook computers that do double-duty on the desktop, pay careful attention to how the users will actually use their systems.

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